As newspapers shed workers, journalists ponder Internet's continuing impact on profession
By Beth Renneisen
For journalists, concerns about how to best prepare professionally for a future of reporting and editing on the Internet are at the forefront of almost every workplace discussion. As the newspaper business continues to shed jobs on a daily basis, print journalists are especially motivated to keep their address book and skill set current for a transition to an online career. Those who are already employed online are equally concerned about keeping up with the breathtaking pace of Internet developments.
A group of Bay Area journalists gathered at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in Oakland for a two-day digital leadership seminar to examine these challenges. Larry Olmstead, former assistant vice president for news at Knight Ridder and currently executive consultant for Leading Edge Associates of San Jose, led the sessions, along with media consultants Janine and David LaFontaine, who specialize in innovation and multimedia issues.
Seminar participants included journalists with wide a range of professional media experience and interests, including college students, bloggers, educators, and online media reporters and managers. The age and ethnic mix of the group of twelve was equally diverse, fulfilling one of the Maynard Institute’s goals of supporting and training minority journalists.
If nothing else was made clear by the presentations, it was the concept that everything in the news business is in such a chaotic state of change that no overriding formula for success is being practiced at present, or even offered as a model. It will be necessary for individuals to experiment, take chances, and retrain in new forms of communication if one expects to remain employed as a journalist in the digital future. How exactly that future may unfold was less clear.
At the very least, journalists need to keep their toolkit up to date, especially their cell phones. To the surprise of many, “mobile” was a principle buzzword of the gathering. In fact, online media giant Google already already has declared that cell phone viewing of news — as is now possible on iPhones and Blackberries — will be the dominant delivery system within five years. Cell phones will leapfrog the computer as a delivery device, especially in emerging areas of the world where cell phones have huge penetration. The close relationship users already have with their cell phones has become so important that the phenomenon is a new area of study for cultural ethnographers — yet few news organizations are doing anything about servicing wireless devices today.
Before the cell phone dominates, other niches in the online field need to be better understood and utilized by journalists as well. Olmstead’s presentation revolved around the proper innovative attitude to take in order to survive in the news industry’s time of “disruptive transformation.” Think like an entrepreneur, for one.
Numerous examples of successful innovation by individuals and entire companies — such as the Post-it note and Apple computer — were presented to stimulate creative thinking about everything from clever videos that went viral on the Internet, to how to get your site’s blog more traffic.
Joining the presenters for day two was Cory Haik, director of content for Seattletimes.com, who reinforced the idea that “generalists” — or persons who are competent in many storytelling techniques — are the most sought-after employees in online newsrooms. Generalists ask “how” to tell a story, and consider every available method, including short- and long-form text, short- and long-form video, audio, photo stories, blogs, and various combinations of them all.
Editors, as well, must be familiar enough with the many newsgathering possibilities to suggest approaches, and follow up with appropriate presentations online. Mastery of every program and tool is not necessary for everyone, but, as was suggested by an online editor, who wishes to remain anonymous, “Never forget to learn what you already pretend to know.”
Haik’s experience while employed at the New Orleans Times-Picayune during hurricane Katrina provided an entrée into a segment on disaster preparedness and response online. By the very nature of its immediacy, online journalism became a valuable tool for disseminating information to storm victims in New Orleans and to refugees sheltered in other states. Where computers failed, cell phone delivery was another option — including using Twitter for internal and external communication.
Clearly, Haik’s nimble newsroom — as well as reporters who could not physically reach the newsroom at all — were able to provide vital public service information in manner not possible in previous disasters. Haik emphasized that being technically prepared on a macro level, as well as being personally armed with a charged cell phone and colleague’s instant messaging and cell phone numbers, was a key to their success.
For bloggers and those participants involved in developing social networks, the LaFontaines suggested a plethora of actions designed to drive traffic to their sites, and dispatch annoying “trolls,” whose messages disrupt meaningful communication. Even if online communities are not a prime interest per se, journalists need to be aware of the tip potential from citizens, and the perceived value of providing a space for a dialogue with readers. Suggestions for stimulating an online conversation while blocking inappropriate content included publishing a clear policy for contributors, installing targeted computer plug-ins, and “deputizing” a moderator when appropriate.
The following are a few important concepts from the seminar:
• Innovation and flexibility are key components to the future of journalism. Creating and sustaining an innovative culture in the newsroom will help to bring something “new, useful and valuable” to customers, and hopefully open up untapped markets.
• Diversity initiatives online can build business opportunities in areas with the largest potential for growth, considering that people of color make up the bulk of Americans under age 24.
• Establishing and maintaining online communities is a feature many users consider a necessary function of news web sites — whether in the ethnic media, the corporate media or the blogosphere. In addition to providing space for online conversation, successful organizations use this portal to listen to customer needs.
• All reporters and editors must evolve with the medium, staying current with software and hardware options, regardless of their specific job description or their need to use the technology hands-on.
• Reporters in the field should carry a “mobile journalist field kit” that includes a digital still camera/video camera with external microphone, cell phone with Internet access, etc. For full list see http://reutersmojo.com/2007/10/22/the-mobile-journalism-toolkit-contents/.
• In this time of uncertainty for journalists, the code word is