TW Commentary – Journalism thwarted by technology

Looking at the Deca cooperative as an example of how journalism must learn to understand the technology layer that influences every aspect of its future endeavors.

Deca

A promising long-form-journalism project

Deca is a new cooperative of journalists from all over the world. Specializing in long-form/magazine writing, they’ve won numerous awards individually. Inspired by the Magnum photo-agency from the 50s they now want to see what they can achieve as a group, but independent from bigger publishers. When Igor and I stumbled upon their Kickstarter campaign, we instantly “backed” them. They hit all the right buttons for us:

  • A diverse group of women and men from different backgrounds with lots of experience. A group big enough to bundle resources, but small enough to stay flexible and not getting to dependent on large donations to sustain the business.
  • A defined product and process with a completed first story that showed what kind of topics and quality to expect.
  • A humble goal for the campaign that made clear that they indeed want a little kickstart, not a blanco check.
  • A solid understanding that independent journalism endeavors include contain a great deal of community involvement and thus management, as their Kickstarter rewards show.
  • This Forbes article shows how they are even starting to do something that looks like on-the-job training for future journalists.

But most of all, we loved their positive attitude. Instead of laments to the decline of good writing, they emphasized the opportunities of change. They don’t want to “save journalism”, but “travel the world over to find the stories that matter, then telling them.”

The Kickstarter campaign worked well. They hit their goal of $20,000 within three and a half days and made more than $32,000 in the end. Soon after, they released their second story. All in all, a fine example how to start a journalistic endeavor in 2014. But now it seems like they’ve fall into the same trap as so many similar projects by underestimating one aspect: the technological side.

Thwarted by a technical problem

The platform they are using for their iOS app and the web app seems to have big problems with the sign up of all their backers. And it also seems that there’s no easy fix. The developers of the platform are working hard to find the bug. I can only imagine how frustrating this must be, especially because they can do nothing but wait until someone else has found the solution. And in the meantime, they have to do customer service (which they do well) instead of finding stories.

We are seeing this again and again: promising new approaches to journalism that get caught up in technical difficulties. Journalists obviously focus on the journalistic part of their work. If they are progressive, they also have a good understanding of the business side of things.
But now, there’s this layer that influences every aspect of a journalism company: the technology. From researching stories to the editorial process (writing, editing, fact-checking, versions management) to delivery via content-management systems and printing infrastructure to digital payment in apps and for subscriptions to communication with colleagues and readers etc. The need for these technologies is not new. But the options and with them the opportunities have exploded. The easiest solution is to outsource most of these aspects to external vendors. But Deca just learned how frustrating this can be.

Every journalism company will also be a tech company

The next step is not to try to bring all the technological aspects of a journalism endeavor in house. That would be a 20th century solution to a networked 21st century world. The way forward for journalism is to acknowledge and even embrace the role of technology in its business and get smart about it. The better journalists understand how the technology they need to deal with works and how they can use it to their advantage the better they can brief vendors, estimate costs and develop ideas how to get closer to their stories and their readers.

I understand that journalists want to focus on what they perceive to be the crux of their work, researching, investigating, reporting. But I have this hunch that journalists who get more interested in the technological aspects of their work will be more successful in the coming years.1

The current sign-up problems of the Deca app will be fixed soon, I’m sure, and the Deca team will continue to deliver great stories. But I’m also sure that this episode will have shown them to never again underestimate the influence of technology on their work and the connection with their readers. I’m keen to see how they are going to use this knowledge to their advantage.

Check out Deca at decastories.com.


  1. My hidden agenda for journalists interested in technology: I want better analysis of the influence of technology and the people in power behind it on our world. 

Author: Johannes

Johannes is a strategist and consultant for digital communications. His work is informed by his experience of working with brands like Deutsche Telekom, MTV, Postbank, Maggi and Nike and by his insatiable appetite for finding the bigger patterns behind current developments in technology and science. Holding a diploma in Media System Design, Johannes is a regular speaker at web and marketing conferences like Republica and the Social Media Summit.