Journalism: the new service industry?

David Sillito has worked as a reporter with the BBC for more than a decade, most recently as media and arts correspondent at BBC News. Having started his career at Radio York as a radio news reporter in the early 1990s, he has witnessed many changes in the media industry, but it is the information gathered from tracking behavioural metrics of online content consumption, which he heralds as one of the most fascinating.

When it comes to the curation of content, whether it be for online news reporting, publications or broadcast, Sillito’s view, expressed in a recent podcast, is that the information gathered from consumer behaviour is not only incredibly valuable but that it is also changing journalism – for the better.

“We not only learn how many people read specific content, we also know where they are… and we get know what time of day they interact. This is information we never had access to previously.”

How journalists respond to behavioural consumption data is even more important than the data itself, argues Sillito, adding that many journalists are guilty of not responding to it appropriately. “If you are always trying to chase clicks (in response to data) you are doomed because you will always be following the pack.”

To find a more sustainable approach to responding to data, he quotes Jeff Jarvis, professor at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, who has recently professed that journalism in the digital age is making a radical shift from being a product to service.

Sillito explains that journalists should change their mindset to think of their profession as delivering an information service to people. The more digital behaviour data informs journalists what people really are interested in, the more they will have to pay attention to those needs.

“We should accept it and go with it.” He says that more often than not digital content patterns are throwing up information that confuses journalists. He references a recent incident on the day the new Star Wars movie was released, by far the most popular story on the BBC website was the death by accidental drug overdose of Scott Weiland. Many might not know who he was, but the statistics do show that the lead singer of an American rock band might (contrary to conventional wisdom) – be the biggest story of the day.

“There are all these things that prove the fact that we don’t know very much about our audience…” Sillito has a name for it. He calls it the “John Noakes effect”. He says when John Noakes, the British television presenter of the BBC children’s programme Blue Peter of the 1960s and 1970s died, half of the newsroom went “oh my gosh!” and the other half went “who is he?” all depending on when they were born.

The question Sillito says ever modern day journalist should ask themselves is: “How do I tell a story if I don’t know what my audience’s shared knowledge is? Digital web data goes a long way to answer this question and service-aware journalists will have to take notice of this.

He says this heralds a “magical time” for journalism. People are reading more these days despite conventional newsrooms getting smaller. He says the amount of copy to consume in short form, long form, on websites, on aggregator apps and podcasts creates “a cornucopia” of content which creates opportunities journalists should embrace.

As Sillito puts it: “This is indeed the best time to be a journalist. The tools that are available to you, the ability to do sound, vision and tell stories with a depth and texture that you never had before is there at your fingertips. And it is easy to do. If you find the right story it will go mammoth! It can go around the planet in seconds.”

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