Are newspapers losing their multimedia mojo?


Around the multimedia blogosphere, the January doldrums seem to have kicked in. My usual inspirational haunts like Newsvideographer.com, Teaching Online Journalism, Multimediashooter.com have all slowed their publishing cycles. Even my own blog is in need of a New Year’s kick-start. With all the newspaper layoffs last year, over 8,000 from one count, I’m sensing a definite decrease in the multimedia mojo I felt just a year ago. Even the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest I run had the lowest amount of entries ever this month.

I’m not saying there’s not good work being produced. There is. I just feel the recession and layoffs have forced the pace of newsroom innovation to slow to a crawl. I fear the brain drain at many newspapers, including my own, has left them frozen in place. Many papers simply do not have the staff or resources left to be competitive on two, let alone, three platforms anymore.

In the last round of layoffs at my newspaper, we lost many of the multimedia journalists who embraced the idea that the web would eventually become our main publishing platform. Talk of innovation has pretty much ceased at the grass roots level. Now, most in editorial are waiting for direction from higher powers to see what comes next.

As I sit in my supply closet video editing suite, surrounded by shelves of unused gear from laid off former co-workers, I wonder if the last five years of training myself to break the chains of legacy storytelling was all for naught. If tomorrow, I stopped shooting video, stopped being a cheerleader for multimedia, stopped asking for new features on our website, would anybody at my paper care? Would it be more of a relief to some that I was not challenging them to try new ways of storytelling? Perhaps. I’m sure some acquaint our former push to be web-centric as a cancer that has gone into remission. Me? I am constantly fighting the forces of negativity from an industry that seems to be in an endless tailspin of turmoil. I don’t brandish terms like “the printed newspaper is dead,” anymore. That just gets me eye rolls.  Most in our newsroom have retreated to focusing on our traditional print product that thankfully, for now, still pays our salaries.

I went from being part of one of the most innovative, forward thinking newsrooms in the country, to now taking a back seat in my out-of-sight supply closet. I feel frustration that mine and most other newspapers are not doing more to prepare for their digital futures. When I started this blog a year ago, I was so full of hope. Now that hope too, has been forced into unwelcome remission. Not totally gone mind you. I’m just going to wait this downturn out. You see, if I can survive the next future round of layoffs, I believe the need for innovative people and ideas will flow once again.  If not, I’m sure what ever rises from the ashes will need a visual journalist who can do it all.

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17 thoughts on “Are newspapers losing their multimedia mojo?

  1. Here in the UK the numbers are starting to really bite. I have almost lost the opportunity to book in freelance cover which was allowing me to get away from daily shooting to concentrate on multimedia. I still have the opportunity, not been told not to do anything, but if I have to go out and shoot 4 GV’s 3 head shots and a mayor opening an envelope I just don’t get the time to think about doing anything else! fingers crossed we get a little more time in Feb!

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  3. I’m in a similar boat, sitting in a supply closet surrounded by the unused gear left from the last round of layoffs.
    The office is still stuck with survivors guilt and as the youngest and most tech savvy reporter left, I’m the lone person pushing to better website and multimedia content.
    Meanwhile the other reporters are being trained on Quark so they can serve as layout editors. Layout training will help put the newspaper out tomorrow, but I share your frustration that newspapers aren’t looking down the road and preparing for digital futures.

  4. In my shop our multimedia designers are working their guts out, with some notable successes to show for it. But even they admit that the crush of daily needs has increased, post layoffs and buyouts, to the point where they find it very difficult to plan substantial, time-consuming work.

    I find this especially troubling because I believe a successful news site needs a mix of multimedia – quick-hit videos, audio excerpts, photo slideshows and advanced multimedia projects.

    When push comes to shove, unfortunately, it’s the more ambitious work that seems to get left out.

  5. in the near term, newspapers will have to simultaneously use their video resources for editorial AND ad-vertorial purposes.

    it’s not much of a stretch to see multi-media journos doing a great job of creating advertiser based video.

    while i know this is somewhat blasphemous, it might be the only way to make sure video skills grow within a newspaper environment in 2009.

    having print reporters create TV-like video packages……may NOT be the model to follow.

    even TV’s online clips get little play, thus little $$.

    online video will be huge…and profitable…..but probably NOT the way we think it will.

    Mel
    http://www.MelTaylorMedia.com

  6. The thing that strikes me is that it seems we’re in a reality where journalists of all kinds are expected to work harder, longer and on more platforms than ever before for less money and fewer benefits, no plush assignments or security and no chance to breathe — ever. And they have to figure out the business and content strategies while simultaneously producing results in said categories.
    Yes, there’s opportunity and excitement there, and maybe money, that reality can also be pretty thankless, particularly in smaller markets where staffers have long multi-tasked.
    That dawning realization could be part of the motivation problem for so many (along with the economic climate, etc.).
    I guess what I’m saying is that for those who want to make a career of it, as opposed to a project, a gig or a hobby, how close are we to the line where gutting it out gives way to “screw it”? Particularly when corporate overlords are involved.

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  8. Colin, I share your sadness at this short sighted demise in the multimedia newsroom and am so thankful that I managed to get out and in to a better place.
    After writing a very similar post to this a few weeks ago (http://bit.ly/aBqL) in response to your 2008 roundup, I’ve since learned that after I left my previous role, where I managed to build up a pretty good Youtube following, they don’t intend to replace me.
    Instead untrained web producers will be doing any ‘editing’ that needs doing. I have a feeling that the very picky audience that motorcyclenews.com has is not going to like the regression one bit, but the company wants to ‘focus on the core product’.
    Aside from hating seeing my work going down the drain, I also can’t understand how these media companies can think they have a business going forward if they retreat from the direction that all of their consumers are wanting to go.
    Thankfully I now work for a publisher with real foresight that values video and is desperate to produce more, so the rot hasn’t set in all over, but it is getting worryingly pervasive.
    Angus Farquhar
    http://angusfarquhar.tv

  9. James has made some excellent points.

    We can’t minimize the psychological toll those of us who still have jobs have endured watching our colleagues leave. Fifty more left our newsroom in November, over 100 company-wide. Same last year.

    Last night I was looking for Firewire cables for students in a video training session I was organizing. I ended up in the soon-to-be-bankrupt Circuit City store. There is a background feeling of impending doom nearly everywhere we look. It saps us even if we aren’t directly involved. And that saps motivation, creative fire, and whatever else it takes to embrace the exciting possibilities of learning a new way to tell stories.

    Our paper has one of the country’s worst news web sites. Many on the photo staff are reluctant to learn multimedia because they believe no one will ever see their work. And the web site is run by a third-party company that the paper is powerless to change.

    Cumulatively, these factors create a phenomenon greater than any individual event. A slowly growing sense that our careers are fading away faster than our innovation can restore them, that we might well need to look outside newspaper work, regardless of how many platforms we can learn, in the very near future. As a guy who has worked at the same paper for 30 years, has embraced every change with enthusiasm and competence, including multimedia production; I’m finding it harder and harder to do work I am happy with, help train others to do the same, separate my self from the disappointments of how it is used both in print and online; and still have a life that is not darkened by my career.

  10. My, God .. are you me?

    You totally summed up so aptly how I feel just about right now at my newspaper. We haven’t had full-timer layoffs (thank God) but we’ve had buyouts and cuts among part-timers.

    It feels like we should be doing more and more multimedia now, not less. But everyone is in this hazy fog. I’m the crazy cheerleader for the interactive Web, but I feel like I’m speaking a language nobody can understand. I, like you, try to stay upbeat, but it gets harder and harder.

    I’m sorry I can’t offer much comfort but thanks for letting me know there’s one more person who feels the same angst as me.

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  12. For what it’s worth, I can report some positive mojo at my paper. Despite newsroom layoffs and budget cuts, our multimedia effort is slowly growing. When before it was just me, we now have a photographer partially dedicated to multimedia, and four non-photo newsroom employees trained in video production, with more to come. In three days we will have published seven staff produced videos. We’re transitioning to a new web site platform that should give this work better display, and we’re finally seeing some potential revenue through DVD sales and pre-roll ads.

  13. I thought there were many newspapers that had excellent overall strategies of trying to diversify their content to be a publishing company. This included multimedia and video efforts across the country. Some printed more zone editions and magazines offering a selection of niche products. Slideshows and videos were common when covering big events. Even though the core print product was losing steam, the goal was to have to have diversity in what your publish.

    Then in the first quarter of 2008, the economy tanked and revenue took a free fall. So what happened? Many of those new and different products (like video) were pulled way back. The people who left were many of those staffers who supported these new ventures.

    So the focus went back to saving the printed product. Hoping the spiral would end soon. Guess what? It didn’t. And now these newspapers have become more one dimensional again. Yes the websites still exist, but there’s little thought to quality and consistency. And the spiral continues as readers get less.

    I’m an owner and publisher of a newspaper in a small California city that’s been around 100 years. In a sense, we could be one of those zone editions that many larger dailies once produced. Although classifieds have been hurt by the economy, our regular advertising has actually increased. Our strategy? Don’t gut the product. Maintain quality at all costs. Yes, we have made hard decisions. But as many of us have heard before…”It’s the product stupid!”

  14. A year ago I had 6 people in my department and we were producing some wonderful projects. Then one of my rainmakers decided to go back to school and he wasn’t replaced. Then the intern was eliminated. My last intern was an excellent producer of MM projects. He was a sponge when it came to learning and a thunderstorm when it came to producing. Now we are down to 4 shooters and a full boat of daily and advance assignments to support the newspaper. The time it takes to train let along produce MM is scarce. I am trying to find simple story telling opportunities to keep the content flowing but it is difficult. Like you Colin I have been the chief cook and bottle washer when it comes to advocating MM for my newspaper. I have my fingers crossed that with the reinstatement of a summer intern it will free the staff up a bit to stoke the creative fires and keep the MM train rolling down the tracks.

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  16. They moved you to the supply closet? A sign of the times if there ever was one…I was an intern for the S-R in 2007. The hit to the newsroom has hurt me even as I continue my career from afar because I met such wonderful journalists there…I think your thoughts are reflective of my entire (and short-lived) experience within this industry–I was so full of hope when I started that innovation could pull papers through, but that enthusiasm is waning…but, the S-R was a great newsroom to start in and I was really impressed with your talents and enthusiasm as a video journalist. Hang in there :)

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