Shared accountability in news organizations

In a piece for NiemanLab about Digital First Media, Ken Doctor argues that spending on technology and development is vital to being “digital first.” But I wonder if Doctor has the correct definition of that term. A journalism operation can be “digital first” and receive very little assistance from technology teams. At its core, “digital first” is a mentality about news production far more than it is an organizational imperative to spend a lot of money on software development or technology innovations.

Doctor’s analysis of “digital first” economics comes in a point about Digital First Media cutting technology staff:

While its chosen name is “Digital First” — formally attached to it when its two parts MediaNews and Journal Register combined into one company at the end of 2013 — the company has cut much of its technology staffing and development vital to being “digital first.”

All “digital first” has ever meant to me is that a news story goes live on digital platforms — the website and mobile apps — as soon as it’s ready, and updates are made to the digital story as they occur. This is good service to readers, it’s good journalism, and it’s not even that big of a problem for the nightly print run. The print process runs on its regular schedule and might involve cutting text for space and rewriting the headline. A magazine published on Medium and laid out in InDesign could meet this definition and involve no technology teams whatsoever. Ten years ago, the resistance to this process from the newsroom was a romantic notion of breaking news in print — this objection has waned to near extinction. Rather, the primary resistance now seems to be to the tools given to journalists to publish to the internet, which too often are overwrought castles of dropdowns and checkboxes.

The misunderstanding of this urgent imperative has led to massive land grabs by technology organizations who encourage the perception of “digital first” as an expensive and complex endeavor requiring a great many programmers to enact. This benefits vendors, who sell expensive all-in-one systems that print newspapers and run websites; it also benefits internal technology teams at news organizations, who use the crisis to justify great expenditures in product development and technology teams.

That’s the fundamental problem with Doctor’s assessment. Doctor’s prescription seems at odds with Clay Shirky’s succinct and in my view, entirely correct assessment  of the industry: “The most valuable long-term dollar to an organization with declining revenues is a dollar you don’t spend.” Considering the comparative cost of speculative technology projects versus core news-gathering activities, I do not think Shirky means to exclude technology teams from his advice. In fact, I assume he means to encourage the streamlining of every part of a news organization.

Finally, a digital first process yields a certain paradox, which is at the core of most news organizations’ struggles: if the website is authoritative, updated frequently (better for the reader, and better for the planet) and the newspaper is just a printed side effect of the website, why do print revenues exceed digital revenues at most print news organizations by such a great deal? The most efficient, smartest method of producing both products must be employed throughout the organization. A true “digital first” business claims that distinction from the order of its delivered product, not the order of its budgetary lines.

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