Facing Journalism's Digital Future
Emily Bell’s career in journalism over the past 20 years has tracked the industry’s trajectory.
Joining London’s Observer as a print reporter newly graduated from Christ Church, Oxford University, the British-born Bell spent her first decade in the field writing, and later editing, stories about the business of media, technology and marketing. “My first love was written journalism,” she said, adding that “writing about television from a business perspective is what first led me in the 1990s to become interested in the Internet and its possibilities.”
In 2000, the Guardian newspaper (which had bought the Observer) encouraged her to jump to its online division. “People did actually think I was crazy at that time to leave a settled job on a national newspaper, but it was so compelling to think how you could experiment and do new things,” she said.
As editor-in-chief of Guardian.co.uk, Bell became one of the world’s foremost authorities on online news and information, turning the website into one of the most successful and widely read news portals in the world, with 37 million unique users, according to Britain’s independent ABC, which measures media performance. She later became director of digital content for Guardian News & Media. “That was the post that I held when I got a call from Columbia saying, ‘Have you seen this job? Are you interested?’”
The school was looking for a director for its Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which was founded in January with a mandate to teach and study digital journalism and emerging media. It was established with $15 million in funding, a third from the Tow Foundation and the rest from 10 individual donors.
As the center’s first director, Bell will teach graduate students, collaborate with and study news organizations, and oversee original scholarly research on issues surrounding digital journalism. She also will help oversee the new dual-degree Master of Science Program in Computer Science and Journalism with Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.
“I think that the Tow Center really wants to be the place where journalists and technologists meet and talk, and where we can experiment with ideas and facilitate a conversation about how this changing world is impacting journalism and how journalism will develop,” she said.
Q. You have print experience and you have online experience. What are the major differences between the two?
In the early days of the Web, what you were doing was an amplification of print. There was very little interactivity with users, you had flat text, and you had still photography. Today, the complexities of managing an online newsroom involve choices in the ways to tell your story. There is something about managing journalism in real time that’s different from a culture which prints once a day. In a live production environment, you have people who have to be quite open about what they’re doing. When you’re protecting stories for a print deadline, it leads you to a very different mentality about protecting exclusivity. The second difference is the skill set of the people involved—not just the journalists and graphic designers you might have on a newspaper, but technologists who come up with creative and journalistic solutions to problems. The third difference is an enormous one: You have an audience that talks back to you directly on a one-to-one basis, and that’s a real paradigm shift for print journalists.
Q. Do you think an M.B.A education is now required to run a news outlet successfully?
I don’t think you need an M.B.A-level education, but I do think you need a profound understanding of the business pressures and the costs and resource allocation. Even a relatively junior reporter, editor or copyeditor must know what the options are in terms of how you tell a story and how much those options cost. The number of things you can now do are almost unlimited. Do you tell it on video? On your own platform? Future Web journalists have to have a detailed understanding of the implications of the tools that they use to tell their stories, and how much those tools cost.
Q. Will the industry get to a point where people start paying for news? When?
Charging for news is a very complex question. You certainly need to have some way of paying for serious journalism, but if you want to unbundle serious journalism from the package of a newspaper, it has almost never paid for itself. You cannot support the cost of a correspondent in Iraq or Afghanistan on the advertising and the payment that you attract for their journalism; you pay for them through the property ads or travel section ads. There is this automatic and quite understandable psychological need in the news business to think that people must pay for journalism on the Web because it is valuable. Now, if you take that to its logical conclusion, you would end up with all news being paid for at the point of consumption. And I think in a democratic society that’s a highly problematic concept. Do you want to be part of a conversation which informs and supports democracy? Walling up all content takes you out of that conversation, and that’s not something that the news industry should be seeking out. Now, should parts of the news industry monetize through charging? Yes, and they already do and they will. Look at the apps business, where you have a sustainable charging model mainly because you don’t have to build it yourself.
Q. What is the future for journalism in nations where much of the population doesn’t have Internet access?
That’s a great question because I think access to journalism is just not talked about enough. I think you’re already seeing a sort of leapfrog effect in some places, like certain areas of sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, where the proliferation of news in mobile phones and simple text messaging is likely to run ahead of people buying printed newspapers. The cost of actually producing journalism is falling all the time. About 60 percent of everything that print journalists do is connected to production and distribution of a physical product. What will be interesting in developing economies is how low-cost mobile technologies take the place of physical print distribution.
Q. Can you characterize the difference between digital journalism and traditional news stories?
I used to have a phrase that I deployed at the Guardian, which I stole from our chief technology strategist, which is “being of the Web, not just on the Web.” Digital journalism is about creating a living sort of news, rather than a finished article, and that’s the key difference. If you’re just putting stories on the Web—it doesn’t mean that stories aren’t good or that people won’t read them—but there’s a fundamental difference between that and actually producing digital journalism.
Q. Much of what I see on so-called news websites is poorly researched and poorly edited. What can be done to bring a higher degree of quality to online news?
If there are online stories which are poorly researched, poorly written and poorly edited, I don’t think that’s a problem of online journalism. I think that’s a problem of journalism, full stop. We have to be frank with ourselves that the ratings, the trust ratings, for journalism are terrible. Now, at Columbia, where we’re sending out these incredibly well-trained, intelligent reporters, it’s sometimes easy to ignore the fact that there are a lot of problems around the standards of journalism. I think the first thing you need to stop is the reproduction of shoddy stuff. There’s a huge audience for instant, celebrity-driven stuff, for example, but if you look over time, a lot of the big Web audiences do actually gravitate to higher-quality content. I think that as the news business begins to realize this, it will start providing people with real-time updates without lots of instant and not particularly great articles. The analysis, the longer reported piece—a multimedia story that you tell over time, with a database—you have to produce those in a high-quality way to attract and hold an audience. To survive, journalism has to have professional standards of reporting and distributing information.
Q. What will the Tow Center be doing?
We want the Tow Center to be the place where technology and journalism meet and become properly integrated, as opposed to sitting parallel to one another. As an example, take the question of how you protect sources in the 21st century. In the digital world, we’re talking about vast numbers of sources, not just somebody that you phone up and then you keep their identity secret—this is a problem that computer scientists think about a lot. Another example is how to engage new audiences who use a number of different technological devices. It’s really hard for one skill set, the verbal tradition of storytelling, to be able to solve that. You could argue that in the late ’90s, the news business was too arrogant to look at computer science programs at places like Stanford and say, ‘These people are doing really interesting things with information, aggregation, distribution [and] that’s our business.’ There was a denial that things like Google, because it’s not a content business, could have an impact on what we do as journalists. The next generation of journalists must have an understanding of those skills, as well as the verbal tradition, and look to the technological future. I think that it’s entirely appropriate that Columbia, which has pioneered quality journalism since it was founded in 1912 with a gift from Joseph Pulitzer, is thinking about these problems in a different way.