“We are the last to break the news” has been, for years, the central message on Delayed Gratification‘s homepage

Hardcopy, quarterly publication, Delayed Gratification claims to be “the world’s first Slow Journalism magazine” and focuses on in-depth journalism. “Instead of desperately trying to beat social media to breaking news stories,” they say, “we focus on the values we all expect from quality journalism – accuracy, depth, context, analysis, and expert opinion.”

Still frame documentary from documentary movie “Slow News”

In theory, all journalists would aspire to this approach.

But is it truly possible to run a slow journalism newspaper in a world where anyone can produce and distribute content? In a world where even machine learning models can create text and images for zero marginal cost? And what does slow journalism exactly mean? 

Slow journalism was born as a reaction against the fast-media concept and lack of quality, just like the slow food movement has been a response to the growth of fast food. But with several start-ups born and grown around the world (Zetland in Denmark, De Correspondent in The Netherlands, Slow News in Italy, and so on), the slow journalism movement also became a proposal to act against the several crises journalism is facing worldwide.

Let’s summarise these crises: 

  • The whole business model is broken: digital advertising is monopolised by platforms; classified ads markets have been disrupted by websites like Craigslist; digital readers’ revenue is a puzzle difficult to solve and quite different from the old distribution model; in the age of the attention economy, any piece of content virtually competes with journalistic content for a very scarce resource: time!
  • There is a lack of trust in journalism by the audiences;
  • In several countries, the digital transition is yet to come, and it isn’t easy even to redefine the role and the skills of journalists;
  • Journalists are often used as content factories;
  • Misinformation and disinformation haunt the legacy media, too.

During several years of research in the field and before founding a slow magazine myself, I shooted hours of interviews with slow journalists: they are collected in a documentary movie called Slow News. Here’s what I’ve learnt.

Less is more

Digital newspapers are full of content that is all the same. It is a cultural heritage. When a country is running elections, newspapers must have programs analysis, lists of candidates, instructions on how to vote, and so on. If there is breaking news, it seems mandatory to write about it even if we have nothing to add.

As a result, many journalists are busy doing something almost pointless: writing for their newspaper what is already everywhere out there.

Yet, in 2007, professor Jeff Jarvis theorised a concept that would help save time and resources, and help every publication stand out. Cover what you do best, link the rest. This way, each newsroom could dedicate itself to producing unique and valuable content for its audience. 

Often, the overproduction of content is linked to the need to make traffic on the websites. In a business model where revenues are diversified, abandoning quantitative metrics based on clicks can be a cure-all for journalism in a world of overproduction: terrible analytics has been pointed out as a problem for journalism in 2016 by Tom Rosenstiel.

Moreover, pieces of content are assets for the newsroom. Sometimes, it’s more valuable for the audience and the journalists to update and enrich old content instead of producing a new one. 

Doing less in terms of quantity of content means doing more in value. 

Taking the time is caring

Being the first is a false value in contemporary journalism. 

If journalists can work without pressure, taking the time the work deserves, they can focus on the essence of journalism: verification. 

But unfortunately, this is not always the case. 

Screenshot of Corrire della Sera Twitter post

On August 31, in Italy, some prominent newspapers published news stories about the death of a former politician, Rosa Russo Iervolino. The information was fake. Anastasia Latini, an Italian journalist, explained on Twitter how this has been possible: “Speed is essential to ensure that your article is opened (not necessarily read) by as many people as possible […] Since time is money, and the newsrooms are in a perennial lack of money, if a newspaper with a certain level of reliability publishes the news, the others will follow. […] [The case of Rosa Russo Iervolino] won’t be the last time”.

Whenever a newspaper makes such a mistake, a bit of public trust goes away.

Here’s why a slow approach can be a parachute for journalism. Verification takes time. But journalism essence is a discipline of verification, as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in their The Elements of Journalism. Verification is the only thing that distinguishes journalism from entertainment, activism, influencers’ stories, or any other form of content production.

Taking the time means caring for the audiences, providing them with accurate facts in proper contexts, and helping them to browse the contemporary world. But it also means caring for the whole journalistic ecosystem. 

Nurture the relationship with the audience

If a reporter is not busy rewriting things we already know, they can also dedicate themselves to cultivating the relationship with the public.

Conversation, answering questions, clarifying the most complex points, updating, and correcting mistakes require some specific skills, similar to journalistic ones. Moreover, when journalists devote themselves and their experience to a beat, they become part of an interested community as experts. 

Their role is also nurturing the relationship with that community, engaging people, and changing the newsroom’s culture, as suggested, for example, by Federica Cherubini in a seminar at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The slow journalism approach is part of this transformation, where the newsrooms can’t give trust for granted, but they have to earn it again and again. Newsrooms should transform themselves from telling to listening, efficiency to efficacy, speed to relevance, and breadth to depth. And the business model can change with them: it’s a mutual and potentially virtuous path.

We don’t run ads, thanks

Slow journalism’s most radical choice is to detach itself from the world of advertising completely. There are several reasons for this choice. First of all, the interests of advertisers and publishers diverge. Advertisers have never had the primary interest in having a more informed audience. 

Second, advertisers can find better ways to campaign themselves nowadays, and that’s the main reason why the old journalistic business model is broken. Running a campaign on a big platform is often cheaper, easier, and more effective than traditional advertising on legacy media. 

Third, advertisers need a lot of eyeballs watching their campaigns; a lot of eyeballs mean a lot of traffic and clicks, regardless of the quality of the content.

Moreover, advertising could be misleading to the audience. An example? “Since the 1980s”, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes wrote in The Guardian, “fossil fuel firms have run ads touting climate denial messages.”

Without advertising, slow journalism publishers can be more transparent with their audiences. They can put their efforts into content production and into the relationship with the audience. They can use business models like subscriptions or memberships, too. 

A less radical choice could be a progressive differentiation of the sources of revenue, which could be a path to follow if you want to try a transformation for a traditional, legacy media. 

Good, clean, and fair, but is it also real?

Slow journalism is good, clean, and fair. The definition comes, again, from the slow food movement. It means that it’s transparent and reliable, accountable and verifiable, with an objective method, and made by well-paid journalists, working in safe contexts, protected by threats and with attention for their mental health..  

Does this scenario seem almost utopian? How can we know if this is possible? 

Peter Laufer, author of Slow News: A Manifesto for the Critical News Consumer. Still frame from the documentary movie “Slow News”

The most famous book about slow journalism, Slow News: A Manifesto for the Critical News Consumer, by professor Peter Laufer, was published in 2011. The concept was probably introduced for the first time by Susan Greenberg in 2007. It’s too early even to see an impact. But we have some metrics to analyse, and the most important one is probably an answer to this question: are the slow journalism start-ups still running? 

Delayed Gratification changed its claim: Proud to be ‘Last to Breaking News’ since 2011. In 2014 they reached full sustainability: Rob Orchard, the editor-in-chief, declares they have 8,000 subscribers.

Zetland reached 27,000 paying members. “Some share their membership,” editor-in-chief Ida Ebbensgaard told me, “so around 40,000 would call themselves members”. Tav Klitgaard, Zetland‘s CEO, transparently commented on their annual report on Twitter.

Slow News – the Italian magazine I run as an editor-in-chief – won a European grant reporting on EU Cohesion Policy two years in a row, adding grants as part of revenue sources.  De Correspondent is doing well in The Netherlands (with 70,000 declared members), even if they closed the international projects.

More start-ups based on these concepts are rising. Some of them might fall, and some may evolve. 

Some prominent, famous newspapers can claim to be slow enough in their production, approach, and method (Mark Thompson, former New York Times CEO, is one of the characters of my documentary, and he was definitely on the slow side). But slow journalism is probably more local than global. And it’s hard to scale. 

But good, clean, and fair journalism – call it slow or not – has the chance to be influential, reliable journalism with a vital role in our democracies. 

Source of the cover photo: https://depositphotos.com/