How can we redesign newsrooms to be digital-first without losing their journalistic soul?

What is your journalism challenge? What problem are you working to solve?

I am exploring ways to strike a balance between profitability and continuing to produce relevant journalism in Latin America. Since many legacy media outlets began offering snackable and audience-guided content to chase online users, I think it is crucial to design strategies to keep the founding principles of journalism in the newsrooms — which includes in-depth reporting published on specific platforms and keeping experienced reporters on staff. Replacing the “old timers” for a digitally-oriented, younger and cheaper staff is an easy tactic to employ, but not necessary a smart one. It deprives audiences of veteran journalists’ experience and reinforces the idea that quantification (more clicks, always) reigns over the quality of your content.

How would solving this problem help journalism?

Relying completely on inexperienced staff armed with data science, algorithms and audience demand will diminish the quality of news getting to the public. To mimic only what is profitable in online news is a disaster. We can learn a lesson from the food industry, which has gradually engineered food to be popular and easily digestible. However, we have now learned that processed food made us overweight and unhealthy. Finding a balance between being profitable and keeping core journalistic principles will prevent news from being reduced to a palatable product, tailored just to please the broadest audience.

Who is tackling a similar problem and how is your approach different?

The New York Times is the best example of a smart transition from primarily print to digital. This is mainly due to the Sulzberger family — the publishers — who never considered remaking their newspaper or making concessions that would lead to lowering the quality of journalism they produce. The company recently announced that it had reached 1 million online subscribers. It is offering new ideas such as quick-read articles in parallel with great reporting. But we are talking about the biggest, richest and the best newspaper in the world. In my challenge, I want to deal with a different (and financially tighter) reality: What is happening in Brazil and in Latin America, where newsrooms are failing, journalists are losing their jobs every day and the presence of a young, inexperienced new staff is lowering the standards of news.

What are the first questions you plan to pursue?

  • How can we transfer knowledge between the old and the new generations in newsrooms?
  • How can we reverse the trend toward having audience-driven content be dominant and regain control of what we are delivering to our readers?
  • What is the balance between being profitable and keeping your soul in journalism?

What are the first steps you plan to take in working on your challenge?

Besides analyzing the most successful digital initiatives carried out by legacy media outlets, I am already in touch with Arlene Morgan of Temple University, who is leading a group in charge of helping three major U.S. newspapers become digital-first. She secured a $1.3 million grant from the Knight Foundation to achieve this goal. She has agreed to let me follow them through the first steps of the process. With this information in hand, I’ll work to design a project for my own newsroom — and medium and small outlets in Latin America that still have a weak online presence.