Digital Journalism & the Slogans of Doom (5)

[April 13, 2010] 

[This post reflects the state of the sites discussed at the time. The issues raised are still relevant to the discussion of digital journalism in the US.]

Recalling the digital faces of major news outlets I’ve explored so far, I see they are, in essence, mere adjuncts to whatever’s happening on the main stage. “That’s the news. For more information, visit us online…” goes the refrain on many a news broadcast. Yet, often enough, what’s online is really an information dumping ground, a “newsfill” for everything squeezed out by commercials.

Such sites show no appreciation for digital space as a medium with unique capabilities and a global reach. For example, ever since “google” became a verb it has become the very exemplar of information gathering. In that sense, one indication that journalism might be faltering lies in its failure to address how people seek news in 2010. Should audiences discover they have a better chance of keeping up via Stumble Upon, the vultures will indeed begin their spiral.

A voice you can hear.
Still, as I see it, some news outlets do present news more idiomatically online. Reuters, for example, succeeds just by putting the emphasis on news itself. That’s “news,” by the way, as opposed to “news items,” “news stories,” let alone “what’s hot.” What stands out here is not the layout itself as a design statement, rather this layout’s power to delimit, edit and focus attention.

Like a trusted advisor, reuters.com greets users with an actual point of view. And in the end, that’s the difference between, “Communication Arts” and communication: Someone real to talk to. Brand personality here emerges as a consistent criterion for selection, an actionable model for what “news” means.

In a very different way, Time also establishes a distinctive voice, by creating a consistent frame of reference for what is and is not news. Contrary to expectation, the layout creates a sense or order and conscious selection by retaining much of the visual organization of a print magazine. Aside from a horrific Technology section, there’s a sense of proportion here, of higher level design and intelligence, effectively mimicking an encounter with a real person. The impact is palpable: The site has Presence.

Likewise, The New York Times uses the full repertoire of text, still photography, slide show, animation and video, to craft an editorial persona all its own. The true strength of its design, however, lies in how well it’s conceived to be read. After all, words matter in journalism. In terms of proportion, spacing, and font selection, nytimes.com has been thoroughly imagined as a digital space for absorbing news as text.

A stance you can take.
That it also incorporates many of the signature features of social networking—without walking one centimeter away from its heritage—surely suggests that journalism need not “die.” In fact, the examples I’ve chosen show that if anything is killing journalism, it’s not an emerging generation hopelessly addicted to social media. As with every other major dilemma a fictive, slanderously conceived “They” are not the source of the problem.

For if the Slogans of Doom are correct, this will not be a case of Murder by Media Revolution but—as evidenced by its digital face—a case of Suicide by Indifference. As the more successful news sites show, everything is in place to ensure journalism will survive. All that may be missing is the willingness of editors—or the media conglomerates that fill their water dishes—to keep journalism alive as a vital, dynamic and essential component of American culture.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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