Journalism in the Network Age

How do you regain authority after you are stripped of all your institutional power? This is the question every journalist is asking, or should be asking. But before we attempt to answer that, let’s have a quick look at how we got here.

By Jaakko Tapaninen

The old linear media was expensive to produce and distribute and therefore we lived in a world of scarcity. The media were scarce and jobs in the media were scarce. Yet there was a lot of demand for information, not just news and analysis but also entertaining, educational and useful content and, of course, commercial content: where to find and what to buy. Scarcity and demand led to an oligopolistic world with a relatively straightforward business model. If you had the means, you aimed at a local monopoly and, once you reached it, advertisers had nowhere else to go but you.

One way of looking at the world we’ve left behind is that the quality journalism we often associate with that era was not the reason for the thriving media industry, but a product enabled by a lucrative business model. To a large extent the journalist’s institutional power was based on scarcity. Now that the scarcity is gone, so is the institutional position of a gatekeeper (and this of course applies to so many other things too, and therefore we are seeing, or expecting, seismic shifts in, for example, retail, banking and education).

There’s no going back. So how to find an enlightened and determined way forward? Here are a few thoughts on what old approaches are still valid and what are the must-learns in the new media environment.

Be useful

In the age of institutions, the gatekeeper felt she had the right and obligation to choose what the crowds could see. In the age of networks, the crowd has the power to choose what it wants from the abundance of content. So, it is not about what you think people should see that matters; it’s about what people want to see. The only way to get attention is to satisfy a need an individual has.

This of course conflicts with the classic journalistic ambition to talk about things that are important and not just about those that audiences find interesting. This goal is still vital for societal health, but there are practically no business models that can support this approach today at its purest. This is one of the major challenges of our time – how and where to talk about important stuff in the post op-ed page era – and everyone should participate in coming up with solutions.

Be the best at something

Abundance means that the market for mediocre content is disappearing. Search algorithms do not rank uninteresting stuff, and people only share things they believe will stand out and make them look good. The democratisation of media has a Darwinian side: if you want to matter you have to be the best at something – to someone. If you choose a large target group and a popular topic, you’d better be generally awesome, and not everyone is. But just about anyone can be the best in a micro segment: your substance, your skill, a certain demographic, a special attitude. Draw your own Venn diagram of these and start building your camp at the intersection.

Your network is your net worth

Every journalist should have a network of sources. In the digital era, you should also invest in building a network of fans. Use your own social media outlets. Aim at benefitting or entertaining your followers. Get onto the radar of influencers, follow them and, one day, some of them will follow you. And, if you are consistent, one day some of them will share your work. A good hack to speed this process is of course to interview those influencers you’d like to reach and, once you publish the fruits of the interview, make sure they know about it.

The value of a personal network has, of course, changed the contract between a media outlet and its journalists. Building an audience is now a joint effort, a symbiosis of a media brand and personal brands. This also means that if you manage to build your social media presence right, it is your asset, no matter what the future brings.

Go to the source

All good journalism begins with the idea that you should go the source, find and evaluate the facts, and then work on the analysis, structure, style and possible synthesis. This approach is incredibly valuable in the age in which people consume just headlines and rush to share stuff they have not even read. If you search the original document or look at the real data, or you talk to the real people that are affected by whatever is happening, and go to the site where things are happening and see for yourself, you often have an amazing advantage compared to all content recyclers and trigger-happy opinion blasters out there.

Work on your interviewing technique

It is different to interview someone in the networked world than it was in the institutional world. Since, in most cases, journalists are not the interviewee’s only channels to get exposure, the balance of power has shifted here too. When you operate from the safety of an institution, you can attack. When you build value in a network, you should also attract. In addition to aggressive or mechanistic interviewing techniques, you should experiment with asking for help, talking about things dear to the interviewee, sharing information with her or looking for stories in her life. And, of course, use the most powerful technique of them all: listen.

Train and test

The fastest growing new media relies on testing and data. The likes of BuzzFeed, Vice or Netflix experiment and A/B test constantly, and optimise everything that is shown to the user. Their level of testing requires skill and technology not available to everyone; but just as important, again, is the attitude. In the old world, a journalist was often a bit of a diva; in the new world, there’s less room for that. One should rather be a scientist, constantly testing assumptions and possible improvements. Your own social media is your playground: test headlines, pictures, and length of posts. Find out what works and try to figure out why. Acquire a basic understanding of how search algorithms work. And, instead of accepting other peoples’ truths (about the subject, length, channel, medium, application, time to post), test and find your own.

Tell stories

Everybody talks about storytelling these days (because it increases engagement, shares and conversions, you’ve learned); but in practice most content is storyless: cool pics, confusing web pages, videos without a cause, and opinions without solid reasoning. So, what’s a story? It can be the life of a person, a sweeping account of an era, or the tale of our existence from the Big Bang to this day. But it does not need to be anything that daunting. For journalistic purposes, let’s just say that story is the human why behind the what, where and when. If you can add that, you have something 10x more engaging than mere facts. My favourite example of this idea is the following: “The king died and then the queen died” states a fact; “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a story. And a story that fits in a tweet.

Jaakko Tapaninen is the founder of Great Point, a growing Helsinki-based content agency. He has worked as a journalist, editor, publisher and media CEO as well as authored several books. Recently he got into podcasting and has a popular bi-weekly show called 10x Finland Podcast.