Steve Outing, senior editor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies
On the future for digital journalists and multimedia news
When did you first begin to realise the possibilities of internet journalism? That would have been around 1992/93. I had had a traditional print career in newspapers and was working as graphics editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. After using Compuserve, one of the early proprietary online services, as part of that job, I realised that this was the beginning of something that would transform the media. I became part of a small team that met to devise an online service for the paper to be named The Gate. That was pre-web, and this was a dial-up bulletin board software! After I left, of course, it became a website, now SFGate.com.
Actually, I left the paper before much got going. The paper was in cut-back mode in late 1993 and offered buyouts to trim the staff by 15 per cent. That seemed like a great opportunity to dive into internet media, so I went off on my own and began covering the nascent online news media business - writing research reports, columns for Editor & Publisher and so on.
So I don't consider myself one of the earliest pioneers - this stuff dates back much further than 1993 - but I've been involved all during the most exciting decade of online media.
Are print journalists finally beginning to shed their suspicion of the internet? Definitely. A real cultural change has taken place in the news business. Especially at the biggest news companies but even at lots of smaller ones; there's clear recognition that the news no longer waits for a scheduled press run or TV-news slot.
The news business is now 24/7 and it's just silly to hold on to things until the next morning. Certainly news executives realise this now, and I think they're doing a good job at spreading the message to the reporting and editing ranks.
While not everyone can afford a five-person web continuous news desk like the Washington Post, even small papers are putting breaking daily news on their sites. I've seen that just in the last year - my local paper, the Boulder Daily Camera in Colorado, has begun to post breaking news stories on the website during the day.
In terms of journalists themselves, more and more of them definitely get it. The other day I was talking to a website editor for the Christian Science Monitor. He was excited that the week before three reporters had approached him wanting to write blogs for CSMonitor.com. I hear this all the time. Reporters want to reach their audience, and they realise that the audience increasingly is online.
They want to break stories before the competition, and they realise that the web is the quickest way to do that. And blogs are a way for them to get published stuff that they report that hasn't had an appropriate home in traditional media.
As to why it took journalists so long to shed their suspicion of the internet, well, it's difficult for many people to accept profound change. Just look at the music industry! Online media had to become mainstream before many journalists paid attention.
Now, of course, we've got a young generation of journalists - those still in their early 20s - that grew up knowing nothing but the web. What we'll see online from that generation should be really exciting!
How much of a gap is there between journalism study and professional practice? I get a sense from visiting some of the top journalism schools that they're doing a better and better job of preparing students for working in a multimedia world.
My 1978 journalism degree, which focused entirely on print, wouldn't be much good in today's world where you need to be able to think about and produce storytelling in whatever format is most appropriate. Today's students need a combination of technical skills (or at least knowledge) and journalism skills. They need to understand what is possible with the technology. They need to be as comfortable writing a text account of a story as with recording audio to accompany a web presentation.
I think there is still resistance among some journalism educators. A year ago I was on a weblogs panel at a journalism educators conference, and I chose to do my bit on the promise of photo phones, moblogs and news photography by 'citizen journalists'. There was definitely some resistance to the idea that this was about to explode into something that would change journalism. Yet this year, with the digital camera and photo phone pictures from Abu Ghraib and the photos of American caskets taken by a civilian (and more examples), it's obvious that this is something to be taken seriously.
Do you think the journalism profession is more highly regarded in the US than in the UK? Obviously, with the lying-journalists scandals at the New York Times and USA Today, this is not a time when we're held in high regard. And now we have the New York Times publicly admitting that its reporters were duped by supporters of the Iraq war into publishing allegations supporting military intervention that proved unfounded. The US press wasn't nearly sceptical enough in the months before Bush led this country to war based on false premises. But that's just my opinion.
I'm reminded of a funny bit on the Daily Show by John Stewart recently. (For UK readers, that's a daily comedy show that comments on the day's news; very funny.) Stewart showed a clip of a UK reporter eloquently and aggressively challenging Tony Blair in a press conference about Iraq policy. Stewart compared that with a fawning question to Bush by an American reporter. Stewart quipped something like, "Can we get one of those guys?" referring to the British journalist.
At this point in time the US press has taken a beating, so I've got to think UK journalists have the temporary edge.
What advice would you give new web journalists? Learn the technology. It's not necessarily about picking up specific skills (how to use Flash MX - though that's useful), but about understanding what's possible with the technology, and being able to work with the technologists.
You are likely to be working in multiple platforms. Even if you think that you're likely to be mostly a text journalist, pick up some broadcast skills for when that's necessary to tell a story best. Learn how to take decent photographs - because even if that's not 'your job' you still may find yourself with a photo phone or digital pocket camera in hand when something important has happened and there's no staff photographer around. Learn to be versatile.
Recognise that there are new jobs out there. Naka Nathaniel of NYTimes.com is a great example. He's a multimedia journalist who travels the globe producing some of the great multimedia features you see on that site. With a few digital tools in his backpack, he
photographs, does research and reporting, and produces while on the road. Recently, he created some great multimedia features while inside Iran, serving as Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's sidekick and producing multimedia features that supplemented Kristof's text columns.
Finally, recognise that journalism is changing - away from the we-tell-you model and toward being more of a conversation between journalist and readers. I'd urge new journalists to think more like Dan Gillmor, a newspaper columnist and blogger who says that his readers know more than he does. His journalism, while primarily him telling what he knows and has learned, is also heavily about interacting with and reacting to his readers. Read his upcoming book, 'We Media', too.
Which sites are setting the best example in online news publishing? Washington Post.com for leading the pack on continuous news - on making it a priority to break stories right away on the website and not worrying about cannibalising the print edition.
NYTimes.com, elmundo.es and MSNBC.com (and Washington Post.com, too) for pushing the envelope in multimedia storytelling.
BBC for, first, being an overall incredible site. But also for its experiments with 'citizen journalism' - asking readers to add to
correspondents' reporting, soliciting photo phone and digital camera photos, etc.
Smaller, innovative news sites like ljworld.com, which has figured out how to pay to have several ambitious and smart programmers on staff. ljworld.com is really being creative with its content. Remarkable stuff for a website of a small newspaper. It's the combination of smart, cutting-edge technology and solid journalism that make that operation so compelling.
It has also targeted some niches: college sports with its kusports.com, and local entertainment with Lawrence.com - that serve the local market really well.
Which sites do you use most often? Google News and NYTimes.com.
NYT because it's the brand for national and international news that I most trust. Google News because it's the gateway to everything else.
And, like just about everyone else, I suspect, I use Google search many times a day.
I actually don't (often) use my local newspaper's website; I subscribe to the newspaper print edition and am old enough that I still feel comfortable with that. I use its website for special needs, mostly when I need to search for something.
Otherwise, I rely on my RSS reader (FeedDemon is my favourite right now). I track a bunch of blogs, and RSS makes that so efficient. The blogs lead me to articles of interest to me on traditional-brand media sites.
How will online news publishing be different in 10 years? This industry moves so quickly that it's impossible to have any clue what this will look like in 10 years. But a decade from now I can search Google to find these old predictions and see how wrong I was…
Online and wireless reading of news will be more common than print. Print isn't going anywhere, but it will no longer have the dominance that it still does today. A newspaper's digital offerings will be as important - in terms of audience size and I think by then revenue -
Portable reading devices will have made great strides. Many of us will have a tablet device that's always connected to the broadband internet and serves as our portal to the world of media. It will replace print magazines for many people. We'll get our news on it - from a variety of sources. Content will be a combination of text, static images, audio, video, interactives, etc. It'll probably supplant our laptops, and include our music collections. We will have developed new and better ways to present news on a screen this size - which will make today's news websites look antiquated (and cluttered).
We'll receive news headlines (in text, graphical/Flash and video form) to our phone/communicators; that'll be routine. Watches probably will have evolved into communication (instant messenger-like functionality) and news devices - so we'll get headline alerts on our wrists. And the alerts won't just be for big national stories, but for micro-local stuff that's specific to us (eg. my kid's school is closed today due to a fire).
Google will have badly hurt the newspaper industry with its efforts at localising search, stealing away advertising dollars from local newspapers. This will mainly be money from small advertisers who didn't use newspapers for print, but were ripe for ad opportunities online (like Google AdWords). This is money that could've gone to newspapers, but they didn't respond quickly enough to the aggressive local strategy of Google, et al and lost out.
Instead of the local newspaper being the primary marketplace for the community, others will have won this opportunity because they did a better job of creating services that were truly useful to online users. I hope to be proved wrong on this, but past newspaper industry experience shows that it doesn't respond fast enough to serious threats from online companies that have billions to throw at what they see as smart opportunities.
Story presentation will be very different to what we see today. It'll be less text-dominant. There'll be more interactive video; that'll be much more common. We will have created new forms of news storytelling that we wouldn't recognise today. And such treatment won't be limited to a few important national or international stories. It will have become easy and inexpensive enough to produce that we can afford it even on local coverage - because the tools for producing it will have improved so much.
We'll have figured out a model for 'citizen journalism'. Within our personal news feeds that each of us has configured, we'll get news and relevant information from professional journalists as well as citizens that we've learned to trust enough to accept their material. This might be other parents from our kids' school, or a local political organiser we like and trust, whatever. Tools will have evolved to accept into our feeds these micro-local voices - and an internet-wide reviewing system will have others' views of these voices to help us determine if they're credible.
Do you think the industry is now more demanding of new journalists? There's a lot more to know these days. It's almost not enough just to be a great journalist. To really rise in the profession these days, you also need some cross-platform and technical knowledge and skills.
Perhaps in time we'll settle back to where more specialty jobs will be the norm again. But for now, the multi-faceted journalist is necessary. It's not that you can't 'just do journalism', but the opportunity to best serve the industry at this stage is with going beyond your specialty.
Compiled by Jemima Kiss
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More Q&As from dotJournalism:
Laura Hayes, editor of NewWoman.co.uk
Rafat Ali, publisher of PaidContent.org
Alex White (formerly Alex Daley), head of the UK’s Association of Online Publishers
Yvonne Ridley, award-winning journalist
Tree Elven, web editor of HelloMagazine.com
Tracy Corrigan, editor of FT.com
Anthony Gottlieb, executive editor of Economist.com
Martin Nisenholtz, CEO of New YorkTimes Digital
Richard Withey, global director of interactive media, Independent News & Media Group
Mike Smartt, former editor-in-chief of BBC News Interactive
Steve Outing’s E-Media Tidbits blog: http://www.poynter.org/tidbits
The Poynter Eyetrack III project: http://www.poynter.org/eyetracker
Editor & Publisher: http://www.editorandpublisher.com
Steve Outing’s Editor & Publisher column: http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/columns/stopthepresses_archive.jsp
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