Reinventing how we read: A necessary obsession

Credit: Viktor Koen

I just got word from the news room in Medellín that we are taking steps toward reinventing Colombia Reports. The main focus is a new platform, a new design, more targeted access, and of course, more strategic advertising.

The changes stirred up some old memories. I picked up a copy of The Economist back in 2011 when I was living in New York City. There was a special report on the news industry called Bulletins from the future. I read through it in one sitting. And then I decided that this is a world I want to be a part of. News in the 21st century, I realized, is brave, chaotic, creative, and totally uncharted.

What’s interesting is that now, 2 years later, I’m not only a part of a news organization, but I’m witness to the chaotic pressures that are shaping new media. Even though it can be exhausting, there’s a thrilling world that’s confused, disorganized, and ripe for change. I can’t think of any better way to spend a life than on the inside.

Here are some thoughts on and notes on the news industry.

The dynamic between readers and journalists is shaping a new landscape, and it is more “chaotic, participatory, and social” than ever before, says The Economist.

For consumers, the internet has made the news a far more participatory and social experience. Non-journalists are acting as sources for a growing number of news organisations, either by volunteering information directly or by posting comments, pictures or video that can be picked up and republished. Journalists initially saw this as a threat but are coming to appreciate its benefits, though not without much heart-searching. Some organisations have enlisted volunteers to gather or sift data, creating new kinds of “crowdsourced” journalism. Readers can also share stories with their friends, and the most popular stories cause a flood of traffic as recommendations ripple across social networks. Referrals from social networks are now the fastest-growing source of traffic for many news websites. Readers are being woven into the increasingly complex news ecosystem as sources, participants and distributors. “They don’t just consume news, they share it, develop it, add to it—it’s a very dynamic relationship with news,” says Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, a news website in the vanguard of integrating news with social media.

There is much to admire in the new landscape. I think immediately of voice. I think of opinion and how decisions are formed. Instead of a uni-directional voice from a  Mr. Opinionator to His Audience, new media lets the audience engage in the debate and shape the discussion. That is what democracy needs. But new media is a double edged sword. This little bit points out the scary edge rather plainly:

But [the old model] has come unstuck in the internet era as readers have shifted their attention to other media, quickly followed by advertisers. “The audience is bigger than ever, if you include all platforms,” says Larry Kilman of the World Association of Newspapers. “It’s not an audience problem—it’s a revenue problem.” News providers throughout the rich world are urgently casting around for new models.

A radically new organization of the game seems to be at the heart of drawing an answer through this problem. But how? The special report goes on to point out some hopeful models around the world. Here is what’s been happening at two agencies – one in Brazil, the other in France.

Correio da Bahia, a Brazilian paper that underwent this treatment, has been reorganised into four sections, offering a news summary, “More”, “Life” and “Sport”. Similarly, Libération, a French newspaper, stopped trying to provide comprehensive coverage of sport, leaving that to specialist sports papers, sales of which are booming in many European countries. After the redesign the circulations of both newspapers increased. But so far American newspapers have shown no interest in trying anything like this, says Mr Señor.

In 2011, it might have been true that US papers hadn’t caught on. But since then, things have changed. One innovative publication that decided to kill the old model and try something new is Quartz. They’re self-described as “a nerdy bunch,” experimental, and “wholly focused on digital storytelling”. Quartz is a web-friendly publication that reports on business with a global audience in mind. But instead of the traditional row of sections like Politics, Business, Sports, Quartz does “obsessions”.

Journalists in most news organizations have fixed “beats”: bond markets, personal technology, international trade, and so on. At Quartz we organize ourselves around the seismic shifts that are changing the shape of the global economy. We call these topics our “obsessions”.

Here’s what I think Quartz has nailed: they’re responding to the overwhelming complexity that is shaking up the world in the 21st century. How? By finding it, declaring it a “phenomenon” and then following it like a beat. No reader will ever thank a journalist more than when the writer makes a the complicated easy to understand. Here’s one example (one, in fact, that resonates with what we’re talking about here) of how Quartz thinks about their “obsessions”.

The Mobile Web
The web was born on desktop computers in Western countries. But by May 2012 a tenth of the world’s web traffic was on mobile phones—and it’s the so-called “developing” world that is leading the charge, with more than half of web use in some countries coming over mobile. How will this disrupt existing internet giants? Who are the rising stars in emerging markets? How is the shift to mobile affecting the internet’s design and business models? And how will the next billion people get online?

Yeah, so how will the next 1 billion people get online? How will they use the web to consume information? How much will it cost readers to read? How is the culprit. Thankfully Quartz is on it.

I think The Economist’s 2011 report is just as relevant now as it was then. The lens proposed by The Economist is sharper than ever for looking at what has happened in the last two years. And if new media is lucky, the obsessive ways of people at news organizations like Quartz will shed some light on where digital is going. And how to make it pay for strong reportage.

Read more about The Economist’s 2011 Special Report at this LINK

Read more about Quartz at this LINK

Seeing through the smoke

MEDELLÍN – January, 2013 – It was late in the day. Around 5pm. Adriaan rushed into the newsroom and exclaimed, “We just got an email from the FARC!” Several of us had been trying to get in touch with FARC delegates at the peace talks in Havana for interviews. But no luck. Then, suddenly, they reached out to us.

It wasn’t the first time Adriaan rushed into the newsroom with something important to say. One time it was about a strong article that Olle wrote that got well-read in Washington. Another time it was to ask us why the hell we fell behind our quota. We needed 20 articles. At 5pm we had 16.  Sometimes you have to kill articles. I’ve learned this the hard way. Sometimes you have to be ruthless. All the same, it was a bad day.

This time I was in the middle of my final article when Adriaan told us the news. But I quickly digested the update and went back into my trance. I was trying to meet my own personal quota for that day. Still an intern, I had to prove I could write 6 articles in 8 hours. And I hadn’t. Yet.

Half an hour later Adriaan came back into the newsroom – this time with less zeal.

“Who can stay late?” he asked sharply. “I need someone to help me.” No one raised their hand. I had just finished filing my last article. It was the end of the day, but being the eager intern I was I forced myself to express enthusiasm.

How foolish of me: I had no idea what I was raising my hand for.

Adriaan looked at me doubtfully. ‘The Intern?’… I could see the words going through his head. Did he really need me? He was probably hoping for someone else to raise their hand.

“Ok,” he said, resolving the doubt on his face. “Check your inbox right now.”

Within one or two minutes I was face to face with a 21-page typed interview with Colombia’s longest-standing rebel group’s chief negotiator: Iván Márquez.

To have a document of this magnitude sent to us was beyond precious. Why? Because the media had been scrambling to dig into what was on the table between the Colombian state and the FARC in Havana. The world still didn’t know what exactly the two sides wanted and their justification for it. There was still a lot of hot air and rhetoric flying around. This document had, well… it had meat.

But the interview I had in my hands was also extremely urgent. Adriaan told me immediately after sending it that the only other English-language media outlet he could identify who had it was the AP. And their story still hadn’t hit the screen. That meant I had no time.

It also meant this: I was scared as hell.

I asked Adriaan for advice: How do you suggest I tackle this bad boy? Any tips for how to quickly identify what’s story-worthy?

Adriaan told me I should read through it, translate it, and target what I find interesting. Choose one big thing to talk about. Then go over it again. Pull out the quotes. And you’ve got your story. But it needs to happen now!

At 9pm I was still translating.

I was exhausted. The Spanish was strong political rhetoric. It was extremely difficult to read much less translate. I emailed Adriaan and told him that I was exhausted, that I had two or three ideas, and that I wanted to sleep on them and write the story early the next morning.

I got an email back immediately.

“Stay there,” it said. “I’m coming to talk to you right now.”

Adriaan came out of his office blowing and puffing smoke all over the place. He sat down and asked me where I was with the progress. I told him. His face crossed. He sighed. Then he inhaled and blew smoke all over me. Again. I didn’t care. All I wanted was to finish the story.

Maybe the smoke had something to do with it. But Adriaan told me something that sent me burning through the night. He set to stating the facts:

“This is a 21 page interview from the FARC. No one else has this document but the AP. And they’re sitting on it. You have a huge story in your hands. This is real journalism, Wes. If you want to be a journalist, this is the challenge. These are the realities of investigative reporting in a foreign country where you have to work in a foreign language. You have 2 hours. I want a story. And I know you can get me one.”

The smoke was thick. Adriaan went back to his office.

It was 9:30pm. I went back to the document. And I set to burn against the night. I raced. I wrote. And finally I was done.

I filed sometime around midnight. I was exhausted. And nervous. This was the first time I was the proprietor of a really important figure and their words. This was the first time I was telling the side of a conflict that has ravaged a country and a people for almost half a century. This was a conflict story. And it was a peace story. It was part of a potent chapter in Colombian history. And it was a story that the FARC leader was likely going to read. And he was likely going to have an opinion about it. Probably a strong one. Lots of people were going to read it. And they would develop strong opinions around it as well.

Did I get it right?

That question plagued me through the night. I barely slept. And so at 6am I woke up, went to the office, and met Adriaan at the door. He was already up. “So?” I said. My anxiety was screaming.

“I’m publishing it right now,” he said. “I made some changes. But it’s a good story. It’s the story I would have written too. Check the site. It’s going to hit the screen in a couple minutes.”

I felt a mild sense of relief. But still exhausted as all hell. So I took a coffee. And I thought about what I had committed myself to, just then, within the last 24 hours.

I realized that journalism is a mad rush to tell history. And I love that. I thrive on it. But I also learned that you don’t get to choose when something important happens. Just as much as it is our responsibility to tell the first draft of history, we must be rigorously obedient. In journalism, the world chooses the plan and it chooses when to strike. And you’ve got to be ready – ready to blaze all the way through the night when it finally does. It’s a mad rush. And that’s just the way it is.

Read the story I wrote about the Iván Márquez and the FARC’s land reform demands at this LINK

Read more about the development of the Peace Talks at Colombia Reports’ Peace Talks news archive at this LINK

Getting access

Getting access to people, places, and information forms a keystone in sound investigative journalism. But finding your way down the road of developing strong, clear access to sources can be tremendously difficult.

Whenever I start to doubt myself when it comes to getting access, I often think of Stanislas Guigui, a French photojournalist who spent years gaining access to Bogotá’s underworld of “urban pirates,” and then years more documenting it from the inside. Stanislas is the perfect example of a storyteller who is patient, committed, determined, and most importantly bold.

From Stanislas:

Thieves, gangsters, murderers, drug addicts… I saw characters with sparks of madness and paranoid eyes. They were so close to bestiality that they looked like wolves. But I also found a great deal of nobility in those faces zonked out by life and most people I had in front of me were still proud and strong enough to survive this doomed existence.

Credit: Stanislas Guigui

I went right into the heart of havoc to show what life is like on the other side of these walls. To show what one looks like when everything has been lost and that underneath the grime and the misery, there are simply people whose lives toppled one day. People like you, like me, who are simply out of luck or who had less strength to face life’s pitfalls.

Stanislas documented a place called the ‘Cartucho’, a neighborhood just a stone’s throw from Bogotá’s Presidential office, an enclave of ministry buildings and Plaza Simon Bolívar, where an extraordinarily dangerous urban underworld thrived. The ‘Cartucho’ used to be a 20-hectare area hell situated smack in the middle of the city. In the early 2000s it was demolished and replaced with a park.

View Stanislas Guigui’s Kingdom of Thieves documentary project on Bogotá’s underworld at this LINK