Journalism still trying to find its digital niche

In the opening session of the Web 2.0 Summit this week, Spotify investor and former Facebook President Sean Parker said: “The world is changing so quickly that it’s hard – very hard – to get anything right for long.”

He was speaking specifically about online music, but the statement is applicable to any form of digital media, particularly journalism. An industry kicked off-balance by the Internet is now struggling to find its footing as smart phones, social media, tablets and apps rewrite the ways consumers find and even influence news.

Thousands of live experiments are under way as startups, blogs and media titans try to get it right in this rapidly changing world. There are apps, aggregators, traffic mills, tablet magazines and more. Turns out some of the most prominent new media players were on hand at the San Francisco conference to lay out their strategies for redefining journalism in the information age.

Easily the most interesting – and promising – presentation came from Mike McCue, chief executive of Flipboard. The popular iPad app converts tweets, Facebook posts and online articles into what looks and feels like a traditional magazine.

False paths

In a conference focused on how user information is improving the understanding of consumer wants and needs, McCue argued that over reliance on this data can lead businesses down false paths.

He made the case that Web designers and editors have become so focused on traffic and the best ways to drive it that they’ve sacrificed the very heart of journalism: the emotional connection that clean, beautifully displayed content and ads create with readers.

Instead, they cram in as much of both as they can, along with comments, links and anything else that promises to keep readers glued to their site and generating clicks that advertisers take as evidence of engagement. But in the process, it’s transformed a product with an emotional bond into a commodity that often earns little brand loyalty.

“We’ve engineered out the soul,” McCue said. “Where’s the emotion, where’s the inspiration? I think that’s something that’s destined to change, and I think it will be great when it does.”

“Interestingly enough,” he added, “the solution has been right under our noses for decades. It’s print: magazines and newspapers.”

The emergence of the tablet, he explained, has ushered in a world where the design-mindedness of a glossy magazine meets the data possibilities of the Internet news site: personalized content, tailored ads, customer insight and interactive features.

Flipboard has already begun to demonstrate the power and possibilities of this new medium. For that matter, so have National Geographic, the New Yorker and Wired, all of which offer beautiful iPad apps that feature compelling stories and pictures alongside rich multimedia.

McCue’s message might just be critical in an era where so many sites have made a science of engineering headlines to lure the most traffic possible, packing them with hyperbole or the trending topics in search engines.

When users click through to find a banal block of text that fails to meet the headline’s provocative promise and stories are lifted wholesale from other news-gathering outlets, what kind of an emotional connection does that create?

These kinds of sites nab traffic by fooling search engines with empty promises. Few people enjoy being mistreated and fewer still reward these sites with the kind of trust journalism outlets need in order to succeed.

But Joanne Bradford, chief revenue officer of Demand Media, a site known derisively as a “content farm,” offered a far different perspective on the topic. Bradford argued that data and expertise will be the savior of online content (I’m not sure I ever heard the word journalism).

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