Sometimes it takes an epiphany to get you to think “Digital First”

Steve Buttry, who has the impressive if murky title of “Digital Transformation Editor” for Digital First Media, the entity that now operates the combined newspaper and television properties of the Journal Register Company and MediaNews Group, spends a lot of his time speaking not only to working journalists but to journalism students. He preaches the gospel of digital media as not only the future, but the present reality of the news business.

I happen to agree, and was glad to meet the man at an all-day Digital Media Workshop at the University of Colorado, sponsored by the Digital News Test Kitchen, a cutting-edge media think-tank. Buttry, who’s based in northern Virginia, spent the workshop sharing his views on the importance of embracing the evolving tools and technologies of news, and also giving hands-on tips that journalists can employ to tell stories for the new age.

He had lots of examples of newspapers doing innovative work and trying new ideas, like using a board on one Journal Register paper’s Pinterest page to show the local police’s Most Wanted mugshots (arrests increased). He also offered do’s and don’ts for other social media and digital tools.

In true digital-first fashion, there was a flurry of tweets during the workshop posted by attendees (lord knows when Buttry found the time to re-tweet some of them while he was still presenting), and Buttry posted on his blog about the workshop within a few hours. The post includes helpful links to all the examples of great multimedia and cutting-edge work that he used during his talk, and they’re worth checking out for anyone interested in the best that digital journalism has to offer.

His blog post includes a link to a Storify timeline, a compilation of tweets and photos uploaded live as the workshop progressed, curated by a journalism student, Rob Denton. Denton signed up for Storify when Buttry mentioned it, and created the timeline during the workshop. That’s how easy it can be to try out and learn some of the cool new tools that are available for journalists to use.

On his blog, Buttry also uses a service called Slideshare to upload all the slides from his presentation – a wealth of intelligence available for anyone to learn from. Slideshare is a social network to distribute PowerPoint presentations, and a perfect way to share expertise (assuming that your PowerPoint presentation isn’t a snoozer, and Buttry’s aren’t).

During the Q&A session, I asked if there was an epiphany in his career, which began in traditional newspapers that led him to embrace online media. “It’s really more a process than an epiphany,” he said.

He noted that he went into journalism in part because he knew he’d learn something new every day, and embracing new tools and platforms hasn’t been so different. He did remember that in 1984, he was in charge of a Des Moines Register initiative to raise community engagement by “crowdsourcing” news into a “Hometown” section. The idea didn’t fly with traditional journalists, but he was impressed with the power of the people who contributed.

He also remembered an early introduction to the Web as a research tool through a “Computer Assisted Reporting” (that’s what they used to call online, database-driven journalism stuff back in the day) project for the Omaha World Herald as the closest thing he had to an epiphany.

My epiphany was when I was entertainment editor at the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1994 (we were one of the first five American newspapers to have a website), and I got an email from a reader. He was thanking me for the paper’s arts coverage because he was a local scientist stuck in Antarctica for the winter, and our website allowed him to keep up with the rich local arts scene.

The knowledge that someone halfway around the globe could instantly read what I was publishing online changed my whole concept of news media. I realized that family and friends in Japan could now instantly follow what I was doing, and read my articles. Today that doesn’t seem too shocking, since we could Skype around the world for free and video-chat on Google Hangout, or read live tweets and watch live streamed video from anywhere in the world — or even outer space.

But back then, I have to admit, the idea blew my mind. That’s when I knew the Internet would be the future of news media, and that I had to find my place in it during the dawn of this evolution. I haven’t regretted the decision once.

If you had an epiphany about online media, send it along to gilasakawa@gmail.com — I’d love to hear your stories.

A version of this post was submitted for SPJ’s Quill magazine.

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