He is fast. He is also funny. And he believes that journalism should entertain people. Duy Linh Tu is a cinematographer, photographer, writer and multimedia professor at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. On September he visited Chile to share some ideas about the present and future of news. We talked about platforms, algorithms, ethics, business models, Vice, Facebook, video production, good old reporting and sponsored content. This conversation is not only a diagnosis: it is also a path for the many possible futures of journalism. » This is an edited version of the conversation.
—On a recent photo on your Instagram you wrote: “Good reporting never changes, regardless of the Facebook algorithm.” But the truth is that organizations have introduced practices to target the algorithm, not only the good reporting. Is there a balance in this equation?
Let me take a step back. Initially as journalists we ignored Facebook. Then we realized why Facebook is publishing our stuff. So we hated Facebook. But then we realized Facebook was driving traffic to our sites. So we loved Facebook. Journalism and social media is almost like a bad relationship. One day you are fighting, one day you are in love. The bad thing about that is that social media is very powerful and our platform is created by someone else, which takes a lot of the power out of the journalist hands. It always blows my mind that a journalist did not invent Instagram. Why did a photojournalist not invent Instagram? I post that question a lot and people will say “Well, it’s too expensive.” No. It was a bunch of guys sitting in a room that said “we want to share photos.”
—Apps are being created every day.
Every day, by sixteen years old. It wasn’t because it was so hard. It was because we never thought about ourselves as the ones that distribute. We never thought about that part of the equation. What I think it has to happen in the future is that we have to start not just being the platform users but really the platforms developers. And that’s a really important thing. We need to be able to control our own destiny by creating these platforms ourselves.
—And do you see people in the U.S. doing that or having that kind of discussions?
They are, especially on the money end. The other part is we want to do this great journalism but we also have to pay for it. For example, one of the biggest successes of last two years is Vice News. And their success was not so much that they played out to Facebook. They just did their own content. When they started doing Vice Videos, they were getting 13, 14, 15 year old boys to watch news about Africa. That was never done before, at least in the States. The question was “How did they pay for?” None of their journalism makes money. The way that they make money is that Vice has developed this brand of cool. They are such a cool company—the owner is cool, young people want to be a part of Vice—that advertisers actually pay them to be cool. Vice has a whole advertising agency that makes all their money. What we also have to consider is just not the platforms but the business models and not just relying on our journalism to pay for the journalism. Advertising will not pay the bills. We have to make a way that we can sell something else, have value somewhere else, but also have a commitment to journalism. Newspapers that go for the little head, the funny stories, the paid kind of editorial, the silly news, the sexy stories, all that kind of stuff, they lose authenticity with their audience and overtime the audience is gonna go away.
—They are going to figure it out.
Yeah, audiences are smart.
—And journalists don’t tend to think that.
Hahaha. Maybe you fooled them today, maybe tomorrow, but a year from now they are going to be reading something else.
—There is no question that the media landscape changed. How was your professional adaptation to this environment?
I just posted something on Facebook and I said “You know what? Congratulations to the full time video journalists. I just don’t know how you do it.” And I posted: 50 percent of my income is through teaching, 45 percent comes from doing videos for NGOs, and 5 percent from straight journalism. If I had to live on video journalism, I’d be starving. Documentaries projects are very expensive. I had to figure another way to live my life but also be able to fund those. That’s what I did. I teach a lot, I work on nontraditional videos, and I do journalism. You are already seeing a lot of organizations do this. Every news organizations has some kind of branded or sponsored content. Atlantic Media Group, they have a brand new division; all they do is storytelling for brands. That side is making way more money than the news side. Right now what you are seeing is that what would have been sinful about ten years ago, it’s just a fact of life. Ten years ago no journalist in their right mind would have done something for a brand, right? The New York Times does this. You guys have Netflix here, right? Do you watch “Orange is the New Black”?
—The New York Times made a long form story of native advertising…
About female convicts. I worked on a huge series with the Times called “Thirty Six Hours,” it’s a travel series completely founded by Google and Google Maps. They’ve done that. A lot of venerable organizations have realized “Listen, we need to pay the bills. Because if we can pay to keep the lights on, then we are gonna actually do important journalism.” The mindset has changed, people are accepting on that.
—You have been teaching at Columbia since 2002. What happens in academia where ethics and editorial guidelines are so important? This landscape is moving boundaries.
I think you can change your operations and still be ethical. The problem with education now is things change so quickly. Before the semester ends, the industry is gone to something else. I don’t think ethics ever becomes a problem. Now, there is still a problem where we have to deal with issues like Facebook and social media. We’ve added some courses, some—to be honest—very unsuccessful. Because by the time we taught them, it was already old.
—A few steps behind.
Academia is much slower than the real world.
—Is that the biggest challenge for j-schools now?
Here is the real, honest problems. One, having the right faculty. A lot of j-schools have faculty that are really great journalists but they worked in a different era, so they don’t even have a hands-on experience dealing with “How do I react to someone who gets into a Twitter war with me.” Cause they never had to do that. Or, “How can I possibly file five stories a day?” You can fix that problem by having good adjuncts, not full time faculty but the ones that work in the field. Related to that, academia moves pretty slowly. If I want to teach a class in the fall, I have to propose that class a year before to get approval. In a year, as you know, a lot happens. In my reporting class I make my students to Instagram every day, not what they are eating but what they see in the beat, almost as if they were photojournalists. I make them do three posts a day and it’s terrible for them. They hate it.
—They don’t have the habit?
They don’t have the habit and they are complaining by three posts a day.
—What happens at the end of the semester? Do they get more used to do this?
That is the hope. I tell them, “I am not doing this for my health. I don’t want to look at your photos. I am doing this so you can get use to working fast, working every day, publishing multiple times a day.” Most people, students who go to Columbia, would love to write a magazine article every two months. I’m like, “That job does not exist.” A part of this is retraining the students to be realistic about how the world works as well.
—In 2015 you published your textbook, a guide for storytelling with tips and advices for multimedia journalists. What is the value of that in a moment when the immediate consumption is the norm?
It kind of drives you through but also focuses on just the fundamentals. It is a book about reporting and telling. And I think that’s important right now because I always tell students when they come into Columbia… they pay a lot of money to go to Columbia. I think it’s something like US $100,000, between tuition and living in New York for a year. Can you imagine? When you go into a newsroom there’s not going to be an experienced editor to say “You did this wrong and this is why you did it wrong.” Right now in 2016 tuition is ridiculous. And you can print this, Columbia needs to do something about it. I don’t care if they get mad that I say this. We need to find ways so that we don’t create a system where only rich kids can be journalists. We need to create a system where all kids can be trained to do journalism. But the main thing about that is that right now I feel like I have even a greater duty because when they leave it may be the last time, for a long time, that someone tells them exactly what’s right and wrong about their pieces.
—And that is maybe the reason for why you turned your Tumblr page into this kind of endless tutorial on audiovisual technique and equipment, not only for your students but for everybody who can access that.
Absolutely right. I wish I had more time. That’s exactly my goal. I have a bit of experience and I really love inexpensive things. I think the biggest harm to journalism is only allowing rich people to do it. Part of my mission is as much as I can to give free information on the net. Columbia already pays me a salary. Some of my colleagues say “You know, you should charge for your blog.” First of all, who would pay for it? And secondly, that’s not my goal. If I can help some kid out there or 10 people or 20 people, then I think I’m doing a little bit more to make sure that more diverse voices get to participate in journalism.
—On Tumblr you call yourself “An original multimedia gangsta.” What do you mean by that?
That’s a joke. It started a long time ago. It comes from hip hop, old hip hop, original gangsta, “they’re so tough and mean.” And journalists are not tough and mean. It was just a joke, a plan that “I’ll never be a tough guy or a rapper. But at least I am this.”
—But people may think that you are a video storyteller gangsta.
Hahaha, I don’t know about that. I think that with this business you can’t take yourself too seriously. You know it’s important to kind of have that sense of humor certainly because our industry is so in flux. It’s hard to make a living at it. And the only thing that keeps you going is the fact that it’s a really cool profession. Journalism is really cool. And the fact you meet really cool people and you’re proud and you’re doing a job that can have great impact. And if you don’t take yourself too seriously through the rough times, the jokes can get you through.
—There is a lack of a sense of humor in the news industry.
—Is because of the crisis or is just in our DNA?
Is in our DNA. It’s really important that we get out of that because you’re absolutely right. Journalists are not funny. But you know what really sells online? Humor. People love humor. One of the things we need to understand is that our role is just not to inform but also to entertain because when the Facebook feed comes through, it’s a news story, maybe a stupid video, something your mom posted and then maybe a news story and so on. I think we need to elevate our ability to entertain. And I don’t mean be silly, I don’t mean be stupid or crass or overly sexualized. We can have a sense of humor. We can present our stories in a way that are just as compelling as someone not doing journalism because if we don’t then we’ve lost all those people. I think humor is a great way to connect especially on line. And I think it’s in our DNA. But we can change. We can recruit new people, we can accept new ideas.
—Can you point the most common mistakes that news organizations make when dealing with video?
I think our biggest straints is that we follow the platform. And we follow the success on the platform as opposed to say “This is what I want to say and which platform can I say it in?” We kind of do the cart before the horse. You know those AJ+ videos with the big lettering and no audio? They’re very successful now and the reason that they have big lettering is because Facebook does silent autoplay. So we followed the platform. Is that the best way to tell that? Just because it’s a popular platform doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do what’s popular on that platform because you do something else. There’s some people who make potato chips and there’s gourmet chefs. They’re both food but you want them at different occasions. That’s one big mistake with digital. The second is in terms of our rhythms. Trying to figure out what the human will like in storytelling. There is formulas as storytelling writing. You write your story with your lead, your nut graph. The words are yours and the same thing with video: there’s an opening shot and an interview. But the way we edit it is ours so that level of humanity in the storytelling can never be replicated with artificial intelligence, at least not in 2016. You cannot trick good storytelling through algorithms. That’s a big mistake.
—And who is doing great stuff with video right now?
Right now there’s tons of great videos. The guys with Vice are doing great video. I have some problems with their stuff. Maybe the fact checking could be a little stronger but they’re engaging an audience who’s never been interested in news. BuzzFeed in terms of long form it has been really good. I used to hate them, I used to think they were a joke with just cat videos. But they’ve got all those resources and covering the politics really well in America. Vox has been doing really well. They do a lot of explainer videos. That uses the medium really well. Vox is not trying to do AJ+ videos. Vox explains the world. I think that’s always been their motto.
—Do you think that everybody, big and small news organizations, should be focusing on video? Or your advice would be to focus on what you can do best?
I think after being lost at sea for many years, journalism can see some lights. You have to really start thinking about your technology. How you use what’s out there but also to develop new technology that you can own. You cannot let Mark Zuckerberg be your editor as you saw in that recent controversy. You have to understand that video is really expensive and that you have to make it fit what your viewers want as opposed to copying a leader in terms of video. Video distributions is real cheap. The internet is real cheap. Making it is still very expensive.
—You’re here in Chile to talk about the future of news. And I wanted to ask you about the roles of the actors in these landscape. So first what do you think is the role of reporters in building this future or imagining this future.
The role of a journalist is just what I posted: to report. Our job is to gather information and distilled it and present it in a way that is meaningful for our audience. That has always been the case. We don’t write for ourselves. We write for the public. We might enjoy writing or we might enjoy making videos but more importantly: will the videos do something for the audience? Now, presenting it in a way that’s meaningful is the tricky part of 2016. Is it meaningful on Twitter? Is it meaningful on Snapchat? Is that meaningful on YouTube? We need some new people in the building to help us out.
—And the role of professors and j-schools?
That’s a great one. I’m biased but I think that for the first time in a long time, if ever, we can help lead the industry. As newspapers are struggling with making money and layoffs, academia doesn’t have the same pressures. No matter how bad journalism gets, I’m still a professor. I’m not going to get laid off. We should be the ones that say “Hey, guess what? We just did research on this. Don’t do that. Here New York Times, here’s free advice.” And we’ve actually done that. A lot of the reports that have come out of the Tow Center, that’s all they do. They spend millions of dollars each year doing these analytical reports. There was a report on the layout of offices.
—By Nikki Usher.
That’s right! Emily Bell is a good friend of mine and I am like “That totally makes sense.” Our role is to take a lead and do a lot of the R&D because news orgs don’t have the money right now and they could use our expertise. Because if you don’t exist we can’t exist. If journalism dies there’s no journalism school. But I think we need to have that kind of symbiotic relationship.
—And finally the role of students, undergraduate or graduate students.
I think sadly the cost of education in America is so high that excludes a lot of people. But in an ideal world if we can get the tuition down I think if you’re interested in journalism you need to be a student of it because that layer of editing that I mentioned is gone. In the past you didn’t have to go to journalism school to become a journalist. Even today you don’t have to. But to really have those fundamentals, students actually need to get trained properly before you start making mistakes. And there’s no one there to catch you.
—Last thing: What is the one piece of equipment you need to carry always, wherever you go?
Your smartphone. This is the best, you just record this interview. You can take photos. The thing that differentiates it from any camera that you buy in the world is this is connected to the Internet. You can report and share whatever you see immediately. So you can have a US $3,000 Leica camera. I will take this [the smartphone] over that, any day.