Telling the Never-ending Story: Mass Media in a Digital-first World

“You realize your job can be done with a cell phone.”

Staging the shot: Eric Heisler ‘07 on the job while working for ABC27 in Harrisburg as a photojournalist.

Staging the shot: Eric Heisler ‘07 on the job while working for ABC27 in Harrisburg as a
photojournalist.

62 percent of US adults now get news from social media sites. Eric Heisler ’07 had worked as an award-winning photojournalist for the past nine years at ABC27. This was his exit interview. The long hours and increasing demands of broadcast news were taxing. It was time for a change. “I don’t disagree,” he said.

62% of US adults get news from social media sites.

For more than a decade, digital sources have gained ground on traditional media as news outlets. According to the June 2016 State of the News Media report from Pew Research Center, 62 percent of US adults now get news from social media sites. The demand for quick and constant news has required a change in mindset, resources, tools, and training.

Heisler knew the reality. The immediacy and ease of digital tools certainly had their advantages. Regardless, the comment stung. “There’s still an audience who wants better quality,” Heisler insisted. “Every shot I chose had a purpose.”

Whether broadcast or print, faculty in SU’s nationally accredited Communication/Journalism Department assures students that traditional media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Classes are anchored in tradition—such as fact checking and media law—but experiment with the latest digital tools, such as live video and crowdsourcing. When he started at SU fifteen years ago, Dr. Michael Drager, associate professor of journalism, was teaching students primarily to write, edit, and design. Now, his courses also encompass digital photography, video, blogging, and social media.

Digital is providing new opportunities in the field, he said. “This is one of the most creative times for journalists. It’s entrepreneurial journalism.”

DIGITAL FIRST

Evan Forrester ‘85 calls Central Pennsylvania home and stays active in his community. In August, he and coworker MaryEllen Pann participated in the Fox43 blood drive at Penn State York.

Evan Forrester ‘85 calls Central Pennsylvania home and stays active in his community. In August, he and coworker MaryEllen Pann participated in the Fox43 blood drive at Penn State York.

Now, it’s a matter of making sure a news story is ready for delivery on digital and social platforms as soon as possible.
— Evan Forrester '85

After more than three decades in broadcast journalism—including twenty years with Fox43 anchor Evan Forrester ’85 said that going digital first was an adjustment. “I spent much of my career only worried about making sure everything was ready for air. Now, it’s a matter of making sure a news story is ready for delivery on digital and social platforms as soon as possible.”

The new mindset is to think about digital platforms first, then consider what information will go out during the newscast, he said. It requires everyone in the newsroom to work faster and learn how to use new devices to get the story out.

Two years ago, Dr. Kim Garris, associate professor and chair of the Communication/Journalism Department, took a sabbatical to return to her first love. “I wanted to get back in the newsroom and do web content. When I left the newsroom, (the digital push) was just beginning.”

At that time, her station had three computers and the Internet. MySpace was big, and Facebook was on the horizon. “I had never worked in a newsroom where all of
that digital came into play.”

In some respects, not much has changed. Quality writing—whether for a script or the web—is still quality writing. But developing a digital package, the impact of search engine optimization (SEO) on headline writing, and the unending need for fresh material left a lasting impact.

“For an old-school person like me, I hated it. The brand-new kids don’t know any differently. They produce a package—it’s just what they do,” Garris said. “It’s probably like my generation going from film to tape. Every generation comes with their own thing.”

Sam Stewart ‘13 (in gray) loves the creativity that social and digital platforms provide for his sports work at the Pottstown Mercury.

Sam Stewart ‘13 (in gray) loves the creativity that social and digital platforms provide for his sports work at the Pottstown Mercury.

It’s completely normal, for example, for Sam Stewart ’13, assistant sports editor at the Pottstown Mercury, to tweet out a photo of his notes halfway through covering a game before he writes his story. Going digital first is about adaptability and versatility, he said. “It’s more for me.”

We’re all about experimenting. There is no limit to what we can do. Our only limit is manpower.
— Sam Stewart '13

The Mercury prides itself in experimenting with the latest digital trends and tools. Stewart has toyed with many methods to get his stories out. “I might be shooting a field hockey game, interviewing a football player, doing a photo gallery, and putting together a print layout. The advantage is that the amount of people you can reach now is far superior, and the amount of cool things you can do really reaches a group that you couldn’t reach before.”

Stewart said the paper averages 200,000 clicks a week, and had about 4 million last year. Approximately 65 percent of its traffic for sports is through Twitter. While older readers prefer hard-hitting news, the younger audience “eats this stuff up” on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Periscope, Stewart said. “We’re all about experimenting,” he said. “There is no limit to what we can do. Our only limit is manpower.”

At ABC27, Heisler had some behind-the- scenes fun last year as state budget talks dragged on. Through Twitter, he started the #BudgetBeard. The longer Pennsylvania went without a budget, the longer his beard grew. “The purpose for doing it was to keep people updated. It was a way to interact with viewers.”

Mike Parker ’00, an anchor for the 11:00pm news at ABC27, said for every story he does, he also is responsible for a web story. There are two large TVs in the studio; one shows the front page of their website and the other provides stats for each story. “We might not think a story is big with our viewers, and then look at how many people are interested in it. It’s definitely used as a gauge for what’s in our broadcast.”

With today’s digital tools, Parker said they need to find a story, promote what they plan to do, show that they’re doing it, provide the actual story, then promote it after the fact for people who missed the newscast.

“It really is a multimedia world.”

CALL ME JACK

When Kasey Cunningham ’11 was eight, her seven-week-old sister was diagnosed with leukemia. Cunningham and her two sisters joined the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, sharing their story at events through the organization.

“It was super therapeutic. I felt it made an impact. If I can share other people’s stories, I can make a difference in the world.”

That’s exactly why Cunningham, a multimedia journalist at WAVE3 News in Louisville, Kentucky, pursued journalism. On the scene of a story, she gathers information, holds interviews, sets up her own live video, and tweets the latest developments. She wraps up and posts a lengthier tease with photos on Facebook. Later, she provides a thoughtful reflection of the day on Instagram.

Cunningham, much like her colleagues, is a jack-of-all-trades. “These tools allow more people to be impacted by my story,” she said.

Everyone wants news all of the time. Social media is great in that aspect because of its reach.
— Sara Small '13
Sara Small '13

Sara Small '13

Sara Small ’13, a multimedia journalist for CBS21 in Harrisburg, said digital is a huge part of the job and is mostly positive for the industry. “Everyone wants news all of the time. Social media is great in that aspect because of its reach.”

The job is demanding, but Small said Ship prepared her well. Between classes, swimming, student government, and writing for The Slate and SUTV, she said she perfected her time management skills before hitting the real world. “I 100 percent believe I wouldn’t have gotten my job if not for Ship.”

Preparing students for such a broad and ever-evolving industry is challenging. “One of the things we absolutely have to teach today is that you have to be flexible,” Drager said. “You can’t go into this profession thinking you know everything you need to know.”

In digital journalism classes, students learn online research, crowdsourcing, news gathering, and synthesizing information. Students learn how to tease their stories and use keywords effectively. For their capstone project, students compose a print and online web package with stories, social media posts, websites, and blogs.

Naomi Creason ’07

Naomi Creason ’07

As online editor at The Sentinel in Carlisle, Naomi Creason ’07 (right) always is searching for innovative ways to present information. When she first joined the paper, she was the only person with video experience. “It was just a self interest, but they sent me to corporate in Iowa for training.”

With journalism, you learn something new every day.
— Naomi Creason '07

At that time, it didn’t take off. Today, though, she works with reporters on ways to harness the power of digital for their stories. Last year during Restaurant Week in Carlisle, she developed an interactive Google map providing restaurant specials in addition to the regular story in the paper. Another reporter is doing an online timeline on local crime over the past two years.

“We have to consider what tools will work best for what stories,” she said. “With journalism, you learn something new every day.”

‘EVERYONE IS CNN’

One of the biggest challenges with these new tools is the propensity to be “on” around the clock.

“When I went home at the end of the day, I couldn’t disengage,” Heisler said. “The phone was attached to my hand. I’d look for a reaction to a story, then be working on new angles or twists for the next day.”

There is more news available from more sources than ever before. “Everything is 24/7. Everyone is CNN,” Creason said. “If something major happens, you have to get it online and hope that everything is correct.”

There’s a delicate balance between teasing a story and tipping people off, she said. There are greater opportunities to interact with readers, but also trolls who waste time. To deal with these challenges, Creason developed a social media policy for The Sentinel.

“It’s about how to engage with people, what we should be posting, limitations on what we should post, and how not to get scooped on our own story,” she said. “With all this comes training, for example, on how to appropriately talk to people on Twitter and answer questions, but not get in an argument.”

Many people think that technology makes life easier and more efficient, said Dr. Kyle Heim, assistant professor of journalism. However, it often results in more to do around the clock.

“There’s always something that needs to be done, and it needs to be done right now.” Heim said the challenges and issues surrounding digital journalism seep into every class. In many cases, it’s about going back to the basics. “As much as the technology is changing, the core principles—if it has good grounding in basic journalism skills—will keep students ahead.”

On a 24/7 news cycle, accuracy is key. Small often looks to Twitter and Facebook for tips, but flushes out her stories through traditional sources such as local government, police, or school districts. “It goes back to that need to have that news right away. It’s not actually all accurate information.”

She also makes sure she reports on all sides of the story. As a member of the community, she considers the viewer’s perspective and what information she would want to know.

“This job is a privilege. We don’t do it just so people recognize us in the grocery store. It’s a real privilege to be able to share these stories and be a voice for someone who might not have a voice otherwise.”

THE ART OF STORYTELLING

In the pre-digital era, the Pew Research Center states, the news industry regulated everything from original reporting to packaging to editorial choice and audience experience. According to its report, companies like Facebook and Apple have increasingly become players in these areas, “supplanting the choices and aim of news outlets with their own choices and goals.”

Where journalism shines is in its original reporting and writing. “I spend so much of my time teaching students to originate rather than follow the trend,” Garris said. “Anybody can follow a trend. It’s the professional who originates content.”

Kasey Cunningham ’11

Kasey Cunningham ’11

Ninety percent of the time, this is so hard. ...But 10 percent of the time, you get a text or e-mail that ‘I saw your story and it made a difference in my life.’
— Kasey Cunningham '11

Cunningham said journalists seem to fall into one of two camps—one focused on getting more clicks and another with a more long-term goal. The prior, known as click bait, is irresponsible and dangerous, she said. Instead of telling a whole story, an organization will push out the most viral part, downplaying or leaving out other key facts.

“People don’t want to be duped. They want to feel something,” she said.

Conveying that emotion is what Heisler strived to do throughout each story he told. “I originally wanted to be a reporter. Storytelling became a big thing in my career, not just telling the facts,” he said. “You want to find the element that makes a story.”

Cunningham lives by the 90/10 rule. “Ninety percent of the time, this is so hard. You’re trying to chase something and it falls through. But 10 percent of the time, you get a text or e-mail that ‘I saw your story and it made a difference in my life.’ It’s everything I’d hoped it would be.”

The tools of the trade and demand on the industry continue to change. How journalists gather and distribute news now is heavily influenced by digital resources. But some things will never change. People have told Drager for years that newspapers are dead.

“Newspapers aren’t dead. Let’s separate those two words—news and paper. What’s disappearing? News is still there. Someone has to gather it, someone has to write it. The distribution might change, but writing still matters.”