This series on media disruption has looked at the major trends affecting how news and information is produced, distributed and concerned, especially the primacy of the screen, the rise of mobile, and the impact of social media and the trend towards distributed publishing. In this final article I want to argue these transformations mean we need to think differently about what it means to produce information in this new media ecology.
Many of us – myself included – have suggested “visual storytelling” is the best way of signifying what we do. Our focus has been on what we want to say, and then how to get that out to readers/viewers in the world. While storytelling is vital, this approach has prioritised production over consumption and impact, with questions about the audiences’ desires and needs subordinate to our own judgement about the value of work.
Focusing on the audiences’ wishes is not a matter of reducing reporting to the lowest common denominator because we know there is a strong appetite amongst readers/viewers for serious news and information. It is, instead, a matter of moving away from a preoccupation with content to a new concern for service. This chimes with what Stephen Mayes told me in a recent interview for the Multimedia Week podcast – rather than the usual starting position of “what is my experience creating information” let’s shift to the issue of “what is my experience when I am looking for information.”
One way of understanding this is to appreciate how business find consumers by asking what jobs people people want done, and what services address that need. Derived from Clay Christensen’s thinking, and recently applied to US news media, the basic idea of this approach is that
people don’t go around looking for products to buy. Instead, they take life as it comes and when they encounter a problem, they look for a solution and at that point, they’ll hire a product or service.
In the context of journalism, questions that different news consumers might pose at different times include “how can I be informed in my 10 minute break,” or “how can I be intellectually stimulated on a long flight,” or “how can I find out what is really happening in X,” or “how can I help change the injustice I am seeing?”
Jeff Jervis has recently offered a compelling new perspective on this by declaring that it is a mistake to define ourselves as primarily content creators or storytellers. He has outlined this in a recent book and public lecture. You’ll benefit from listening to Jarvis’s keynote at the April 2015 International Journalism Festival, or watching the video of it below.
The problem, Jarvis argues, is that our conventional “worldview convinces us that our value is embodied entirely in what we make rather than in the good people derive from it.” Instead he suggests:
Consider journalism as a service. Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something. To be a service, news must be concerned with outcomes rather than products.
This does not mean stories are unimportant and going away. Content, Jarvis says, “will continue to be valued. But content’s value may be more as a tool than as an end in itself and certainly not as our only product.”
If we take this new turn, we get away from thinking about news and information as a business which is separate from the public, the goal of which is to produce a product that gets launched on to an unsuspecting audience. We will also be less concerned about product protection (in the form of traditional renderings of copyright and paywalls) and instead think about relationships (collaborations and partnerships) with the people formerly known as the audience. And we will recognise that good journalism has always been simultaneously good advocacy.
For someone developing a project this rethinking means beginning by asking:
- What is the purpose of my project?
- What problem am I trying to help solve?
- Who is the potential audience?
- What collaborations and partnerships can connect me with the audience?
- Do I know what they need?
- What formats and tools enable the service the audience requires?
Thinking about the raison d’être of the visual storyteller in terms of providing a service means, above all, determining how to link purpose to the audience. Depending on the purpose, the audience may be small and singular or large and varied. No doubt some of the people formerly known as visual storytellers are asking these questions. We will all be better off, in all senses, if this becomes the norm.
[For an audio overview of this series, listen to the Multimedia Week podcast #34 where I talk about media disruption with my co-hosts DJ Clark and Sharron Lovell.]