In the Social Media Age, Journalists Ditch Breaking News for Longform

By Aurora Almalvez August 4th, 2014

Journalists are already a competitive bunch, elbowing each other for stories as we grasp for work in a crowded field surviving on a shrinking pot of funding. So when Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at Columbia University’s School of Journalism said, “Our competition is the audience. Everyone now is a journalist,” it’s about the last thing anyone wanted to hear.

For years, Coronel headed up the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia. She was a stringer for The New York Times in her native Philippines and has covered insurgencies, dictatorships, and revolutions since the 1970s. She’s racked up awards and founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the first investigative journalism organization in the developing world.

Coronel doesn’t mean any guy off the street can tuck a press pass into his hat, chomp on a cigar, and start collecting paychecks from the Times. But she does point out that the traditional roles of a journalist, like informing the public, verifying facts, and reporting on events, are now being done by non-professionals too.

In the last blink of an eye, social media has certainly become a formidable force in how news gets to the audience. But it plays another, important role in redefining how we work as professional journalists. While investigating the corruption of ousted Philippine president Joseph Estrada, Coronel sat in her car, staking out Estrada’s house for proof of unexplained riches. Now, a passing bystander can whip out a phone, snap a photo of a suspicious Maserati pulling out of a driveway, and post it on Twitter.

We work in a world where TIME put an Instagram photo on the cover of its magazine a few years ago. With social media, the story is already out there before a journalist can make a buck off of it. Coronel suggests journalists now must rely on creating meaning from this avalanche of information: “Despite this greater access to data and information, it doesn’t necessarily translate to greater understanding. So there is no information gap; there is an understanding gap.”

This opens up an opportunities for journalists to hone the skills that fill this “understanding gap.” And as journalists struggle to find footing on more traditional fronts, there has been a spike in innovations and new niches for professional journalists.

BuzzFeed, a trailblazer for blurring the lines between professional journalists and professional pop-culture listicle auteurs, took the otherwise meaningless and selfie-heavy Instagram account of a soldier and used it to suggest that Russia was covertly operating in the Ukraine.

BuzzFeed’s Longform vertical, which was launched with a combination of skepticism, surprise and fanfare (and even a bit of hope), has tackled human traffickingmurder, and the history of TMZ. The stories all draw on real shoe-leather reporting and narrative writing skills that go far beyond what someone can capture on an iPhone or cull from an internet search and post to Twitter.

Narratively, which launched in 2012, also avoids breaking news in favor of longform pieces, many of which are written by freelancersThe Atavist publishes longform stories that are long enough to be classified as e-books. Outlets like This American Life have used radio storytelling to investigate subjects like school violence, such as in their two-part, award-winning story on Harper High School. And investigative organizations like ProPublica and the Center of Investigative Reporting have been around for years, taking anecdotal experiences from individuals, like the burden of an undergraduate student loan, and crunching data to produce meaningful patterns policy makers can act on.

So, clearly, opportunities are out there. There are plenty of ways to keep an edge over the social media savvy. But journalists now need to use those opportunities to close the understanding gap that comes from understanding news, not just breaking it.

“We are now in the midst of a technological revolution. This revolution is a global one,” Coronel said. “This revolution consists of redefining what journalism is, who is a journalist, what a story is, how it can be told, what are the sources of information, and how the information can be disseminated.”

Image by Lee Jin-man
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