Newsgathering: Everything you know is wrong (well, almost)

It really does feel like a revolution here at the BBC: Later this month – 21 April – the biggest multimedia newsroom in the world opens for business.

Like all revolutions, some of the elements are already moving into place – the new mammoth role of ‘multimedia editor”, for example. Nor will April’s big bang be the end of things. Anyone who thinks they know what the ideal newsroom will be like in a year’s time is fooling themself.

But the revolution – the latest revolution, anyway – is here and journalists at all levels are starting to wonder what it means for them. Or in our case, what it means to teach what converged, multimedia, mulitplatform news looks like to journalists who have spent their careers as radio, TV and online journalists, presiding over summaries, bulletins, programmes and deadlines.

It’s not about the technical skills. The head of the new newsroom, Peter Horrocks, is absolutely clear about that: ‘I still would put the journalism and an awareness of the audience first – if you haven’t got those, technical skills won’t matter,’he said recently.

And he argues that journalists will embrace the technology as they become excited about new editorial opportunities, ‘after you’ve got the journalism right in the first place and adapted your journalism to an audience-focused view of the world”.

Teaching these new journalistic possibilities – and unteaching the old – is the real challenge.

Correspondents, editors and producers are familiar with the questions that drove old journalism: ‘What’s the headline?”What’s the new angle?”Will it grab my audience?”What’s the deadline?’And of course, in the traditional model, once it’s gone, it’s gone. Tomorrow’s another day.

‘New’newsroom

Well, ‘audience focus’means understanding how your stories will play with a range of audiences with a range of interests who come to their news in a variety of ways. Online, on their mobile, from their armchair.

It won’t be enough to focus on just one part of the audience, its needs and preferences. The good ‘new newsroom’journalists will see a range of possibilities in every story – and which version will work best where.

The big thing to learn, though, is that the life of any story becomes almost infinite, starting as an SMS or alert, moving through the update, the mobile story and the ‘full story”, becoming absorbed, in time, into the ever-shifting deep background. It’s the end of ‘fire and forget”.

Indeed, the idea of ‘the story’becomes meaningless – a learning-challenge-and-a-half when ‘the story’has been journalists’ major currency.

The thing is, ‘the story’is defined by an output deadline: ‘What can we find out and illustrate in the time we’ve got left?’There never was anything special about that particular iteration of those facts and that illustration, though we became very good at creating the illusion that there was.

And with ‘the story’goes the idea of an account being ‘complete enough’to put to air (why stop there?), of the fine balance of voices (there’ll always be another nuance, another voice) and the 24-hour-news cycle (whose 24 hours?).

It all has to be unlearnt. In its place one of the more-mature web maxims: ‘Nothing is ever finished; it’s just the latest version”. What was that about permanent revolution?

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