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The past decade has seen more change in the craft of journalism than perhaps any other. Some of the changes have erupted into the mainstream; others have nibbled at the edges. Paul Bradshaw counts the ways…

From a lecture to a conversation

Perhaps the biggest and most widely publicized change in journalism has been the increasing involvement of – and expectation of involvement by – the readers/audience. Yes, readers had always written letters, and occasionally phoned in tips, but the last ten years have seen the relationship between publisher and reader turn into something else entirely.

You could say it started with the accessibility of email, coupled with the less passive nature of the Internet in general, as readers, listeners and watchers became “users”. But the change really gained momentum with…

The rise of the amateur

The blogs of September 11; the camcorder images from the Asian tsunami; the mobile phone images of July 7; the Facebook pages of Virginia Tech. If you needed to read about any of these major events, you could do so – if you wished – without opening a newspaper or watching TV.

The spread of cheap camcorders and video- and photo-enabled mobile phones, coupled with blogs and the viral distribution of the internet made publishers realise they were not only competing with each other, but with the readers themselves. And when a big story broke in public, they needed to be in a position to harvest what became known as “user generated content”. Thankfully the NUJ’s suggestion of “witness contributions” didn’t catch on…

Everyone’s a paperboy/girl now

If a newspaper didn’t reach a particular newsagent, or viewers in the Cumbria region were experiencing difficulties, that simply wasn’t a journalist’s problem. Online, however, distribution has become part of a journalist’s job description, whether they realize it or not.

From your Facebook profile to the way you respond to comments on your blog, a journalist’s activity online has formed a key element in any news organisation’s distribution (although few have yet realised this). Meanwhile, newspaper webpages have come out in a rash of ‘Digg/Blog this’ buttons, and Facebook applications from the likes of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have demonstrated how important it’s become for newspapers to be where the reader is, rather than the other way around.

Just a click away

Amidst all the Web 2.0 hype it’s easy to forget the fundamental characteristic of news in the online era: everything is connected; and the reader is only a click or a search away from something else. This has created major opportunities and challenges for journalists.

On the one hand, journalists can now link to full documents, previous reports, and unedited material. On the other, so can the readers. Material culled from wire copy is more easily spotted; and, as Dan Rather discovered, holes in your story can be quickly highlighted.

And while doorstepping used to be between you and the Dear Departed’s family, its digital equivalent is so much more public. The game has been raised – but have news organizations responded?

Really Simple Syndication

RSS is one of the most underestimated innovations in journalism. At it’s most basic level it means journalists can subscribe to a range of RSS feeds in one RSS reader – and therefore not have to keep checking back to dozens of original websites for updates. But the more people play with the technology, the more is being achieved.

For one thing, RSS enables very specific consumption: readers can now subscribe to just one section of a newspaper – or even one writer. In the Sun’s case, they can subscribe to search results. In terms of production, RSS enables different bits of news to be aggregated: pick a source, any source, and mash it up into a single feed. It works for Google News, why shouldn’t it work again?

Mapping

2007 saw some real experimentation with mapping in UK newspapers: the Manchester Evening News mapped fatal shootings in Manchester, the Grantham Journal tracked a “killer heron” and the Lancashire Evening Post mapped roadworks and speed cameras. The Shropshire Star used it to map fuel prices.

But 2008 should mark the year mapping and geotagging gets serious. Leading the pack are Archant, with their much-awaited geotag-based website relaunches. Journalists, says Web Editor James Goffin, can now draw on a map when they submit a story, or supply postcodes. He argues it will “make for a better archive and make reporters’ lives easier in handling cuttings and follow ups.” The Telegraph launched the first stage of their dynamic Flash-based political map of Britain, while the BBC are using similar technologies for their proposed local website plans, which looks likely to further increase the pressures on regional publishers.

Hyperlocal, international

The Internet has released news organizations from the limitations of physical distribution and broadcast – to the extent that news organizations have seen a new market for their old print products.

The Guardian, emboldened by statistics about website visitors, took its step across the Atlantic in 2003; The Times followed in 2006, and the BBC announced plans to sell advertising on its international site last year. And figures released last month showed visitors from outside the UK outnumbering the domestic audience for the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times and The Daily Mail.

Conversely, “hyperlocal” has entered the nomenclature of the news executive. Trinity Mirror’s Teesside Gazette’s experiments with hyperlocal, postcode-based news led to print equivalents, and likely extension to the group’s other newspapers.

Databases

The biggest untapped potential in journalism online is that of databases. So far we’ve seen some impressive demonstrations: ChicagoCrime.org famously drew information from a crime database onto a map of the area – and was followed by similar efforts at the LA Times and Washington Post (who added house sales and schools); The Herald Tribune, meanwhile, used databases in their coverage of how complaints against teachers were handled – readers could drill down to data in a specific school.

In the UK it’s The Telegraph leading the way, with football coverage that pulls up player statistics to rival ProZone, an A levels results map, and a recently unveiled political map that presents information on how local services ratings have improved or declined. Developments such as these have generated debate about whether journalists should be taught how to program. The conclusion seemed to be that it was easier to teach programmers how to do journalism.

Measurability

Most read, most commented, most emailed. Hits, page views and unique visitors. If you felt your editor’s news sense was as bad as his fashion sense, the measurability of the web gave you valuable ammunition; but if you thought Performance Related Pay was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Multimedia

If the pen is mightier than the sword, what does that make a microphone, camcorder and laptop… in a wifi hotspot? Newspapers dabbled in podcasts in 2005, before really mucking in 2006 when video took off and print journalists started worrying for the first time about tea staining their teeth. Now print journalists are learning about white balance, and broadcast journalists are learning about local news. And everyone is waiting for an almighty fight.

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