Photojournalism in the age of the Internet

I’ve been working on a presentation I will give next month called “Photojournalism in the age of the Internet.” In the process, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much photojournalism has changed for newspaper photojournalists.

With the rise of the  Internet, traditional photojournalists have been faced with a dilemma. Stay a purist to the craft by clinging to their still cameras or embrace the change by venturing out into the online world by adding video and audio to their storytelling toolboxes.

Back in 2006, I was invited to speak about newspaper multimedia at The Southern Short Course in News Photography conference. During some free time, I dropped in on a panel discussion about the future of photojournalism. The panel was made up of a stellar group of veteran, but mostly old-school photojournalists.  The room was packed, so I stood in the side-shadows taking in the conversation.

An audience member asked whether video was something she needed to learn. After a pause, one panel member said, “I don’t know, why don’t you ask Colin? He’s standing over there.”  All 200 heads turned and looked at me.

My answer made many people squirm in their seats. “Yes,” I said. “You need to learn video. You need to add audio to your pictures and yes you’ll need to embrace change.”

I felt a little uneasy as the questions kept coming at me and not the panel. I could sense that many people thought I was crazy. I started to see the panic in some people’s eyes. One woman volunteered that her editor at a small newspaper was requiring her on a single story to write it, take the photographs and produce a video. An uneasy murmur rose in the room. I could tell, my belief that video was important to the future of online journalism, was  a tough sell in this room of die-hard  photojournalists.

Flash-forward some four years. Whereas, in 2006 I was an anomaly, now most newspaper photojournalists produce some sort of multimedia, be it  audio slideshows or video. J-school programs have finally stopped wallowing in the past and are junking old curriculums for new ones that are multimedia focused.

Looking at the troubling position newspapers are in, one must wonder if all this talk of multimedia storytelling really matters. After all the rounds of layoffs, who has time to shoot video?

There are some days I wonder myself, but I quickly shake off the feeling. I have to remind myself that newspapers are awash in transition. As we near rock bottom, the economy is starting to show some life. I can only hope for some stability to return to the newspaper industry.

Today, if I faced a similar crowd like the one in 2006, I would say the same thing. Learn video storytelling, master audio gathering and editing. Embrace change. The future, I would tell them, is not in the printed-paper, but in the digital delivery that will eventually replace it.

Photojournalists are a curious lot. They are independent, visual thinkers. Most take photographs because they love to shoot and share their work. They know they’ll never get rich on this career choice, but instead find happiness in the people they meet and photograph along the way.

The disruption that online journalism has placed on the photojournalist, whose career choice was based solely on taking still photos for newspapers, has been gut wrenching. “That’s not what I signed up for,” is what I often see posted in forums dealing with the changes facing photojournalists today.

The technology being deployed is slowly changing the definition of what photojournalism is. Newspaper photojournalists are becoming multifaceted visual journalists who can now use a variety of formats to tell a story.

As lean as newspapers are running these days, I think we’re about to get a dose of “oh shit” real soon. Circulation is not coming back. Just look at the downward trend of the last forty years as proof of that. Our readership is dying off and screenagers are just not interested in buying the dead trees we’re selling. I think the last transition will be the messiest. More talented journalists will leave the profession. More photojournalists will become freelance wedding photographers.

What awaits those few who make it across the proverbial burning bridge is anyone’s guess. If I could flash forward four years, I can visualize in my crystal ball a world where newspapers have transitioned most of their subscriber base to the touch screen tablet platform that has suddenly gone white-hot with advertisers.  I predict these multimedia centric devices will need a steady stream of visual content.  And guess what?  Visual journalists, who honed their multimedia skills during newspapers darkest hours, will be there to gladly step up and help feed the daily digital beast.

Advertisements

Will the touch tablet save professional journalism?

Someone should just put a deadbolt on my laptop lid. When I peruse my Twitter feed I see nothing but scary newspaper industry news, which flows like a river of red ink across my pixels. Reading too much of it makes me think a prescription for Prozac might be in my future. I’ve begun to notice even journalism pundits have started to turn on each other by criticizing the need for yet another conference on “Envisioning the Newspaper of Future.”

Truth be told, no one really knows when printing presses will grind to a halt and news delivery boys and girls will be forced to hang up their logoed paper bags for good.

I had to laugh,  last week in Portland, Oregon, my former newspaper editor Steve A. Smith was the keynote speaker at “We Make the Media“A conference held to develop real-world plans for new media organizations to fill the journalism gaps left by shrinking news staffs at legacy media organizations.” As Smith was speaking about the need to save “professional” journalism, back in the corner of the room were a bunch of self-proclaimed snarky bloggers and citizen journalists who took offense to the notion professional journalism should be saved. Of course they twittered their opinions of Smith’s speech in real time. This, I guess, is the new digital divide, where any journalist older than thirty is viewed with mistrust. Hmmm, where have I heard that before?

It does seem the pace of handwringing is accelerating. The print folk, locked in their silos, are defending their turf as they make their last stand. Online departments are taking the brunt of the next wave of job cuts. If newspapers can’t hold the line on circulation and revenue, it will soon be curtains for the rest of us still drawing a paycheck. Or so I’m told. I hope I can last a bit longer, only because I truly believe, if we can make this digital transition, the future will not be as dismal as I was once led to believe.

Here’s my vision of how I see it playing out in the near future:

  • A new breed of touch tablet readers hits the market in 2010-2011. Newspaper publishers at first shun the devices. Then one gutsy newspaper chain embraces them. They form a partnership with the tablet maker to subsidize the cost for the consumer. The more publications a consumer subscribes to, the less they have to pay for the reader. Others soon follow…
  • A newspaper’s survival will be based on how many current subscribers can be converted to the digital replica of the newspaper. Replica is the key here. A newspaper’s digital future starts with making the transition simple (familiar) for  print consumers to make. It’s the newspaper, only better…
  • What will sell the tablet service is all the new things subscribers will be able to do with their wireless digital newspapers. Pictures will come alive with video and audio, graphics become interactive with a tap of a finger, Text can be set to be read aloud. Subscribers should easily be able to customize the paper to fit their needs. Want the sports page as your front page? No problem. Want more stories about your favorite pro baseball team? You bet!
  • The value to the tablet subscriber has to be so huge that they be crazy not to plunk down their cash.  The same goes for advertisers, whose ads will now have added value. Tap on an ad for a big-screen TV at Best Buy and get more info about the product. Tap a grocery store coupon to print it out.
  • Advertisers should be allowed to update their ads in real-time. Think about it. Let’s say you’re a local shoe store looking to move 1000 pairs of shoes. You place the ad in the morning showing the shoes at 20% off. By 2 p.m. you have 500 left and you want to sell them faster, you log into your account and update the ad yourself, dropping the price to 30% off. Don’t you think a whole bunch of those types of ads would draw traffic to a digital newspaper?  How about subscriber-only deals? Advertising will be targeted to subscriber’s tastes and talents.
  • Everyone talks about how they can’t make any money in online. The simple truth is most newspaper Web sites are not easy to navigate. They can’t display ads as effectively as a print newspaper. If newspapers are going to make this digital transition successful, then making the viewing experience for former print subscribers and advertisers as elegant as possible is paramount.

Finally, a few words about content. Our journalism is what’s most important and will no doubt have to be upgraded. Words and multimedia will need to work better together. The strength in the touch tablet is in its multimedia capabilities. Visuals like photo galleries, graphics, and hi-def video, will add value. Like your current Web site, the front page of the digital newspaper will change as stories are updated throughout the day. The page design will slowly change to integrate new content features.

Once this happens,  the true digital media revolution will begin to take place. Yes, the presses will eventually stop, which will only strengthen digital media’s position. Freed of the cost of printing and distribution, more resources will go to content creators. This is when the fun really starts. True innovation will kick in with each new tablet version. New types of devices will drive even more innovation and hopefully a super-renaissance of journalism. My vision may be utopia to some, but the internal optimist in me really believes there is a future in professional journalism.

Digital journalism and the rise of the touch tablet

166090-crunchpad_original

The old business model of newspapers is toast. We all know it. Its just some can’t quite fathom it yet. You see it daily at most newspapers–where classified, real estate and auto advertising has been sucked in to the black hole of the Internet. In response, massive cost cutting and layoffs have created print publications that are shells of their former selves.

For years, newspaper industry bloggers have been documenting this ongoing tragedy–one layoff announcement after another. They have debated incessantly who’s to blame, where the future of journalism is going and who will be left to pick up the pieces. The hand wringing has been intense. I admit my sweaty palms have been there with the best of them.

Stepping away from the scrum, I am starting to see the big picture of where the  future of digital journalism is heading.

I consider myself a keen people observer. I used to love sitting in a coffee shop and watch how somebody read the newspaper. How long did they look at my front-page photo? What? Only three seconds! Damn.

Lately, I’m not seeing many people reading newspapers in coffee shops or anywhere else for that matter. What I am seeing, is the screenager generation–now grown up—typing into their cell phones, texting incessantly to “friends.”  Look around you. Go to anyplace where there are a lot of people. How many have a phone to their ear, or are walking and texting?  Cell phones have become a necessity of life now. The handset makers are all too aware of this. Feature creep is accelerating. As cell phones grow smarter, users are fawning all over the new technology.

Smartphone sales have gone white hot. iPhones, Palm Pre’s and Android devices with the added value of applications and web browsers are changing how we use our cell phones.

I am a recent convert to the iPhone 3GS. Where on most days I wanted to throw my old Palm Treo against a brick wall, I now enjoy using my iPhone. It is not just a phone to me; it is a place where I get most of my news. I check my twitter feed application constantly. If there is breaking news in my community, I will know it. I have a dozen mobile news apps—AP, USA Today, BBC, New York Times, etc. My iPhone has become my connection with what’s going on in the world—and it’s all in my pocket.

How we get our news is changing. It’s subtle, but it is happening. News consumers are slowly turning away from print and TV and are now moving toward web enabled mobile devices. The smart phone is only the start. Amazon’s Kindle reader is the forerunner to future tablet web devices.  These touch enabled tablets could seal the deal by forcing print journalism to go mostly digital.

Some cool prototypes have been making the rounds. But the rumor of the mythical Apple tablet is what makes me wonder if this will be the disruptive technology that sends print newspapers down the black hole for good.

Stay with me here. I had some time to kill at a photo assignment yesterday. For an hour I browsed the Internet on my iPhone. My 47-year-old eyes struggled to read the text. If only my iPhone was 2 or 3 times the size. I would be able the browse with out squinting. A touch enabled tablet, with an unlimited data plan would allow me to view text, multimedia and video in ways the smart phone struggles with today. I think of the applications of a tablet for photojournalists. Being able to download photos from their cameras to a tablet, then quickly tone, caption and send them back to the newspaper would be great. Having to lug a laptop in the field is  true pain. This is a market segment that is only getting started.  It has the strong potential to disrupt not only newspapers, but magazines as well.

Consumers, if they embrace these new touch-tablets, will have their news pushed to them at lightening speed. They will be connected to everyone and everything. They will choose how to shape their digital lives by deciding what news feeds and publications to subscribe to.

So where does that leave present day print journalism? It will soon be vastly different than it is today. Where mainstream media outlets have shed their most talented people, those same workers are going to be the ones that will build the new journalism of the future. My guess is that it will be built around these new web tablets and handset devices. Monetizing the content will be foremost on the minds of these new digital publishers. Freed from the cost of presses, ink and newsprint, a new publishing model will develop.

News content is going to change too. Web tablets are not just text readers, but will be multimedia hubs. Music, video, photos, animation, and interactive graphics and yes , games,  are going to be what consumers will gravitate to. New high-speed 4G cell phone networks are now being rolled out. Soon the pipes for all this future multimedia content will open wide. It will change how journalists tell their stories. For many of today’s journalists, this new paradigm will be the deal breaker. For others, these new opportunities will present unique challenges that will drive the future of digital journalism to new and exciting heights.

Newspaper video: Will it survive?

Newspaper produced video is at a crossroads. As U.S. publications turn inward to focus on their traditional print products, many online producers are wondering if they should continue to invest the extra time it takes to shoot and edit video. It’s such a crazy time to be a visual journalist. Newspaper photo staffs are being slashed and devalued, as publishers try to protect what’s left of their bottom lines.

Video was hot a year ago, but now, as newspapers gut their newsrooms, the resources devoted to video storytelling are being scaled back.  Many wonder  if video storytelling has a future at newspapers.

I believe it does. In the next several years, newspapers will have to address their viability for survival. Some won’t make it. The one’s that have a life will need to make massive structural changes in order to continue to publish. Online needs to be addressed right now. Denying that online is the future is wasting everybody’s time. The excuse of, “We can’t make enough money online,” needs to be banished from the lexicon of publishers. Figure it out for Christ’s sake.

Marc Andreesen, co-founder of Netscape Communications, made a great point during this conversation with PBS’s Charlie Rose. He said, “If 90% of a publisher’s revenue comes from the newspaper, then 90% of their time is being devoted to the print product.”  If online is the future then this focus will need to gradually reverse. Andreesen advocates that newspapers need to kill their print products right now. I’m not quite there. Yet. But I do think a shifting of resources needs to be infused into newspaper online sites.

Right now, most newspapers still use their online publications as shovelware sites. They are still mostly text based. Sure, they have some photo slideshows, but the pictures are usually too small to have much impact. Video and audio slideshows are usually lost in of sea of links on the home page. The quality of video storytelling is uneven.

If the shift of resources into online happens, then proper use of video will need to be addressed. In an earlier post called “Video quality vs. quantity rages on”, I asked ten questions to ask yourself if video is right for your publication. These types of conversations need to take place now. The big problem with the growth and deployment of video on newspaper websites is that there is a huge void of people in charge that truly understand web video. It’s new. It’s complicated to learn.  Many producers I’ve talked to who invested the time to master video production, now say they just beat their heads against the wall in frustration. Newsroom structures still favor the old ways of doing things. Editors who don’t understand video tend to devalue it.

I still cling to these realities:

  • Anyone younger than 30 will probably never subscribe to newspapers.
  • The subscribers we do have are dying off everyday.
  • The consumption of web video is growing. Dramatically. If your website does not have a steady stream of quality local video, then consumers will go someplace else to find it.
  • You can monetize video– if you try.
  • As TV news stations get more web-savvy, newspapers need to compete by offering breaking news video. If not, you just gave up a whole market segment to somebody else.
  • Mobile is a disruptive tsunami that is about to hit. These second generation web-connected devices will revolutionize how we consume information. No longer will we be tied to laptops or desktop computers, now the world will be in your pocket. Video, I believe, will drive the adoption of these mobile devices.
  • The coming high-speed 4G cell phone networks will accelerate the demand for video.
  • Finally, where visual journalists are now being slashed and burned from newsrooms, I think the survivors will have a bright future in the online world. The web is becoming more visual. There will be a demand for quality visual producers.

My plan? Hold out as long as I can. I know this downturn will end. The transformation of newspapers is accelerating. Will publishers make the right choices in regards to video? Let’s hope so.

The rise of the mobile Internet browser

The other day, I was using Google Analytics to paw through website stats for  Spokesmanreview.com. I love looking for usage trends such as: How many people have converted to Flash 9 player? (89%) How many use Macs to access our site? (7.98%)

There was one statistic that caught my eye. In the last month, over 2300 people have accessed the S-R site using an iPhone with the Safari web browser. Three months ago it was about 1000. Granted, this was only 0.20% of our overall visitors, but as other manufacturers, besides Apple, release wireless browsing devices, I believe these hits will really start to track up. For years, technology wonks having been telling us pocket-sized wireless devices will change the paradigm of how we receive and send information. With last year’s iPhone and iPod Touch releases, I think the hardware has finally caught up with the hype.

In the next few years, newspaper websites will have an opportunity to connect with mobile users in ways infinitely better than how they do now.

I have a Palm Treo mobile phone running Microsoft software. A day doesn’t go by that I’d rather throw the device under a moving bus than continue using it. Clunky, unintuitive, fussy and damn right annoying are words to describe my company issued cell phone. Connecting to the web is a joke. Because it uses a touch screen and a real web browser, the iPhone fixes most these usability issues. It also brings game to a constipated wireless phone industry (at least in the U.S. market) in need of real innovation.

Touch screens, are finally starting to trickle down to other cell phone consumers. These larger screen devices, meshed with wireless high-speed data networks, will only move us further away from our reliance on desktop and laptops computers.

This will be a huge opportunity for newspapers to connect their online products to a whole new generation of Internet savvy users. We can begin by creating content that takes advantage of the strength of these browser-enabled devices. Websites will need simplified designs. The 300-link homepage just won’t do anymore. Shorter stories and more multimedia like video will rule the day. The iPhone was just the opening bell in a long 15 round bout. Competition is going to drive innovation rapidly. One day soon, everyone with a cell phone will have full access to our newspapers and the web. When that happens, I wonder what effect it will have on the traditional print product?