Tuesday, May 22 , 2018, 2:40 pm | Overcast 66º

 
 
 
 

Peter Funt: Shaping News Coverage in the Digital Age

Whether you still prefer to hold a printed newspaper in your hands or have become comfortable reading news on a screen, you should hope that the essential journalism remains the same.

Increasingly, however, editors are concluding that new delivery systems require significant changes in content. Few have put it in more jarring terms than the Boston Globe’s editor, Brian McGrory, in a memo to his staff earlier this month as he outlined the goal of being “relentlessly interesting, every hour of the day.”

He went on to issue a somber directive that “we need to jettison any sense of being the paper of record. If something feels obligatory to write, it’s an obligation for someone to read.”

McGrory is describing a future bleaker than anything having to do with deciding whether to continue printing on paper. Folks want what interests them, so we’ll serve it up 24/7. We’ll abandon our obligation to decide what’s important. And we will no longer serve as New England’s paper of record — a mission that has become too lofty for the low-brow Digital Age.

Remember, this is the newspaper that has been a beacon in the Northeast since 1872. In the last half-century it has won 26 Pulitzer Prizes, including one in 2003 for reporting by its Spotlight unit concerning sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests in the Catholic church. A film about the Globe’s remarkable journalism, Spotlight, won the Oscar for Best Picture last year.

It’s nice, though hardly reassuring, that McGrory tries to temper his directives with reminders such as, “We always need to hold true to our journalistic values, because without them, we lose our credibility.”

But farther down the page he describes the Globe’s new Express Desk that “kicks to life before dawn” to, among other things, “find the wryest stories trending on social media.”

At The New York Times, a new internal report outlines a digital future that includes fewer copy editors and more reporters who are “visually” oriented.

Times executive editor Dean Baquet maintains, “The broader landscape is increasingly a visual one — think of Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube — and we know that our mobile audience wants Times journalism to incorporate visuals even more fully into our work.”

For those of us who look to The Times to set the course for journalistic excellence, it is stunning to encounter references to social media’s most vacuous, albeit popular, sites as a models for anything.

Forcing more visuals into news coverage is what turned “your late local news” on television into a hodgepodge of police chases and anything else that could be shot from a helicopter.

Baquet and McGrory seem to teaching Marshall McLuhan 101. His reminder that “the medium is the message” is evidenced in journalism’s new circular path.

New media give recipients new power, which was McLuhan’s central point, and that power reflects the medium being used. If the Internet is faster, consumers demand information more quickly. If devices, by their nature, limit concentration, consumers covet brevity. If social media are sassier, consumers seek more sass.

Publishers respond to what consumers say they want by giving them more of it, which in turn makes consumers eager for even more.

In his farewell speech in Chicago, former President Barack Obama noted that too many people have retreated into “bubbles” that include their social media feeds. They surround themselves, Obama said, with “people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.”

Obama was speaking primarily of politics, but his words of caution apply equally to journalists like the Globe’s Brian McGrory as they seek out “the wryest stories trending on social media.” Sometimes the news just isn’t “relentlessly interesting.” Sometimes a publication has a responsibility to serve as “the paper of record.” Sometimes stories must, indeed, be written out of a sense of “obligation.”

The vast capacity of digital media should allow journalists to do longer pieces, rather than surrendering to shortening attention spans. There should be room for a wider range of stories and ideas, not a shrinking platform with content determined by surveys and success measured by clicks.

Yes, the bills must be paid and the bottom line respected. The question is how best to do it.

Anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom is familiar with the most basic debate among journalists: Should we give the public what it wants to know, or what it ought to know? The best prescription has always been a combination of both.

Editors at all news publications, large and small, must decide if they are going to join readers inside the bubble, or use all of the new tools at their command to guide them out.

Peter Funt is a writer, speaker and author of the book, Cautiously Optimistic. He is syndicated by Cagle Cartoons and can be contacted at www.candidcamera.com. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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