SIGCIS 2012 Workshop, Parallel Session II: Dissertation Session

Name: Sally Deffor
Institutional Affiliation: University of Central Lancashire
E-mail address:
Paper Type: Dissertation Proposal

Paper Title: A Critical Evaluation of the Impact of the Digital Platform on the role of News Storytelling - case study of the BBC and the SABC'
Paper Abstract:
Research Aims
The field of news storytelling has evolved considerably due principally to the fact that it is influenced by changing technological platforms. Consequently, news storytelling is seen to be playing altered roles from the point view of both the news providers and the audience.  Within the boundaries of this research, I would be looking critically at three elements with regards to news stories: the contents of the stories, the techniques with which they are told and the formats that are being used and how, all within the confines of the digital platform. The core aim of this study is to examine and thus answer the 'big' question: what is the role of news storytelling in the context of the changing digital media platform and news formats, and how might this be most effectively managed? And in order to do this, a series of specific research questions that need to be resolved are:

1. How do and might this platform facilitate new forms of creative news writing? (In other words, how differently are news stories being written/told and how differently could this be done using this new platform?)

2. What is the rate of adaption of news storytellers to technological changes, how is such adaptation occurring and how might this adaptation/innovation be better managed?

3. How are news providers' matching their story telling techniques with the different segments of the audience?

4. What are some of the potentials that the new storytelling techniques offer in terms of increasing the level of attention given to the details of the news rather than just the headlines?

Original Contribution
Tan and Mei (2011:608) find that the application of digital technology could be counted as a deep revolution for journalism. Yet when it comes to research on the subject, very little appears to be written in the domain of news stories specifically. Some researchers such as Boczkowsky and Thurmann looked at a single strand of digital news, i.e. online newspapers; and Bob Franklin researched on broadcast media. As of yet however, a holistic thesis has not been put forth on the subject of news storytelling and digital media specifically, and this study will do just that. As Pavlik discovered in his study, it is digital technology that has compelled the convergence in journalism, (2000). With an over-focus on the hows and whys of the business model of convergence, the creative storytelling angle, and how this new knowledge might be managed gets relegated to the background as far as research is concerned. In convergence also, the business of the 'story' gets lost in the midst of all the other advantages that it offers, hence the need to have a piece of research that focuses on the 'story'.

Meanwhile, Kutsky and Widholm (2008:84) find in (Kopper et al. 2000, 449) that, as online journalism was a 'very new and very fast developing branch of journalism' most research was and still is lagging behind. Earlier on, I pointed out why it has become imperative that news writers better engage audience attention to their news stories. Due to these reasons, this study will significantly contribute to documenting what works (or not), and why, thus possibly becoming a reference guide to digital news storytellers especially those from emerging technological contexts, as well as a valuable piece of in-depth academic research.  The fact that I am employing the use of case studies here also gives me the advantage to narrow down and concentrate attention on specific pieces. The case studies in themselves i.e. the BBC and the SABC are good pieces to study, as no previous study has looked at these two together before with this amount of depth and scope in the domain of digital news storytelling. The BBC news website is one of the most accessed news sites in the developed world and the SABC's is its equivalent from a developing context. With looking at the SABC in particular, this study presents an opportunity to carryout a research in a context that would otherwise not have been done (or resourced) at all. A reason for saying this is that there appears to be inadequate available related literature from this context as compared to those on counterpart media institutions from the west. With the BBC also, it presents a good case that it is studied together with another multi-platform media institution from a not-so similar technological context. Even though this is not a comparative study, jointly studying these two cases will bring to light new perspectives which could be valuable for future explorative studies.

Research context      
Storytelling is essentially the act of constructing narratives using words, images or sounds.  Most often now, all three elements must come into play in telling a story. According to Czarnecki 'the concept of storytelling is older than human history itself' (2009:5). Information and knowledge was transmitted orally before written communication was developed.  Hubert and Voas (2011:4) traced the history of storytelling forms from early Egyptian hieroglyphics to present-day more visual story styles and noted that, 'as civilizations grew, so did the iconic nature of their storytelling'.  Any discussion on storytelling must take into consideration the evolving nature of this art form. Its later-day progression was followed by Czarnecki who notes that in the pre-Internet twentieth century, storytellers used the latest technology to share their stories with the world where they employed the use of vinyl, film, cassette tapes, then videotapes, and eventually compact disks and DVDs (2009:5).

As the world becomes more digitized however, the forms of storytelling too have gone digital. Tan and Mei (2011:608) point out that 'human communication has undergone four processes of spoken and written language communication, print communication, electronic communication and digital communication'. We are now in the era of digital communication where we are experiencing an ever-accelerating rate of change in the platforms that are used to tell stories. Czarnecki (2009:5) again contends that with the emergence of widespread personal computing and the Internet, the relationship between storytelling and technology has transformed such that where technology was previously a tool that could be utilized to reach a wider audience, it has now become a deeply integrated part of the storytelling process and the story itself.  Thus, it has become a tool which is useful not only in telling stories in various different ways, but which could also be used to reach particular audience types in specific ways.

What do we mean by digital media and what is this interaction with storytelling? Digital media, simply put is digitized content that can be transmitted over computer and Internet networks . Tan and Mei (2011:608), reveal that it offers benefits to journalism which transcend those of the era of radio and television. With regards to the issue of what role digital technology is playing in the telling of news stories however, little appears to be written on the subject. This is surprising since news stories in general, and digital news in particular seem to rely heavily on the act of storytelling. Most researchers seem to agree that even with technology, the ability to tell a good story is still paramount. Czarnecki says that 'while going digital may require the storyteller to innovate technologically, the basic principles of how to tell a story remains unchanged' (2009:7).  Tom Hallman, a Pulitzer award-winning journalist recognizes that irrespective of the medium being used, news writers must be excellent storytellers (2007:1). Not all researchers argue from this viewpoint, not surprisingly. Marshall McLuhan in his famous works arising from the book The Medium is the Massage contends that the mediums are the messages in themselves not the contents of the medium. However, McLuhan's work was limited to electronic media and my study as well as several before has been opportunities to debate this assertion from the point view of the digital media platform.

Nonetheless, as noted earlier, new technologies in themselves can help in the telling of better stories. This study will attempt to discover how these are done, at what rate news providers are capitalizing on these, and how these new knowledge/techniques are being managed given what is at stake now with regards to capturing audience attention and sustaining it. Hurlburt and Voas agree that new modalities of storytelling are becoming necessary given the flooding of our airwaves with non-stop digitized data (2011:5). Hallman discovers that readership of the news is on the decline (2007:1), and so how to structure the news so that it achieves this level of audience engagement has become crucial. It has also become essential that news providers are better able to manage these new techniques in order to reap the benefits that the platform offers.  Zerba (2008:94) affirms that a reason for tuning out could be the readability of these stories. The formats, layouts and generally the ways in which news stories are presented must match the various segments of the audience and encourage a greater attention to the details thus preventing skimming.  Hallman maintains that the storyteller can and must employ a multitude of tools to take the reader/viewer on a journey, given the nature of the Web (2007:1). How well a particular news provider is utilizing the new platform will influence how well its news is received. This study will make significant inroads into discovering how this is done; at what rate news providers are adapting and how best they could be managing these new techniques in order to optimize their potentials.

To help me effectively examine and answer the gamut of questions posed by my study would involve employing the use of a combination of methodologies, processes and participants. Due to the general lack of research in this specific area, my study will be largely inductive, i.e. leading up to possible theories and principles emerging from examination of the data. The first phase would involve undertaking quantitative enquiries using content analyses. Content analysis would help me amass key basic data regarding the ways in which digital platforms are being used for news storytelling. Content analysis among other things is used to study how texts are used and basically asks the questions: who says what, to who, how, why and to what effects. It is particularly useful in analyzing styles, identifying the features in texts, measuring readability and assessing the responses of audiences to communicative texts produced for them based on known characteristics, (Riffe, Lacy & Fico 2005, 25). Most of all, it is used to determine specific patterns and trends over time. Consequently, content analysis would be useful in helping me determine how specific digital formats are being used to tell news stories, and the forms that these take based on the patterns established. Additionally, it will help me identify the rate at which news storytellers adapt their writing to the changing nature of the platform by looking at the trends over time.

The knowledge and insight gained from this phase will set the stage for the qualitative investigations to be undertaken employing the use of discourse analysis.  Discourse analysis explores the ways we ascribe or derive meanings from texts, and will be useful to determine how differently (or not) news stories are being told. The specific texts and discourse analysis method to be applied in each case will be deduced from findings from the first phase investigations. Phase 1 activities would also inform how I design 1) survey instruments to undertake semi-structured interviews of selected news providers  in order to investigate such things as current adaptation and management processes relating to digital storytelling innovation; 2) my newsroom observation activities and 3) online survey of a sample of the audience to help assess the ability of the new storytelling techniques to increase attention of audiences to the main body of the news.  I would carryout these combinations of qualitative processes to measure the rate and mode of the adaptation of news storytellers to the changing platform, and the effectiveness or otherwise of current innovation management processes. Ostbye et al conclude that 'qualitative interviews are conducted with the intent to analyze the strategies and actions of media players in the wider perspectives of media production, policy formulation or industry phenomena, conflicts and changes' (2002:99).

Kautsky and Widholm (2008:84) find that, "news websites are not simply digital versions of newspapers but a fusion of radio, television and traditional print media' hence the need to analyze multiple content forms. Most researchers seem to suggest that the web does pose problems for researchers seeking to analyze digital media texts; in addition to this, Chincor et al point out that only a few studies have been carried out that do an analysis of mixed-media forms, (2010:53). Due to this, the challenges to do with the scope of content forms being analyzed coupled with the complexity of the methods employed are dully acknowledged here. As already mentioned, the case studies are an integral part of this study. In order to achieve the stated objectives, this study would be contextualised through case studies of two media institutions of a hybrid nature, which would allow for a deeper investigation of the changing digital platform and the ways in which technological innovation is managed within them. The UK's BBC and South Africa's SABC would be used for this purpose. Additionally, relevant web blogs and podcasts outside these two would also be investigated.

Outline of proposed research programme
The development of a final proposed research program plan is being undertaken currently. Provisionally, between the months of March 2012 to February 2013, I would undertake the first part (i.e. MPhil phase), of my research project. This would involve an in-depth literature review to underpin and help generate the theoretical framework of the study. Martin Hirst's work on Web 2.0 and Journalism; Tom Hallman's ongoing research on Journalism and Storytelling; and John Pavlik's extensive research on media in the digital age among others would be thoroughly reviewed.  I will also initiate preliminary content and discourse analyses and begin setting the stage for empirical activities by designing survey instruments and audience tests, putting in place schedules for semi-structured interviews etc. I hope to transfer from MPhil to a full PhD by the end of February 2013, and have a completed document that will constitute a major part of my first two chapters. I would then expand the previous work on discourse analysis and bring into play also the wider repertoire of methodological processes, all of which combined will occupy the period between February 2012 and when I hand in my finished written PhD thesis at the end of December 2014.