How has Stranger Collective adapted to survive as a small, independent business as the role of Journalism itself is changing?

(Published on Liquid News Room)

For my BA(Hons) Journalism course at University College Falmouth, I am undergoing a three-week work placement at Stranger Collective, a creative service and copywriting agency based in Penryn, Cornwall. Starting out as a bimonthly lifestyle publication titled ‘Stranger’ that launched in September 2004, the magazine offered a flavour of life in Britain today, shining the spotlight on the talent of young people in Cornwall, focusing on the creative side of Cornwall’s culture with a mix of music, film, environment, current affairs, surf, skate and fashion. The last printed edition of the magazine was published in August 2007 after 16 issues; Stranger now continues through Stranger Collective, publishing features, reviews and news on their website, and creating one-off print projects, such as zines, produced to coincide with local events and festivals.

Whilst on my placement at Stranger Collective, I am going to carry out a case study questioning, “How has Stranger Collective adapted to survive as a small, independent business as the role of Journalism itself is changing?” My case study will focus on Stranger Collective’s move from a printed publication into the services that it offers now, looking at the reasons behind this, how it happened, and how it has affected Stranger Collective in its present state. The purpose of my case study is to gain information about Stranger Collective itself, but also to link to journalism in a wider context as the concept of journalism moves away from printed publications with the rapid increase of online journalism. I have chosen to research this question because of its current position in the world of journalism and also because it is a subject that I have a genuine interest in, especially when it will affect my aspiring future career.

Literature Reviews/Context Theories:

The future of journalism is a topic of great discussion that is often questioned, more so in its present state, remaining an important topic for journalists and consumers alike. In the opening scene of the 2010 comedy film, ‘The Other Guys’, directed by Adam McKay, the press are interviewing two police offers. The first reporter upsettingly introduces himself as, “New York Observer…online,” whilst the next reporter grins and mockingly introduces herself as, “TMZ, Print edition.” The influence of technology is a widely recognised culprit that is changing journalism persistently, forcing a constant need for the re-examination of what journalism is and how it is practised. To do this, a series of conferences are held by a selection of organisations throughout the year to debate current issues about journalism and concerns that have risen from journalists’ daily work.

Professor Bob Franklin is the founding Editor of both leading journals, Journalism Studies and Journalism Practise. Together, these journals analyse and develop all aspects of journalism including journalism education, journalism studies, issues arising from journalism and a reflection on journalism across all media platforms. These journals, organised by Franklin, hold a biennial research-based conference, ‘The Future Of Journalism’, bringing together journalists, editors, academics and commentators to discuss these topics further. Researched papers are submitted from scholars from all around the world and the lectures from the conference are published in special issues of Journalism Studies and Journalism Practise, along with a book published by Routledge shortly after.

The BBC’s College of Journalism held their own Future of Journalism conference in London at the end of 2008, and The Guardian published a series of articles on their conference, also held in 2008. Collectively, these papers give a great insight into the discussion based around the future of journalism over the past five years. I am now going to discuss the main topics that have arisen from these conferences, which will then inform a basis of questions for my work placement at Stranger Collective.

Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC World Service and head of BBC’s Multimedia Newsroom, believes that because of online journalism, information is becoming available on a single platform, a single news universe made up from a variety of sources, leading the consumer to become unaware of the information’s original source. He says that, “Internet-based journalism may be the most significant contributor to this business collapse,” and that, “The ability of audience to pull together their preferred news is bringing the walls of the fortress tumbling down.” The internet has developed a network for journalism where like-minded people will come to interact. Professor of Interactive Journalism at the City University of New York, Jeff Jarvis, believes that this link, this network journalism, is worth more than the content itself and that it will allow organisations to become better connected. He says, “Cover what you do best. Link to the rest.”

To add to this, Zoe Smith, online broadcast journalist at ITV News, says that, “Collaboration is the key to successful journalism in an increasingly connected and shared media space.” She discusses the need for multiple platforms and the introduction of multimedia into the news room, explaining that the internet is the fastest growing communication medium in history. She says, “I realised that to sustain a career in journalism, it would be in my interest to embrace the potential of online.” Multiplatform journalism is becoming a big issue of the present. Kevin Marsh, Editor of BBC College of Journalism in 2006, agrees and says that, “The web is enabling out former audiences to come to their news in their ways at their times,” and that, “We need to understand that the news is multi-layered.”

Derren Lawford, documentary maker and presenter for Radio 1 and 1Xtra, learnt the importance of multiplatform journalism through developing ‘Born Survivors’, a strand of documentaries on the BBC3 that told the extraordinary stories of a group of young people. He said that, “I knew these subjects would be of interest to the audience long after the transmission on television. I also knew that the very people we wanted to engage with in these films might not even watch the channel. That’s why I provided a space for our audience to shape the debate and share their views online.” Lawford created a series of ‘minisodes’, a widespread use of embedded videos that created an online community around the series. By the third repeat of the series, people were still largely interested in the program because these minisodes had created a great awareness around the program, tapping into other communities as well as creating its own. This lead Lawford to become the Multiplatform Editor for Panorama’s website, which he re-developed through creating more to read, watch, comment and contribute to. He says, “My conclusion? Multiplatform initiatives in current affairs programming can offer the audience strong journalistic content here, there, and everywhere.”

However, Guy Pelham, Live Editor for BBC Newsgathering, questions whether multimedia platforms will affect the quality of journalism and asks, “Can we afford to do it? Can we afford not to?” Pelham specialises in identifying new ways of reporting live for all of BBC’s network news outlets. He questions whether incorporating all of these multimedia platforms will create too much of a work load for the journalist and believes that we need to change the way we work and make better use of people to make multimedia an integral part of the journalism practise.

On Helium’s website, Rand E. Oertle added that he believes that the fundamental change that has impacted newspapers today isn’t the internet or technology itself, but the concept of time. He says that, “We now live in a 24/7 world, a world where the print media cannot follow,” and that, “Newspapers and even television, to a degree, are fixed-time media. Readers no longer want to wait for their news to be brought to them tomorrow morning. The future of hardcopy format print media is bleak.” Readers’ demands have soared; they now want an unlimited selection of content at all times from all places. Technology has rapidly transformed global news coverage and, because of online journalism, information can be published as soon as it breaks. Technology allows instant publishing, instant change, and, as Oertle puts it, ‘literally an instant news world.’ Newspapers just don’t have this luxury that online journalism is offering.

This then opens up to other advantages of online journalism. Social media sites such as Twitter have become hugely valuable tools, connecting people across the world as a source of comment and content. Twitter has a faster, on-the-go, more condensed communication allowing instant, short fragments of information from a variety of sources. Marcus Messner and Asriel Eford discuss how US traditional media are adopting microblogging and say that, “While the body of research on blogging and social networking is constantly growing, only a few researchers have turned their attention to he concept of microblogging and its diffusion throughout mainstream media.”

Although many see the advantages of using social media, Jon Bramley questions how it will affect the way we report, commenting that journalism is beginning to shift away from the foundation that it was built on. He says that, “On the one hand, they [news agencies] touch on all the facets that this new age of journalism has to offer – social media, citizen journalism, multimedia platforms and the use of blogs and online journalism – and, in a sense, are defining how the world begins to incorporate these various innovations into mainstream journalism. On the other, they are facing a myriad of cultural, ethological and ethical challenges with each boundary they break.” Susan Jacobson draws on this and says that, “Conventional wisdom dictates that the future of newspaper journalism is online,” but adds that there are no clear models of how to do journalism online. Still, the employment of online journalism is exploding whilst print journalism is being cut back because of financial concerns, loss of trust and credibility problems. Wilson Lowrey argues that blogging has been adopted by professional journalists in order to regain this trust.

Alternatively, Sarah Torribio, again on Helium’s website, discusses the record number of cuts in jobs and says that journalism isn’t going away but that it is going through tough times. She says, “Some journalists whose jobs are safe, for the moment, are leaving journalism themselves, because they are tired of working in a troubled industry,” and comments that it’s easier to maintain a job as a journalism teacher than to stay employed as a journalist. Sizzle Creative, a creative agency from Bolton, state on their website as one of their main services that, “With the rise of the web and digital media, what does the future hold for traditional printed literature?” and add that, “At Sizzle, the brochure, corporate folder and even the humble flyer are very much alive and well.” Are publishing companies now having to plea for customers to carry on using print media? Patrick Barkham, feature writer at The Guardian, says that, “The big challenge for all journalists, young and old, is adapting to the new media age. Churning out content for the web could be deskilling but it is also an opportunity to learn new skills, including telling stories in audio and video. It is a hoary old cliché but you have to keep learning new skills to survive in journalism.”

Furthermore, James Curran of the Goldsmith’s Media Research Centre describes the traditional news management as ‘ostrich-like.’ He says that, “The rise in internet is comparable to TV in the 1950s and it will suck audiences,” and adds that there is a tendency to “romanticise” the citizen journalist, suggesting that a public foundation could provide an innovative, low-cost form of journalism. He says, “Whatever path is followed, it’s not enough to predict passively the future of journalism; we also need to look at how we shape journalism.”

But journalism has come even further still with the more recent technology of iPads and mobile applications. Sir Tim Berners Lee, the professor credited with invented the World Wide Web, says that, “More and more people are going to be using mobile phones and things you put in your pocket to access the web. That’s a really important move.” With the portability of Ipads, mobile phones with a constant network connection and laptops, the competition from print journalism is becoming a bit of a lost cause. Berners Lee describes how ITV ON was the first UK company to create made-for-mobile news and weather channels in 2003, which became the number one free news app globally. He says, “The key is making it [the news] available in a format that they want to use.”

Philip Trippenbach, TV Journalist for the CBC in New York, takes this further and questions how journalism could exploit even newer opportunities provided by gaming. Gaming is the youngest medium in our society and has come further faster than any other in history. Trippenbach says that, “The interactive nature of video games gives journalism an opportunity to reach audiences in powerful new way. It is an opportunity not to be missed.” He then goes on to explain how gaming has many advantages that journalism could make use of. For instance, gamers as a group are more interested in politics – and more politically active – than non-gamers, people find games more stimulating and thought-provoking than TV and cinema and, indicated from a BBC audience research, a majority of gamers think that games can be used for education as well as entertainment. Video games give a different approach to increase understanding of factual subjects with an unparalleled level of engagement, committing to accuracy and realisation whilst allowing the user to explore the model at leisure. He uses examples of games such as American Army, a tool used for the armed forces, and Sim City, an example of interactive communications. Entertainment and news are already merging to comfort younger generations, but Trippenbach believes it can be taken further and that it is time we started using video games for more than entertainment.

Additionally, Paul Hambleton, Executive Producer of TV Newsgathering at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, discusses working with user-generated content (UGC). He believes that it is worthwhile to incorporate UGC, but questions how media professions should engage with it. With the wave of social networking and citizen journalism, the media needed to get involved. This need came alongside a need from the public to express themselves. In 2009, media organisations started developing citizen journalism sites with three-dimensional pages and comment sections, putting them well in the game. The media found a way to communicate with the audience, but had not figured out how to make the connection beyond this. Hambleton described this is a “high-school type of relationship.”

Matthew Eltringham also works with UGC as the Assistant Editor running the BBC News UGC Hub which he set up in 2005. He manages the thousands of emails and pictures sent into the BBC every day.[ ] The BBC UGC hub is a team of 23 journalists based in the heart of the newsroom who deal with 10 to 20,000 emails a day from all over the world. He believes that the audience play an invaluable role; UGC helps news organisations to join up with social media and other networks. Colleague Dr Claire Wardle says that, “Now, every day on the hub there’s a core team out on Flickr and Twitter looking for news stories, going to where the conversation is taking place rather than waiting for it to come to them. The hub has an awareness of how it [social media] works, and is trying to get the rest of the BBC to take it on board.”

However, Sarah Hartley reported on the Guardian that, “Research into journalists’ views of the contributions made by website users found that many consider it a distraction from doing the “real job” of journalism,” taking their time away from other activities that they felt they should be doing. Jane Singer of the University of Central Lancashire says that the replies revealed the journalists felt that they needed to be the gatekeepers of that content, and had skills which the general public didn’t possess to enable them to do that. She says, “These local journalists do favour extending their control over user contributions, but fear they can’t do it and unless it’s managed, it will be a disservice to readers and the newspaper brand. They are emphatic that this content won’t replace their work.”

Finally, during The Guardian’s Future of Journalism conference in 2008, Jeff Jarvis, professor of journalism at City University in New York and Media Guardian contributor, stated ten questions that news organisations should be asking, with the majority of them focusing on the Guardian, and touching upon topics that have arisen in other conferences. These questions included whether we need a new, appropriation relationship with our audience, a new way of relating with readers, referring back to user generated content. He said: “It’s not just about creating content, but also curating people.” He also questioned whether a company is findable, bringing in the network journalism that Peter Horrocks mentioned. Finally, he questioned whether Guardian was a platform in itself, commenting that other companies are catching up with it and that it could go a lot further, creating a miniature case study in the company himself.

These topics have all been raised a number of times over the years, and are still being questioned and developed today. At 2009’s conference Bettina Peters, one of the opening plenary speakers, said: “What I’ve found interesting is the discussion about how new media, citizen journalists and blogs have become additional established sources for professional journalists.” It’s obvious that the influence of online journalism is a dominant topic and that it will be developed and continuously questioned for years to come. This year, Sheffield student Lily Carver will be presenting a paper from her PhD, researching online journalism in local British newspapers and the changing nature of journalist interaction with readers. But the constant need for this re-examination is not a bad thing. Guardian journalist, Sarah Hartley, says that, “While recognising the challenging times, most of those I spoke to felt very strongly that journalism was not only here to stay – but that was more necessary than ever, given the sheer volume of news and information the modern world needs to process.”

This years Future of Journalism conference is the third in the series and will be held on the 8th and 9th September 2011 at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. This years speakers include Robert McChesney, chair in the Department of Communications at Illinois University and co-author of The Death And Life Of American Journalism and Rich Media, Poor Democracy, and Emily Bell, professor of Professional Practise and Director of the Tow Centre of Digital Journalism at Columbia University and founding editor of Media Guardian and Editor in Chief of Guardian Unlimited.

As well as these conferences, a trailer was released this month for ‘Page One: Inside The New York Times’, an American fly-on-the-wall documentary by Andrew Rossi, filmed over a year inside The New York Times, which will be released on June 24th. The documentary explores the ongoings and changes throughout the New York Times newsroom and the inner workings of the Media Desk. With the major threat to newspapers that is the internet surpassing print as our main news source, which is my main topic of debate, Page One archives the transformation of the media industry in the time of its greatest turmoil. The trailer introduces us to the staff of the paper and previews some of the main points of debate, including a comment on how Wikileaks avoided sending their information to the newspapers and rather put a video on YouTube for people to find. Katey Rich of Cinema Blend commented that, “Even 30 years from now… Page One will remain a vital and fascinating portrait of the news and the people who make it.”

For now, I want to take these main topics used in the discussion on the future of journalism to form a basis of questions to discuss with Stranger Collective, to see how they have adapted as a company and to find out whether they have been affected by the same aspects.

Methods:

I first contacted Stranger Collective through their Director, Helen Gilchrist. My first method of research was a meet-up with Helen herself, a month before my placement. This first meeting consisted of a brief discussion about what my placement was going to entail. This was also a means for me to gather some basic background information about Stranger Collective and some of the projects that they were currently working with which prepared me for both my placement and to start writing my case study over the Easter break.

On the first day of my placement, we had a Work In Progress (WIP) meeting which introduced me to all of the projects that Stranger Collective was working on. Through this and various other brief meetings throughout my placement, I was able to get a strong understanding of these projects in great detail as I began to work with them. I then interviewed Helen properly in the second week of my placement so that I could ask more specific questions.

Finally, I made a quick questionnaire through Facebook’s new polling option to include a public opinion in my case study, and also to use a different research method. My question was:

Where do you get the majority or your news from?
– Newspapers/Magazines
– TV/Radio
– Online Publications
- Social Media Sites (e.g. Twitter)

Findings:

Helen began her career with a first class English degree which followed with a distinction in a post-graduate Journalism diploma. After having work experience and freelancing for three and half years in London with various publications such as Time Out, The Independent and The Observer, Helen realised that she wanted to focus her career on lifestyle and culture features rather than investigative journalism. She further realised her passion in magazine publishing after working with Adrenaline magazine with the – now – creators of Little White Lies and Huck.

Helen moved back to Cornwall to secure start-up funding for the first issue of Stranger which launched in September 2004. As a free magazine, Stranger never made enough money for Helen to make a living out of so she carried on as a freelance copywriter in her free time, but the magazine started to get busier and busier. After three issues, University College Falmouth contacted Helen about handing out Stranger along with their prospectuses as they recognised Stranger as a strong and independent voice, communicating the interesting side of Cornwall’s culture which they believed would be a valuable tool in helping to recruit students.

Around July 2005, Helen was then asked to start writing and publishing the whole prospectus. This was Stranger Collective’s first big contract outside of the publication, which then became a calling card for other companies. Stranger started to become noticed for its substance as well as style and started to gain an interest from older audiences because of its way of communicating, which Helen found flattering.

After this, Helen started getting involved with a variety of projects alongside the magazine, such as the Eden’s Project online plant shop, which at this point was still running. Helen was then approached by iTunes about a festival they were hosting in London which she ended up running four different websites for. These ‘side’ projects started to become Stranger Collective’s main focus, taking up most of the time.

Although Stranger was being distributed all over the country, it was still working at a more local level whilst these side projects were more national. Stranger was also still being distributed for free, and when people started picking it up more, they couldn’t afford to keep it running this way. Stranger started using national brands for their advertising and started looking at other interesting cultures beyond Cornwall for a wider coverage of content. “I really love producing and publishing magazines,” said Helen. But although Stranger was what everybody was passionate about, it started running on a loss, and after 16 issues they decided to take a break from publishing it.

Helen says that she has learnt a lot from the business side of publishing a magazine but that she much prefers being able to produce a magazine without the stress of print and distribution. However, Helen believes that what she has learned from running Stranger helps her to run a better service through being able to understand all of the considerations that need to be taken into account. She then carried on to link with Guy Pelham’s question about whether online, multimedia journalism will affect the quality of journalism. She says that, “I think that the nature of it is that you still need those essential journalism skills but it is important to embrace these new tools as well and to take advantage of the opportunities that they present.” She also links to Rand E. Oertle and adds that, “Journalism is becoming more immediate and a lot more interactive – the reader and the journalist are much more on the same level.”

Stranger Collective is currently in the process of redesigning their website to represent the services that they offer today rather than still representing the Stranger magazine. She says that, “These days, content is so important that it’s really vital to keep updating it as much as possible with good, regular content. We need our website to reflect more of what we actually do now, as the services that we offer as a business now aren’t very clear on and because we know that we’re getting a new website, we’ve got quite behind with updating it. It’s just not a very good advertisement for our company really.”

In relation to social media, Helen disagrees with Jon Bramley and believes that Twitter is a great tool and comments that she has made a lot of contacts through it. She says, “The platforms for communicating have changed so much, and I think that even if you don’t have time to interview a variety of people, you can still engage in people communicating through social media sites – there’s a lot of very immediate ways to get opinion which can be useful as you can respond to people through these tools as well and get interesting dialogues going.” However, she does agree that, in some respects, this fundamental shift is a shame, especially in terms of proper, rigorous journalism that is creating a balanced argument and checking all of its facts.

However, in linking to the use of UGC, Helen referred to how their Myspace page is full of other people’s advertisements rather than their own information. She says that much like their Myspace page, the issue with comment is that you need to be able to moderate it. Much like Sarah Hartley and Jane Singer commented, Helen says that, “Just because the users are generating the content, that doesn’t mean that there’s no work involved from the publishers point of view. It can be really good but you can’t underestimate the resources that are needed.”

As a final point, in response to my quick poll on Facebook, online journalism far out beat other sources of information. Additionally, many of those who replied that they get their news through social media sites then commented that this led them to the online publication that they would read. Here’s a screen shot of my results:

Conclusion:

In conclusion, a lot of my primary research related really well to Helen’s plans in redesigning their website. This was because I had largely researched my literature reviews online before my final interview with Helen, so I was readily prepared with questions that related to my case study.

Meeting Helen beforehand was a very useful method used in my case study. Not only did this establish an open relationship with Helen, detailing the purpose and nature of my case study thoroughly to her at an early stage, but it also meant that I could readily prepare for the placement itself and have a set of questions ready for my first day. Because of this open relationship, and because the office only consisted of two people, it was then very easy for me to talk to Helen throughout my placement at any point, which meant I was able to find out everything mainly through conversation. However, this also meant that I didn’t use a variety of research methods as these short, but often, meetings and interviews meant that I didn’t need to. Therefore, I don’t think this created a negative point in my case study as I still managed to gain all of the data that I intended to achieve.

Also, working on the various projects that I was assigned for three weeks in itself meant that I was able to learn from my own experience how Stranger Collective were adapting and how they worked. For example, by working on some competitor research I learnt the reasons why Stranger Collective were still adapting and how they planned to it. I gained my data as I went along, whether it was part of the plan or not, constantly collecting information through my average daily routine.

Overall, there are many features changing the role and practise of journalism, with the influence of online journalism having the biggest effect. Stranger Collective are not an online publication, but they have had to move away from working on the printed magazine and now work a variety of projects that are very online-based. As a business, they have still had to come to terms will of these features affecting the practise of journalism, and in the process of redesigning their website they have had to take them into consideration for their own business.

What does the future of journalism hold? It’s hard to comment. Some journalists are embracing the new opportunities that technology offers, whilst others are content on holding onto traditional journalism practises. I can only comment that Stranger Collective is very aware of this fundamental shift and that they are using this knowledge to their advantage.

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