What is Digital Journalism?

What is Digital Journalism?

Digital Journalist Working on a Story
Digital Journalist Working on a Story

As of 2021, 86% of Americans say their primary news source was a digital device. This is a stunning statistic compared to the percentage who get information from the radio, print, podcasts, and even television. The trend is growing even stronger as digital natives reach adulthood. The Pew Research Center reports that 91% of 18 to 29 say they prefer to get their news from digital pathways “at least sometimes.”

The rapid advancement of publishing platforms that exist entirely online has transformed the journalism industry over the past two decades. There’s even a name for the professional practice of reporting and publishing news stories for an online-only audience: digital journalism.

Digital journalists report on events as they are happening, often breaking stories in real time. They must be exceptionally agile, processing information quickly and sharing it accurately within minutes of receiving it. Digital journalism brings the news to the main place people seek to consume and consider ideas and information: the internet.

Digital journalism is similar to print and broadcast journalism predecessors but requires skills, education, and experiences unique to the digital space. Journalists who report for digital outlets need a functional understanding of publishing tools, social media sharing, audience segmentation, and interactive storytelling to be successful. Let’s look at what digital journalism is and the outlook for this exciting type of storytelling.

Reading the news on a phone

What are the advantages of digital journalism?

Digital journalism uses technology to present information to consumers. Technology brings several advantages to the table.

Extensive reach

Mobile devices have changed how people search for and consume the news. Push notifications tailored to a reader’s interest are delivered to their personal devices, allowing readers to access breaking news with just a click. With an entire world of information constantly at their fingertips, more people can access breaking news than ever, creating a new class of global news consumers.

Digital journalism takes traditional gatekeepers out of the equation, getting more news to more people. Startup outlets without a print component and even individual reporters with a following can distribute information to their audience without compromising the potential reach of their reporting. A digital journalist can quickly reach a global audience.

Real-time reporting

Print publications are tied to their print schedules. If a piece of important news happens after a newspaper or magazine issue has been printed, the information has to wait until the next printing to be shared with readers. Online journalism eliminates this problem.

Not only can the audience learn information instantaneously from the journalists themselves, they have now come to expect this kind of real-time news reporting. Digital platforms allow publishing breaking news and adding as many updates or edits as possible while a story unfolds.

Interactions with the audience

Digital journalists don’t have to wait to see how their readers feel about a story. Digital publishing platforms allow for real-time reactions like comments, shares and likes. News stories often go viral the same day they are published, so reporters know what’s resonating and can dig in to get follow-up stories people are interested in.

In some cases, journalists can even use their interactions with readers to source content by embedding videos and static social media posts into their articles. The process of pitching stories to editors and developing source relationships has been streamlined by digital communication, making article ideas easier to execute. Content that references digital life, such as viral photos, memes, deep dives into forum members, online community explainers, and internet trend breakdowns, can make readers feel like they’re a part of the developing story – and in a way, they are.

Some of these interactions with the audience are less direct but just as valuable. Engagement metrics can tell editors how long readers are averaging on a story and how many unique impressions a story is getting. With a global audience of billions, any news item posted online can grab millions of eyes and elicit hundreds of thousands of reactions.

Reporter autonomy

Traditional journalism often tied a reporter’s name to the print outlet they wrote for. Once a journalist found a stable job with a legacy media publication, the smart play was often to stay at that outlet for their career.

Digital journalism has altered this landscape, allowing journalists to cultivate social media followings. Instead of a static binder of “clips,” journalists can keep a dynamic record of their commentary and reporting on social media feeds. Journalists who have built their brand can also use follower numbers to demonstrate their value to potential employers, which provides more leverage in salary negotiations.

In some cases, digital journalists who have racked up a following don’t even need to write for an outlet to establish an impactful media career. Newsletters, podcasting, blogging and live streaming have all become ways a journalist can do strong reporting while earning an income.

Innovative storytelling

A 2022 Pew survey found that 63% of users get their news, at least sometimes, from news websites and apps. But 50% of users surveyed said they sometimes got their information from social media, and 60% said they sometimes get their news from search engines. Reaching these news consumers means leaning into less traditional news reporting methods.

Publishing on a digital platform allows journalists to incorporate visual and interactive elements into their storytelling. Digital journalists embed data analysis and visual assets that give their audience a way to conceptualize the facts they deliver. Video streaming services and social media platforms also present a host of opportunities for telling the news in a way that captures their attention.

This can include adding responsive charts, conducting real-time polls, using overlaid maps, adding audio components and creating documentary films to pair with their story presentation. Digital journalists can collaborate with illustrators, data miners, filmmakers, and more to make their stories come alive.

Digital Journalism Student Working on a Story

What should aspiring reporters know about digital journalism?

Digital journalists don’t just need to understand the best practices for traditional reporting. Tapping into experts, cold calling sources and keeping careful interview records are essential skills, but they aren’t the whole job.

Dr. Tammy Rae Matthews, Assistant Professor at St. Bonaventure’s Jandoli School of Communication says, “Aspiring reporters venturing into digital journalism should embrace versatility as a foundational element of their professional repertoire. They should cultivate a heightened awareness of the innate challenges intrinsic to the field.”

Professionals need to know the difference between writing a headline for social and a slug URL for SEO. They must grasp how to write compelling, shareable, accurate copy quickly. They need to understand how to collaborate with other media teams, including illustrators, video content producers, and graphic designers. Above all, they must be highly adaptable and equipped to learn new things quickly as the industry evolves.

“Recognizing your strengths and expertise allows you to capitalize on your proficiencies, whether in compelling storytelling, data analysis or multimedia creation," Dr. Matthews says. "Equally necessary is acknowledging what skills you appreciate in collaborators. If you have expectational narration skills, gravitate toward quality editors so you can produce sophisticated and professional packages together. Collaboration is the cornerstone of the journalism industry. Identify individuals who can complement your skills and enrich your team.”

Journalists writing online should have a firm handle on emerging technologies and a knack for anticipating and managing audience interaction. Most entry-level journalism jobs will require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in English, communication, journalism, creative writing or another related field.

Dr. Matthews warns people to “be aware of the challenges inherent in digital journalism, including potential idiosyncrasies with the programs they use. Practice is necessary. Regularly producing content across different platforms refines skills and fosters adaptability. Proactively addressing these challenges is crucial for delivering quality digital journalism.”

Expected skills for digital journalists include:

  • Understanding ethical considerations related to email interviews and finding sources online, including how to protect source privacy and navigate potential online harassment

  • Knowledge of industry-wide practices, such as editing and posting in a CMS and building posts with embedded media

  • Experience writing using style guides, particularly the Associated Press Stylebook

  • Practiced writing ability for consistently clean and accurate copy

  • Current industry best practices for making your articles SEO-friendly

  • Strong social media skills and an understanding of how to create viral content as well as how to protect your professional reputation online

  • Fundamentals of coding, photography, design and illustration software

  • Knowledge of current guidelines for writing sensitively about people from marginalized, under-represented, and under-served populations

Few people develop all of these skills naturally through their work experience. Writing talent can help you in journalism, but hard work and a solid education can help you maximize your potential.

That’s why many digital journalists choose to enhance their skills by continuing their education with a master’s degree.

A Master of Arts degree in digital journalism can help you hone your writing skills while mastering the best practices for reporting ethically and accurately. St. Bonaventure University’s (SBU) online Master of Arts in Digital Journalism helps students become innovative storytellers in today’s digital and print media landscape. In the online program, students develop their unique voice and brand as journalists. They also emerge equipped with a firm foundation of journalistic ethics informed by SBU’s Franciscan values.

Learn More About SBU’s Online Digital Journalism Masters