Creativity Creative Thinking

What Marketers Can Learn from Digital Storytelling in the Newsroom


Compared with others of its kind, the 24 hours newsroom in Vancouver, Canada, was relatively small. As a newfangled upstart in a field of seasoned news organizations, we had a couple of freelance photographers, about three or four full-time reporters, three desk editors (the editor-in-chief and myself included), and a proofreader who would come in at 4 p.m.—all of us putting a fresh paper to bed every single night. Despite the slim team, we managed to stay shoulder-to-shoulder with the local media giants in the mid-to-late 2000s.

Likewise, you, the content marketer, can do a lot with limited resources to stay relevant—and make a big splash—in a competitive marketing industry projected to see overall spend exceeding $600 billion in 2017.

Basically, here’s what you can learn from our little newsroom: We had to be clever with what we had at the time, to extract stories from what was out there and then deliver them to the masses, all the while fine-tuning our skills in the art of digital storytelling.

Were we trailblazers? Not quite, but we did take advantage of newer technologies in ways that the more established guys did not—all with fewer people on board.

So How Did We Do It?

In the past, the well-financed newsrooms consisted of a battalion of specialists. Sports reporter, news editor, court reporter, press conference photographer, managing editor, desk editor, cameraman, video editor, editor-in-chief, copy editor, web editor, headline guy—the list goes on.

Flickr credit: Mike Licht

Our newsroom, on the other hand, worked with a handful of multitalented utility players and multitaskers. We also had the advantage of being fast-turning kayaks against the slow-moving ocean liners in the media seascape. We used information and technology smartly with the limited resources we had. With a smartphone, our reporter could go out to a location, get the story, record the interviews, write down notes, take photos and videos of the scene, write a quick placeholder article, and email it back to the newsroom (to me), with regular updates as needed.

As one of the primary points of contact, I’d receive that article in my inbox, polish it with some copy editing and proofreading, and then post to the paper’s website as quickly as possible. I’d then put on my social-media hat and Tweet it, post it to our newspaper’s Facebook page, and update accordingly throughout the day. That’s two people doing the work of some 5-10 people in a larger newsroom. At the time, that science was more the realm of quick-acting bloggers and independent journalists—but during the cutbacks that swept through media and reduced our resources in the late 2000s, we were forced to adapt quickly.

And now? Essentially, the traditional newsroom has not only become a multitasking effort using a variety of tools in the palm of your hand. It’s also become a more powerful collaborative effort between people who are not necessarily working in the same room.

More importantly to the content marketer, the evolution of digital storytelling means it’s now possible with a smaller department of quick-thinking multitaskers within a larger enterprise rather than as an entity in itself.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

William Wolfe-Wylie, an editorial web developer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada’s national broadcaster, was on the frontlines when shrinking newsrooms were forced to work more cohesively.

“But more interestingly, collaboration between newsrooms has also increased,” says Wolfe-Wylie, who previously worked as an editorial coordinator and columnist for Sun Media, one of Canada’s largest media chains. “Awards have started to recognize how big projects have come about because of the collaboration of two or three media outlets working different angles on a common story,” Wolfe-Wylie adds, citing the Panama Papers and the Edward Snowden leaks as examples, as well as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW)—an issue that has taken Canada by storm.

Credit: miniyo73

Wolfe-Wylie also recognizes the increasing role of technology in the newsroom. It’s not just smartphones enabling reporters and editors to communicate more effortlessly.

“The rise of social media has also allowed staff at different news outlets to more clearly see that they do not work in a vacuum and find the similar outlooks and projects of their colleagues in other outlets. That has given rise to collaborative learning and teaching spaces where journalists from across a city can gather, share skills, and share ideas with each other,” he says.

It’s not just in newsrooms, either. This collaboration is likewise bridging different entities toward similar goals in overall content, such as in Conde Nast’s partnership with Cadillac or Netflix with The Wall Street Journal.

Respect the Code

Newsrooms’ efforts have also evolved to be much more data-focused, with coding becoming a core skill to help reporters and journalists tell a story that best resonates with the audience. This is the most exciting thing to happen in newsrooms in recent years, says Wolfe-Wylie.

“For decades, we designed pages of the newspaper in line with how the story was best told. We had basic templates for everyday stories, but we deviated from them when necessary to tell the crucial stories in their best form,” he says. “Today, we can do the same with the web. We have basic templates for breaking news and everyday story publishing, but we also have the freedom to unleash the full power of the web on great storytelling experiences when appropriate.”

This is where coders come in, harnessing their creative talents toward a much more engaging end result. Even the Content Standard shows examples of this via exploring innovative story templates and utilizing multimedia to create a strong and impactful story. So, it’s not just coding in itself—it’s coding en route to a better overall user experience.

“That process has been liberating to great journalists and for developers who want to tell great stories. It’s also a process that we’re still working on and exploring; it’s still very new, which makes it exciting, too,” Wolfe-Wylie adds.

Flickr credit: nigelpepper

Data in the Spotlight

The growth of advanced online templates in storytelling goes hand-in-hand with the increasing popularity of data as a raw source of information. The Washington Post, in its Fact Checker feature, recently mined public data from various government divisions to assess the validity of US presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s recent claims that illegal immigrants have sent crime “through the roof.” On the entertainment side, Toronto’s The National Post showcased the collaborative effort of Rihanna, Kanye West, and other participants in rapper Drake’s new album release with a colorful interactive map. In Britain, The Guardian‘s Datablog scraped its own archives as well as those of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph while cross-referencing a database of baby names from the Office for National Statistics to determine women’s representation in the mainstream media.

At The Guardian, executive editor of digital Aron Pilhofer called this a deliberate shift in strategy: “Instead of doing things the way we do it now, which is some variation of publish and pray, we want to be a little more data driven about the way we do pretty much everything from structure of the newsroom to content itself. […] The goal of this is to find ways of being a lot smarter about how we publish, when we publish, what we publish, the formats we publish, what tools we use. So we may want to do something creative online around a particular event, and looking at the audience we are trying to target, it might dictate a completely different strategy than it would an investigative piece.”

The newsroom story detailed in Spotlight, the investigative-journalism drama that rocked the movie world in 2015, has its roots in data analysis, and in fact, may have been the original trailblazer. Matt Carroll—the so-called “database reporter” at The Boston Globe who extracted patterns out of the Church’s own annual directories to unveil the cover-up of clerical sex abuse in Boston—was a trailblazer. He called the Spotlight investigation “the last great enterprise newspaper story, and the first great Internet newspaper story.”

“We used those databases as the heart of the story, the nut of the story, the hard kernel of truth,” Carroll added.

The Spotlight team even uploaded public records—which it fought for in court—online, in a fresh development for readers just beginning to use the web. This meant that “readers could go right to the source material,” said Michael Rezendes, one of the lead reporters on the Spotlight team. “That also added to the power of the story.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation marked the beginning of that new evolution in the newsroom—the mining of a seemingly bottomless well of data to extract a meaningful story. Nowadays, with more recent foundation-shaking releases of once-veiled information such as the Snowden releases and the Panama Papers comes a Spotlight-like scramble to find meaningful information within that data to resonate with the audience. In fact, quick-thinking coders have even built a database to help journalists extract the desired data from the Panama Papers, which includes information on some 320,000 companies.

Likewise, in the marketing realm, the advent of technology regularly commands a paradigm shift in how brands connect with potential consumers. Surely, you’re not going to go ahead and extract damaging information to take down the CEO of a rival corporation, but what you can do is take a seemingly meaningless and bottomless well of numbing statistics and extract an interesting slice of story from that process. (Sorry to say, but it’s sometimes true: Carroll did describe his Spotlight experience as “unbelievably boring, incredibly laborious, and there were a lot of false positives.”) Carroll didn’t have the luxury, but thanks to today’s coders such as Wolfe-Wylie and those who built the Panama Papers database, your work is made much easier.

Flickr credit: langsdalelibrary

Imagine this scenario: you have access to 80 years worth of consumer activity in your own enterprise, and it’s all online now thanks to the IT department, which has digitized an entire basement’s worth of files into one searchable database. Consider the content possibilities—not only for determining your market and its response to your marketing schemes, but also for coming up with interesting stories that will really tap into the psyche of your current target market. Boston Globe editor Marty Baron in Spotlight said “I think they’ll be interested,” when telling his publisher about looking into the Catholic Church coverup for the first time. Your audience will be interested, too, if you play your cards right.

Sharing Expert Knowledge

IBM is an example of a brand that has launched a successful newsroom that balances data via its different departments and worldwide internet security trends to drive news on IT security concerns. Much of its content involves data analysis and extensive research. X-Force, IBM Security’s research and development wing, digs deep into the minefield that is the internet and identifies threats in their early gestation period and—based largely on a sense of social responsibility as well as brand awareness—announces them to the public before they become a larger problem.

For example, the identification of the Dyre Wolf Campaign, a scheme utilizing spear phishing, malware and DDoS which has stolen more than a million dollars from targeted organizations, revealed valuable information to the public in April 2015 to protect further assets from being stolen. Security Intelligence—IBM Security’s content wing—followed this up in July 2015 with new information about the Dyre malware setting their sights on Spanish banks, in order to “help prepare and protect targeted banks against the heightened security risk.”

Security Intelligence’s newsroom has even stepped ahead of the news curve, with its stories being used as sources in the mainstream media. This includes a New York Times piece on Middle Eastern petrochemical plants being targeted by hackers and a Recode article on vulnerabilities found in mobile dating apps on Android phones.

As Vice President of Services at Skyword Andrew Wheeler writes, IBM Security’s newsroom concept is a success story of the trends reflected above—it is the result of a collaborative effort of data and information from social media, analyst relations, PR and communications, sales, products and research, and its own publication. In the newsroom itself, Wheeler adds, there’s a point person who collects and manages all this data and determines the best way to leverage and distribute to the public at large through unique stories. That’s a trendsetting brand newsroom firing powerfully on all cylinders.

Journalism Is Far from Dead

At its very core, storytelling is still in vogue and always will be. While bewailing the collapse of the traditional model of the fourth estate, William Wolfe-Wylie remains optimistic: “Human stories need to be told, and people have an undying urge to tell them. That will mean journalism will still be made and we’ll see an enormous number of startups filling the void.”

Is it possible that brands can fill that void as well with their own newsrooms? “There is a real opportunity here and great business models to support good journalism. With the right structure and the right barriers in place, brand-supported investigative journalism can be a fully functioning member of the journalism community,” Wolfe-Wylie adds.

Be it part of a brand, in investigative journalism or as a traditional model, the newsroom continues to hone its craft in digital storytelling. “We will always evolve, we will always adapt and we will always endeavor to tell the best stories in the best way using the technology of the age,” says Wolfe-Wylie. “Those who fail to adapt will be left behind, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

And many traditionally-minded marketers are searching for the new go-ahead in the game—it’s in digital storytelling. Building a savvy editorial department that encompasses the tricks and trades of the successful multitasking newsroom, particularly in data extraction, information delivery and collaborative efforts, will help your enterprise rise to the top in the content game.

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Keith MacKenzie is an editorial manager at Skyword, and has more than a decade of full-time experience as writer and editor in the mainstream and community media. He has worked in numerous different capacities including in non-profit, digital marketing, blogging, report writing and editing, international development, community management and many other fields. Originally from Vancouver, he now makes his home in the Boston area. He has been to Chernobyl—twice—and sometimes wonders if he still has all his marbles.

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