News flash! Old school journalists are having to make way for the new wave of digital copywriters

When I reflect back to when I was a freelance journalist working in print, I feel acutely nostalgic. Not in the sense that I was roving reporter during the days of a stumpy pencil behind my ear, trusty pad in one hand and an insipid coffee in the other (I’m nether old enough or fortunate enough to experience such vintage journalism); what I mean is it feels like an eon ago that I was an actual “journalist” – This, might I add, was only up until three years ago, so I am still happy, if not proud, to call myself one – the only problem is now the occupation is gradually dispersing; evaporating into the clouds of distant memories where a storm is brewing. A storm that has sparked a thunderous debate about the future of journalism, and more pertinently, news reporting.

After reading an engaging article on the Brand Republic website this week entitled “Are online publishers just Digital Windsocks?” by Dan Leahul, about an Association of Online Publishers (AOP) forum rounding up an adept panel to discuss the “editorial impact of SEO and to look at what the future for news production might be,” I began to really question the future of conventional reporting. In addition to this potential heavyweight polemic, they were also considering whether journalists can adapt to the pace of SEO and would the end result be the extinction of quality journalism altogether?

Even if you’re reading this not through the eyes of a writer/copywriter/journalism, or general wordsmith, you’ll surely agree that these are big questions that require immediate answers. If not for the sanctity of the profession and the deep foundations it’s built upon.

Leading the discussing was Andrew Currah, a renowned lecturer for Reuters Institute of Journalism at Oxford University, whose book “What’s happening to our news?” focuses on journalism in the digital age and introduced the concept of a “Digital Windsock” – where publishers follow the audience and the substantial advertising revenue at stake, in turn severely affecting the quality of the content.

Currah explained: “Now there is a focus to accumulate attention around news to build advertising revenue. Publishers are chasing clicks, but have no clear sense of how much the digital audience is worth or when digital revenues will recoup the costs of multimedia integration.” Interestingly, commercial news traffic has clearly become more fickle and less committal by entering through “side door” of websites and then vacating within a few minutes.

Here’s another news flash: In the UK, 30% of time spent online is on 10 URLs or less, none of these are commercial news sites. I can say right now that this statistic doesn’t include me, but this is possibly indicative of the style and tone of content that is preferred and the amount of the time the user intends to spend reading it.

Currah then added: “New forms of reading are emerging. People now power browse, looking horizontally through titles and a few lines down the left side of the content, scouring for anything of interest, before moving on. Publishers are now frequently looking towards experimental methods to take advantage of the user “click stream”, some even turning to neuroscience to measure the subconscious foundations of the web user.”

There goes my comment that online journalism isn’t science, but hey, maybe this is the direction the profession is heading. We all know there is an art to writing, so is it time to introduce it to science? The Web provides an infinite space, our Universe if you like, that we occupy as indeterminate specks, so incorporating a rational scientific approach could be one solution. Freud believed that psychoanalysis needed to be grounded on the natural functions of the brain, psychoanalytic and neuroscientific approaches to the study of mind have kept their distance for the better part of the twentieth century, but could be an interesting application to a modern web user.

Currah then continued with a warning: “A dark side to the innovation and the pursuit of clicks, such as what happens to quality when content is shaped for the digital crowd, will new techniques like SEO lead to softening of the news agenda and will publishers continue to funnel resources into keywords instead of news breaking content?”

If it is true that the reader is now attracted to newsworthy and quirky content, then clicks can act as a reliable judge between “interest versus boredom” and could ultimately reshape the way editorial teams think and work.

I still believe (in my humble opinion, of course) that the reader will always demand high quality, well-executed content, irrespective of the site they are visiting. It is the person who writes this content, whether for a reputable news site, blog or forum that clearly has to adapt to the evolution of digital content. Maybe I can no longer call myself a journalist; maybe as a digital copywriter my role fortunately provides me with all the necessary skills to survive in such a competitive and advancing profession. Print certainly isn’t dead, but it’s long live web copy…

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