Our class coursework and discussion this week focused on how the digital world has disrupted journalism. I have had a front-row seat to these changes.
When I attended undergraduate school for journalism 30 years ago, I was told to choose wisely when considering my area of concentration. The options at the time were print, radio, magazine, or broadcast. It was made clear that once I chose a specialty, there would not be an opportunity to cross over. That all changed within a few years of graduation.
Digital transformed the industry not only through technology but also through the means by which to create and communicate a story. It was clear the field of communications was rapidly changing, requiring knowledge in all aspects and forms of storytelling.
Digital technology also changed the competition. Television news outlets were no longer just competing with other cable and network broadcasts. At first, it was websites and blogs featuring slideshows, infographics, podcasts and streaming video. Once social media took hold, we were also competing with citizen journalists.
These changes required us to understand our audience better. Viewers were turning off their televisions in favor of their mobile devices. The grip of digital technology on attention spans created a difficult challenge in television news and transformed how we informed and interacted with an audience.
Our class discussion focused not only on disruption but also on the effect digital has had on journalistic values. One of those values was the time devoted to telling a story. At one point in my producing career, a five-minute video story was common. But over the years, the average running time for a video story has been whittled down to about ninety seconds. Somehow we convinced ourselves those three and a half extra minutes of story time didn’t matter.
Less value was also placed on original reporting. Provocative headlines brought in higher ratings and became the driving force of many news programs.
One of my own personal experiences with journalistic values had to do with my final days at CNN. The program I worked on had been canceled and I met with the young EP who had been hired to launch a new morning show. I was on the fence about whether it was time to move on and the answer became clear after I asked him what types of stories I would be producing. At the time, Justin Bieber had abandoned his pet monkey in Germany and the EP used it as an example of a jumping off point for a story about celebrities and their unusual pets.
I realized at that moment that I wasn’t making a decision to quit the industry. It had already quit me.