The three finalists — Ishani Nath, Elizabeth Melito and Graeme Bruce — explain how they work.

Elizabeth Melito is still early in her journalism career. A senior web developer at CBC, she works on the interactives team to build custom visualizations and news tools that help other journalists tell their stories. But that doesn’t mean she lacks experience — not by a long shot. “You don’t have to be a pro at everything to start sharing what you know,” she said.

Melito is among the three finalists for the 2018 Digital Publishing Awards Emerging Excellence Award, which recognizes journalists for their early success in Canadian digital publishing.

Flare and Hello! Canada senior editor Ishani Nath and Winnipeg Free Press multimedia producer Graeme Bruce are the other nominees. They spoke with J-Source ahead of the DPAs on May 29 to share their tips on how to thrive in digital journalism.

Know your foe

Bruce said he routinely keeps his eye on the “bigger fish” as a way to inspire new ideas.

He said that looking at other news outlets even outside of Canada is a helpful exercise to learn about different ways to tell a story.

Nath also looks at what other outlets are doing — but her focus is more so on direct competitors.

“We always want to look at what they’re doing and think critically like, ‘OK, is that something that we missed? Is that angle something that could’ve worked for us? How can we apply that going forward?’”

Keep your competitor close, but your audience closer  

Knowing your audience is also a key to success, Melito said in an email to J-Source.

She said their audience at CBC responds well to content that’s impacting their lives right now — hard news.

Melito said that while election hubs, weather data and local closures are all major drivers for online traffic, she still tries to be innovative with how these everyday stories are told.

“It seems that while the appetite for hard news isn’t diminishing, there’s definitely interest in seeing what else we can do in the digital space to explore different storytelling techniques for news.”

But Bruce cautions against items that are overly interactive.

He said at the Winnipeg Free Press they no longer want to plot a flurry of dots in Google Maps, or anything where audiences have to hover to see data. For a long time, he said outlets would dump a bunch of data into a visualization and let the readers try to find themselves in it.

“The prevailing trend is that you want to get back to relatively static graphics. You want to do your job — show them what matters,” Bruce said.

“You don’t know what you don’t know”

Despite success in the early stages of their digital journalism careers, all three nominees agree that continuing to learn is vital.

It’s important to seek new technologies or find new people to work with, according to Melito.

Conferences and training sessions are also great resources, she said, but there are just as many helpful tools online to help build skills and a portfolio.

Nath said in the digital space, things like how to tailor a headline and dek are constantly changing so it’s important to stay on top of how the readership responds as their habits change.

“You don’t know what you don’t know… The amount that I’ve learned in the past two years, the learning curve is not even a curve. It’s a straight line,” Nath said.

And if questions arise about how to do something, Bruce said not to hesitate asking another journalist for guidance.

He said there shouldn’t be any fear when it comes to learning a new concept, even if it is coding language.

Cracking the code

Bruce assures that although coding may be intimidating, it’s not going to “hurt anybody,” and it helps bring digital projects to the next level.

“You get to a point where you want to be more creative and have more control over what’s being displayed and I think that’s what drove me to … learn how to do it myself.”

Nath said even being able to do the basics are essential to a more efficient workflow.

Flare is a WordPress-based website so she regularly uses code to better format stories.

“I remember learning HTML at a science camp when I was in Grade 5 or something, but I can’t believe how much I actually use it,” she said.

A lot of the work Melito does involves building tools for CBC journalists who don’t have any coding skills. This allows for data sets and different storytelling techniques to still be included in their stories.

Online coding skills or not, taking breaks and disconnecting from all media is a crucial unwritten code for digital journalists, said Nath.

She said digital journalism can be all-consuming because with social media and websites constantly updating, it’s easy to get caught up in the pace of it all. She suggests that taking time away is helpful in finding new perspectives on stories.

“It’s an essential way to rest, reset, and remind yourself that not every story needs a 24-hour turnaround.”

Spencer Turcotte is J-Source's summer reporter/researcher. He can be reached at spencer.turcotte@ryerson.ca, and on Twitter @turcottespencer.