Saturday, February 01, 2014

Are websites like Buzzfeed the future of journalism?

David will be presenting at the International journalism festival on producing 21st century news story forms from his 6 year PhD research.



Are websites like Buzzfeed the future of journalism asks ABC's Mark Colvin?

It's a question many professional journalists are asking. 

Yesterday I had a meeting at the innovator of newspaper journalism, the Guardian and the question came up again.

What about Snowfall from the New York Times revelling in the art of the long form and html5. Is that the future of journalism?

The simple answer to any of these questions is no! That's not to belittle the efforts of the NYT and Buzzfeed, because they represent A future of journalism.

Unfortunately, being dismissive of anything innovative is a favourite sport for bloggers and critics. 

I don't want to do either. But if Buzzfeed isn't, what is? I'll come back to this at the end of the piece.

In 2005, one of the America's august institutions, the Knight Batten Award, handed me 1st place prize. I built a site and created an experience that used video in a manner that was not being deployed by major publications.

I addressed some of the America's leading newsmakers at the National Press Club in Washington DC. It was frightening, as well as great fun. I croaked several times :)

The US' news innovation standard

The Knight Batten juror called my work:

But wasn't the future of journalism, though it has given me an insight into determining innovation. 

More recently, my PhD I am completing addresses the future of journalism. But that's another story. 

Here's the story that makes present sense of Buzzfeed and Snowfall.

Firstly, there is no definitive future of journalism. To ask that question is the equivalent of asking whether impressionism is the future of art.

The reason why it still gets asked is the illusion that the western model of journalism is still sacrosanct and stolid. 

Ah! a Guardian journalist said, there is no Western model of journalism, there's simply journalism. Er ! wrong. 

In the same way there are different forms of governance, there are different forms of journalism. 

I spent my teenage years growing up in Ghana and then in the 90s was asked by Ghana's director general of its state television to help relaunch their  morning shows and news. 

I learned then that they had a different understanding of journalism. And then I came across this on TED. The under cover journalists says at 09:54 "My kind of journalism may not fit in other continents".

Truth is, for the historians journalism was always contested. Pulitzer, whose name adorns the coveted Pulitzer award was reviled for what he was doing to journalism. 

The future of journalism before the 1994 revolution of the Internet and before The Clue Train Manifesto and the Dotcom boom could not have fathomed that anything filtered through the net would decompose classic journalism.

Who would have thought, as this video of me presenting the news in 1995 captures a nascent Internet and newspapers scrabbling to get on board.

Clue Train Manifesto showed us the web was social, before Social Media became a social norm. You need to read it.

Before the web, you could read as many text books and ask as many professionals and they all returned core values about journalism. 

Of course they would. Journalism was then an exclusively professional practice.

Art and Journalism
However the parallels with Art and painting are striking.

Before the turn of the 19th century, the Art establishment at the Academy de Baux in France ruled what was art and what wasn't and who could show their material in galleries sanctioned by the academy.

Then a new movement spawned. It took its cues from realism. To artists who would previously only paint kings, queens and the gentry, realism dared artists to paint peasants and ordinary folks tilling the land ( the Internet, you and me).

Impressionism went one step further. It was the buzzfeed of the 19th century. Interpretation was now down to the artist. The sky that was always pained blue in classical art was now painted green and the green pastures of classic painting became blue.

The Academy de Baux ridiculed and ostracised the impressionists. If anything, sadly, they  Hitler who saw impressionism as degenerate, according to this BBC report two days ago, agreed with the Academy.

Impressionism really took off, according to David Hockney in a BBC programme on his exhibition, when the easels and paints became mobile (small cameras).

Art could no longer be contained. It was set free and many other movements were spawned e.g. cubism, surrealism and pop art.

Today, amongst the the most valuable pieces of art happen to be impressionist paintings. See here for the list

This is where journalism is now. Buzzfeed (pop art) is no more the future of journalism than Snow fall (magic realism).

In an era of plenty, made possible by you and what you want, there can never be a singularity of journalism. We passed that point. Interpretation, appealing to our sense of fairness, joi de vivre, and immersivity. 

These are becoming key factors. The purists and generalists may not see these as integral to journalism. Frankly, it doesn't matter what the academy says anymore, it's whether you can appeal and sell stories retaining the difference between fictional and fact.

The future of journalism lies in the past. What we'll see is a cacophony of media forms -- which does not bode well for the academy if you're looking to turn a buck.

In speaking to the executive at the Guardian, my parting comment was that there are any number of technologies are vying for journalism's future e.g. data, videohyperlinking, glass, presence reality, iphone, and my favourite the outernet.

What makes any of these relevant to the future is their mass adoption for social needs. And while it's difficult to spot this, the approach is always cognitive.

Technology that simplifies the process of story telling, which itself is changing.

David Dunkley Gyimah is an International award winning videojournalist and news innovator. He is the chair of the jury for innovative news at the RTS Awards in the UK, The UK's highest TV News awards. He is an academic and artist in residence at the Southbank centre.