There is no one-size-fits-all approach to digital, and media organisations need to pinpoint what they want to achieve to standout and survive in a crowded market
The main trend among audiences is the same problem that so many industries are facing: in the age of the internet, people expect journalism to be free; they expect it to be immediate; they expect it to always be right; and they increasingly expect it to not contradict in what they believe to be true.
As technology thrives, it goes without saying that a strong digital presence is vital for any media organisation to survive in such a crowded market, and that can prove a challenge for many outlets like CNN and the BBC which built their reputations in television; as well as newspapers from the Telegraph to the Guardian that have been in circulation for much longer.
Although it’s been found that 46% of readers find print ads easier to understand (digital reached 19%), digital is where most audiences can be found. If you ask people under a certain age where they first discover their news, very few will say television and even fewer will say print. The internet has created a vacuum for much younger outlets such as BuzzFeed to thrive, but existing outlets need to compete with them if they want to survive.
More traditional media brands have recognised the need to ramp up digital presence to compete. Alastair James, broadcast journalist at BBC Wales News, says the organisation understands the importance of a digital offering. “We are very aware that digital is where a large amount of our audience is and where our potential audience will visit first,” says Alastair. “Efforts are being made to reach out to people online and to get them to come back. The challenge with our digital platform will be differentiating our output to that of everyone else.”
A substantial contributor to a successful digital pathway is the need for all journalists to be confident in their digital skills, embracing the diverse and ever-changing technologies such as the rise in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) storytelling. As Robert Picheta, digital producer at CNN International, explains. “There is no such thing as a journalist who isn’t a digital journalist anymore. As soon as I started working, I realised how absurd that approach was because young journalists are valued almost entirely for their digital skills and if you don’t have them, you simply won’t get a job.” He continued. “There’s a generational gap that needs to be bridged, to ensure that everyone within the company is on board and able to fully adapt to where journalism is moving.”
Daniel Green, multimedia reporter at Journalism.co.uk, agrees that keeping up with digital trends as a journalist is key to providing a competitive digital offering. “Not being able to adapt to the progressive needs of audiences will be turning point to any news organisation’s survival,” says Dan.
Some organisations have performed particularly well in trying to adapt to the shift to digital, in particular, the Washington Post. They have managed to establish a presence on a variety of different platforms such as on smart TVs and TikTok in order to capture audiences wherever they may be. While their work provides a model to follow, news organisations cannot simply use the same content from one platform to another. What works for the 10 o’clock news will not have the same effect for TikTok, for example. To be successful on those different platforms, you need to be able to speak in the language of the target audience, and diversity of newsrooms strongly comes into play.
Furthermore, a report by The New York Times on their newsroom’s aspirations provides some insightful knowledge for other organisations to follow suit. For example, utilising multimedia techniques instead of relying on the generic 300-word story template; recruiting more journalists that are ‘experts’ in certain areas; and the paywall inclusion has helped by replacing advertising revenue with subscription fees.
Assessing the way in which younger generations consume news is crucial to further development of digital strategies. Reuters found smartphones to be the main method for those under 35 accessing news (69%) and they also discovered that almost half of Gen Z news readers (45%; those aged between 18-24) first locate news in the morning via their smartphones. Furthermore, 19% first access news via TV and 5% via their computers. Gen Y
users (aged between 25-34) have developed similar trends, with 39% first accessing news via their smartphones; 22% switching on the TV; and 8% on the computer.
As research finds digital outlets to be increasingly changing and publishers rating smaller platforms, like Apple News, to be as important as Facebook, Francesco Zaffarano, senior social media editor at The Telegraph, says it’s important to be aware of how much digital can change. “The bottom line is that relying on platforms’ consistency and stability is a recipe for disaster,” says Francesco. “Platforms keep changing, which is also what makes them an interesting and stimulating place to experiment with new ways of doing your job.”
Research by Pew Research Center in 2018 heavily corresponds to the importance of social media and a newsroom’s output; it’s the first source of breaking news for 64.5% of US adults via Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Francesco describes how media organisations need to utilise social media for further growth. “If people access news via social media, we have an opportunity to analyse habits and a series of issues to tackle, concerning the way people access news; how reading news on social affects the understanding of news; and how this can shape trust.”
The shift by audiences to digital shows no signs of diminishing. Mainstream media can further develop due to the constant need for instant news and content that feels accessible. In addition, the need for diversifying revenue streams will be crucial in the years ahead, as advertising revenue dries up due to the switch to digital. Journalists’ continuing to distribute content via social media is also imperative to the mainstream media’s growth; a 2017 study found 75% of journalists sharing content on social media platforms was necessary for content promotion. As Robert from CNN International concludes, “Digital is the future, if not the present. It will continue to dominate how companies think about their output and their audiences, and it will continue to become the first and only way most people access news.”