In the run-up to the Digital Identities workshops in India, Irene and Surabhi reflect on digital-first trends in journalism and the importance of good storytelling. Click here to find out more about the workshop series powered by Google News Initiative.
Hi Irene and Surabhi, please tell us a bit about yourselves.
[IJL] I’m the News Lab lead for Asia Pacific and have been in this role for just over a year. Prior to joining Google, I’ve had stints at several news organisations, including Reuters and the South China Morning Post. I’ve spent the better part of my life bouncing between the U.S. and Asia, which suits my role – to communicate the diversity of the news and media landscape in APAC to our counterparts in the US and Europe.
[SM] I’m the Teaching Fellow for Google News Lab in India. I help journalists know how technology can empower them and help them do their work with far more ease and impact. Innovation in storytelling has always been very close to my heart, and that is exactly what I now help journalists with. That’s my tiny bit in the evolution of digital journalism in the country. Prior to this role, I have spent over a decade as a digital journalist working for newsrooms such as NDTV and the Times of India.
How would you describe the latest wave of digitalisation in India and APAC?
[IJL] The APAC view is not just one view. We’re talking about markets like Australia, which are very similar to the West, to countries like Japan, where print still thrives. Countries like India and Indonesia are undergoing a transition between these two models. I see a real hunger for change in these markets. There is a lot of room for experimentation in storytelling and how technology can be used. In some cases we are seeing real leaps in innovation.
[SM] From digital being seen as a ‘poor cousin’ of any legacy media to the current era of digital first, online journalism has come a long way in India. And it is here to stay! Having said that, print, broadcast and radio still remain very vital. An ideal scenario will be when all of these media converge – convergence in its true sense. But we must not forget that evolution of digital has been very fast-paced. Tools that were popular just a couple of years ago are now seen as dated. There is, hence, a constant need for all journalists – hyperlocal, regional and national – to adopt new trends and upskill themselves digitally.
You talk about experiments and transition, what does this look like in practice?
[IJL] An experiment is just the starting point of a process where you identify a problem or opportunity, and then work to bridge the gap, sometimes with new technology, sometimes with a novel application of an existing tool. Take podcasting as an example. Radio has been around for over a century and it continues to be a vital source of information, especially in rural communities. For a while it was seen as this very serious medium and the notion of entertainment and stories took a backseat. I feel podcasting is creating a new intimacy with storytelling. It’s also a multi-platform extension of radio – you can play it any time, anywhere, and in the process, reach out to a wider audience.
[SM] An experiment, to me, is trying an ‘out-of-the-box’ idea and believing in it. It’s about choosing the unusual over the usual and taking a leap of faith. From the perspective of storytelling, it’s about choosing unique means / methods / strategy to inform your audience, hook their attention and to strike a chord. New storytelling formats help you do exactly that. They can help you revive interest on key issues that have been reported on for so long, they are like white noise on social media. Take new technologies like VR and 360 videos for example – stories told using these formats have far more impact and the message is likely to stay with the viewer for long.
How would you describe a digital-first journalist?
[IJL] Digital is what we live in. We’re at a point where it’s hard to imagine how journalism can exist without a computer. But if you narrowly define this transition to a focus on data science, algorithms and machine learning, then digital becomes this separate, alienating entity, devoid of the humanity that is such a central part of journalism. What makes a journalist a journalist is the skeptical mindset. The core skill-sets are the same; it’s just the tools that have changed. There is a very human element to storytelling that cannot be replaced. We need to find ways to contextualise these new technologies. We need to stop being reactive and instead, proactively innovate.
[SM] I agree, it has to be journalism first! Digital is here to empower and help foster more impactful journalism, especially at the present moment when we have so many more means to tell stories. There are many core skills that we cannot afford to lose. These need to be translated into digital-first approaches. Many senior journalists have realised this and have embraced digital to tell more impactful stories. Take verification for example – it is the same as investigative journalism practised on the web with the use of digital tools. I really hope we soon witness a time when these lines dividing print / broadcast / radio from digital fade away. That would be an ideal scenario.
Let’s move on to storytelling. What does it mean to you?
[IJL] News organisations once had a monopoly on non-fiction content; that’s no longer the case. Anyone can do journalistic work and write analysis. At the end of the day, there’s a real skill involved in telling a good story. It’s about holding a person’s attention and making them think outside of themselves for a moment.
[SM] Storytelling is making others relate to an idea that you want to share with them. It’s about equipping your audience with info they should have known but are likely to miss. Capturing a complex thought in a way that it creates an emotional connect – that is what storytelling is about.
We’re returning to India with an expanded 3-city Digital Identities programme. What do you expect will emerge for this round of workshops?
[IJL] There’s a lot of agreement about the problems and opportunities in journalism. We need people to start thinking in a different way, which is why we support programmes like Digital Identities. The workshop is a way of encouraging journalists to step away from the relentless pressure of feeding the beast and take a moment to think and reflect.
[SM] I’m excited about these workshops. Once again, we’re going to have a roomful of really bright people who are passionate about what they do. The workshop will give them a new perspective to experiment with their process and make their work more impactful. It’s also a great opportunity to learn from their peers. Like the session in Delhi last year, I hope we’ll have frank discussions and powerful experiments will emerge.
Thank you Surabhi and Irene.
See you at the workshops.
This edition of Digital Identities is inspired by the experiments conducted by our previous participants. Since 2016, we’ve engaged more than one hundred and fifty journalists from eight countries, many of whom have conducted radical experiments and produced powerful stories. From Canada to India, these stories have been published on platforms that have a combined reach of a 100 million and they continue to inspire national conversations on issues such as gender, integration and politics. The workshop is free, but as space is limited it is essential to RSVP. We encourage participants to come with story ideas. A maximum of four employees per organisation can take part. Click here for more information and to register a free place.