12/23/14

The growing newsroom struggle over journalistic narrative and presentation

The majority of newsroom hires in many news organizations today are digitally oriented personnel with titles such as web developer, data scientist, interactive digital designer, social media editor, engagement manager, and digital content editor.

These job titles say a great deal about news organizations' strategies of servicing audiences across platforms. They also reflects the reality that screens are now the primary way most people get information and entertainment and that visual display of information has increasingly become the norm in recent decades. There is now a public expectation that news and information will be conveyed with some visual display of information, such as infographics, slideshows, multimedia presentations, mapping, interactive graphics and data bases, video and interactive video, and calculators.

The growth in digitally oriented personnel in newsrooms is producing a growing struggle about how news stories should be told and what forms they should take. Traditional journalists steeped in third person, inverted pyramid, short-form journalism are uncomfortable with literary and long-form approaches, first person narrative, non-sequential revelation, visual presentations, and data-driven exposition that bring out their numeric anxiety.

The struggle between digital personnel and textually oriented journalists is similar to earlier tensions between typesetters, page compositors and journalists created because printing technology and layout dictated story style, provided great power over the length and presentation of stories to the backshop, and produced conflicts when backshop demands overrode journalists' preferences.

The appearance of phototypesetting removed the role of typesetters and moved production to the newsroom, giving journalists and editors primary control over content. That change produced 3-4 decades of rule of writers over production and journalistic style. Today, however, the new digital personnel are challenging that dominance, developing ways of presenting news and information, and forcing new methods into news production that conflict with the text-based traditions of legacy media and journalism.

The tensions and debates these changes produce are good for journalism because they reminds us that it is not the form of journalistic writing and news provision that is important, but the conveying of accurate and fair information in ways that explain the world. We will undoubtedly see more novel ways of conveying news emerge as the software driving digital communications continues to develop and is integrated further into newsrooms. This will force many to recognize that it is not the form of journalism, but its function that is important.

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