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The Four Biggest Comebacks in Journalism

Trends. They come and they go, right? Well, most of the time they come, they go — and they come back. It’s true for horror movies, it’s true for fashion, and it’s definitely true for cellphones. It’s also true for journalism.

By: Henrik Stahl

One of the most obvious examples is article length. For a long time, from the earliest days up until the 1980’s or 90’s, newspapers consisted of huge amounts of text and very few images.

Then came the tabloids and the popular magazines, which focused more on visual presentation, shortening texts in favor of images and design. A trend that carried on into the digital age of journalism, and that was accentuated in mobile’s sudden takeover of desktop. On small screens, people want less text, we figured.

That’s how it was — for a while.

And then, out of nowhere, longreads made a sudden return, quickly becoming the most-read format on many platforms (for instance, on Medium the ideal reading length of a post is 7 minutes — they capture the most attention).

Aside from this obvious example , there are other contemporary trends that are actually old trends experiencing a renaissance.

In the early days of the digital age, external content management systems, which nowadays are crucial components of every digital newsroom, were hard to come by. In fact, they were practically non-existent. Newsprint CMS’s rarely had web integration and manually editing the HTML pages was inefficient. Therefore, many newspapers who early adopted the WWW created some sort of publishing software on their own.

Soon, these custom and not-so-easy-to-maintain systems were outrun by new solutions offered by dedicated software companies. For example, the CMS Clickability was born in 1999. It matured in the mid-2000’s, spawning a vast number of alternative software — and the news outlets abandoned their own inventions.

Now that news companies have finally come round to digital transformation, we’re back at square one, with a breed of content management systems such as Arc and Scoop and Chorus and Media OS and SMP as a result.

Imagine yourself during a morning brief in the newsroom. The News Editor asks if anyone has a good ideas how to boost the number of page views, or how to make your readers more engaged. “How about creating an email newsletter?” you say. The News Editor stares at you in silence for a while — then starts to laugh hysterically. Your colleagues follow suit.

In 2011 or 2012, that’s actually what might have happened if you’d made that suggestion. Not in 2016.

Emails experienced a dramatic decline during the 21st century. And many publishers who by the 2010’s still operated email newsletters considered them more of a necessary evil than an enriching, potentially profitable customer service. Eventually, Slack and others came along, propelling the importance of chat communication tools.

But no one has really been able to make the good ol’ email obsolete. And thus, email newsletters are now more popular than they have been for a while.

How did that happen? What propelled the email newsletter from a tool considered half-dead to a proposed savior of online audience development?

It’s quite simple: people do more reading on mobile (both on particular websites and emails) than they did ten years ago. Websites are getting a lot faster than they were ten years ago. And the in-app web views are significantly faster than they were ten years ago. All these factors work in favor of the email newsletter. Taken together, they build a solid case for a ”WKWebView-saved-the-email-newsletter” thesis.

Because back in the day, whenever you wanted to open an article listed in a newsletter, either it opened in a super-slow web view inside the app, or a new browser would pop up and take you somewhere altogether different. It would take forever and you would smash your phone against the wall in frustration long before the article opened. Today, thanks to Apple’s WKWebView, that’s no longer the case. Reading articles on mobile in the same app where you read your email is a lot smoother than it used to be. And that’s why we like email newsletter so much better than we used to.

Once upon a time, we all loved web polls. Editors loved them, users loved them. Even reporters loved them, because they didn’t have to persuade people on the street to answer silly questions. And, they were a more encouraging sign of user engagement than angry reader emails.

During the 2000’s, many publishers maintained forums for user-discussions, and in the latter half of the decade, a lot of custom-built comments features were developed. Right up until the implementation of the article comments section — where all hell broke lose.

Comments sections and forums were soon shut down again, and media companies distanced themselves once again from the users — leaving a vacuum that was soon to be filled by hungry social media platforms such as Facebook (some publishers now use the Facebook comments box plugin, or other external solutions). Even the polls slowly faded away.

Now that Facebook and Google are on the verge of taking control of the entire media sector (yes, I’m exaggerating — but only a little bit), user engagement features are making a fast-paced and powerful comeback among publishers. To some extent, we have Slack to thank for that.

You might have never even noticed them — but automated tasks (the precursor of the Bot) have always been a part of digital journalism. These “robots” have populated content management systems for a long time, quietly performing simple yet crucial tasks, such as page version cleanups, synchronizing other types of media (such as video) from external sources, updating charts and tables, and so on and so forth.

Basically, that’s what a bot is: an automated task.

Messaging bots (and Twitter bots!) have also been in use for a long time. In its early days though, the messaging bot was mostly known for providing generic, not-always-that-helpful answers on company websites. Ever tried asking a silly question to an e-commerce chat bot? Then you know what I mean.

This originally appeared on Thoughts On Journalism. Henrik Ståhl is a journalist with more than 15 years of experience, recently turned Product Owner at Bonnier News, working with the digital development of Dagens industri and Dagens Nyheter. In his spare time, he’s trying to learn programming.

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