Image courtesy Sydney Parent/The Capilano Courier

Carlo Javier
Capilano Courier

VANCOUVER (CUP)—It could be challenging to find a journalist who will sound optimistic about the fate of newspapers; there are many elements that stand in the way of the classic, traditional, and most natural way of journalism.

There are advocates for moving to a more environmentally-friendly way of delivering news, which would require a mass reduction in paper production. There is clear evidence of a change in lifestyle, a great generational divide; people may now look at newspapers as out-dated—or worse, dead. Finally, and most notably, there is the rapid and unstoppable rise of technology.

If the zeitgeist of the current generation were consolidated into one item and handed to you, you would be holding a smartphone. And maybe you are right now. Android and iOS capabilities are all-encompassing; their impact on journalism is changing the way newsrooms operate. Nowadays, anyone with an Apple iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy can report breaking news.

It sounds grim, saddening, and pessimistic to proclaim the newspaper industry to be on life support. This, however, doesn’t mean the death of journalism. Rising through the dust like a phoenix are new ways of delivering the news. The demise of the newspaper industry is leading to a new set of platforms that journalists—and non-journalists—can (and will) use. Regardless of what media outlet, one way or another, people will want access to breaking information on current events, and that’s central to what journalists have always provided.

Straight into the Graveyard

“The newspaper is dying” or “the newspaper is dead” are phrases all-too-familiar to anyone who has even the slightest awareness of any sort of news or media. In the Collection of Predictions for Journalism 2014, by Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, not a single journalist predicted a renaissance of the newspaper.

Instead, numerous predictions were centred on the importance of technology, such as the rising popularity of code and programming knowledge, the increasing significance of Twitter, and other broad developments in journalism. Scott Klein, senior editor of news applications at ProPublica wrote in his prediction that “every skill you don’t have leaves a whole class of stories out of your reach. And data stories are usually the ones that are hiding in plain sight.”

Klein goes on to discuss the advantages of people who understand the complexities of computer science: they’re faster and well equipped. Klein took it a step further—even non-journalists who happen to know some programs can now break the news.

“…somewhere out there is a recent j-school grad who’s just started covering your beat. She’s raw, and she has no rolodex. When she talks to sources, her voice shakes and she doesn’t ask all the questions she should,” Klein wrote, “but she studied Python and statistics, and she can use OpenRefine and PostgreSQL, so she’s faster than you. And she’s about to publish something you thought nobody but you knew about.”

A Wonderful Future

Despite the gloomy prospects of newspapers, there is plenty to look forward to for journalism. One thing which never changes is the desire for information. In fact, it can be argued that the desire to get news as soon as possible is at its peak, considering the amount of traffic Twitter generates during breaking stories.

There are many new developments that are not exclusive to the major players in the news industry. University newspapers are now encouraged to brand themselves as more than just a newspaper. It’s become apparent university-based, student-led papers should take time developing strategies in multimedia, mobile media, and social media.

The Power of Mobile

Matt Frehner, mobile editor for the Globe and Mail, is one of the leading forces in advocating mobile-friendly newsrooms and says “social is mobile, mobile is social.”

As important as the roles of content and technology play, there is still a third major factor that’s holding significant sway in the future of media—the audience. Ed O’Keefe, Editor-in-Chief of NowThis News wrote in his section of Prediction for Journalism 2014, “Instagram, Facebook, Vine, Twitter, and Snapchat (srsly) are news mediums—because that’s where the audience is.”

The rise of mobile-friendly journalism can be attributed to a smartphone’s ability to push information right to the readers in real time. CBC and the Globe and Mail’s apps both exemplify such capabilities.

Journalism’s modernization can also be attributed to smartphones’ abilities at the source. One of Frehner’s biggest points about an iPhone is how it allows a reporter to record a video, capture a photo, write an article, and even publish straight from the news site—no longer do journalists need a bulky kit of camera gear, audio recording equipment, and a tripod for one article.

Another tech figure plays an important role in the ongoing evolution of journalism—Twitter. Maria Bustillos, a regular contributor to the New Yorker described the popular social media giant as “a combination newsroom, water cooler, stock ticker, and gossip mill, and still utterly addictive to journalists” in a recent piece for Nieman’s website.

Twitter allows journalists to tweet their breaking news headlines and follow it with a link to the story. It also gives both readers and journalists the ability to track topics through the use of hashtags. For example, the biggest news story in the past year for the Globe and Mail was the Rob Ford scandal, which trended with #robford or #ford.

“Twitter as a promotion for journalism as a way for communicating with readers is one of the most important, if not the most important, digital tools,” said Frehner. “We’re training a lot more on how to use Twitter and how to use it inteligently, we’re using it to promote our content in new, different ways, and we find that the audience in Twitter is very engaged.”

Live-tweeting is now an expected response by a journalist covering a developing story. Reporters are now capable of integrating their readers in an event as it happens.

“It’s reinforcing and making sure that our brand and our content is most relevant as possible,” said Frehner.

Virtual Paper

While Twitter has become a standard part of new journalism, there are still emerging formats, such as Virtual Paper. In partnership with some Canadian university papers, Virtual Paper is studying the way smart ad placement can benefit online publications.

“What we do is e-Edition. We are specialists in digital publications for newspapers,” said Mélanie Boudreau, marketing and accounting manager for Virtual Paper.

Founded in 2005 in Montreal, Virtual Paper allows publications to digitalize their work while maintaining the feel of a newspaper through e-Edition, a digital edition of a printed book, newspaper, or journal, which can be read on a computer or mobile device.

“An e-Edition is basically a replica of the print. What we do is take the PDF of the paper, and our engine converts it into a rich, digital publication,” said Boudreau.

What separates e-Edition from other platforms such as Issuu is the more diverse and extensive capabilities it allows the publishers.

“Our product is way more than just a flip page. Our clients have access to the management platform, where they can do everything by themselves. They can customize by adding their logo, a loader, or a toolbar,” said Boudreau.

E-Edition also allows its users to add content, customize the background, and pop-up any videos they wish to present. Their approach is based on four pillars: user experience, distribution, measurement, and monetization.

The most unique is how the user experience allows enhancement of an audience’s experience through interactive e-Editions. Virtual Paper’s Facebook capacity allows people to share the newspaper, magazine, or journal on their Facebook timelines without any need of leaving the social networking site.

“We have approximately 350 clients all over the world. We have newspapers, magazines, catalogues, and directories,” Boudreau said. “We have 100,000 active publications online everyday.”

Virtual Paper also operates with a unique perspective: one of the company’s goals is to help resuscitate newspapers. Granted, demand for the digital might be too great to overcome, but Virtual Paper’s features allows for the newspaper feel and creates new possibilities for readers.

“The idea was to maintain the traditional flipbook format because it gives the people the classic feeling of newspapers,” says Ayelet Germanski, project and account manager at Virtual Paper. “We definitely want to think that Virtual Paper is an element that will help the revival of newspapers.

“First of all, we do not believe that the newspaper is going to die. It’s the way the paper is managed. A lot of the participants that we see have a very old view of how newspapers should be run, but because the world is changing, people will still need the information, but possibly in a different way.”

“I think nowadays with the computer, and especially now that everybody has a smartphone, and even a tablet, I think that this is a way to save or revitalize the industry,” said Boudreau. “The content will always be relevant and important to the population. The goal is to shake up the industry and change the format of presenting the content, either by Twitter, or a website, or the digital publication itself.”

Virtual Paper’s future plans include further integration and personalizing of content. “We really want to go dynamic and behavioural. What we plan to do is be able to push readers’ custom content that accommodates their reading habits, as well as a more integration with the Twitter feed,” explains Boudreau.

Quality Over Quantity

Despite all the technological developments that are happening, and despite technology’s increasingly significance in journalism, one aspect that won’t change is content.

“No matter what, people will still look for information,” remarks Germanski. Boudreau agrees and suggests that while the physical paper might disappear eventually, content will always be important, as people always want information.

Even the rise of Twitter as a journalistic tool is not necessarily affecting content. Granted, newsrooms are now tweeting out headlines, but these headlines are accompanied by a link to the actual story. The polar opposite of tweets are also still popular, too. The two most-read articles by the Globe and Mail in 2013 were both long-form articles: “Globe Investigation: The Ford family’s history with drug dealing” and “How BlackBerry blew it: The inside story.”

Ultimately, the platform journalists choose for stories and the fashion readers choose to read them are immaterial; the one constant is the desire for the information. Journalism is undoubtedly reaching new grounds in terms of production. Cameras, recorders, and notebooks are amalgamated in one smartphone. News websites are built to be mobile-friendly, and to some, even mobile first. Live-tweeting in itself has become one of the most effective ways for journalists to push information to the public in real-time. Despite all of that, the finished product that readers fundamentally want is the content.