Can we please stop ‘pivoting’ to everything? (Or, why we need to stop obsessing about the latest news delivery vehicle)

Journalism, in its vulnerable state, has been massively susceptible to the latest promise of salvation. One year it was subscriptions. The next AI. Another time it was audio, then video, then podcasts. The rallying cry to pivot to something has become little more than the punchline to a bad joke. But, it’s a joke we keep telling.

In the panic that’s accompanied the fragile economic reality of our newsrooms, we should be entirely forgiven for trying to pin our colors to the most sturdy-looking ship. Really, though, that’s a bit like having a cargo of – let’s say – shoes, then forgetting about the shoes and obsessing about which color to repaint the hull of the transportation chosen to ship them to market. 

All this pivoting is making everyone dizzy

But, away from ships. There’s only so far a metaphor can take us.

For newsrooms, that big change (from print to digital) was perhaps not so much a pivot, as it was akin to being released from a spinning top – the ensuing dizziness made it difficult to see which way was up. 

Then, it quickly became apparent that the long held practices relating to advertising and reader-newsroom relations had also been spun asunder – and in trying to find some equilibrium we grabbed at anything for balance. 

Everything was off. 

The news wrapper was removed. Readers could enjoy an article-by-article dalliance with a publication, rather than a relationship. It became possible for publishers to see what was being read. Revenue took a beating. Where before, the publishing ecosystem was contained in the physicality of the paper, suddenly those newsrooms found they were in competition for ad dollars with tech companies who, wrote Megan McArdle in the Washington Post , “produce no content at all”. 

Audiences are evolving

In 2017, before Mic imploded, its publisher, Cory Haik, penned an article on Vox in which she argued that the time was ripe to explore the possibilities that the digital world offered to journalism.

“What the market is showing,” said Haik, “is that viewers want to immerse themselves in a visual story that makes use of the full range of creative techniques afforded by the tiny little computer in their hand”. 

Now, the pivot to video strategy didn’t work out that well for Mic. That much is well documented. But the underlying sentiment Haik was expressing is worth ruminating on. Yes, she said, the demise of the written word might be slightly overstated, but “we’re massively misunderstanding a pretty critical shift in journalism itself.”

The fact is, the mobile devices we are mostly glued to have changed the way that most of us interact with the news-scape – just as it’s changed the way that those newsrooms have interacted with it. It would be hard to argue otherwise. Readers expect a frictionless experience, and will take matters into their own hands if necessary – something evidenced by the problems publishers are experiencing with those people using ad blockers

Tech can deliver some pretty astonishingly beautiful visuals these days. Complex stories are rendered into digestible, interactive, absorbing treats by design wizards. Articles which invite the readers to dive headlong into an experience, can reward publishers with high engagement rates.

But, as ever, there are a couple of issues with this.

The first, is the problem measuring the success of those bright, shiny, new things. We’ll return to this a bit later.

The second is the simple fact that this kind of rich presentation isn’t suited to every article in a newsroom’s arsenal. For in-depth studies and longform journalism – things the result of many months investigation – visual aids make sense, but as Megan McArdle at the Washington Post pointed out earlier this year, that it’s the “everyday, noncontroversial stuff” which forms the bulk of published content. Most articles on a news site do not fall into the ‘featured article’ category. And, of course, while the Washington Post may have a data and design team on hand to render these kind of interactive experiences, many newsrooms don’t.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Last year, Jonathan Falk Systad gave a memorable talk about how VG – one of Norway’s oldest and most respected news brands – had responded to less than enthusiastic use of the site by younger readers. A 19 year old named Gur, gave a particularly blunt assessment of the newsroom: “everytime I read VG, I fall asleep”. 

The newsroom’s response was to develop a strategy on Snapchat – the platform beloved by teens and deemed completely unfathomable by many over of the age of about 30. When we caught up with Falk Systad earlier in the year, he reported Snapchat was reaching almost a quarter of a million users each day – and 30% of those were between 13 and 17.

For all its success, Falk Systad’s takeaways from the development and success of the project are noteworthy. He wasn’t particularly hung up on the platform itself: for him it was about how best to reach a certain demographic. The delivery mechanism was almost incidental. The process that he and his team went through to ensure that the platform and the content were well executed, on brand and useful to that younger generation of readers was in actuality one not unfamiliar to those studying engagement journalism elsewhere. It was all about understanding the target audience, discovering how they consumed content,  and finding a way to connect the two. 

“Snapchat will die out someday, and something else will come out of it. We have an understanding of what might work elsewhere.”

It’s too easy to get it backward: we need to be focusing on delivering content, not the delivery system itself.

And let’s not forget all these changes come at a cost…

There’s a cost implication that should be considered too.

Firstly, there’s the human cost. During what might best be described as ‘peak pivot’ in 2016, significant staff layoffs accompanied the switch to video at newsrooms such as Vox, MTV, Upworthy, Vice, Mic and Fox Sports – and those are just the ones which immediately spring to mind. 

The reason was twofold: in retooling newsrooms to follow the perceived trajectory of consumer behavior, it became too expensive to retain staff trained conventional reporting. At the same time, the cost of implementing a new approach was – to put it bluntly – pricey as hell.

We’re not just talking the much-discussed pivot to video here: there are newsrooms who are still coming to terms with the pivot to digital. For local newsrooms, typically already financially stretched and hemorrhaging staff, the transition online has not been the success story of those international publications with both a larger pocket book and reach. 

So, when publications adopt a radical change of some kind, how successful that change is doesn’t just rest with how long a particular approach stays in vogue. It’s a question of whether investment in those newsrooms will cover the considerable financial burden those changes necessitate.

The solution may be uncomplicated

Economics of course play a major part in this: it would be daft to infer that all this pivoting from one idea to the next was just for fun. It isn’t. Ends must be met.

“The industry has tried – oh, how it has tried!” said McArdle in that article “to win back capitalism’s affections, with more makeovers than a Hollywood starlet”.

But, that stabilizing force was there all along: it was the audience itself.

In last year’s Nieman Lab prediction, Hearken opined that 2019 would be the year when “newsrooms stop pivoting to formats and platforms and start building relationships for the future”.

We may not be quite there yet in terms, but the conversations seem certainly heading in that direction. “This isn’t a pivot,” said those good folk at Hearken. “It’s the rediscovery of the force that drove us to J School many years ago: the commitment to inform the public about their world so they can fully participate in and understand it.”

The pivot they refer to is one which pulls focus back to people, and that’s the key. Engagement journalism and solutions journalism are two ideas and practices which have been sparking much conversation recently, and with good reason. Finding ways to actively connect with your readership through pre-publication initiatives is a great idea – where it’s possible to do so.

But, it’s not just relevant to engagement or solutions operations. All newsrooms should be able to be able to apply this idea – and they can. 

The digital newsroom has access to data. Lots and lots of data. When publications got access to the first metrics, they started to optimize around the insights those metrics revealed, never mind that they weren’t the most useful measures to structure your organization around.

The industry was quick to become enslaved to volume, but – to quote Hearken again – “as digital bubbles based on illusory metrics begin to burst, the organizations that have put in the unsexy but necessary groundwork to directly understand and serve their audiences are reaping rewards.”

Whoever your readers are, whatever they read – we need to ask if they’re reading and how they’re reading (or watching, or listening). That’s where having an analytics system that actually works is key. Those vanity metrics of old are about as much use as that mirror in Snow White

So the pivot is starting to look a little more circular: a little more balletic. More of a pirouette. We’ve come back round to journalism borne of shoe leather (or ballet leather, if we’re squeezing the last ounce of that metaphor). Doing the groundwork is essential, and publishing where and how it’s going to have maximum impact is key.

(And you know what? Sometimes the place it’s going to have maximum impact is in a video. But, the operative word is ‘sometimes’.)

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