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A journalism lab for the digital era

A journalism lab for the digital era

Written by
Johanne Lapierre
November 5th, 2019

Johanne Lapierre explains how and why Radio-Canada created Rad, a French-language journalism laboratory that analyzes news and current issues for an audience that has moved away from traditional media in favour of online platforms.

A journalism lab for the digital era

In the run-up to the 2019 federal election, Rad’s team produced 25 videos to enlighten its audience on current issues and how our electoral system operates.

In November 2016, I embarked on a new professional adventure, co-leading a multidisciplinary group at a French-language journalism lab created by Radio-Canada. Our mission was to reach a new audience—millennials who have abandoned traditional platforms as information sources—where they get their news and information: on social media. Needless to say, the mission is very current, as media around the world are looking for ways to remain relevant to new generations.

When our team first met, we had to create everything from the ground up. We had to decide in what form the information would be communicated, and the tone to adopt. We also had to come up with a strategy for the delivery of the information. Our bosses asked a group of young employees to create content that reflects who they are, and to do it in their own way. They also threw in an extra challenge: to lead the project, they chose three people from three different fields: a strategist who had worked with advertising agencies; a digital supervisor from the videogame industry; and me, a journalist with 15 years of experience at Radio-Canada.

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A period of adjustment was needed. We had to learn to speak a common language. The journalism team familiarized itself with concepts like brand values, and the creative team learned about the realities of a career in journalism, while developing an understanding of Radio-Canada’s journalism standards and practices. Building this project was truly a team effort. It forced us all to question our certainties.

One of the first things we did was identify and discuss everything we liked on social media, in terms of information and entertainment. Our strategist, Gigi Huynh, went through many studies on millennials’ online habits, which revealed a number of things. First of all, it gave us some perspective about our target. Millennials make up the great majority of our target audience, but they’re not the only people whose information consumption habits have changed. So it made sense to define a larger, more inclusive target that was not limited to one age group. We decided our intended audience would be “digital citizens”: individuals who mainly consume content online.

We have challenged the notion that internet videos must be short. When the subject is interesting, people pay attention.

Another key finding: the information delivered to these digital citizens is in competition with an endless sea of content that includes travel photos from friends, viral videos, memes, tutorials, influencer videos, personalized ads and more. With a click, anyone can choose to binge-watch a TV show or browse an online shop instead of reading the news. In order to stand out, it was important that our information be relevant, and attractive. Creativity and design were quickly identified as key elements to help us convey information.

Given the abundance of available content, we discovered that many people feel overwhelmed, and lack sufficient context to put the headlines into perspective. This is how we came up with our “journalistic routes,” which create several content items on the same topic. This approach allowed us to put a subject in context through videos explaining the basics. Later on, we could give life to the subject out in the field.

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We took the time to really explain topics by seeking out different personalities and using formats that could appeal to different individuals. This allows someone who is already familiar with a topic to go straight to the second item of a series. Also, if we manage to engage a person through one of our videos, they might be curious to check out others in the series they might not otherwise have clicked on.

The web also offers great freedom with regard to content length. For our videos, we no longer have to deal with the time constraints of television. We have challenged the notion that internet videos must be short. When the subject is interesting, people pay attention. It’s just a matter of finding the right content, length and platform.

Last but not least, tone was a key element. We chose to adopt an accessible tone that reflects the personalities of our journalists. It goes without saying that using accurate words and correct French are essential, so we kept that in mind while adopting an informal tone. This helps build trust with the viewer, who senses that the message is authentic, as if it were coming from a friend, or someone they know and trust.

We launched Rad in the spring of 2017 with a series of reports on hot topics, and we covered important news stories by trying to make them more accessible.

Information must now be conceived and designed for the web, the way it is for TV or radio. It’s another channel with its own language.

For instance, we relied on well-known codes and trends to create a special offer during the 2018 election campaign in Quebec. Drawing inspiration from online “get fit in 30 days” messages, we created a program offering 23 content items in 23 days. Via a newsletter, subscribers received content in various formats every weekday. This allowed them to learn the positions of the parties on various issues and make an informed voting decision.

The response was remarkable. I received countless messages from people saying they had no interest in politics, but that this time around, they followed the campaign thanks to our content. It was a moment when I felt we were really fulfilling our mission as a public broadcaster. Our election program also received several awards, including the 2018 Boomerang Grand Prize. We recycled the concept for the 2019 federal election campaign and offered 25 content items in 25 days.

In order to create information for the digital world that uses the familiar codes, styles, and rhythm of the medium, it is important to consume a lot of digital content, to know what’s being done. That said, Rad is part of Radio-Canada’s global information offering. We do not presume that what we are doing should become the norm. There’s still an audience for traditional media, which remains essential and relevant. However, information must now also be conceived and designed for the web, the way it is for TV or radio. It’s another channel, with its own language. The public’s response and the level of engagement we have seen prove that there is a demand for our offering. And public broadcasters have everything to gain by meeting this demand in order to reach new—and future—generations.

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