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International Journalism Festival — the winning essay

Hundreds of students from across Europe participated in Amazon’s International Journalism Festival essay contest, which challenged them to write about journalism in the digital era.

The Times is a media partner of the annual festival, held in Perugia, Italy, and our journalists selected the winning student from the UK — Una Kelly. We publish Ms Kelly’s winning essay here, which highlights initiatives developed by The New York Times, the BBC, Vice and Buzzfeed, to adapt to the rise of smartphones and social media.

Journalism in the digital era

We’ve been living in a digital world for around two decades now and many news organisations are still struggling — with social and mobile media, with changing newsroom culture, with implementing the necessary tech skills or with understanding why start-ups like Vice and Buzzfeed should be viewed as serious competitors.

This is a classic case of disruptive innovation. In her book, Innovators in Digital News, Lucy King likens the effect of the internet on news to the effect of railways on horse-drawn transportation. While the basic need — “ the provision of news and information about the world” — has remained the same, the technologies used to answer that need are fundamentally different. Shifting from print news to digital news is equivalent to closing the stables, selling the horses, and buying a railway. A different business entirely.

The digital disruption can be viewed as a problem or an exciting opportunity. A rigid culture and unwillingness to innovate can mean organisations fall behind. “Clean sheet” organisations (those which began in the digital era) have always been pro-digital, while “legacy” organisations, such as the BBC and The New York Times have had to catch up. The NYT Innovation Report recommended they integrate journalism and technology more deeply. This requires a total rethink of an organisation’s culture and even the physical office layout of having editorial and technology departments sitting beside each other.

Exclusive and rigid adherence to formats which developed over decades — the print article, the 10pm nightly news — fails to take advantage of new mediums for storytelling. A story should take whatever form best conveys its message or ensures most people reach it. Entirely new formats have emerged, for example, the listicle or interactive quiz. Old school journalists may be snide about these, but the most popular story for The New York Times in 2013 was a quiz created by in-house developers (How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk) that would have been at home on Buzzfeed. Similarly, the daily infographic (#bbcgofigure) from the BBC Visual Journalism Unit demonstrates that some stories are stronger when told by a map or graph. The act of storytelling hasn’t changed, but the architecture has.

The ubiquity of smartphones means we’re online, available to consume and engage with news almost all the time. The rise of mobile was a huge disruptor to news organisations in the past year — 60 per cent of traffic for BBC News now comes from mobile or tablet. Multiple devices for content mean multiple platforms for content, which means more peak times. In the case of the Financial Times, it is early morning for mobile, afternoon for desktop and evening for tablets. If a news organisation tailors content to these new peaks, it can increase demand for advertising, thereby increasing revenues.

Smartphones are increasingly designed with bigger screens and better HD quality, meaning audiences want more video. These can be short videos, for Facebook or Twitter, or longer-form. Shane Smith, founder of Vice, correctly saw the potential of digital video. Improved bandwidth means people are watching longer-form content online through mobile or tablet. He also spotted that YouTube had created the infrastructure for digital video distribution and that there would need to be content to fill it that wasn’t all cats dancing on pianos or low rent user-generated content. Vice News has now become a journalistic hybrid, delivering immersive documentaries on a digital platform. Its documentary The Islamic State won industry respect and 20 million YouTube views.

Social media have become increasingly important as a distribution platform for news. An increasing number of readers reach digital news sites through social media and algorithm-driven search engines. Many of these consumers are millennials, a particularly attractive market for advertisers — so news organisations need to make sure their content is not only on these channels, but presented in a way which maximises sharing. Buzzfeed has nailed this. It’s successful because its content is highly shareable — it analyses user data to decode how and why content is shared and distributed. In March 2014, there were 47 million Facebook interactions on Buzzfeed.

Buzzfeed may use these insights to create content that is often frivolous (see 10 Cardboard Boxes That Look Like David Cameron), but the revenue it creates from this content is then used to fund serious investigative journalism. A few years ago, nobody would have imagined that Buzzfeed, the infamous purveyor of cat videos, would have teamed up with the BBC in an investigation into tennis match-fixing. A thorough understanding of social media platforms and audience analytics has transformed Buzzfeed into a credible player in news, able to recruit high profile journalists from leading newspapers.

The days when news organisations decided the news agenda and relayed it to the public have been and gone. News is not just about shouting for attention — it requires meaningful engagement. If news organisations know the audience they serve, they can create valuable content for it. This deepens the relationship and creates loyalty and engagement. This is not only a successful editorial strategy but also a commercial one — the greater the reader involvement, the bigger the audience and the higher the digital revenues. However, the challenge remains; newspapers need to find a way to balance the interests of their traditional print readers with their younger digital audience. It’s difficult and unwise to come up with a universal prescription for success in the digital age. Each news organisation is a unique animal with different circumstances. There are profound differences between digital and print/analogue revenues, between “legacy” and “clean sheet” status, between trust ownership, public ownership and venture capital financing. The rate of change in the media landscape is so rapid that accurate predictions are impossible. Beware of anyone saying they know what the future of journalism is in this brave new digital world. For the moment it’s a big experiment and a willingness to join in may be the key to survival.