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Jul 11

Do We Need to Formally Re-Define News for the Digital Era?

newspaper-mobileLike it has done in almost every aspect of our lives, technology has undoubtedly changed the way we get our news and how we engage with news. Pew’s most recent State of the Media report revealed that 65 percent of people receive their news about the presidential election from digital sources, and more people are learning about it through social media than ever before. But the delivery of news isn’t the only thing that’s changed. The types of news content produced for those platforms has also evolved as online news aggregators, satirical and alternative news sites, memes, and viral videos took the spotlight and many print newspapers died. But with all of the digital sources out there now, what exactly is “news” today anyway? And how has the answer to that question changed over the last 20 years as mobile devices, social media sharing, and online news startups became the norm?In an attempt to answer this enormous question, we tapped Nikki Usher, a media professor at the George Washington University School of Media & Public Affairs, and Gabrielle Jackson Bosché, a millennial engagement expert who started the Millennial Solution, a consulting firm based in Washington, DC.“I think news has been defined historically as something that has a timeliness to it. It’s public information intended for public consumption, that is the core of it,” said Usher, who, in her research, has observed newsrooms from traditional print newspapers and television stations to the startups like Vox and Buzzfeed. But according to Bosché, the millennial generation is looking for news that is “countercultural.” Millennials want media content that will challenge them intellectually and present a counter-narrative to the status quo, she clarified.

“Because we have so much information out there now, we are almost challenging the internet to come up with these alternative ways of thinking about something,” said Bosché, who has studied the millennial generation for the past 10 years and authored three books on millennials.

But what about eyewitness journalism, or citizen journalism – the kind of information that gets shared through those digital and social devices we now all have? Is that “news?”

Citizen journalism has always been a part of journalism, explained Usher. Just take a look at some of the Pulitzer Prize winning photos taken by ordinary citizens that date back to the pre-digital era. “Anybody anywhere can capture an event,” she said, “however, not anybody anywhere can contextualize that event.” So audiences everywhere are performing that first step of the news cycle, which is bringing people to an event by capturing it and sharing it through technology, but they aren’t necessarily able to explain the substance and meaning behind that event. That’s where journalists come in. “There’s a place for both of those things in journalism. I think you’ll see newsrooms incorporate both in sophisticated ways more and more in the future,” said Usher.

On this type of citizen journalism, Bosché had a lot to say on behalf of millennials. Since this generation prides itself on questioning traditional institutions, said Bosché, millennials are looking for that additional layer of authenticity to the news that only normal everyday people can add. In other words, the stories that will register the most, the ones that hit the top of the news feed on those social media platforms, are the personal stories BEHIND the news – the ones where ordinary people post messages and stories on their own saying ‘I was there, this is what I saw.’

As for where the news cycle is headed, Bosché thinks the eyewitness journalism trend will continue. There will be more stories under two minutes in length, and stories that are much more personalized. Bosché also added that on the other side of journalism, there will be more “underproduced” stories that we will continue to see from people who are using their phones to cover an event, providing that additional layer of accountability to journalism.

But like Usher said, the core of the news, which is to convey and contextualize information to audiences as quickly as possible, hasn’t and probably won’t change. So perhaps no formal re-definition is needed. It’s just that the diverse forms of news are now much more accessible to people, allowing for more creative and innovative ways to engage audiences in what we have always called “news.” Wherever the news cycle is headed, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that we will continue to see news become more personalized in its delivery, and diverse in content, but also more participatory in nature, which, as Bosché said, adds that layer of accountability to journalism that audiences ultimately crave.

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