What Digital Media Can Learn From Print

Digital-only players learn to respect their elders.

22 October 2014


Sometimes it seems as if digital and traditional media are two separate planets. Jim Roberts has lived on both. There is the tendency to think that traditional newspapers, or ‘legacy’ media need to constantly catch-up to their digital counterparts. However, online-only news media actually have a lot to learn from their predecessors. Roberts is a native to printed media, having spent most of his career at The New York Times. A year ago, he immigrated to the digital-only world as executive editor and chief content officer at Mashable, a pure digital player. He manages an editorial team of 55 journalists and is in charge of general strategy and operations. Mashable gets about 40 million monthly unique visitors, which has doubled from just last year. At an event hosted by GEN in Paris, Roberts spoke to French editors-in-chief about what these two worlds can learn from each other.

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Roberts talks about how he brought some newspaper traditions along with him when he arrived at Mashable: ‘When I first got there, their main editorial meeting was at noon and I said, this needs to start earlier. So we now have a meeting at 9:15’. They have another meeting at 5 p.m. What does an editorial meeting at Mashable look like? It turns out, it’s not so different from its print predecessors: ‘We have a traditional news meeting, people sit around the table and I go from general news to technology news to lifestyle news, just like they did at The New York Times.’

As we know, another big issue for online publishers is verification and striking a balance between getting it right and getting it fast. It may not be with the same immediacy, but print publishers still have deadlines to meet, and facts to check before these deadlines. For online, the process should look the same. Roberts notes that digital reporters must have the same discipline as if it were print, even if they do not have to live with their mistakes for 24 hours. Being able to correct the error at any moment is no excuse: ‘I do think the self-correcting ways that the web allows make those errors less consequential than in print’. Roberts stresses that reporters on any platform—print or digital—need to have a strong sense of responsibility to say, ‘This is wrong, let’s correct it, but let’s also acknowledge it’. He explains that he can be hard on his staff to take errors very seriously: ‘I don’t want them to make those kinds of mistakes again. I want them to know that they’re not necessarily just forgotten. I may forgive, but I’m not going to forget’.

Long-form journalism is another way in which sites like Mashable and Buzzfeed are inspired by traditional newspapers. Deep reporting may be more at home at The New York Times, but Roberts sees ‘a great deal of potential for these digital publications to be more thorough and more in-depth’.

Of course digital media can offer traditional media a few pointers as well. A site like Mashable, has many insights to share with newspapers in adapting their digital approach. Roberts emphasised the importance of visual storytelling, and ‘not just putting a photo with an article but finding a way to let photos tell stories’. He mentions how the blog Retronaut, recently acquired by Mashable, has mastered the visual story through archived photos.

Broccoli Canva

It is also important to welcome new curation techniques. Roberts says, ‘Use humans to do what humans do best, and let machines do the rest’, which is why Mashable’s homepage is edited by their own algorithm, Velocity (learn more about it here). The staff can then focus on content creation, whereas most newspapers still have people manually curating their homepage. Velocity makes the work easier, but a human still oversees the process. For example, certain articles deemed important for readers can be locked manually on the homepage. That’s what they did for articles on the Scottish referendum. Mashable is particular in that only 20-25% of their audience comes to the homepage, ‘the vast majority of our content is found in other ways’, says Roberts.

[For more on reporting algorithms or ‘robot journalism’, contact us for details on our upcoming Study Tour in Chicago.]

In what other ways do readers find Mashable content? Social media shares provide most of the traffic to Mashable articles. Social media is about getting people to click, so an engaging headline is a must. ‘We think very hard about headlines. In my past a good headline was one that was accurate, conveyed the facts. Now thinking of headlines is a way of grabbing people’s attention, maybe even entertaining them in the process. Giving them some reason to reach in and connect with that piece of content’.

Whether it’s found in print or on the web, ‘cake and broccoli’ is a universal approach to content. What that means is that there will always be fun, light articles as well as serious, more hard-hitting pieces. Perhaps with more people like Roberts, migrating between digital and traditional media, everyone can apply the best industry practices for a richer future of news.