The year 2011 brought extraordinary progress for online journalism.
From breaking news curation to new revenue models, many an organization put its best digital foot forward. Social media became more tightly integrated into reporting and overall strategy, while mobile app creation and content optimization were no longer a nice-to-have, but a must.
These trends are quickly shaping the young and agile web news industry. As journalists redefine themselves with new tools and skill sets, they’re reinvigorating a business that just a few years ago was written off as doomed.
Here’s a look at six moves with the biggest impact on digital journalism this year.
1. Paywalls Find Their Footing
If 2010 was the year of the paywall, 2011 was the year the paywall worked. News organizations stopped using “our content is worth paying for” as a sole rationale, and began strategically providing value for their online content.
While the The New York Times‘s strategy was much-criticized when it launched in March, it has since turned a profit. The Minneapolis Star Tribune made an estimated $800,000 in digital circulation revenue during its first month of having a paywall, despite a 10-15% decline in web traffic. For both papers, tying online access to print subscriptions has been key to success. The Strib saw nearly 20% of its new digital subscribers also buy a Sunday subscription, while The Times said 800,000 print subscribers have linked their accounts for digital access.
These paywall models have shown the potential for creating dedicated digital subscriber bases that advertisers could eventually pay more for.
2. Andy Carvin Becomes an Icon
The Arab Spring was undoubtedly one of 2011′s biggest news events — and its main newsman comes in right behind it. When the Tunisian uprisings began last winter, Andy Carvin’s duties as NPR’s senior strategist took a backseat while his Twitter account became a one-man newswire dedicated to the culminating situation in the Middle East. He paired his knowledge of and contacts in the region to curate the best and most accurate information tweeted from the ground.
What set Carvin apart was not only his volume of tweets — his record is 1,200 tweets in 48 hours, according to The Guardian — but also his recognition of fellow Twitter users as experts. He wouldn’t hesitate to tweet unverified information and ask his Twitter followers to help him determine its accuracy.
For the journalism community, Carvin proved the value of social newsgathering and its ability to complement rather than replace traditional reporting.
3. Journalists Flock to Google+
Google kickstarted digital journalists’ biggest love affair of 2011 when it launched social network Google+ in June. Many were quick to sign on and explore the platform’s potential for news gathering, reporting and audience building.
New Jersey newspaper The Trentonian was lauded as the first to use Google+ for breaking news after its producers found a key source in a breaking news story via her comment on the paper’s Google+ page. For Missouri’s KOMU-TV, it was a social breakthrough when reporter Sarah Hill began integrating Hangouts into live TV broadcasts. She would give Hangout viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the newsroom and then interview Hangout participants on-air.
While interest in Google+ has waned since its launch, news organizations’ initial enthusiasm shows a desire to expand to communities beyond Twitter and Facebook. As the social media landscape continues to grow, this early adopter mentality will be crucial to web journalism success.
4. Mobile Gets Competitive
Though the necessity for a mobile presence was recognized far before 2011, news organizations showed a new commitment to smartphone and tablet apps this year.
News Corp took its chances with a mobile-first strategy when it launched iPad-only newspaper The Daily in February, while Betaworks’s News.me came on the scene in mid-April. Both much-hyped efforts flopped, in part because free social news reading apps, such as Flipboard and Pulse, were already widely used on tablets.
In arguably the biggest mobile move by a news organization, CNN acquired iPad app Zite in August. KC Estenson, CNN’s general manager of digital, told Mashable that Zite’s technology would help improve CNN’s digital properties and help it serve more personalized content.
There are now so many news apps, Apple felt compelled to launch Newsstand, a digital repository for magazine and newspaper apps. With an increasingly massive pool of apps, news organizations will need to find their own competitive edge in the mobile news market.
5. Facebook Makes Personal Branding Easier
Since Facebook Subscribe rolled out in September, journalists have been using the tool as a personal branding and content distribution opportunity. While Facebook fan pages have long been common for recognizable names like Nicholas Kristof, Subscribe gave lesser-known journalists a way to connect with readers on a larger scale.
For some journalists, the switch from using Facebook as a personal network to a public forum has been a challenge. Others are embracing the platform’s change by openly offering subscribers a look at not only their work but their lives.
Establishing a bonafide web presence is becoming essential for journalists who aim to become thought leaders in their coverage areas. Taking it beyond professionalism and showing personality adds to journalists’ appeal because it makes them more relatable. Moving forward, they’ll become more open about what they share on social networks, showing that they’re not just journalists, but people too.
6. The Pulitzer Goes Digital
The Pulitzer Board announced earlier this month it had revised its Breaking News category criteria to emphasize real-time reporting. This is the ultimate recognition that web journalism has come into its own.
Under the new set of guidelines, “it would be disappointing if an event occurred at 8 a.m. and the first item in an entry was drawn from the next day’s newspaper,” said to the board. In other words, the web is crucial to alerting a community about a breaking news event.
The Pulitzer Board’s gesture sets a precedent for future breaking news coverage. The recognition of web reporting’s importance by such a well-respected journalism entity will inspire more news organizations to invest in digital reporting — if they haven’t already.
What This Means for 2012
After an incredible year of news events and milestones, online journalism in 2012 has a tough act to follow. We can certainly expect more successes and more failures when it comes to business models and mobile strategies. News organizations will clamor to be the first on new social networks — they’re already flocking to pinboard site Pinterest. Journalists will connect further with their individual followers, and the 2012 Breaking News Pulitzer winner will have done a great service to its community via the Internet.
While we can only guess what the future of digital journalism holds, 2011 paved a strong path, leaving us hopeful and confident that the best has yet to come.
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