Hard disc journalism

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
15 November, 2016
Editorial: 47
Fecha de publicación original: 26 noviembre, 1996

Date of publication: 26/11/1996. Editorial 47.

* Nineth article in a series on digital journalism.

 One never sees what is next until it arrives

I am bringing this series of articles on digital journalism to an end with an examination of the position that the traditional media will occupy in the new digital world. Of course, this is bound to be a recurrent theme in future articles, not the least because innovation on the Internet is so rapid that bits turn sepia coloured almost before they even reach the computer’s memory.

As I have said before in previous articles in this series, the traditional press has two very valuable possessions to contribute to the electronic press: a newsroom with journalists expert at gathering and transforming information, and established and organised archives. The Net, on the other hand, contributes an interactive communications meta-media in which participants play both the roles of emitters and receptors of information and knowledge. The very existence of this meta-media creates a “disproportionate” increase in the amount of information and its potential consumers, so what becomes important is not the end result or product but the process of exchange and interaction between participants. As a result, it is fundamental to bring some kind of order to this process, but based on what the receiver is looking for, or thinks they are looking for, rather than on the emitter’s decisions.

Journalists in the newsrooms are in a privileged position to fulfil this task. Apart from the experience and training which they have accumulated from their daily contact with information, they also have their own archives at their disposal and can turn them into a range of information products which it would be difficult to devise in any other way on the Net. Internet has its own vast documentary sources and there are a multitude of internauts who make their living by processing and regurgitating the information stored there. However, for lots of reasons that it is not worth going into here, this is not enough to imbue the resulting product with its historical meaning. This is, without doubt, the essential ingredient which the printed communications media can contribute: not just giving some kind of order and harmony to the flow of information, but also contextualising it. In other words, rather than just bearing witness to events, daring to interpret and analyse them as well. Merely reporting events will become an activity of less importance due to the multiplicity of emitters. Its continued cultivation — and this is already happening now — will not be sufficient to clearly distinguish one publication from the other.

The task of interpreting and analysing reality will have to be firmly anchored in the natural, local environment of each media, so that its own features are enhanced while, at the same time, allowing it to globalise its activities. When one looks at how the traditional media have ventured into publishing electronically, the first thing that strikes one is how badly they communicate where they are from (apart from what one can assume from their brand name). They seem to be operating in a vacuum, which is all the more resounding when they are a simple click away from an immense ocean of information and communication. When one goes through their pages, their own community, the social fabric that they belong to is nowhere to be found. Just like the man who is dangling over a precipice and crying out for help with the voice of God telling him to throw himself off the edge because He’ll pick him up, we feel like yelling “Is there anybody else out there?” The electronic media from the atomic age have even failed to grasp the potential of the link as a way of contextualising their own information, of cooperating with the community in which they operate and of integrating the reader into a recognisable frame of reference. Their preoccupation with preserving the economic criteria which make sense in the real world, makes them lose sight of the fact that it is fundamental that internauts are made aware of their brand names as an investment for the future in the social revolution that is taking place on the Net. It appears that they are guided by the clumsy (and comical) idea that if they simply do not add links which send people elsewhere, especially in their own cities, internauts will not move from their pages, and more particularly to their competitors. Result: as soon as internauts get to understand the Net better, they do not return at all unless it is for a very specific reason. One cannot force readers to be faithful, the only way to win them over is by satisfying their needs.

In order to enhance the job of interpreting and analysing the news and events, which basically means that journalists will have to specialise more in the areas of information and knowledge in which they have chosen to work, at least three things will be needed:

  • Exploiting the technological tools which are being developed in the Net to the maximum, from new ways of using e-mail to new systems of sending information (learning how to telework)
  • working in an environment of personalized information (new methods of exploiting archives) and, consequently,
  • achieving an increased degree of interactivity with readers (who will frequently turn the journalist into their “readers”).

These factors together will drive journalists to appear on the Net with their own pages in the electronic publication of their company. In other words, readers will progressively lose their faith in brand names and place it instead in people, whose names will convey the identity of the media in question. It is these people, with all the support of the infrastructure of their media, who will guide the internaut to contextualised information and present an interpretative view of it. This digital world of recognisable signatures will entail a real revolution in work methods and, possibly, in the structure of the communications labour market. Each signature will shelter a cooperative journalistic method of work –an aspiration long-held by the more innovative media– which will determine the success of the company. If the current world of the printed press does not take this step, nobody will miss them: electronic publications that appear in the Net will simply fill their place and, in time, will build up the data bases which they are currently lacking (something they are, in fact, already doing).

There is just one more ingredient missing in this cocktail (it is always in the making in the digital world, anyway). The increase in the volume of communication and communication sources in the Net will force the media to go out and look for readers. The phase of pretty window- dressing on the Internet in the hope that passers-by notice it and stop to look at the content, is over. The present configuration of the Web is coming to an end. Considering what it has achieved in its two years of life it has not done too badly: it has already laid the foundations of the new communications model which arose after the collapse of the bi-polar world. But the end is nigh. From the perspective of the communications media, just as now they ensure a readership by making sure their products reach kiosks and newsagents, they should already be doing the same within the Internet. At the moment, the vast majority of the media from the atomic age are on standby in the Net: waiting for readers to ring them and ask for a copy of their product (this is, in fact, just how the Web operates). In the future (i.e. tomorrow), the media will have to turn this equation around and regain old practices in a very different social landscape by going out to look for a stable audience in the unstable world of the Internet. In other words, they will have to create their own network of readers and do this by developing very different information products to those which are presently on the Net and which will be, of course, not even remotely like those that are in the newsagents. These new information products will be distinguished by their personalization, contextualization, interactivity and, without doubt, by the new language which the digital world demands. These products will create audiences and, along the way, platforms for advertising and promotion which will finance new companies. To sum up, the objective will not be that the reader visit the marvellous pages in the electronic media, but that the latter visit them in their hard discs.

The major obstacle blocking a move in this direction is cultural. Media companies are waiting for something similar to what happens in the real world to happen in the Net to help orientate them: the appearance of a recognisable audience that will guarantee the financial success of the venture. But this, according to the parameters in use, might never happen. The audience already exists and the system is working. Waiting for a progressive demographic rise until a miraculous critical number is reached is ridiculous in the world in which we live. Today there are 20 or 30 million internauts. Tomorrow, somebody might decide to connect Internet to a TV cable and thus to the whole population, so that from one day to the next, numbers will leap to unthinkable heights just one minute before the “big connection”. Who knows if it will be too late then to react to the “new market”. However, one thing seems clear to me : those who have already gone some way down the road will be the ones to take the lead on the new waves and will make the profits that the armchair economists are so anxious to find today.

Translation: Bridget King.


* Other articles dedicated to digital journalism

1.- In search of the digital journalist
2.- From the dictatorship of the technicians…
3.- …to the rebellion of the masses
4.- The birth of “soft power”
5.- The postman knocks a thousand times
6.- How to escape from the newsagent and survive the attempt
7.- The floating university
8.- The knowledge correspondent
9.- Hard disc journalism