Digitally Yours: Quality journalism cannot be devalued in favor of social video

Dariel Filomeno | Daily Trojan

The phrase “pivot to video” has been humorously — and bitterly — tossed around in media circles since 2015. Media publishers and newsrooms began investing in the growing trend of profitable video content, a move that signified a shift away from more traditional media of journalism, specifically articles and text-based storytelling. In other words, a new digital media landscape meant a modification in journalistic strategies and fundamentals: Scale back on time-consuming, investigative (and expensive) reporting; invest in snappy, profitable, short-form video that can be done on a relatively low budget.

The industry’s tendency to shift toward this supposedly “profitable” medium of journalism, one that depends on distributive social platforms like Facebook, was dangerously and irreversibly stupid. The decision was purely economic and based on observed, unsupported trends, but disguised as a strategy for improved audience engagement. Instead, publishers should have sought to invest in long-term growth of meaningful multimedia and interactive journalism. While there is a need for better distribution and audience engagement with newsroom content, the snappy one-minute video is a sloppy, quick fix for an industry that has struggled to thrive in an evolving digital landscape.

An emphasis on short-form video not only devalues traditional forms of journalism, but also long-form, deep-dive documentary work. It sends a message that fast, easy and quick bits of content — whether it be aggregated news articles or short videos — should be prioritized in the newsroom, rather than serve as an economic supplement. This ultimately does more harm than good to the quality of content produced by the industry.

Last Wednesday, a class action lawsuit brought on by a group of advertisers alleged that Facebook had overestimated users’ average video watch time by 150 to 900 percent, an issue the company hid from users and publishers, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The case drew attention from journalists, publishers and industry professionals, as most journalists unremittingly criticized the social platform for falsely pushing a “pivot to video” narrative perpetuated by gullible publishers. The trend, they alleged, spurned massive layoffs of writers and traditional journalists, as newsrooms sought to invest in social media staffers and short-form video producers. And as Facebook took back its promise for a visual future (“There will be less video,” Facebook’s head of news feed said in January), newsrooms like Vox, Refinery29 and New York Daily News scaled back their social teams in an unprecedented digital pullback.

Publishers have been quick to note that their decision was not based on Facebook’s emphasis on video at all in another WSJ report. Why would they completely shift their newsroom strategy to accommodate the most popular distributive platform they funnel their work onto? Because the journalism industry’s entire business model is rooted in advertising dollars, especially when content distribution is tied to social media platforms.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Facebook or publishers are to blame for the pivot to video phenomenon. What matters is whether or not publishers and newsroom leaders will change the industry’s current course without firing and rehiring journalists who specialize in a variety of different skills. I’m not arguing that video skills aren’t crucial to a modern newsroom; in fact, a state-of-the-art newsroom should invest in journalists with unique specializations, skills and beats to create a well-rounded product for audiences of all ages and interests.

This pivot to video dream embraced by publishers is truly infuriating and reckless.

I’m angry that the media industry has temporarily thrown away the most basic and fundamental reporting skills necessary for good journalism for something more economically innovative. I’m angry that for most of my journalism education, I was told that the future is digital, that print readership and news was dying and that no one reads the Daily Trojan. I’m angry that hard working journalists with crucial beats were laid off from their jobs because the industry felt that time-consuming, door-knocking, on-the-ground reporting should be valued less because it doesn’t offer anything visually exciting.

Terry Nguyen is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the digital managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Digitally Yours,” runs every other Wednesday.