Moving from print to cyberspace

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
This is a story of culture shock and the realization that the next generation is taking over

Marites Dañguilan VitugThis is a story of jarring adjustments, sometimes intimidating change and, ultimately, survival.  

It’s also a personal story with an element of culture shock and the realization that the next generation is taking over. As we baby boomers or mid-lifers know, today’s daily multimedia journalism in the Internet is for the young. It demands a lot of energy and agility. 

My story of change begins in 2007 when the bi-monthly hard-copy magazine I was editing, Newsbreak, folded up. After six years, first as a weekly and then a bi-monthly, we were not earning enough from advertising and grants to support us.

We decided to move online and become a magazine on the Web. That took out the huge printing and distribution costs. It was such a relief to run a publication with much less.

The tricky part was navigating the online world. Newsbreak, as a print magazine, carried in-depth stories every two weeks. In cyberspace, two weeks without any new uploads seemed like eternity, as if a vast, empty space was always crying for content. 

We decided to run short pieces and breaking news in between the long-form stories. We limited our coverage of breaking news to what we considered important issues in politics and government. We had to make this choice because we didn’t have enough people to do on-the-ground reporting covering the major beats.

Sometimes, we asked ourselves: were we diluting our content with the spot stories? Our reporters felt they were being stretched writing investigative stuff and breaking news. This was all part of our adjustment, coming from the old world of print magazine to the new world of cyberspace.

But we all knew that we would lose online readers if we didn’t offer anything new at least every other day. At the time, many of our print readers followed us online. The good news was: we gained a new set of audience, young readers, children of the Internet age. Never in our seven-year print history did we reach as many readers as we did when we were online.   

But we were not getting advertising for our website. At the time, online advertising went to the biggies.

Sustainability?

Till today, the online news world is still faced with this vexing situation. How do news websites survive and sustain themselves when most of the advertising still goes to traditional media, mainly TV?

We’re seeing experiments taking place. Smaller online newsrooms in the US are entering into partnerships with universities which host them to reduce operational cost. Some websites are charging for content. 

Media organizations are partnering with each other, for example, online and TV platforms, to share cost and reach a wider audience. Production costs are plummeting because of advances in technology and this has made multi-platform reporting more accessible.

In the US, philanthropy is robust thus grants and donations keep some online news organizations alive such as Propublica.

In Thailand, the Bangkok Post has survived—and made profits—by staying mainly in print. It publishes 12 titles, both newspapers and magazines.

Year of the zombie

But back to my story. To keep the Newsbreak website going, we embarked on an experiment. We decided to partner with a huge news organization, ABS-CBN, to run its Website, abs-cbnnews.com.  

I became editor-in-chief of abs-cbnnews.com. This was life-changing. 

I went through a culture shock as I was unprepared for the speed of work, the pace at which we had to feed the hungry beast that is cyberspace. The job was 24/7. Wherever I was, I was connected, always checking the Website for news we missed or got first as well as grammatical errors.

I could hardly leave the newsroom to meet up with sources or attend newsworthy events. I was glued to my desk and computer. If not, I was in endless meetings with management and marketing. 

For a whole year, I felt like a zombie.  

During my first weeks, I questioned the stories that simply quoted an official who was interviewed by DZMM or ANC. Why were we uploading these? Wasn’t this what others, including myself, derided as “he-said, she-said” journalism? I found myself eating my words. 

To be able to live with this type of stories, the editors and I agreed to provide background and context so that the single interview would make sense. Sure, let’s break the news, be the first to do it, but we should update it to include enough substance.

At abs-cbnnews.com, I felt that yesterday’s news was forgotten and each day brought another set of news. So I always reminded myself and the editors not to lose the big picture, to see trends, to connect the dots. 

Another shock was: I was not a techie. It took me time to absorb new technology and understand, among others, what we needed to do so that our news would be the first to pop up in Google when people search for certain subjects. New terms flooded my mind and all these were abstract to me. Thankfully, we had an editor who was excellent in blending technology and content.

There was also the fixation with metrics. Readership on the Web is highly event-driven. The number of views and hits usually go up during disasters, elections, scandals. While the metrics guided editors, we were careful not to be solely influenced by this in our choice of news. So while many read our entertainment stories, we continued to give attention to the lesser read stuff like politics and science.

As a former New York Times editor once said, the news organization is not American Idol.   

‘Churnalism’

Some say that the Internet encourages “churnalism”—because the news websites are under pressure to churn out news, like an assembly line of sausages. They miss out on the news gathering.  

Online multimedia reporters tweet, interview news sources on camera, write breaking news, and update it with video. Often, there is no time to really gather the news, to talk to people and reflect on the story.

Newspaper reporters and editors have the luxury of time—compared to the Web—and do thoughtful journalism. 

Let me end with this challenge to my colleagues in the print medium. Newspapers have a tougher job to do. They need to go a step further, beyond breaking news to news analysis and in-depth stories. The Internet already tells us the news by the minute, by the hour. 

The newspapers will do a great service to the public by making sense of all these events. – Rappler.com

(These are excerpts from the author’s remarks during the panel discussion on newspapers in the digital age at the Philippine Press Institute’s annual forum on June 14.)