By Christian Scheinpflug
Duy Linh Tu is Associate Professor of Professional Practice and the Director of the Digital Media Program at Columbia University’s Journalism School. He gave a master class on digital media in early September in Santiago de Chile and was kind enough to give the Santiago Times an interview during his visit.
Professor Linh Tu, could you please could give us a little bit of background on the work you do and how you got where you are?
Ok. I’m a professor at the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism; I have been in some capacity for 14 years. I was an adjunct professor for four or five years and over the last nine years I’ve been a full-time professor. Adjunct/full-time are really administrative distinctions, as some adjuncts work full-time or collaborate.
Some of the primary courses that I teach are on reporting. I also teach video; video for the longest time when the school was transitioning from a very print-oriented university, like the world was transitioning from print-oriented journalism, I headed up to digital journalism because I had experience working online. In 1999/2000, you know, I worked on a dotcom 1.0 website. Remember back then when the internet barely worked, you had dial-up and when there was a video maybe a cable was very big. So I started off my career then and went to Columbia. And the Dean of the time, a good friend of mine, he asked, “hey dude, you do this internet thing, right?”. And I’m like, “yes…right.” I mean, we didn’t know what we were doing back then in 2000. If you can remember back then no one knew what they were doing.
I produced so many videos that the world never saw because the technology wasn’t there. But my friend said, “Do you wanna teach something there…?”. I had never thought about teaching and I was like “I’ve never thought about teaching!” But he said I’d be fine since I was the only one that has graduated and worked on dotcom, so he asked me to come back. And so I stayed there teaching a little web journalism, writing for the web, some HTML, video and so on.
So, basically at that time, a journalist was still very much a writer, or they worked on television or on a magazine; they didn’t really do the web yet. But I like to experiment so I got on the education track there. And so my body of work is teaching but I also do a lot of consulting.
Well, when I was invited the big big discussion was the future of journalism. And right now we’ve been talking about the future of journalism for the last ten years, you know. When does the future finally come? And the future, unfortunately, or fortunately, comes and goes like that: One day it’s Snapchat, next day Instagram, maybe Facebook; maybe it’s video, maybe data. So large part of my argument is: We don’t know. And we’re in such a place where we can look at it very positively or we could be very terrified.
And the last 10 years in being terrified has actually not resulted in answers but in things that work and don’t. But we’re getting closer. We’re like a ship out in the ocean and for the last eight years things have been completely dark. Now I think we’ll see a couple of lights, and we’re still far away from those lights but at least we’ve a direction we’re going to.
What do you think are these lights? What can we find where they are?
What we find is that we need to be creators of technology, not just users. For example Facebook. Facebook was great for us. First we were scared of Facebook because they were publishing articles. But then we realised we shouldn’t be scared because they were publishing articles people read, so we wanna optimise Facebook. And then suddenly Facebook changes its algorithm, so they don’t publish articles as before but commit more to friends and family in the feed. What we’ve been beholden to this; just using other peoples technology.
Another example: Instagram. It boggles my mind that a journalist did not develop Instagram — or Twitter, even Facebook. We have to be at the point where we’re thinking: Okay, if is tightened to social media — you know we live in a post-social world now where we can’t rely on Twitter to drive all our traffic — that means if we rely on other people’s technology we have no ability to guarantee our own success. If they change their minds we always have to kind of hit it. Therefore, I think the lights are ultimately going to be like we have to own the platforms and not just rely on them.
That’s a pretty big task because we need infrastructure and know-how for that. What do you make of that?
Well, it is a big task. But well, I can only speak from the [United] States, right, and the beautiful thing about the States is that we do things first, so we make a lot of mistakes. We love making mistakes; we’re very proud of our mistakes. It’s part of our ethos. Go over the mountain first, it doesn’t matter if hundreds fall down and die. The beautiful thing about the rest of the world, like South America, Europe, Asia, is you can witness our mistakes and not make them. But when you say its a herculean task, it’s more in the sense that we have to change our thinking, not so much technology.
Twitter was not an expensive platform to get up; Instagram was not expensive. At least in their first iteration. Now it’s huge. But the first guys who did it were four guys in a room who said, ‘hey I have these photos, I wanna share photos. Let’s create something where we can share photos.’ So the hardest thing is not the technology, because we actually live in 2016; we live in a world where technology is cheap. The hardest thing is to think about us as technologists as opposed to just people who create content. I’m not saying you do it; I’m just saying someone in journalism needs to do it.
Is this some sort of ‘journalism Facebook?’
I don’t know what it is. Again, the lights are very far away. What I’m seeing is that we can’t rely on someone else to do it. You know, we do work that’s important to the regular guy. We are the force to allow people to know that, say, the president is good or bad, that this or that bill will cost more taxes, this school is good or that school is bad. And so we can’t rely on someone else to deliver a message. When we were the operators, when we owned the trucks and the printing press every morning someone threw in the newspaper — we used to own the platform, and then we gave it up. So now, we invented those truck routes, we invented a TV station so we could broadcast the news. So I think we have to take a little bit more of control and we can’t rely on gimmicks. Snapchat’s not gonna save us.
Today, if you’re not digital, your publication doesn’t exist. But then, digital spaces are also under total surveillance. How do you think journalism in that surveilled space does resonate with the infrastructure you propose?
Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I wanna back up; you know, analog’s not gone. There are examples in America where certain communities read the paper and I’m sure there’s enough people who read a physical paper everyday. They won’t get online. So I think there’s still opportunity, but I think your real question is about security…
…well, security in the broad sense. I mean that when you write knowing that you are under surveillance you don’t write the same way, you don’t access the same material…
…I think you can. So for example, under digital we have access to information that would have been very hard to get; databases, voter records, you have access to that information, even legally. That’s very important. But in terms of being able to promote your information out there I think it’s powerful, not scary, in the sense that our power is to publish. The power for you to publish that interview and then when I go back to New York and I can see it — that’s powerful. But, of course, there will always be moments when the wrong people see it, but I think in journalism we always want as many people as possible to see it.
Now in terms of personal security, as journalists we have to learn technology; we need to learn to protect our gadgets — the second they’re on the network anyone can see what you’re doing. And I think we as journalists are still at a point where we’re very bad at personal security. Not just for the sake of protecting our sources. With the net the responsibility is not so much publishing, but more with the responsibility to the people we get the information from. So we don’t give them away to their governments, just because we don’t know how to protect them. That’s a big problem for journalism. Because if your source gets caught once, it could be dead or it could never trust you again.
That creates tension because governments put pressure on journalists. Even in the United States a journalist had to go to jail because she didn’t give up her source.
I know. And that’s honourable. That’s the code of American journalism. But now, journalists are not even aware. If you send me an email and someone’s spying on you that means they’re spying on me. I don’t think journalists even think that. So I think we have to get a lot wiser in terms of protecting our sources.
Speaking of digital media. What do you think are the big advantages and disadvantages compared to the newspaper?
Various. We know that distribution is cheap; it’s far and wide. But also the big downside is that there’s so much competition for space and attention. So, when I grew up in my hometown we had one newspaper and we had three TV stations. That had downsides, too, because it was a limited viewpoint but at least I knew that was the newspaper and that was the TV news. Now when readers go online they have Facebook — and here’s journalism, here’s opinion, here’s your friend, your photo.
So basically now journalism doesn’t have its own special space. It’s mixed in with what’s generally called content. And so the downside is that we’re competing for that space because there’s only 24 hours in a day. But not only are we competing for that time but the audience doesn’t care. It doesn’t consciously decide to get some journalism right now. The audience now just sits there and reads — it’s all mixed together. And if they don’t pick you and pick a funnier video instead then your journalism never existed. So that’s a great danger. We’re competing for attention in ways that we never did before. So even though our ability to reach them is great, the ability of everyone else is great as well and that’s the scary part. Take that case of that journalism class that didn’t know Osama bin Laden was dead. They were a journalism class! That’s how uninformed they are, even though we live in a world that’s so connected. There’s danger of people missing out on information because there’s so much of it.
What do you think does this to writing? Because you have to create a catchy headline or the story has appear thrilling.
That’s a good question because I used to teach this kind of stuff. We used to write for SEO, we used to write catchy headlines; we used to write all these kind of clickbait headlines. But again that changes because search engines and social networks begin to push down this kind of ‘This woman stepped into her kitchen and you’ll never guess what happened next…’-headlines. The tech companies qualify this as bad content. So every time we trick the system it can be reset. And so the only thing that rises to the top — it sounds simple — but it’s good stories. Stories that have true impact.
A good story, for example, that shows a Syrian family trying to make it and they don’t make it because of bad US policy will likely be widely shared on social media, at least in the States. And so good information — not tricks, not flashy headlines, which may have a few moments of excitement — will ultimately go away. It’s the good story that gets shared.
So despite Breitbart News, there’s still hope?
[Laughs] Yes, there is hope and there are quite a lot of gimmicks. Like I said, everything’s gimmicks these days. You see a one-minute video with a lot of text on the screen, and they’re doing well — those will be gone in six months. And what we in the industry can’t do is live day-by-day… well, how do I phrase this? In an era when we’re so afraid of the future that we just wanna pick up the pennies now and don’t think of our greater mission as reporters of the world. But that’s always been what’s sold and made us money. We are a business. If you think about it, these little pieces will be gone. Facebook will change, Snapchat will change; a new platform will come out that you wanna get on. But ultimately you have to create your own destiny as a news organisation.
Don’t you think that’s going to be very challenging? For example, small publications get out very particular stuff without a great audience, without much advertising, but they still need someone to pay for it. And the bigger you are the more money you make…
Yes, that’s absolutely right. So I think what you’ve seen, at least in the States, is a splintering of the newsroom. You have a newsroom where they do now journalism but they also have a division that does branded content. In the US, one of the most successful news organisations in this vein is VICE. It’s a multi-billion dollar company and it used to be this little magazine from Toronto. They’re making all their money off of selling ‘cool.’ They’re a cool brand and so they have an attitude that makes all of their money. Their news makes no money, but their news makes them desirable because they speak news to thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old boys who’d never watch the news. So they speak news to people who’d never watch news about Africa or Asia.
And so there’s different business models that you have to pay for. I don’t think a news organisation can purely make money off news. But they have to be committed to a mission of news because it’s very tempting once you make a little money, you wanna make more and may forget your mission. So the successful companies right now have a mission of advertising, selling so-called branded content but keeping a very clear division of news. Like also Buzzfeed. They recently had a meeting agreeing to put up a lot of video and entertainment, but also keeping their news division intact because they can make a lot of money from edutainment that’ll pay for the news.
My next question relates to that because in Chile the actual business model of the mainstream media — television, radio, print— is not news but selling space for advertisement. So a segment about drought for example, quickly transitions into a retail manager offering discounts for boots because they don’t sell well in a hot winter. The printing press runs a piece praising, say, privatising infrastructure. Same with favourable coverage during presidential campaigns. Such pieces are not marked as branded content. What do you make of that?
I think it’s a short-term strategy. The audience is very smart. You can fool the audience once or twice, but after a while you’re gonna get a bad reputation as an organisation.
The thing is that people don’t trust the media already. But there’s too little diversity, as only few rich and thus powerful people control the media.
I think here’s opportunity for someone who wants to be serious. Those companies — good for them they’re making money, right? They might be successful but I wouldn’t call them journalism. They’re just some edutainment companies. Our problem however is how to make quality journalism that is as attractive as entertainment. That’s always been a weird thing for a journalist. Our stories are important but oftentimes we need to elevate them to entertainment. We have a hard time doing that.
There are places like VICE and Buzzfeed that give people entertainment but also remain committed to giving information, useful information. The places you mention sound like not committed to that, they just wanna make money. But still, it’s possible. We can make entertainment but we also have to be committed to drawing that line between entertainment and news. Also private funding. There might be a rich guy — actually there always is — who gives couple millions to investigative journalism. He knows he’s gonna lose all of that money. But these guys see themselves as just investing in, so to speak, humanity. It’s a bit idealistic, but it’s proven very successful in the States.
What’s your advice on developing skills to be able to distinguish between genuine news and propagandistic journalism?
That’s a very complicated question; I think it’s two parts really. First is education. You have to have a good education system. It doesn’t matter what country you’re in, whether the States or Chile, if the public is not educated they are easily fooled. So nations with a higher education system also have higher media literacy because they’re taught to think critically, to sense when someone’s lying. We’re not born with that talent. Secondly, I think is on the media themselves. And when I say ‘the media,’ I mean journalists, TV shows, edutainment.
We know the media is very powerful. When we say the government is bad that’s bad for the government. If we say that Muslims are dangerous that’s bad for Muslims. We have so much power and I think we have to take a moment and respect that power. Therefore, we cannot be determined by profit because maybe over 10 years we make a lot of money, but at the end of 10 years we have a public that is so weak and so unable to make decisions that they don’t become valuable for us as readers. So we have to think of the long-term for even though we may make some money in the short-term, we’re gonna lose a lot if we just think about profit.