As summer came to a close, self-described “digital anthropologist” Frank Rose renewed an old debate in journalism with a short column in Wired titled “How the Smartphone Ushered in a Golden Age of Journalism.” In it, he argued that the industry of journalism, plagued with falling revenues from pre-digital advertising models and a mass exodus from newspapers to desktops and now to mobile devices, can in fact be saved by this last medium. Recently, media innovators have paired the smartphone with innovative longform journalism, oftentimes from sources like BuzzFeed and Politico, which have for years been condemned by journalists with headlines pandering for clicks and mindless content. Rose argues that smartphones — and enterprising journalists’ willingness to experiment — have opened a new door for the masses to enjoy deep, investigative storytelling that many have considered at best endangered and at worst inevitably doomed.
Rose’s article, however, was met with skepticism from Salon.com journalist Andrew Leonard, who argued that BuzzFeed’s new emphasis on ambitious longform pieces designed for the smartphone is a business dead-end. “A golden age for readers doesn’t necessarily translate into a golden age for writers or publishers,” writes Leonard.
In his essay “Last Call,” published in Medium, respected digital thinker Clay Shirky pronounced the death of newspapers in no uncertain terms. His advice for journalists with condemned newspaper jobs, however, is essentially to learn the skills necessary to produce one of the interactive, data-rich long form pieces that BuzzFeed has begun to crank out. As a social media journalist, Shirky’s point about the necessity of learning social media and how to use it as a newsroom tool is something I preach on a daily basis to my newsroom. As traditional methods of distribution are cut unceremoniously, journalists are increasingly — and rightly so — turning to social media to join the conversation that is already happening between their sources and about their stories.
Like Rose, I have been impressed in the last few months by BuzzFeed’s expansion into serious journalism, especially their reporting from Sheera Frenkel in the Middle East, J. Lester Feder in Africa and Max Seddon in Ukraine. Perhaps the smartest and most shrewd move from the organization came last month, when the company announced BuzzFeed Distributed, a 20-person editorial team tasked solely with developing and repurposing existing content for social media distribution.
While I agree that the current shift towards interactive-laden, data-rich storytelling on the smartphone is a good thing for journalism, I agree with Leonard that today’s newsrooms are not staffed, compensated or adequately trained for such an endeavor. The current climate of layoffs and increasing reliance on freelance work for content is troubling. And without the luxury of venture funding as an option, most journalism organizations must find another way to shift their focus and output to be in sync with the digital news consumer.