Going digital isn’t just an upgrade — it’s a complete transformation in the way journalism is done

One of the difficult things about doing journalism, or media of any kind, in the digital and social age is that it seems so simple — in other words, it feels a lot like the way things used to be done: you write things and then you publish them, only you do it on the internet instead of in print. Maybe you put in some links if you’re feeling ambitious. Pretty simple, right?

Except that seeing it this way ignores the fundamental ways in which the practice of journalism has been completely changed by the web, as Guardian deputy editor Katharine Viner noted in an excellent speech on Wednesday.

In her introduction, Viner — who is also editor-in-chief of the new Australian edition of the Guardian (please see our disclosure below) — talked about an interview she had with a prospective employee. When she asked this print journalist how he would adapt to a digital role, he said: “Well, I’ve been using computers for years.” As she notes, this kind of response suggests that the internet is just a technological change, like a new kind of word-processing software.

“In fact, digital is a huge conceptual change, a sociological change, a cluster bomb blowing apart who we are and how our world is ordered, how we see ourselves, how we live. It’s a change we’re in the middle of, so close up that sometimes it’s hard to see. But it is deeply profound and it is happening at an almost unbelievable speed.”

A fundamental change in our relationship

Citizen journalism

Viner goes on to talk about the opportunities that become available to journalists when they approach their craft in a more open way, and how “many journalists’ resistance to this change is damaging their own interests, as well as the interests of good journalism.” If you like media theory, she also talks about how some believe that the dominance of print — and not just mass media like newspapers, but the entire Gutenberg revolution — was an interim period, and we are moving back to a more verbal and connected way of processing information.

This idea is not popular in some circles, but as observers like the Economist‘s Tom Standage have noted, when you look at the way that social tools like Twitter and Facebook and blogs have changed the media landscape, it feels very much like the way the world used to operate before newspapers came along — when coffee shops and real-world social networks were the main way that information was transmitted from place to place and verified. Some argue that the mass-media age was a historical anomaly.

But the real meat in Viner’s speech is her argument about how all of this changes (or at least should change) the nature of a journalist’s relationship with what Jay Rosen and Dan Gillmor have called “the people formerly known as the audience.”

“Digital is not about putting up your story on the web. It’s about a fundamental redrawing of journalists’ relationship with our audience, how we think about our readers, our perception of our role in society, our status. We are no longer the all-seeing all-knowing journalists, delivering words from on high for readers to take in, passively.”

The benefits of doing open journalism

The benefits of being more open to the people who used to be the audience, Viner says, go beyond just touchy-feely things like being more connected to your readers, or getting them to retweet or distribute your content (which is what many media outlets and journalists seem to feel the social web is for). That openness can improve your journalism in a number of ways:

Readers often know more than you: The Guardian editor gives the example of a story about deep-water drilling and how an open Google Doc allowed experts from a range of fields to provide their knowledge about that topic, an approach that the British paper does better than just about anyone else.

Openness brings accountability: Instead of trying to disguise errors, the way many traditional outlets do, Viner talks about a story where the paper made a mistake and then in addition to correcting it, published a blog post discussing the mistake. Readers said this actually increased their trust.

Being open can produce scoops: Asking readers for their help can make them more likely to bring you information that changes a story dramatically, Viner notes — such as the 2009 story the Guardian did about the death of a newspaper vendor during the G20 protests in London.

Paywalls are antithetical to the open web

One thing that probably won’t come as a surprise is the Guardian editor’s viewpoint on paywalls, since the UK-based paper is one of the most significant hold-outs when it comes to charging readers for the news. Some prominent media critics, including David Carr of the New York Times, have argued the paper should give in and join the paywall brigade, but Viner puts the issue of paywalls into the context of the “open journalism” that editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger has made the cornerstone of the paper’s approach to the web:

“A paywall is a typical “newspaper mindset” answer to that need – readers paid for content before, let’s make them pay again. But journalistically, paywalls are utterly antithetical to the open web. A paywalled website is just print in another form, making collaboration with the people formerly known as the audience much more difficult. You can’t take advantage of the benefits of the open web if you’re hidden away.”

Viner goes on to talk about the benefits of linking, even to one’s competitors — something many media outlets still aren’t very good at — as well as the challenges of bringing the conversation about a story into the comment section of a newspaper, and how few journalists are good at that either. It’s a tremendous speech all in all, and if you care about media at all, I would encourage you to read the whole thing.

Disclosure: Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom. Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Luis Santos and Flick user Petteri Sulonen