The universal challenge of digital news: Why working as an online journalist isn't all that different in Canada and Ghana
Travelling to West Africa to work as a digital journalist, Global News online editor Ashley Terry expected there would be differences in how reporters get and tell stories. But what she didn't expect was to face some of the same challenges that online journalists see here in Canada.
Photo courtesy of Jessica Campbell. All other images courtesy of Ashley Terry.
Being the first digital journalist working for Journalists for Human Rights in West Africa, I expected there would be challenges.
I was placed at a larger-than-average radio station in Accra, Ghana called CitiFM. It has a six-person online operation, larger than Global News’s own contingent when I started my job almost five years ago. They use social media very well: Citi live-tweets major events, has a large Facebook community and even live-streamed an event while I was working there.
I was warned by others who had participated in the Shaw Africa Project (a joint project with my employer Global News and Journalists for Human Rights) about the conditions journalists face there. No resources. No training. A legitimate fear of criticizing those in power. The list went on and on. And it was all true. There are significantly more roadblocks reporting from Ghana than Canada.
What I didn’t expect is that some of the challenges I would face would be the same as those I’ve been experiencing at home.
One is access to information. Reports of breaking news would come across Twitter and the reporters at Citi would begin the often-frustrating process of getting confirmation. The country has no access to information laws, but legislation is currently being debated there, and the president has expressed support.
While some of the journalists believe it will help them gain access, others believe that the government will continue to stymie their efforts by creating innumerable roadblocks and delays. I myself did not get one response from any official on any story the entire month I was there.
But it’s not as far off from Canada as some may think.
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Global News also has our access to information requests regularly rejected by federal and provincial governments. If they’re not rejected, the governments might ask for exorbitant administrative fees, and then send the information in thousands of sheets of paper that takes months to sift through. At least in Canada we can take the government to court over access to information, while Ghanaians are still hoping they will be able to do the same soon.
Speed is another challenge. Especially with the access challenges in Ghana, it takes time to research and write a full story. But in online news, once you know about a story, your deadline has already passed. The competition might already be posting copy, photos, or even video. And web journalists who barely have time to leave their desks struggle to develop contacts that are often the difference-maker in a pinch.
There are no airtight solutions to this challenge, but the advice to my Ghanaian colleagues came directly from my experience at Global News.
Web journalists have to have their hands on the site most of the time, but when there is an opportunity to cultivate relationships with sources in person, time should be made for that. It may pay off later.
How we tell stories on the web also needs to be examined. When news breaks we write a few lines of copy telling our audience what we know. As we learn more, we update the story. There is a tendency to do the opposite with non-breaking stories, and instead to write a piece over the course of a day or two (or three).
But this model often results in a giant story hitting the site near the end of the day.
That's why Global News is attempting iterative storytelling – letting the audience know what we know when we know it and adding details when we are able to obtain them. This also makes it easier to involve our audience in the story. Global News often uses voices that come forward on social media once we’ve shared a first or second version.
The interesting thing about Ghana is that it has leap-frogged the West technologically – smartphones are everywhere, and they’re cheap. But computers are scarce and Internet access is comparatively expensive. It’s the polar opposite of Canada where smartphones and mobile data are the expensive part of the equation.
Global News has invested in rolling out iPhones for reporters and shooters. In Ghana, where this technology already exists, they too are investing in new technology to improve coverage. Citi has provided its web reporters with mobile Internet modems, and the station uses Dropbox to share media files.
It took a few days to set up, but the station was finally able to broadcast a live stream of a petition at the Supreme Court to annul the votes of the 2012 election while I was working there. And yet, the station still works with spotty Internet connections at best. The reporters openly complained about their CMS functionality the same way Canadians do. They deal with the same CMS outages as we do at home (although more often in Ghana than Canada).
While the technological issues at Citi are daunting, the website is improving. And no digital journalist in Canada can say they haven’t been there before.
Ashley Terry manages a team of national web journalists at globalnews.ca. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights in Ghana as part of the Shaw Africa Project. Terry has a B.A. in political science and sociology from the University of Toronto and is a graduate of the Journalism New Media program at Sheridan College.