Working in Digital Journalism (Case Studies)

Philip O’Connor (Stockholm)  Jemima Kiss (London)  Phil Sands (Beirut)
Philip O’Connor (Stockholm) Jemima Kiss (London) Phil Sands (Beirut)

When I first started working at a daily newspaper there was a darkroom alongside a bank of neg scanners.  It was 2001 and thankfully I had arrived armed with a digital SLR. I learned that to deliver what the news desk demanded within 12 hours or less, I had to move fast, get the shot in a few frames and get to the next job as quick as possible.
After a while I discarded the map book for my PDA with car navigation. This was before mainstream PNDs (Portable Navigation Devices) what we now call SatNavs. It was also witchcraft according to some of the older photographers.  Still, I found places quicker. I also found that if I took my massive laptop my in the boot of my Mini I could hot desk pubs throughout the day and work remotely. This had multiple benefits. It meant I could get my editing done on the fly and stay out of the way of the editors.

Sat at the picture desk 2003
Sat at the picture desk 2003

At the end of the day I would load my compact flash cards with pre captioned images. This made for a quick and easy drag and drop on the picture desk, and an even quicker escape to the carpark.

It’s not that I didn’t like the job.  I loved taking pictures and talking to the people in them.  It’s just that I could see desperate times coming.  And the sense of impending doom affected those in command.  Made them hard to be around.

So in 2003 I left the newspaper industry. The walls had closed in a little too much to be comfortable. Even evolving my work flow so I could send images in from my car wasn’t enough.  The Industry had just been hit with a massive drop in advertising revenue and I could see the cuts were coming faster than changes in thinking.

I became freelance and never looked back.  The disruption in the industry seemed constant, so for myself I developed three business models.  Taking photos became multimedia documenting.  I was asked more and more to give workshops on how to do that and occasionally I was also paid to tell stories at conferences. I still am.

There’s a lot to be learned from those that make digital journalism work for them. Both inside and outside the organisations.  No two workflows are the same.  So I contacted a number of working journalists and asked them the same set of questions.

I’d love to tell you I’d carefully thought out and planned what I was going to ask.  The reality was, at the time, I needed a quick and easy case study for a workshop I was delivering to a group of journalists. Traditional journalists making their tentative first steps into networked publishing.  From the emails I fired off these are the folks who kindly responded.  It was certainly interesting to see the diversity of working practices. I immediately thought of a whole heap of  questions I wish i’d asked.  I guess that’s why i’m a blogger and these guys are the Journalists.

I have huge respect for these guys.  I met Phil O’Connor via Twitter in Stockholm. He kindly bought me lunch.  I first met Jemima Kiss in Austin Texas when she interviewed me about my time in Iraq.

And Phil Sands. We became good friends in the newsroom of the daily newspaper I worked at. He wrote many of the words that would go with my photos.  We left around the same time.

Philip O’Connor – Freelance Journalist (Sweden)  @PhilipOConnor


CP:  What percentage of your work is for print only?

PO:  Virtually none. Everything I do is intended to be multimedia, and always pitched in that way. That said, probably 60-70% turns up in print at some point. 

CP:  What kind of content do you now produce compared to when you worked in print?

PO: I think it’s more interesting as the addition of visuals (especially those chosen by me) leads to a more rounded reporting. You are no longer constrained by trying to tell the who/what/when/where straight news story as quickly as possible. This means also that you can take a very niche subject and still make it appealing to a wide audience.

CP: How has your workflow changed?

PO:  Utterly.  Delivery of text is now much quicker, so for a news event I use the time saved to edit video for upload to Newsflare or direct to a client, and stripping out audio for delivery to radio producers. It is nothing like it used to be – quicker, more pressure but also far, far more satisfying.

CP:  How has your equipment changed?

PO:  It is constantly changing.  Even in the five years since I went freelance full-time it has changed. It has gotten smaller, offers better quality and is now much more connected. For instance, I use an SD card that sends still images directly to my computer as I take them, and a GoPro with wireless that does the same. I even bought a quadcopter to give me a different visual perspective on news events.

Biggest recent change was the switch to the Sony Xperia Z1 phone – HD video, 20 million mp camera – attach a mic and it’s the closest I’m going to get to a single connected device that allows me to do all I want to do at a level of quality I find acceptable.

CP:  How has the switch to digital affected your income?

PO: I’m quite contrarian in that I see it as an opportunity, not a threat. I’d say I probably make more now, but I kind of have to work harder to make sure I’m operating at the maximum. For instance, if I sell a video for €500, a text article for €200 and do ten radio slots for €50 each, that’s a good return, as they are usually 2-5 minutes long.

A day spent writing for an English newspaper might only net you £200. Digital and technology allows you to tell the same story several times over in different channels. It also makes it so much easier to market your work to editors.

CP:  How has the switch to digital affected your working hours?

PO:  Not really that much. I work pretty much all the time, because I’m always looking for stories etc. Its biggest effect on my working hours is that I spend less of them doing boring things that I don’t like – rendering, copying, mailing, calling. 

CP:  Have you lost any ‘traditional journalist’ friends along the way, these perhaps unhappy to evolve?

PO:  Yes, in particular in Ireland. There is a pretty considerable and open resentment to me turning up with my video camera at sporting press conferences for example – camera people I know and like resent it because, unless they adapt, they see the writing on the wall.

CP:  What does your network look like now and how important is it to you?

PO:  Big and getting bigger. Essentially it is everything, and my goal is to expand it further around the world – being a native English speaker has its advantages! It consists of colleagues, friends and sources, it is both an inspiration and a wealth of knowledge, but like all wealth, it has to be managed in order to grow. The biggest pitfall is the prestige network, where you might know lots of important people, but professionally they are of little or no use to you.

CP:  What are the biggest challenges you face in your job?

PO: Budgetary constraints, but I’m getting around that. With few exceptions, media organisations are so totally risk-verse it is almost laughable, but the more my reputation grows, the more they are inclined to take the risk and employ or commission me.

The other challenge is the “race to the bottom” – just because editors can get something on the cheap and it fills a gap doesn’t mean it’s actually any use. Filling that gap and assuming it does the job ultimately costs me money – and them credibility.

CP:  What is the weirdest platform you use and how do you use it?

PO:  Ooof, tough one. They all seem so normal to me! Newsflare is an odd one – I try to upload reasonably professional, news-report style videos for sale, while everyone else is uploading their mate getting drenched by a tidal wave!

CP:  How are you equipping yourself as you face a constant tide of change?

PO:  Build the network and monitor it. Build your brand and maximise it. Build your kit and use it. Be part of the discussion about how media is changing, and what it means for you, for news organisations and for consumers. I accept that the media business will never be the same again – but equally no-one is better placed than journalists to influence that change and their place in the brave new world. 

An example of what is illustrated above from last night. Text and video. Text filed on the final whistle then Philip went looking for World Cup quotes to keep the story ticking over.

Jemima Kiss – Head of Digital at the Guardian. (England)  @JemimaKiss

Jemima Kiss

CP:  What percentage of your work is for print only?

JK:  I try not to measure exactly – we just talk about what we think is editorially important and what we know our readers will enjoy (hopefully most stories are both those two things!!) and write whatever needs writing (or indeed auditing or videoing) and then if a story seems particularly significant or strong and mainstream/quirky etc, we will pitch it in to the paper. I’d say 1 in 15 or 20 stories we do is for print? slightly high for me as I write fewer and they tend to be the higher profile stories, but that’s about right for the whole tech section I’d say.

CP:  What kind of content do you now produce compared to when you worked in print alone?

JK:  Have only ever worked online!

CP:  How has your workflow changed?

JK:  N/A

CP:  How has your equipment changed?

JK:  N/A

CP:  How has the switch to digital affected your income?

JK:  N/A Started working as an online journalist (first job was for an email newsletter on tech and government, and one on tech and health rather presciently) in 2002 ish.

CP:  How has the switch to digital affected your working hours?

JK:  Not, although I would observe that a daily meeting seems a luxury for print journalists, even more so for a weekly or monthly, whereas online your deadline is constant. We try to meet the morning 7-9am break or the lunchtime break and try not to publish after 3pm uk time, unless it is big breaking news of course. 

CP: Have you lost any ‘traditional journalist’ friends along the way, these perhaps unhappy to evolve?

 JK: Happily no!

CP: What does your network look like now and how important is it to you?

JK: If I used Linked In I might know what it looks like… I think twitter is still the most vocal, practical representation of my network. It does feel like there’s a gap for some kind of system that ‘manages’ my contacts. The gap for me is where I meet someone, have an interesting conversational get their card, and then never talk to them again because they aren’t on my mind. I feel like a system that reminded me to contact them a month later would help. Mind you, I should just follow them on Twitter straight away, see if they are interesting and then stay in touch in that way… 

CP:  What are the biggest challenges you face in your job?

JK:  Time management, by far. Trying to overcome the distraction problem, butterfly mind. Lists and timetables, or at least listed priorities for the year that I keep referring back to help be ‘measure’ each request so i can see if it fits into our plan of what we want to achieve. It’s a bit like Stanislavski’s method acting… Story is divided into units and objectives and every action or feeling of the character, every unit, contributes to the objective of that exchange or that scene and ultimately to the objective of that character. Random analogy but you see my point. I struggle with being unrealistic about my time though, so even when I achieve a lot in one day it never feels that way!!

CP:  What is the weirdest platform you use and how do you use it?

JK:  My moleskin?! List of advantages – visibility, tangibility, easy reference, risk of getting lost! – and they seem a little odd, yet I think paper is really only just another technology and we should use it when it offers the best solution for that particular need.

CP:  How are you equipping yourself as you face a constant tide of change?

JK:  Talking to as many people and reading as much as possible – hive mind, innit!!

Recent work from Jemima Kiss on the Guardian.
Phil Sands – Freelance Journalist (Lebanon)  @PhilSands

Phil Sands in Lebanon

CP:  What percentage of your work is for print only?

PS:  Zero percent. All of it is used online and in print. In fact, the online is more important than the print, in terms of quantity and arguably ‘quality’ of readership. People who read it online include experts and specialists on Syria, not ‘just’ ordinary people. That’s not to say they are better readers, but, I suppose, more engaged. They are the ones who will retweet links to the pieces and, because they are themselves respected, that acts as an endorsement for the work, or at least an encouragement to their followers to read the piece.

CP:  What kind of content do you now produce compared to when you worked in print alone?

PS:  The basics haven’t’ changed in terms of the day to day reporting. I knock out stories just the same as I used to. The subject is different now (I cover Syria instead of Northampton) but the essence is the same.

A positive change however is story length. I’m prone to write pieces of 1500 words, which they don’t always have space for in the print version of the paper. So they’ll cut for length for print and do a different edit for digital, because space isn’t an issue. The piece still gets edited and, in theory, trimmed for flab, but it is often a different edit for the paper and online. That happens more and more these days.

I actually take fewer photos now than I used to when it was all print. Perhaps that’s strange, but I needed more time to do words and pictures. When I’m writing for daily stuff, I prefer to just write because there’s not enough time to do words and photos well. If I were doing stuff for magazines again, I’d love to do the photos and writing for a piece.

CP:  How has your workflow changed?

PS:  Gathering information has changed pretty significantly in terms of keeping up with the news (Twitter essential) and keeping up with contacts (Facebook, much as I despise it).

The huge amount of information on the internet – the volume of and speed of story production – is also a big change, in that to keep up I end up reading so much each day.

I used to read the papers, go out and interview people, write a story, file it and do one last check of the days news before the final edit in case I needed to update the piece. A 24 hour news cycle, in other words. I’d watch Newsnight at the end of the day.

Now, it’s relentless. It’s like the entire world is a newsroom, with billions of journalists filing every second and it can be tempting to try to keep up with all of that. I can get lost in Twitter or reading news sites for hours. The TV is always yelling at us all.

That can be dangerous and I’ve had to remind myself more than once that my job is to find out what’s going on and to write it up. There is value to producing original journalism, without reference to what everyone else is writing. If you spend all your time looking at other people, you can end up finding facts that suit their conclusions, rather than writing what the facts say. I’m getting a bit off topic there I realise, but that’s really important. I read a lot of ‘news’ and if you track it all back to source, you can often find it’s all from the same places – Reuters, AP, AFP. Those are great, essential, organisations but they can’t be expected to cover everything all of the time, and to do all the thinking for us,  and there’s absolutely no point in all journalists copying what they say. It’s important to go out and look under some rocks for yourself to see what’s hiding there.

 In terms of my basic writing workflow, nothing has changed really. I still use a pen and a notepad, in which I write shorthand notes of interviews. I then sit in front of a computer and write up, referring to those notes.

I do (audio) record interviews with a digital machine if the subject is willing, which isn’t always. It depends on the circumstances. Unfortunately, the stories I cover still seem to be best covered off the record. People are too cautious to speak openly out of fear they’ll be put on the radio or TV, and their voice recognised.

Another more recent workflow change is encryption. I’m now religious about encrypting my stuff, and think this should be standard practice for all journalists. If I talk to some one off the record, then type up my notes and my computer is confiscated by the authorities, or stolen, then I’ve given that contact up and surrendered their anonymity. I know of Syrian activists who were arrested and killed because a sloppy TV journalist wrote names and numbers down and wasn’t encrypting information.

So, I use True Crypt* for ALL my work files on my laptop – and the entire hard drive is itself encrypted, which gives, I hope, a double layer of protection.  [*Note: True Crypt is currently not secure.]

And if I’m emailing stuff across sensitive boundaries I use that too for encrypted attachments. I have GPG encryption on email which I use when I can – I always try to get other people to set that up so we can communicate with some sense of it being private. 

I also use ChatSecure for encrypted chat with smart phones. That has been utterly essential to my work in Syria. It’s an amazing tool and keeps people safe in a place when communications are intercepted by the secret police. You can’t say anything useful to people on What’sAp or Viber because the whole world can read it. ChatSecure I can get details.

I use Jitsi for talking to people – at least I try to – as a more secure alternative to Skype.

A final workflow change – every time I finish a notepad, I photograph every page in it and make a PDF of the pad. That gives me a digital, portable backup, and I can stash the original at home.

CP:  How has your equipment changed?

PS:  Addition of an iPhone. I really didn’t want one – I hate them – but it’s essential for ChatSecure keeping up with the news out and about and, well, doing my job.

Other than that, I’ve got a smaller camera than before – I don’t have to lug a great DSLR around to get decent photos, I can use a smaller Fuji camera. Still got the notepad though, and pens.

CP:  How has the switch to digital affected your income?

PS: Hard to say. I’m earning more than I was pre-digital but that’s because I have a ‘better’ job. I was freelancing before, which can be a hard dollar.

CP:  How has the switch to digital affected your working hours?

PS:  I’m not sure it’s accurate to say I work longer hours, or more. But I work more scattered hours because I dip into and out of work more. It’s like I’m never fully off, because that damned iPhone sits there making noises and the office can get hold of me anytime. It’s a mixed blessing, that’s for sure. I don’t have office hours. I’ve not had a holiday in five years in which I haven’t been called by my boss and asked to check or file a story.

It has made it harder to take a day off. I try to have one day a week where I don’t open the laptop, as a way to recharge. I’m always glad when I have done that.

CP: Have you lost any ‘traditional journalist’ friends along the way, these perhaps unhappy to evolve?

PS: I’ve seen people fall by the wayside to that, certainly. When I started out we had one computer in the office with an internet connection and email. I didn’t have a mobile phone (I hated them then, still do). I think I’ve done the bare minimum to keep up, and I’m glad I have. Those who fall by the wayside were very much the old school people who didn’t believe in the newfangled tech.

That said, the best journalists I now know are a mixture of old school and digital. They have all the old principles intact – the work ethic, stress on facts, gumshoe reporting, looking up when everyone else is looking down etc. But they also use the tech to do the job and the tech to get the stories out there.

You don’t have to be obsessed with the technology or a geek to be a reporter – in fact, the real geeks tend to think their toys will make up for the hard, often boring work of reporting; speaking to people, hammering the phone, going out to the scene of the crime, those essential face-to-face meetings that really cement a contact. The tech hasn’t changed those basics.

(That said, it does help to know a geek to help you along with the tech side of things.) 

CP:  What does your network look like now and how important is it to you?

PS:  I’m still on the low end of things when it comes to that. My contacts I keep in touch with on Facebook and Twitter, and the phone. Skype too, of course. Network? I don’t really have one I suppose. I have a few hundred Twitter followers but don’t push too hard on that. I know people who retweet everything that’s said about them, but I don’t bother. I’ve got a certain amount of time in the day, a certain amount of energy and I still want to put as much of that as I can into reporting.  My network is contacts, not other journalists. I try to avoid other journalists, otherwise we all end up reporting the same stuff, and thinking the same things.

CP:  What are the biggest challenges you face in your job?

PS:  Communicating securely with people. Keeping information safe. Finding original stories, and original angles to stories in a world where everyone is writing about Syria and everyone’s stories can be seen by everyone else.

Again, when I started out, if you read The Independent you probably wouldn’t read the New York Times. You’d have one or two papers to flip through, in your domestic market, each day. So papers didn’t compete with each other so much internationally. Now everything written in English is there, on the internet. That means I have to compete with the NYTimes, in way: I have to write something they haven’t written. That’s not always easy.

The other main challenge is remembering to keep doing the basics well and to NOT fall into a Twitter black hole, worrying about what everyone else is writing. Which means finding original sources and original stories. There can be a tendency in newsrooms for them to see a good story done elsewhere and they want you to ‘follow it up’.

I hate that – it’s usually a waste of time, and just means finding out who that journalist spoke to and speaking to them yourself. I’d much rather be slower with the news but get it myself from a different source even if the conclusion is the same.

CP:  What is the weirdest platform you use and how do you use it?

PS:  I’m not sure I even know what that means, which must date me….

Perhaps a notebook and my shorthand notes. Not many people do that anymore. It kept all of my information and all of my contacts safe for two years in Syria during the revolution. Someone would have had to confiscate my physical notepads and be able to read my shorthand to get at what I’d written. Impossible.

CP:  How are you equipping yourself as you face a constant tide of change?

PS:  I know a geek to help me keep up (Christian Payne).

When my contacts start using new Aps or methods, I adopt them to stay in touch. And I always remind myself that the media is not the (only) message. Whatever the tech, it all comes down to collecting information and facts, and turing it into a coherent set of words. That’s the same as it has always been. That stops it all becoming a worry. The essence is the same – find some facts, write ’em down. And the tools are making that easier, as long as you stay focused on that essence.

Other thoughts – 

The news organisation I write for is not a best practice model when it comes to journalism, and certainly not digital journalism. So although it’s a great time to be a journalist, in other ways not so wonderful. We can, and do, all complain about the news cycle and falling budgets for reporters – all true and horrible to behold; news organisations don’t like to pay if they can help it and, as the saying should go, comment is free, facts are expensive. But newspaper sales were in free fall long before Twitter came along, or the internet appeared on our phones, and budgets were being cut etc.

Serious investigative reporting seems to be on the wane.  And yet, new media has, in many cases, lifted the quality of reporting, I think. The NYTimes and Washington Post for example, are doing great these days, in terms of quality of output, at least as far as I can tell. Other papers I used to read – the Independent, for example – I don’t bother with anymore. Maybe that’s something to do with their success/failure in adapting to the digital age? Or their budget?  Either way, the NYT is doing a lot of good reporting. Getting the basics done right.

And the feedback you get on a piece now means  readers are really keeping everyone honest. If you write rubbish, you get called out on it very quickly. In the told days, Robert Fisk or whoever would be the booming voice of truth. Now, he gets called out on his sloppy Arabic translations – not in a letter to the editor that ends up in the bin, but in a public forum online, maybe even in the comments section at the bottom of the article. That happens to all of us. It’s a good thing, if uncomfortable. It should keep us all on your game.  Nowhere to hide

Recent work from Phil Sands on Syria



  1. says

    Very encouraging piece. Could have been a series actually. And Christian, how would you answer those same questions? I thank you and all of them for your collective courage! p.s. I’ve now added both Philip and Phil as follows on Twitter. Always looking for great people to follow.

  2. says

    I wonder if you’d consider rowing into a series of audio conversations unfolding around the idea of smartphone apps and how those apps enhance workflow. Myself and @sm2n are babbling about this idea on Audioboom on the heels of a #febooary topic. I know your threaded content would be most insightful.