After 12 years teaching on a traditional module driven journalism course, and a career in an assortment of journalism outfits since 1987, from TV: Newsnight, Channel 4 News; radio, BBC WS; online, reactive.net and start-ups, my colleagues and I have embarked upon an exciting new programme, The Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB.
Whilst I could have innovated within the journalism paradigm, it would have been limiting, at least in current trends, from reminiscing as far back as 10 years ago when I stood at the lectern of the US’s most revered journalism club, the National Press Club and accepted an award for Innovation in Journalism.[Video here].
Back then, I dreamt of dis-collapsing television, radio and online with interactivity and broader forms of storytelling, which caught Apple’s attention leading to a double-spread article on their corporate site and invitations to speak at their store ( three visits thus far — the last a year and half ago).
Of course, Twitter et al had yet to arrive. Yet I knew that traditional and even unfolding journalism was under severe strain in several ways. I knew that because almost ten years earlier I had been one of the UK’s thirty lucky young journalists to launch videojournalism and thus disrupt the industry. A legacy today that has resulted in some of the UK’s most talented doc makers, authors and radio producers.
I have done lots of innovation and disruptions since and to borrow a line from Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, journalism is masking some pretty serious ailments.
Firstly, traditional journalism couldn’t visibly justify some of the antiquated, so called rules that hemmed it in for many years. This is structural, more than anything else. Why broadcasters approach journalism the way they do has it answers back in the 1950s and the commercialism of information.
Just as you don’t question how a car door opens because, well, it’s natural, journalism seems natural too. But it isn’t; it’s a construct made by powerful people who decided how it would be and then exported it to the world and, just like Hollywood, have made a lot of money. In my piece on newspapers I illustrate how tabloid journalism arose as a way of controlling the working class.
That form has then gone on to teach the next generations. It’s like teaching a generation poker, whilst you’re holding a bad hand, but bluffing it all the while. No one else knows until years of suspicion are confirmed.
Whilst it’s interesting that in film making, a director approaches her task thinking through the appropriate methods, approaches and equipment to tell a story — and will often experiment to get to that place — journalism would have you convinced there’s only one reality (I’m not suggesting there isn’t critical thinking). Hence, because of obsolescence and marketing, practices, for reasons that don’t always square, become eliminative.
I love mojo; its practice emerged from videojournalism — the art of one person being the author of their movie. In effect they are one and the same and many mobile journalists either called themselves videojournalists or are practitioners. However, there are differences born out of the tech workflow. Yes, you need to wrap your head around apps and learn a skill set that lets you upload content as it happens, and that’s a boon to storytelling, but it is not the holy grail in story form methodical deliverables. On the contrary there’s a whole other ecosystem that mobile serves e.g. platform n’ all. A mate of mine ilicco elia is best placed to chat about this.
Journalism at its best within great storytelling is nuanced. Hence, just as a film director uses different approaches/frames/styles to tell a story, or different tones, so should an adept video or mobile journalist — cameras for courses. Ultimately, it’s not about the equipment but the ideas that postulate story forms, and as I have shown, we’re yet to reach a structural framing style that gives mobile stories uniqueness.
Elsewhere, it’s been in the last ten years in particular that structural forms to storytelling are being challenged. Journalists in some of the most talked about outfits, such as Buzzfeed, The Atlantic or Vice.com are innovating with structure, form and style. I write here why Vice.com is seen as fresh, innovative, authentic and accessible.
Of course mainstream media, understanding their own relevance and shelf life to be under threat, have sought to cannibalise on innovations, incorporating what they want to effectively still keep their structure and methods in tact.
It’s been a feature they’ve repeated throughout broadcast history from lifting the idea of showing plays on television, to children’s programmes, to co-opting videojournalism to present tech practices. This isn’t a complaint against their practices, it’s pointing out how hegemonic industries work and thus maintain the status quo — even when it appears to be broken. If you’ve not watched Jon Snow’s MacTaggart Lecture, he makes a profound point about mainstream media’s systematic failures
Ed Miliband MP called it when referring to Murdoch’s bid for Sky news stating impartiality rules that guide broadcasters are inadequate.
Our broadcasting code is not enough protection because its impartiality rules can’t take account of story selection, tone or prominence. And an aggressive media owner can push the limits.
By that same measure mainstream still chooses the agenda, sets about its structure, formulates its tone and hence perpetuates the discourse that affects a line of thinking.
Secondly, traditional journalism is still wedded to mainstream media as a supply route for talent, which is superb, but there are huge bottlenecks in employment in those industries, in which gradually automated operations are taking over.
The BBC, CNN and ITN — main employers of broadcast journalists, can only accommodate so many emerging journalists, whilst there is a much larger ecosystem now, courtesy of digital out there. Linkedin’s job pages are a veritable gold mine for communication and journalism offerings, from an array of newer online and brick businesses.
Thirdly, many, if not all, journalism cites its uses of critical thinking, but this critical thinking is rooted to paradigms framed in a generational journalism. In Changing Journalism, its authors Peter Lee-Wright, Angela Phillips, and Tamara Witschge say the following about my critique of the status quo
There is a firm reason why squirrels or dead cats as they’re known in the UK and Australia continually floor journalists. Journalism pretends emotions, empathy and memory, has little to do with its products. You couldn’t peddle a bigger lie, and in ignoring this they’ll forever be on the ropes when PR strikes, or Trump that deflects previous interests on himself by masking the focus with new bait (squirrels).
Hence, we need a new model of learning that provides the freedom to innovate, not necessarily by iterations that journalism practice is built upon — a series of small incrementals — but changes that reflect culture, diversity and societal changes — what professor Brian Winston frames as supervening necessities.
THINGS BEING WORKING ON AT THE LAB
The LAB has been set up for that. Whilst journalism outfits will study news and docs, we’re studying 10 plus different styles of storytelling — which will equip cohorts through meta critical thinking ensuring they know when and where they may deploy different strategies.
But the LAB benefits from a far wider and deeper approach. Framed by modules as foundations, it can respond or activate its own findings. It can lead where technology has often done so dragging the weight of reluctant journalism behind it.
It can innovate beyond the confines of a storytelling form (trad journalism) which is but one of many narratives. And for that reason, on our course, we’re setting up journalists with city-based entrepreneurs, we’re being aided by experts who’ve worked in Silicon Valley with alliances to formidable storytelling outfits like Pixar, we’re getting support from AI figures, and award winning filmmakers.
We are equipping this generation with both the knowledge and skills to see beyond the broken status quo, where a practical understanding of diversity is not a thin veil worn for convenience, where knowledge is built from the ground upwards and can be encoded appropriately and where tech is an adjunct alongside our propensity for storytelling rather than a drug we feel we need to service.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah leads the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster. He is an international award winning innovator in journalism and videojournalism and behind the movement Cinema Journalism. This year he has been nominated as the Asper Visiting Professor 2017–2018 at University of British Columbia School of Journalism. He publishes viewmagazine.tv and is designated a top writer in journalism on @medium .