A time ago Katharine Viner, soon the new editor-in-chief of the Guardian, wrote an analysis on the meaning of journalism in this digital age. I share a lot of her opinions on the role of digital platforms in newsrooms and the endless possibilities the internet has created to find stories and -more than ever- use and involve the audience in the way we do journalism.
Her opinion from 2013 is more relevant than ever:
I’d like to begin with a true story.
I was recently conducting a job interview for a Guardian role, and I asked the interviewee, who had worked only in print journalism, how he thought he’d cope working in digital news. In reply he said, “Well, I’ve got a computer. I’ve been using computers for years.”
His answer was funny, but also revealing: clearly he believed that digital is just a technological development; just a new kind of word processing. In fact, digital is a huge conceptual change, a sociological change, a cluster bomb blowing apart who we are and how our world is ordered, how we see ourselves, how we live. It’s a change we’re in the middle of, so close up that sometimes it’s hard to see. But it is deeply profound and it is happening at an almost unbelievable speed.
I’d like to talk about what this change is doing to journalism, and the opportunities that are possible if you are truly open to the web. I’d also like to look at how many journalists’ resistance to this change is damaging their own interests, as well as the interests of good journalism; and how there is more a need than ever for the journalist as a “truth-teller, sense-maker, explainer“.
Information: from fixed to free-flowing
The web has changed the way we organise information in a very clear way: from the boundaried, solid format of books and newspapers to something liquid and free-flowing, with limitless possibilities.
A newspaper is complete. It is finished, sure of itself, certain. By contrast, digital news is constantly updated, improved upon, changed, moved, developed, an ongoing conversation and collaboration. It is living, evolving, limitless, relentless.
Many believe that this move from fixed to fluid is not exactly new, and instead a return to the oral cultures of much earlier eras. Danish academic Thomas Pettitt’s theory is that the whole period after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press – of moveable type, the text, the 500 years of print-dominated information, between the 15th and the 20th centuries – was just a pause; it was just an interruption in the usual flow of human communication. He calls this the Gutenberg Parenthesis. The web, says Pettitt, is returning us to a pre-Gutenberg state in which we are defined by oral traditions: flowing and ephemeral.
Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter, has a similar idea: “If you went back to Ancient Greece, the way that news and information was passed around was, you went to the agora after lunch in the town square. This was unfiltered, multi-directional exchange of information”.