Staff blog: What I learned about journalism at SXSW 2014

South by Southwest, the weeklong event that takes over downtown Austin, Texas every March, is well-known for premiering movies and showcasing unsigned musicians. But the tech-centric Interactive portion of the festival has emerged as a massive influence on a number of industries, and in recent years, journalism has become a large part of its identity. In 2014, it was featured more prominently than ever before.

Journalists, at least the ones who have SXSW on their radar, tend to be early trend spotters and adopters, and this year’s buzzword — “big data,” the online collecting of massive amounts of information — is certainly relevant to people reporting the news, not only in finding important stories but in learning the nuances of audience behavior and media consumption.

The other, equally relevant side of the data coin is privacy and security — what should/shouldn’t we know about individuals and organizations? Exiled whistleblowers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden both spoke to that topic (Assange via Skype from London, Snowden via Google Hangout from Russia) during their much-anticipated conversations with the SXSW crowds.

More internally, long-established publications have conceded that print is no longer a priority; instead, an increasingly digital audience needs to be embraced and understood, and journalists now face a whole host of responsibilities beyond reporting. As a result, some have broken away from “traditional” newsrooms and started their own independent, experimental ventures. But with this change, are journalists — especially the newer, more Internet-savvy generation — losing sight of the fundamentals of their craft? Will the current standards of accuracy, objectivity and narrative power translate to online-only, or will a modified set of guidelines replace these fundamentals?

As the editor of the CU Independent, a freelance reporter and a journalism student, I found something valuable in every Interactive panel I was fortunate enough to attend.

1. There are some incredible jobs available to young journalists, and you might not have to wait long to get one.  

Many thanks to the outgoing president of Atlantic Media, M. Scott Havens, who quelled this senior journalism major’s concerns about the demand of the industry’s job market with his panel “Can Great Journalism Make For Great Business?” The answer to that question, according to Havens, is yes — and a lot of it has to do with hiring young journalists.

Atlantic Media’s capstone publication, The Atlantic, is the third-oldest in the country, but is re-branding itself as a digital product to better reach their audience. Now, one of The Atlantic’s key principles is “prioritizing raw talent over experience,” Havens said. Quality content is king, but in newsrooms that are starting to morph into startup environments, age is insignificant.

College students and early 20-somethings generally expect their youth to equate with inexperience, and therefore as something that will count against them in their quest for a good job. To hear that such a storied, respected publication doesn’t care about age is comforting, but the “raw talent” The Atlantic is hiring is also “world-class,” Havens said. Getting into the various ways young journalists can make themselves more hirable is something I don’t want to do (this piece from September 2012, despite being ancient in Internet years, is a good summary of the varying advice that’s out there), but what Havens addressed is the value of finding journalists who are far ahead of their older peers in digital intuitiveness.

2. Explaining “big data” is a responsibility that will fall on journalists.

I wish I could define the term “big data” more specifically, but as with all buzzwords — “multimedia” comes to mind — there’s an intentional ambiguity, because people from a variety of industries are trying to figure out what it means to them. For journalists, data is invaluable; numbers reveal trends, trends support stories or are stories in themselves. Accessing and visualizing data is something journalists are becoming familiar with in an effort to increase the impact of their work.

Beyond using data, journalists have to explain it. The events and circumstances that shape history are contextualized by journalism, and 2014, the post-Snowden year, the news will capture the world reacting to the dark side of their increasing interconnectedness. “Big data” awareness is critical for journalists, not just in learning how to apply it to their reporting (here’s a great resource for that), but in addressing an audience that has a nervous awareness of, and a million questions about, its affect on their lives.

Snowden told hundreds of people gathered in the Austin Convention Center — and thousands watching a live stream — that journalists are a necessary piece of the data puzzle in his SXSW panel, “A Virtual Conversation With Edward Snowden.” Incalculable amounts of data sit untouched on the Internet, and without reporters accessing and examining it, the reasons why that data exist will never be understood.

3. A new programming language could change everything.  

Out of curiosity, I attended a panel that theoretically had nothing to do with journalism — “Injecting Computation Everywhere” with Wolfram Research founder Stephen Wolfram, a scientist and physicist who spent the last 25 years designing a programming language he showed to the public for the first time that day in Austin. Wolfram was interrupted by applause several times over the course of his presentation, and this is why: Wolfram Language accesses the largest-ever collection of algorithms and computable knowledge by using codes written in natural language (widely-known English words and symbols).

In his demonstration, Wolfram created GIFs, designed maps and 3D shapes and transformed data — in this particular presentation, the number of read vs. unread emails in his inbox — into graphs, in a matter of seconds. All of the commands were in English.

Journalists should learn how to code, right? (That’s what we’re told.) Well, Wolfram Language just made that task a lot easier. Here’s the video of Wolfram’s mind-blowing panel, along with a full transcript. 

4. As audiences learn more, journalists’ services to them evolve. 

With so much information available in so many places from a wide variety of sources, it can be difficult for a publication or media organization to establish themselves as the authoritative voice for any given topic. It’s the nature of a newsroom to jump on everything they deem newsworthy, but that’s not working in their favor anymore.

This last number on my list doesn’t stem from one specific SXSW panel — it draws from all of them. What if different news outlets had different “jurisdictions,” so to speak? They already kind of do, at the local and state levels, but ownership of a certain story/topic is lost when you’re an organization with the lofty goal of reporting world news. And those international outlets are the ones tasked with reporting the major issues of the time — for example, health care in the U.S. Those topics aren’t being focused on in more depth by one organization over another. Issues at a certain scale lose any sort of concentration in coverage and end up scattered across numerous channels, leading audiences to piece together a topic with an array of individual stories.

Publications and organizations know this is a problem, and they’re trying new things to assert their authority over the overwhelmed news consumer, mostly in the form of changes to their content management systems and in making websites and mobile apps easier to navigate. But in the past few months, esteemed journalists have left their newsrooms to join startups that focus more on depth than reach, aiming to dedicate their talents toward creating a network of content on a single topic.

Backed by powerful investors and an abundance of resources, these startups — First Look Media, Vox.com — could very well claim jurisdiction over the most important stories of our time. Consequently, this ups the ante for established newsrooms, and the individual journalists in them, to consider focusing their energy on topics they can provide the most impact to.

Annie Melton is the Editor-in-Chief of CUIndependent.com. Contact her at anne.melton@colorado.edu; @meltonannie1.

About Annie Melton

Annie is a senior news-editorial journalism major. She spends most of her free time following politics obsessively, listening to music and missing good barbecue from her hometown of Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @meltonannie1

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