Net culture in the newsroom

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
11 April, 2017
Editorial: 88
Fecha de publicación original: 7 octubre, 1997

No pain, no gain

The printed press brings four very valuable assets to the electronic press which belong to them for reasons of trade and which, in this particular case, give them, in principle, the advantage over competitors that have arisen in the Net. However, it is becoming more apparent daily, that the printed press is not having it all its own way when confronted with the new media being engendered in the Net. The transition from printed press to the digital media is not an easy one, despite the head start they have.

The traditional press can count on the following assets in its transition to the information society:

  1. The masthead. A recognisable flagstaff, an investment which pays off because of its prestige and a focal point which, in itself, is proof that its job is to inform .
  2. A newsroom. In other words, an extremely valuable human resource in this context because of what it means in terms of experience, knowledge and routine in the process of gathering, analysing, transforming and emitting information.
  3. The archive. Newspapers have archives that cover events of all kinds over a long period of time. If they were worked on properly, they could become the source of first class information products which it would be difficult to create any other way on the Net.
  4. Finally, the traditional media brings with it a corporate culture defined not only by its physical infrastructure and its human and financial resources, but also by its know-how of highly competitive markets and the incorporation of technological innovation as an indispensable factor in quality improvement. Moreover, they possess the very diverse and demanding flexibility that markets require today.

Having said that, of course, it is clear that this is not the whole picture. These assets do not convert into active capital merely because they exist. Each brings with it, in addition, its corresponding disadvantages which have imposed themselves on the communications media that have decided to start moving into electronic publication.

As the Internet progresses, the value assigned to mastheads is becoming relatively less important over time. Internet is a meta-media and, as such, incorporates new mastheads every day, each with their own peculiarities, and gaining certain prestige at a vertiginous rate. For the moment, the traditional media has defended itself by means of a n advertising information loop with a single, short message: only they have the necessary elements for delivering reliable information. However, as far as internauts are concerned, visits to the media with recognised mastheads represent just a minute fraction of their time spent navigating. More and more, this time is spent visiting electronic publications with prestige consolidated only in cyberspace.

Taking advantage of the potential offered by the newsroom has turned out to be a much harder nut to crack than it was originally thought to be. On the one hand, journalists have got into electronic publications slowly. Even today, this step is piecemeal, except in a few cases. The rule is granting connection and email only to those that ask for them (can anyone imagine a similar policy for putting telephones in a newsroom?). This means that the relationship of the information professionals with Internet is quite fragmented and biased. The cases where journalists are connected and have email as a result of company policy to prepare the newsroom to work with new information technologies are rare and noteworthy.

The archive has also resisted the digital assault, despite the fact that this is one thing that is most obviously lacking on the Internet. The Net’s archives are still very young, not very systematic, and, in general, of little interest for generating information for decision-making. This situation has, nevertheless, changed radically over the last few months and will experiment a dramatic change in the next few years (thanks, among other things, to Gate’s project to link libraries to Internet). In a very short time, the Internet has generated vast documentary resources, thanks to which thousands of internauts are making a living by processing and regurgitating the information stored there. Nevertheless, for reasons that it is not appropriate to go into here, this volume of material is not sufficient to give the resulting information a historical context. This is one of the reasons that one of the first profitable activities on the Internet was to create directories of resources which tried to introduce some kind of order in an interesting chaos. The media can play an important role in doing this: organising the flux of information and, more importantly, giving it a context. The key element for doing this is an Intranet that places the archive in the centre of operations of the communications medium.

The intranet would be a testing ground to facilitate the transition of newsrooms from the printed format, with all that implies, to the digital one, with a view to using the archives not just for the purposes of consultation, but also to prepare for publication on the Net. This process would, at the same time, make an ideal training ground for the newsroom to learn about the peculiarities of working on the Net: horizontal, cooperative, interdependent and interactive (four factors which are hardly ever present in the daily running of the traditional media), not only amongst the journalists themselves, but also amongst those who, in various ways, starting from the Net, will become an integral part of the newsroom, namely, the users.

Logically, no media company, not even the most advanced, was ready to put their archives into the Internet when the Net exploded a couple of years ago. Digitalisation of archives, where it has taken place, has been done to improve consultation for journalists, making it more efficient, not with a view to exploiting it as a “goldmine of information”. In order to do this, the archive should be digitalised in a way that would allow it to be consulted and used in a virtual form in html format. Thus, the newsroom will work with it, not only for consultation, but like “miners” ready to dig the wealth of information accumulated by the medium over the years –extracting, analysing, synthesising and developing new products in tune with the demand coming from the Net. Both factors, the dearth of journalists trained in publishing on the Net, and the lack of an archive to encourage this objective, is like the Great Wall of China that communications companies still have to leap over.

Finally, the fourth element, the corporate culture of the communications companies, should also shake off some of its unnecessary ballast if it is to make the necessary adaptation for confronting the world of electronic publications. What we have already said about the training of journalists and archives is indication enough of what has not been done in this regard. But, from a more global perspective, these companies have to solve one of the most complex equations of the Information Society namely, in what proportion they continue to work in both worlds, the real and the virtual. In this regard there are no established formulas and one can only learn from one’s mistakes, rethinking strategies and, at the same time, formulating a new culture which suits the network of relationships typical in cyberspace. The communications media, logically enough, have based their businesses in the real world: large infrastructures, printing presses, buildings, distribution systems, newsrooms in one place, foreign correspondents, etc.. This determines a specific kind of work organisation aimed at producing something tried and tested and which is, after all, what keeps the whole show on the road: the newspaper.

Things work differently in the world of networks and on the Net. The increase in the volume and sources of communication on the Net will force media companies to go out and look for readers. The window dressing phase where all one had to do was make the page look beautiful and wait for passersby to stop and take a look, is coming to an end. The Web in its present form is running out of possibilities unless spectacular changes are made to interaction on their pages. As far as the communications media is concerned, just as they now have to find readers by insuring that copies of the newspaper reach newsagents, so they will have to do what needs to be done on the Internet. At present, the vast majority of these media organisations from the real world are simply on the Net on standby: waiting for readers to call them up on the phone and ask for a copy of their product (that is all the Web is really anyway). In the near future (tomorrow), they will have to turn the equation around and go back to their old strategies in a very different social landscape: looking for a “stable” audience in the unstable world of the Internet. In other words, they will need to create their own network of readers and in order to do so they will have to develop a very different information product to the ones they are putting on the Net at present, and one which will be, of course, quite different to those available in newsagents. The information in these new products will have to be notable for its degree of personalisation, interpretation and contextualisation as well as for its interactivity and, undoubtedly, for the new language which the digital medium demands. These are the products that will build up new readership and in doing so, the advertising and promotion space which will finance these new companies. To sum up, the aim will not be for readers to come and take a look at the beautiful pages of the electronic media replete with reliable information, but that they, instead, go to the readers’ hard discs with the information that they need or think they need.

The greatest obstacle for the moment is that very corporate culture. Media companies are waiting for something similar to that which happens in the real world to occur on the Net to show them what direction they need to go in i.e. the appearance of a recognisable audience that will guarantee the economic success of the venture. But according to present parameters, this may never happen. The audience is already there and the system is working. And, if it’s a question of numbers, waiting until there is a big enough demographic increase to reach some kind of miraculous critical point,is absurd in the world we live in. Today there are 20 or 30 million internauts. Tomorrow when somebody decides to plug the Internet into a local cable network or the TV, the population will reach undreamed of levels overnight as soon as the “big connection” takes place. And it will be a population without a “culture of means” but with a mediatic culture, a person unrecognisable in terms of today’s printed products which depend on circulation and great rigidity.

So, it is not clear what the reason for this ominous delay in reacting to the “new market” is. Yet, I think one thing is certain and that is, that it is those who have already made some headway in this direction who will be the ones to lead the new wave and make the profits that the drawing room critics of today so anxiously seek. And, for the time being anyway, it is the new mastheads that are gaining ground, with different kinds of newsrooms to those which we know in the media today, noticeably lacking in archives but with a corporate culture which is fully adapted to the demands of cyberspace. It is here, with the creation of new companies, where the digital vs. printed press dilemma will be solved.

Translation: Bridget King.