A remarkable story in The New York Times, in which a reporter takes his own newspaper to task for inadequate reporting, provides a good illustration of one of the pitfalls facing newspapers as they adopt podcasts and other digital storytelling tools, which are proving to be the great successes of digital transformation for many companies.
As the story explains, the Times has jumped into podcasts in a big way, putting them at the center of a digital strategy to present its journalism in a compelling format popular with listeners. But as it develops new storytelling tools and techniques, the Times is now facing criticism from both staff and readers over a popular podcast that may not have followed the company’s own rigorous reporting procedures and high journalistic standards.
The issue concerns the podcast Caliphate, a series that has won widespread praise for reporter Rukmini Callimachi’s investigation into ISIS. But when one of the series’ main sources was arrested by Canadian authorities on charges of spreading a hoax about his activities, the series attracted a different kind of attention.
The Times conducted an investigation on the way the source was presented — and it should be commended for publicly airing its internal discussions. News stories about the controversy suggest the Times may have overlooked the story’s weaknesses because it was simply too good to not to publish.
Media companies across the world are discovering digital platforms and digital formats are opportunities to reach new audiences in exciting new ways. There are opportunities to present stories that put the reader, viewer, and listener much closer to the scene in ways that is impossible through print journalism alone.
But in the effort to provide this immediacy through podcasts and other formats, and to stand out from the wealth of offerings already on the market, the quality of journalism must be protected.
Failure to do so can cause audience members and even staff lose respect for the credibility of the brand. This can result in serious setbacks to any digital transformation strategy, not only with audiences but also with staffers, who may not be completely onboard with digital-focused thinking and working, which require new skills and often also new personnel.
Many traditional staffers may still see this new focus as a threat to the cultural values of the newsroom, and to themselves professionally, given their own skill sets. A significant portion of the staff may resent the attention and resources provided to non-traditional platforms, particularly if newsroom leaders assume (falsely) that everyone fully understands the reasons for the new focus.
Public failures in these new domains of storytelling will give dissenting staffers ammunition to resist change — an “I told you so” mentality that can quickly spread in newsrooms and derail new strategies.
These concerns cannot be overlooked. So a clear message to staff about the importance of these platforms to subscribers and the business model should be central to the transformation process, as well as assurances from top managers that the rigorous attention to accuracy and sourcing applied to print journalism needs to be applied to the new platforms as well.
A great story is seductive. And new storytelling tools and techniques can make it even more dramatic and compelling so that problems with the core of a story may be overlooked. In a newsroom culture, when resources and attention are making podcasts and other new formats more important, it is up to the management, both inside the newsroom and out, to ensure that content of high journalistic quality continues to be king. It must be protected and maintained.
The very tools that are attracting new audiences can prove to be a huge setback if these standards are not followed. Those who believe the old ways are best, and are skeptical about the new strategies, will see this failure as confirming their positions. And credibility will suffer with audiences as well.