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New lessons from
digital journalism

These are strange and tricky times to be in the business of communication. The power of traditional gatekeepers is waning, even crumbling. There are more ways than ever to reach your target audience – yet there are more competing voices eager to drown your message out.

The strange thing is that, whether you’re a journalist or a company or a charity, many of the most important lessons about this new media environment are actually pretty old truths.

The most obvious is the idea that every story has to earn its right to be read.

the single story has displaced the edition as the atomic unit of journalism

With more and more news consumption happening via social media feeds, rather than a bundled selection of printed-out stories, the single story has displaced the edition as the atomic unit of journalism. No one cares who published a story – they care what it actually says.

So what kind of stories are being read, and shared? There are two elements to this. The first is that they are stories which make you feel something – that leave you so impressed, or intrigued, or enraged, that you have no choice but to pass them on to others. And one of the most interesting lessons of digital publishing is that positive emotions can be as powerful as negative, or even more so.

Sites like Upworthy became popular not just because of the psychological tricks they used in headlines, such as the “curiosity gap” (“9 out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact”) but because they provoked these positive emotions. In its first year, all four of its most popular stories were about the awesome things that happened when the bullied and persecuted stood up for themselves.

The next lesson is that format matters. Data from BuzzFeed, the Guardian and other publishers shows that popularity follows a U-shaped curve. The most-read stories are either very short or very long: quick hits that tell you one big thing, or have a grabby news-driven headline, or in-depth pieces that you can sink your teeth into. What are dropping off the radar are the pieces in the “mushy middle” – 500-600 word news stories or press releases that tell you nothing much and take their time doing it.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all is also one of the oldest: to do a good job, you have to be passionate about what you’re writing, or at the very least interested. How can you explain to someone why they should be interested in what you’re putting out there, if you’re not even interested in it yourself?

Given the near-infinity of entertainment options out there, people will only pause to consider what you’re putting out there if it’s irresistibly packaged, speaks directly to their interests, tells a fascinating and relatable human story – or preferably, all three.

The bad news about this new media environment is that it can be harder than ever to make yourself heard. The good news is that if you get it right, you’ll do better than ever.

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