We’re a half hour into our interview when Mathew Ingram likens journalism to a Ford assembly line. It’s a snaking process: the separate pieces of a car are completed in dis- tinct stages by a specialized team. The name of the car may change — or, in this case, the words — but the process of putting everything together remains predictable. The visuals are a car’s coat of paint. The page lay- out, the grey interior of a Ford Focus.
Ingram is the cool dad you wish had picked you up after school. He’s soft-spoken and articulate, his vocabulary plain but intelligent, the top- ics of Facebook algorithms and search engine manipulation punctuated with the occasional “fuck.” A small hoop earring sits comfortably in his left lobe. A greying, well-maintained goatee shifts up and down with his frequent smiles. His résumé includes more than a decade at The Globe and Mail, where he was a digital-only journalist. In 2010, he departed for Gigaom, a tech blog in the United States, before finally landing at Fortune magazine in 2015.
Ingram describes a newspaper’s print process: stories begin with a pitch to or from an assignment editor. Then follow the phone calls, the interviews, and the research. Much like an assembly line, a piece is typically submitted to an editor, who takes it to a senior editor, and then to an even more senior editor, a copy editor, back to a writer, and, finally, to a display editor. “That industrialized process works really great in the moment of total chaos. You don’t want everyone to panic … when they don’t know what they’re doing. You want a process to follow,” he says. “But in non-chaotic situations, it’s actually the worst, because it smothers any kind of innovation. If you want to try an iterative approach, you can’t, because you have to go through five editors before something hits. But it’s like Ford and GM scrapping the entire assembly line that’s worked for 100 years and, all of a sudden, just putting cars together randomly. It would be fucking chaos.”
For decades, print news outlets have physically manufactured a complete product that gets shipped to newsstands daily. When the digital shift happened, our industry tended to start stu ng the same North American broadsheet page structure into a 13-inch computer screen.
Paywalls, digital subscriptions, and content now labeled as premium emerged as the industry transitioned into the digital era — new methods to get audiences to pay for traditional reporting. But, as was realized by the late-2000s, digital audiences weren’t about to pay for what had been established as typically free-to-access. Even as the business models for print decline, strategies for digital subscriptions and advertising have not generated as much revenue as print has, causing a juggling act between two separate products and only some understanding about how to make either work.
The emerging process for some news publications embodies a tight, solidi ed routine. The responsibility of finishing and polishing a story falls on one or two people, instead of five. It’s a mentality that Scott White, former editor-in-chief of the Canadian Press, has experienced. “At CP, it was usually, at the most, two editors who would touch [the story], many times one. But there was tremendous responsibility on the reporters to get shit right,” he says.
The formerly dominant print model of daily news works toward a final product that is cyclical — important until tomorrow. Events are contained within the parameters of the paper, and the end result is disposable. But in the transition to a market that generally consumes digital content first, newsworthy events are no longer tied to the physical nature of the paper. Instead, news today is a cloud of information that spreads across the Internet. Think of Facebook: millions of people discuss a single event, often without emphasis on where they first read about it.
“You open up a newspaper and engage with all of these stories and then you put the newspaper down and that’s that day’s news,” says ProPublica reporter Topher Sanders. “At ProPublica, we want you to engage with a topic for the next week-and-a-half. Even if there’s no new content coming out, there are ways for the organization to put it in fresh places and make people think about it in fresh ways.”
A significant way of handling news on a digital platform is by view- ing content as a one-stop compendium. Updating specific stories when- ever new details emerge has become a way to keep old news relevant, of treating a specific event as a compilation that readers can return to as the story develops. This is a form of iterative journalism, wherein an outlet releases multiple versions of an article as the story develops. Print publications do this with stories surrounding annual events. Digital platforms, on the other hand, have expanded these methods for a more general use. The acronym ICYMI, or “in case you missed it,” has become a common way to re-social related, evergreen content. It’s interesting, though, because these iterative resources themselves have proliferated in the digital era and, in some cases, remain static longer than print news ever did.
But the fact is that ad revenue — according to US-based statistics from the Pew Research Center — has declined substantially for print: a full 63 percent between 2003 and 2014. Digital ad revenue, meanwhile, remained steady between 2006 and 2014. After the 84-year-old magazine Newsweek was replaced by an online-only, subscription-based product in 2012 due to declining ad sales, IBT Media bought it and relaunched a more expensive print iteration in 2014, focusing less on advertising as a key factor in stabilizing the magazine’s revenue. When it relaunched, it had a circulation of 70,000 — compared to 3.4 million at its peak.
And as The Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald suggests in the Columbia Journalism Review, one of the biggest assumptions publishers have made about readers — that they prefer the immediacy of digital — has now come into question. There’s a symbiotic relationship between print and digital that’s seeing online platforms look back to print models of distribution to supplement their online content. Treated as a premium product, the music-based publication Pitchfork sold its quarterly maga- zine, The Pitchfork Review, from 2013 to 2016. Showcasing long-form features and full-page photos, it was another iteration of our human obsession with collecting things, à la vinyl.
Vice News reporter Hilary Beaumont believes that the tactile nature of print can be special. “I think it’s almost a product you would want to see on your co ee table or something you’d want to give to a friend, like a book. It’s almost more of a token, rather than something you would share on a friend’s wall,” says Beaumont.
It’s easy to forget that the digital medium has come a long way from where it began. Both the print industry and the computer screen have evolved, one much faster than the other. From the early to mid-2000s, some news outlets were focused on mirroring what was in their print edition. “It’s basically — can you replicate what you do in your traditional format into a website?” says Kenny Yum, managing editor of Huffington Post Canada. “There was no social media, it was just about a homepage, about having articles that we’ve put up, probably most likely repurposed from what your core product was, whether it was print or broadcast or whatever.” Back then, readers had 15 different bookmarked websites, each categorized by interest, that they visited every day. But Yum focuses on the last four to five years, when Facebook and Twitter drive our media consumption. “2016 versus 2000, the contrast is very stark — because if you talk to a newspaper reporter and they publish something, they’ll probably tweet it out first,” Yum says. “Sixteen years ago, there was no Twitter or Facebook, so social media accelerated how journalists of all stripes could be involved in live newsmaking. That was the first compelling draw.”
When Beaumont wrote a story in November 2016 about hate speech spray painted on the walls of an Ottawa mosque and a predominantly black church, the conversation between writer and editor wasn’t about the text she had written. “We had a brief debate about whether we should use blurred photos or whether we should use photos that were uncensored. My editor made the call to use uncensored photos … and that story was up in less than an hour.”
This is the quick pace we’ve come to expect from digital reporting. While the importance of being first hasn’t changed, the vast size of the Internet, and the speed at which news is learned, digested, and published, allows a lead time of minutes. Scoops quickly reverberate, with one outlet building on top of another until the initial source is lost in the frenzy to pump out relevant information.
But then, readers find themselves on the subway with time to kill. Out comes the phone and Pocket — or any other read-it-later app — and they’re reading a 2,000-word feature on the direct correlation between earthquakes and tectonic plates. The nature of what people are reading may not have changed, but the distribution model has. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, phones have become the number- one platform for news consumption in the United States. Users spend roughly over two minutes engaged with articles a thousand words or longer, compared with about a minute for shorter articles. While the study found that 76 percent of the articles analyzed were fewer than a thousand words, long- and short-form content attracted approximately the same amount of complete interactions. Ultimately, the study suggested that long-form content can sustain regular engagement on phones. It’s the assembly line found within a new model of delivery. The content hasn’t substantially changed — it just has more photos, GIFs, embedded videos, and pull-quotes. It’s an evolution of the concept American journalist Je Jarvis coined as “process journalism” in 2009: the idea of constantly updating a story using, among other methods, digital tools.
The news industry is cyclical in nature. It can be reactionary in how it does what it thinks it should be doing before actually figuring out what works. By around 2010, when the digital evolution of print was in full swing, uncurated content saturated the market. What publications have since realized is that digital content needs to be curated the way it is in print: carefully cultivating an audience through pointed content that fits the purpose of the outlet. Hazlitt, The Ringer, or even ProPublica, for that matter, are three examples of how long-form content can be packaged for a digital audience. And for Beaumont, it’s not about trying to meet content quotas or regurgitating the same information, hoping more readers will click on a story.
“Sometimes, what I see is this push in other media. I hear that people need to have a certain number of stories per day, and a certain number of hot takes, and the news needs to be digested and pushed out as soon as possible,” Beaumont says. “And that’s really negative for the audience, because you’re not really considering other viewpoints, you’re not considering that there’s more information and there’s more to the story. You’re just kind of repeating what’s already out there.”
The objective of finding a specialized interest for an outlet to work in is nothing new — trade magazines like Architect and American Cinematographer are prime examples. Meanwhile, digital platforms like Bloomberg have capitalized on finding niche markets, turning this strategy into a trendy way to run a successful publication in the era of social media. When publications began to experiment with posting traditional print content online, they saw promising results. At its best, digital content is engaging in ways print never was — not because print is a boring medium, but because of the opportunity to use multimedia. Photo galleries and mini-documentaries are the current incarnation of the original full-colour pages of Life magazine. Breaking news is still breaking news, just published hours sooner; nightly news anchors are complemented by 30-second news videos aimed at a different audience.
Ingram looks down at the dregs of his cappuccino, searching for the right words to answer the unanswerable question: what’s next? He’s a rare type of journalist — one who takes his time to phrase his thoughts properly. Ingram transitioned to digital platforms in search of new opportunities while still occasionally writing stories for traditional magazines like Fortune. Despite a lengthy print-based career, Ingram prefers writ- ing for a digital platform, citing the immediacy of his work, its rapid publication, and the connection with the audience. He looks up at me, a twinkle in his grey-blue eyes, as if he has all the time in the world before his next deadline.
“I used to say at the Globe that I could see the day where the value of individual writers who knew their topic and were experts in that eld, whether it was wine or stocks, would exceed the value of The Globe and Mail brand because people were looking for that personal guide … but I think they always have. Media companies just lost sight of that and started to think that the media brand was the thing that mattered, not those people.”