Basile Simon (blog) Data, hackery, stories

On new journalism formats

When it comes to technology, it would be unjust to call myself an old man. I’ve got positively no idea what the old days of the internet were like, if I’m honest, and my first experiences online were already with 56 kbps modems and virus-ridden flash games to download - provided you weren’t in too much of a hurry.

However, I’m not a kid either. I mean, my cousin who can’t read knows how to download an app on his dad’s iPhone (and to type his iTunes password as well) and I remember him operating the DVD player, and later the family’s NAS to get his Sunday dose of Winnie the Pooh.

So when it comes to The Web, I’m sort of in-between: too young to know about how things came to be, but just a bit too old to having been brought to the world on Twitter or Facebook.

And now, the news

However, when I look at news websites, I see the same old stuff everywhere. Everything seems oddly standard - standardised, even. Like the custard you can buy in preserves, these news websites have many different brandings applied to them - but they remain the same distasteful recipe.

I’m not even talking about the news themselves and the massive dominance of the mainstream over independent, topical, and local news, I’m just referring to the delivery of the news.

Many news publishers across the industry are worried about the web. When you hear such a conversation, you’re not looking at spotting a Godwin point, but the Analytics point. Because at some point, within minutes, the curtain will fall and, behold, for you will see the God of Traffic: the drive of journalists, editors, and executives across the mainstream media.

The obsession of knowing how many thousands or millions of people your words reached for some; the constant anxiety of the rankings and the unique browsers competition for the others.

Assuming such a thing is a priority - and that is not a minor assumption -, the industry begins its quest to the Holy Grail of the internets: the Google Juice. And thus come in as clues the imperatives of SEO, and thus changes the website, the headlines, and often, the coverage itself.

The aggregating machine is in place: a classic front-page which does many things, articles that all look the same, and an endless collection of stock images - because what’s a 500-word article about the latest hack of a government without Matrix-like green zeros and ones floating over a bloke in a hoodie typing on a laptop which screen casts its blue light on his fingers?

Every once in a while, however, the people of the internet get a breather. Powerful photo-journalism, such as the New York Times’ coverage of last summer’s Israeli offensive in Gaza; bonkers design of a gigantic piece of writing and knowledge, such as the instant classic “What is Code?” from Paul Ford and Bloomberg; Twitter founder’s Medium pieces when they hit the web; a powerful data-led presentation of America’s problem with police and Blacks, such as The Guardian’s The Counted project.

Among these traditional news publishers I mentioned earlier is obviously the BBC. Its news website, the most trusted in the world, is a model of what is done today on the market. Despite the fact that it underwent massive changes recently (with a switch to a single responsive version instead of a desktop and a mobile ones), Twitter mocked the old beeb by posting screenshots of the website in 2001 and in 2015… observing the nearly identical layouts. IT should be noted though that, despite a quite discreet redesign, the changes made by the Online team to the website are indeed massive, changing the whole architecture behind-the-scenes, and paving the way for awesome things to come.

The importance of this website, its size, and dare I say its legacy, make it almost impossible to reinvent the wheel on the domain. By this, I mean that the BBC website is not going to look like Quartz any time soon.

The mission: “the most innovative company in the world”

However, the BBC is on a mission. On a public service mission. As it receives the trust of the public as well as the precious taxpayer’s money, it stands for something, expressed in our six Values that we love to remind people and ourselves about (they are printed on the back of the staff ID cards, by the way).

Many a survey has proven that BBC staff take an immense pride working for this institution and in their job driven by these values.

I personally do, and my view is that the public and the web deserve better - or at least, some variety, something different. The good news is that the BBC employs many, many very talented people, and that they’re way ahead of me. Let’s just mention BBC NewsBeat for young audiences, BBC Taster to try on such innovative ways to do news or drama, and BBC Magazine’s small steps towards more interesting designs of its reports.

I’ll do my part in and from News Labs, where I’m going to focus more on the New Journalism Formats strand, which hopefully is self-explanatory.

I say “hopefully” because I suspect there are more possibilities around here than faces Rowan Atkinson can pull. And the spectrum of technologies we’re looking at (from VR to structured journalism) is so broad that I can’t wait to get some stories in.