Technology for Journalists

Peer Advice from Regional Journalistic NGOs

Use social media to reach new audience

‘One specific goal for Atlatszo.hu was to reach that part of the audience who is not willing to spend the time to read longer reports or articles as well as to reach a younger audience. Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr etc. all serve this purpose, as well as using more and more videos, live streams, etc.’ - Atlatszo.hu

Use drones to settle the war of numbers

‘Drones can be used to settle the war of numbers that is so very common for various protests and demonstrations where, the sides are skewing the turnout figures to better support their own agendas. A method developed by Good Drone Lab is now capable of taking still drone images and reaching a grounded estimation of the headcount, that is based on mathematics.’ - Atlatszo.hu

Use visuals to talk about sophisticated subjects

‘Over recent years Hungary has received huge amounts of funding from the European Union. Thanks to our interactive map, anyone can learn how the money is spent and whether political affiliation is an advantage when applying for EU funds.’ - Atlatszo.hu

Start an independent blogging platform

‘In 2014, we started a multisite Wordpress blogging platform and started a handful of own blogs as well while inviting others to blog with us. Running a blog platform allows us to boost our visitor numbers and provide blogging opportunity to other independent media, experts and NGOs.’ - Atlatszo.hu

Don’t feel pressured to use new tools

‘When starting to use a new tool approach it strategically and always upgrade/change your idea as you go. Sometimes even the simplest of tools can turn out to be the most valuable ones.’ - Riste Zmejkoski, BIRN

Adapt global experiences locally

'Follow global trends but always be aware of the local context and audience when you’re applying for new technologies' - Riste Zmejkoski, BIRN

Try to give chance to free software

‘Always try to learn about all possible opportunities that free, open source tools offer, before deciding to pay for a proprietary tool.’ - Riste Zmejkoski, BIRN

Re-check your stories before publishing

‘Think long-term for the products and stories you launch. Be extra careful with the links you use, the codes and the optimization.’ - Riste Zmejkoski, BIRN

Maintain close relationships with IT engineers

‘Always have at least one or two IT engineers as friends that you can talk to. Additionally, try to regularly attend events that discuss IT and media topics.’ - Riste Zmejkoski, BIRN

Always open the data you publish

‘Public data is not private property. Journalists should always open the data they gather and treat them as resources that other journalists, researchers and anyone else interested can use.’ - Riste Zmejkoski, BIRN

Methodology

This article is written by Dona Dzambaska.

In order to learn more about the influence of technology on the everyday work of journalists, we talked to regional NGOs that do investigative journalism. Among the most prominent of them are: Balkan Investigative Reporting Network - Macedonia, Atlatszo.hu and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). We asked them to share with us experience and tips on how regional NGOs can adapt and thrive with the increasing pace of technological advancement.

We did not aim to cover all possible aspects of how technology impacts journalism. Instead we focused on personal, practical, first-hand experience of high-level professionals in thefield. For this purpose we conducted series of in-depth interviews with 15 open-ended, semi-structured ques- tions.

The questions covered three specific areas: (1) The ways technology influences content production, (2) The ways technology influences the journalistic skills, and (3) The ways technology influences the impact of stories.

Јоurnalist 50 years ago vs. Journalist today

Journalist 50 years ago

  • Expected to be well read and amazing with words.
  • His pocket notebook is his most used tool.
  • Always on the move: Drives for 8 hours to talk to a source.
  • Makes regular visits to the local library.
  • Frames stories as 500-word reports and dictates them from a phone booth.
  • Patient: Works on a story for months.
  • Reads out his article to his wife during breakfast.
  • Good in communicating with people: Talks to a number of different people daily.
  • Wears long trench coats.
  • Speaks several foreign languages.

Journalist today

  • Expected to be a multi-skilled-superhuman
  • Uses multiple gadgets, apps, and; can fly a drone smoothly
  • Communicates with sources through (encrypted) chat from a coffee shop
  • Deals with data-bases on daily basis
  • Writes SEO-friendly headlines
  • Hasty: Pressured to keep pace with an ever-changing media agenda
  • Spends his free time time sharing his article on social media and answering comments
  • Understands the value of interaction with the online commu nity
  • Has no time for lunch Fluent in HTML, CSS, PHP

The Growing Need for Fast Reporting

Things have greatly changed since then - today being a journalist is much closer to a multi-skilled-superhuman than a curious writer. ‘CORE SKILLS for the Future of Journalism’ a research conducted by Howard Finberg and Lauren Klinger in 2014, among their 37 core skills for the future of journalism lists:

  • ‘Ability to embrace change and innovation’
  • ‘Analyze and synthesize large amounts of data’
  • ‘Interpret statistical data and graphics’
  • ‘Ability to tell stories with design and visuals’

When it comes to the ability to “analyze and synthesize large amounts of data,the research states that majority (55%) of professional journalists believe that ability to analyze and synthesize large amounts of data is "important" to "very important". The response to the question about the ability to “interpret statistical data and graphics” was similar: 59% of professionals labeled this skill as "important” to "very important".

Our interviewees agree that the skills journalists need today significantly changed throughout the years. When asked to compare the skills they needed years ago with the ones a journalist needs today, Riste Zmejkovski from BIRN Macedonia told us that:

‘The skills a journalist needs to posses have undoubtedly changed throughout the years. From the aspect of researching skills, there are new tools that facilitate research nowadays, but they require journalists to gain technical knowledge in order to use them. Our journalists today know how to work and analyze different types of databases, how to use spreadsheet softwares like Excel, how to use data visualization tools, how to use collaborative platforms, how to administrate web panels and the panels of our databases. All in all - journalists need to follow and adapt to the development of technology and use it accordingly in their work, because otherwise they risk staying behind their audience’

When comparing the average dataset they would work with 3 years ago to the average one today, Aleksandar Todorović from OCCRP, told us that: ‘The one 3 years ago was much smaller than today. The "grand" dataset we've created has dozens of millions of data, which is something that was unimaginable three years ago. We went from having to look for a dataset to having most of the needed dataset inside of our organization, easily searchable.’

Journalists constantly work on developing their skills

But most importantly, speaking of the way they manage to keep up with those changes, both BIRN Macedonia and OCCRP told us that they manage to constantly develop their skills through: ‘Regular trainings and workshops, daily use and constant improvement of the toolset, frequently trying out new tools and develop upon those tools to make the journalist's job easier, and by having a helpful tech team.’

In order to help out their journalists, today many NGOs that work on investigations have a strong tech team. Aleksandar Todorović from OCCRP told us that their approach is to keep journalist's data-processing skills fairly low and delegate this tasks to tech teams, which is another approach to tackle a similar issue of increasing demand for a multi-skillset in media production.

The Increased Use and Social Media Dependance

All three NGOs we talked to that the need for fast reporting influences their everyday work and the content they produce. All of them found different, original ways to adapt to the fast current - all realised and embraced the need for cooperation with other teams and journalists, the importance for disseminating and re-focusing resources and for building synergies that earlier seemed impossible.

When we first asked Aleksandar Todorović, from OCCRP, he said that - “The need for speed does influence our work, but that actually collides with our overall goal with producing as much investigations as possible per year. So, we're openly adopting to the need for fast reporting. It brings us joy.”

When we later asked Atlatszo.hu and BIRN Macedonia on adapting to the needs for faster reporting, Atlatszo.hu said that “In general, we try to focus on stories that need research, but we also produce content every day. We teamed up with bloggers to be able to run blog posts on a common platform. This gives us a way to have new content every day, from bloggers and organisations we support at least, with giving them a platform to publish their stories.”

BIRN Macedonia on the other hand told us that even though they don’t regularly publish news on a daily basis, and their main focus remains on long investigative pieces, they did find two ways to ‘quickly’ share their rich journalistic information on important everyday events with their audience:

(1) Through publishing so-called ‘flash news’ on their portal, Prizma.mk. Those are basically very short articles mainly focused on daily breaking news. Usually not longer than 500 words.

(2) Through introducing ‘live blogs’ of short, tweet-like content, dedicated to specific events. Their ‘live blogs’ are basically a practical and structured way of updating their followers on all the stages of development on a given event. They use them as a sort of an event timeline composed of tweets, short articles, pictures and videos. For instance, one of their most popular ‘live blog’ has been the one following the development of the events of the Colourful revolution in Macedonia.

The battle of fast vs. accurate reporting

Reuter’s Handbook of Journalism states that - “...accuracy is the heart of what we do. It is our job to get it first but it is above all our job to get it right.” And although it’s news reporting that evidently suffers the most, the battle of fast vs. accurate reporting has only been getting more and more intense during the last few years. Tightly connected to the rising crucial importance of social media in the publishing world, the rush to publish a story on the web has many times overpowered the (importance of) accuracy and even some of the most experienced ones have fallen victims.

In 2014, nearly two-thirds out of 56 countries noted that digitization had quickened news production and delivery cycles. Ying Chan, founding director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at Hong Kong University, believes that - “Time pressures and fast-paced journalism have made journalists more prone to mistakes. The prevalent use of published materials and rumors in news stories has posed ‘the most pervasive threats’ that digitization has brought to journalism.” She further adds that - “Digitization has increased the demand for immediacy in news delivery: the drive to be there, live, on location. Investigative journalism suffers in this context as the news content suffers in quality. ”

The battle of fast vs. accurate reporting

The rising influence of social media over the world of (investigative) journalism has been noticeable ever since 2009, one of the many signals back then was when big and popular publishers started hiring ‘social media editors’ for the first time. social media has ever since affected the journalistic work in many aspects, some of them being: (1) The information gathering process, (2) The character of the content produced, (3) The information disseminating process; (4) The journalist-audience relationship (5) The way audience consumes news and information.

For instance, Riste Zmejkoski from BIRN Macedonia stresses the importance of social media for content dissemination, saying that: ‘social media and news aggregators are the key channels of content dissemination nowadays. If an organisation decides to not use social media for content promotion, they risk staying anonymous.’

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016 based on a survey of more than 50,000 people in 26 countries around the World, half (51%) say they use social media as a source of news each week, and around one in ten (12%) say it is their main source. Additionally, the research claims that Facebook is the most important network for finding, reading/watching, and sharing news. According to the NGOs we talked to, social media (especially Facebook) is also one of the main ways of distributing their long-form content and reaching to the audience.

The team of Atlatszo.hu agrees with the presence and use of Facebook and points out that: ‘On an organizational level, our main feed and way to disseminate our content to our readers is still our Facebook page (which at the moment counts 89,000 likes), but we regularly distribute all our content on other social networks as well, such as Twitter and Instagram.’

Social media impacts the journalist-audience relationship

Another significant impact social media has, is the one on the journalist-audience relationship. Content in the last decade became more personal, for instance - readers today want to know who is the journalist behind the story they’re reading (a survey of 130 journalist conducted in the previous year has shown that 66% of readers prefer following journalists rather than publications on social media).

Publishers also realised the need to constantly gather feedback and interact with their readers on social media (through opening discussions, regularly replying to tweets and comments, etc.) in order to build a certain form of communities that will make their readers feel like they’re part of a group/movement, instead of only followers. When comparing their social media presence three years ago to the one today, Aleksandar Todorović from OCCRP points out that ‘We gradually started using more and more types of social media as well as different digital tools to support our journalistic work. Three years ago, we were mostly using social media as some sort of a feed for our stories. Now, we're trying to use social media as a tool for engaging with our target audience as much as possible.’

Riste Zmejkovski from BIRN Macedonia says that ‘Social media is our way of getting to know our audience better and to observe their reactions, what up until a few years ago we used to do through platforms of discussion on our main website (Disqus, for example).’ He further adds that ‘We recognised the importance of social media 3 years ago when we built a solid infrastructure of profiles on all social media platforms that were being used in Macedonia. We have identified social media as important and necessary for our work from the very beginning. Our use of social media has evolved and adapted throughout the years, especially in the way (and amount) of interaction with readers. On the other hand, the videos on our YouTube channel sometimes reach more than hundreds of thousands views.’