Comment is Free but Facts are Sacred: Digital news in the age of streaming video, blogs, and data journalism

New York Times health care debate

Streaming video, blogs, and interactive data maps are bringing newspapers into the digital age. Digital journalism offers new and engaging experiences that were impossible in print format, such as the possibility of “drilling down” news archives, following multiple links to explore a topic, or instantly posting a commentary. News reporting is more interactive and dynamic in digital format. Gil Scott Heron was wrong. The revolution is being televised—in streaming video on the pages of online newspapers that provide up-to-the-minute reports. According to Brightcove and TubeMogul, newspaper websites are now rivaling broadcasting networks in the area of streamed video.

Newspapers such as the British Guardian are pioneering new journalism techniques that are bringing newspapers into twenty-first century. The Guardian’s combination of blogs and data seems to second the motto of its most famous editor, C. P. Scott, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” Last summer, Jonathan Stray interviewed Simon Rogers, the Guardian’s data blog editor, for the Neiman Journalism Lab’s digital newsletter and news site. Rogers sees data journalism as a commitment. “Helping people find the data, that’s our mission here,” says Rogers. “We want people to come to us when they’re looking for data.” However, he stressed in his interview with Stray that gathering information is a dynamic, two-way process. Readers often provide the Guardian with valuable insights and information through the comment feature of blog posts that influence how news is analyzed and presented. Rogers reflected that newspapers once saw themselves as exclusive “gatekeepers” of information. “We would keep it to ourselves. So we didn’t want our rivals to get a hold of it . . . . And we wouldn’t believe that people out there in the world would have any contribution to make . . . Now, that’s all changed . . . there’s somebody out there who knows a lot more than you do, and can thus contribute. He also added, “If you put the information out there, you always get a return. You get people coming back.” This is the kind of mentality shift that can help newspapers recover their audiences and survive.

The digital edition of the Guardian contains several searchable data sets, including an index of world government data. It also maintains a British casualty list for the conflict in Afghanistan, running tallies of international humanitarian aid contributions, and various data sets related to education. Its blog containing reports and photographs from its own news archive is worth a daily visit. As I wrote this post, it featured stories about Dag Hammarskjold’s death, the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall, and the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. The newspaper’s section devoted to environmental issues is another stroke of innovation that other publications should look to as a model. The Guardian encourages users to build applications through its open platform and provides clear and detailed instructions for performing content, tag, section, and item searches. It also offers a WordPress plug-in.

Manchester poverty map the Guardian

The Guardian’s data-oriented coverage of the riots that racked the United Kingdom during the month of August illustrates the positive role that data journalism can play when a society needs to address social conflict. The Guardian has taken a sociological approach to the events, providing maps, timelines, and charts tracking arrests for vandalism and physical violence instead of resorting to inflammatory headlines. Editors framed this initiative with a series of sobering questions about the perpetrators: “We wanted to know the answers to some of the key questions: How old are they? Are they in work? Where do they come from?” The variety of data offered by the Guardian’s data section should foster a thoughtful public analysis of these traumatizing events. Its coverage offers the public an opportunity to analyze the event on the basis of well-presented statistics and to follow how justice is being meted out in the court system. This newspaper’s reporting of the riots also reflects its international outlook. I was grateful for an explanation of difference between Magistrates courts and Crown courts specifically provided for foreign readers.

The New York Times is also adapting to the new digital landscape. It provides free access to its news archive back to the year 1981, a “Times Topics” page that facilitates search by subject, a choice of domestic or international editions, and a daily podcast. It engages readership by offering participation in debates on issues such as health care and education. Although much of the soft news published by the New York Times is devoted to trendy topics, its “Opinionator” section provides a public space for content that will never garner mass readership but is nevertheless worth putting on public view. One example is The Score, a blog maintained by contemporary composers.

The week's best photos feature el País

Closer to home, el País is becoming bilingual. It now offers national and international news in English as well as Spanish. Its blogs and reader commentaries related to international situations are particularly interesting in that they provide up-to-the-minute information and reaction from a wide range of sources. This newspaper is a leader in citizen journalism. The readers of el País are invited to create their own blogs, many of which are indistinguishable in quality from the newspaper’s own features and reveal a sophisticated and international outlook on the news. Who would expect to find detailed information about the closing of Walter Reed Military Hospital in the Spanish press? That news and many other insightful reports are coordinated by blogger Antonio Caño from the United States for the newspaper’s The American Way of Life blog. Adrían Segovia’s blog Estrategia Digitaltracks online business and media distribution.

Anne Shooter blog The Daily Mail

While I may wax poetic over the quality of the Guardian’s data journalism (the Guardian is the second most popular online newspaper in Europe according to the comScore chart supplied in Segovia’s blog), it’s clear that the tabloid press has a firm hold on the lion’s share of the European digital newspaper market. Such journalism netherworlds as the British Daily Mail, the German Bild, and the Turkish Millyet all make the top ten list. Plus ça change . . . While comment reigns as free in the digital news as it did in print, one must still search diligently for a news source that considers the facts sacred.