Looking back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008

Looking back at this year’s highs and lows in newspaper multimedia, I find much to be excited about. My excitement is tempered by the growing layoffs that have affected many multimedia producers at U.S. newspapers– including my own. A year ago I would have said video storytellers were untouchable. In these challenging economic times, many newspapers have backtracked into full retrench mode as they prepare to make their final stand to save the traditional print product from extinction. This last year, online and photo departments got hit harder than expected. I lost seven of the 12 people I trained to shoot video. Other papers disbanded entire photo departments. For those left to carry on, I would say to hang tough. The need for quality multimedia storytelling is not going away. We will make it through this dark tunnel in time, so keep your video cameras and audio recorder held high. Here’s my look back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008.

  • Video at newspapers began to mature in 2008, as visual journalists became more proficient video storytellers. Though they’re beginning to master the basics of shooting and editing, there’s still much room for improvement. Tightening edits, writing better voiceovers and improving pacing and sequencing, should be on every newspaper video producer’s to-do list for the New Year.
  • Full screen video has finally arrived on many newspaper websites. Better compression algorithms (VP6 and H.264) and improved Internet bandwidth is allowing newspapers to provide decent looking full-screen video. At my newspaper, we built a video player that uses the latest Adobe Flash Player technology. Having hardware acceleration (player uses the computer’s GPU) and the ability to embed video anywhere on our new website adds up to a better user experience for all.
  • Video cameras are improving in both cost and features. Shooting HD video should be the norm now. It compresses better than standard def and looks stellar when played back on a hi-def monitor. But the big technology leap this year is the transition to shooting with tapeless video cameras. While most video producers are still shooting DV tape, a new breed of tapeless cameras is starting to make inroads. Canon’s entry level AVCHD format based HF-10 on the low end and the pro-based Sony XDCAM EX-1 on the high end, will soon make tape seem as dated a LP vinyl albums and Tri-X film.
  • Many newspaper websites have received redesigns that better showcase their multimedia. Unfortunately on many of these sites, multimedia is still considered an ugly stepchild to the word-driven content. Too many websites are not taking advantage of their growing video archives. Search on most newspaper websites is still an exercise in frustration.  Modern content management systems fix this by allowing tagging for all content. After a recent massive snowstorm last week in Spokane, we tagged all related content–stories, videos, photos and audio– with “Winter Storm 2008.” Click that tag on our Django based site and you’ll only get content related to that tag (way cool). On another front, most newspaper websites continue to be mostly shovelware sites for traditional newspaper stories. Their web-only content, like video and audio slideshows and database journalism is buried in a sea of links. Not getting the hits on multimedia? It’s probably because people can’t find it, and when they do, the player is crappy and the video compression sucks.
  • Audio slideshows have matured this year. Most newspaper photojournalists have become adept at gathering and editing audio. But many shows being produced seem lifeless and predicable. Deeper storytelling, better ambient audio, tighter photo and audio edits could help most audio slideshows. The Soundslides program went through a solid upgrade this year with the addition of a full-screen mode, but I am beginning to see people transition to producing audio slideshows in their video editing programs like Final Cut Pro.

Let’s hope 2009 has more highs then lows for you. I have had one hell of a year. I floated into and out of management, trained many in my newsroom to shoot and edit video, lived to see the long delayed Spokesman.com site launch. I said goodbye to two-dozen talented newsroom coworkers lost to layoffs. I found myself back behind a still camera for the first time in three years. Looking ahead, I have a strong set of multimedia goals I want to accomplish in 2009. I’m keeping my chin up–no matter what the future brings.

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Dog Days have me feeling verklempt

The dog days of summer have got me feeling a bit verklempt lately. Staring at this blank page for the last half hour has left me wondering if I have said all I’m going to say about my journey into multimedia storytelling. I know every blogger eventually hits that brick wall where words fail to flow and thoughts and actions turn to things more important, like spending time with family and friends.

Maybe my lack of blog ideas stem from all the uncertainty gripping my chosen profession. We’re all being asked to be more innovative. To reinvent, to change what and how we do our jobs. At the same time, the guillotine blade hangs precariously above our heads. Over 6000 journalists have been forced to leave the profession in the last year. I’m certain more will follow. Conglomerate journalism has left many newspapers in such dire financial straights that next year, I believe, we will begin to see the shuttering of some of these publications.

On the bright side, I work for one of the few family-run newspapers left in the country. Unlike the leveraged, debt-ridden gray ladies like the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune, The Spokesman-Review is on solid financial ground. We are shrinking our footprint, staff, and expenses like most newspapers, but outright panic, thankfully, is nowhere in sight.

I have read so much industry news about the plight of newspapers, that none of it really makes much sense to me anymore. It has really just become a blame game, where fingers point in all directions. Where talk of would of, should of, could of, trail off into the abyss. This talk really doesn’t solve the problem at hand, which is how do we recapture all those former readers that have moved on with their lives? Some have headed into cyberspace, while others have given up reading all together.

The biggest challenge is finding a way for newspaper websites to generate enough income to offset the staggering losses facing traditional newspapers. I know there is an answer out there; it just hasn’t been discovered yet.  Newspapers are notorious for their lack of true innovation. It really hasn’t been part of their DNA –until now.

If we are going to make it through this digital news revolution, then we need to start fostering innovation at the grass-roots level. Innovation at newspapers tends to be top heavy, always looking to executive and senior managements to come up with new and better ways to do things. Trouble is, most of these ideas have failed to stem the tide. At my own paper, I am surrounded with incredible smart co-workers, many who have innovative ideas of their own. The challenge for management, if they are willing, is to tap this mindshare and see what it will spawn. If we are to succeed, we need to start acting like a startup business and less like, well, a newspaper.

Somewhere, in some newsroom, someone has already figured it out. A spark of an idea that will lead to the disruption of the status quo, It will make other innovators smack their craniums wishing they would have thought of something so simple, yet so industry changing. The Holy Grail that saves journalism is out there. I, and a lot of other people have a lot of innovative thinking to do. The clocks ticking folks…

Stand and fight!

As my restless vacation continues into its second week, my mind reels with the prospects of an uncertain future. Like most newspapers across the country, steep revenue declines are disrupting any semblance of job security for print journalists. Media companies seem to be in a race to tear down their brick and mortar operations and reinvent themselves as digitally delivered platforms. In my own newsroom, a large radio production studio has been built where hourly news broadcasts are being produced.

In September, our new modern website will debut. With it will come cutting edge tools for social media integration, an enhanced navigation that will break paradigms and a clean, airy, low-contrast design that will forever free us from our stodgy past.

The Spokesman-Review, like most newspapers, has begun to fully embrace change. The 700-pound gorilla on everyone’s back is the, “is it too late?” question.

Under the duress of a deepening recession, media companies are making rapid changes to their organizations. We are now in a war of transition, where the bodies of thousands of laid-off journalists line the road leading to their former newspaper’s digital future. The diminishing relevance of the print product, for some, relegated to the status of niche; weigh heavily on the minds of many.

At a Spokesman-Review newsroom staff meeting last week, my editor, Steve Smith, laid out the sobering facts of how far and fast our decline has been. There were lots of charts with graph arrows pointing toward the carpet. Smith’s voice, tinged with emotion, filtered through the room with a heavy cast of “this is it folks.” “I want to save everyone’s job, including my own,” said Smith.

He and everyone in the room understood that his statement comes with no guarantees. The truth is there will soon be less of us to carry on the battle. Unless. Unless we quickly build out our digital platforms in a way that they can begin to generate a potential for steady revenue growth.

For this to work, Smith says a lot of mindsets have to change. The focus on the print product will be diminished. Instead a web-centric approach will be strengthened. A new newsroom structure is being conceived, one that is vastly different from the one in place now.

For all of these changes to be successful, I believe innovation, a catch phrase of the new millennium, will have to become the new DNA that drives the reimagined newsroom. Creative ideas will need to be rewarded. Grassroots innovation is where, I believe, that one brilliant idea that saves us all will emerge.

For many in journalism, the future doesn’t seem too bright. It is hard to be innovative without having job security. Many of us wonder what our futures would be like if we cannot be storytellers anymore. To be relegated to some job as a PR flack or a wedding photographer dealing with the bridezillas of the world would be sad indeed.

Instead, how about we all stand and fight for the profession we’re passionate about? Our jobs are already hanging by a thread, so what have we got to lose? This is a unique time to be in journalism. Yes, it is changing, but now we all have a chance to shape what those changes will be. The focus now needs to be on the future, not on the past. Accept the changes that have already occurred and then find a better way to implement the changes the future holds. The failed strategies of the past need to fall away.

Yes, it is time to stand and fight. Fight for the journalism values ingrained to our core. Stand and fight for our role as watchdogs and muckrakers. Stand and fight to hold those in power accountable. Stand and fight against the tide of backlash–because new thinking is sometimes perceived as a threat to our comfort zone. The reality is there are no comfort zones left. From now on, it is survival of the fittest. Game on.

Newsvideographer reviews S-R report

The buzz about the Gang of Eight, a group of young journalists who were tasked up finding a better way to streamline The Spokesman-Review newsroom structure, has been making its way around the blogoshere lately. Angela Grant with Newsvideographer.com has a thoughtful review of the report’s suggestions for handling multimedia better. You can view the Gang’s report here, or checkout the Nick Eaton’s blog for more info. He was on task force.

The message is clear: Change or perish

Black Monday seems to be striking American newspapers on a daily basis. With almost a thousand journalism jobs lost last week alone, there seems to be a concerted effort by everyone in the industry to reinvent the medium. While noble, it’s sad these changes didn’t take place sooner. But hey, we had a good gig going for the last 150-years, why mess with what works?

It’s strange how the people running newspapers have been talking about changing for most of my 20-year career. Yet, all they’ve really done in that time is tinker under the hood a bit. Now as the revenue crisis deepens by the day, publishers and editors around the country are willing to start listening to their content producers for fresh ideas. The reimagining of our industry, no longer a covenant of the suits, will probably be shaped by those of us who have the most to lose-reporters, photographers, editors and online producers.

Yesterday at my newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, we had our annual come to Jesus meeting. My editor, Steve Smith gave all of us the gloomy news: Revenues are way down, the cost of doing business is way up and cuts need to be made. Luckily, the layoff demon has been held at bay—at least until the next round of dismal revenue projections hit. Smith asked the newsroom to just do what we always do—produce good journalism. He also let the room know that we can’t do things the way we have in the past. I, and pretty much everyone in that deadly quiet meeting got the sense that we are now done talking about change. If we are going to protect our jobs, then we need to find a way to reinvent the newsroom on a completely different multi-platform model. No job, or job title is secure. The message is clear. Change is now baring down on The Spokesman–Review newsroom like a runaway logging truck without brakes.

A few days before the newsroom meeting, editor Smith quietly invited eight of our newest, young journalists into his office. He asked each of them, who basically have no stake in the processes of the past, to suggest ways to streamline the newsroom operation. He wants them to find a way to make it more efficient, thus letting people spend more time on developing quality journalism instead of just shoveling content.

The “Great Eight” as I call them, are meeting daily to share ideas and work up a plan. What they come up with is anybody’s guess. They have been given boundaries with which to operate. No suggestions to stop publishing the print newspaper, no downsizing or upsizing the present newsroom staff. Whatever they come up with, the challenge is for management and older co-workers to really listen to what they have to say. They are the future of our business. If we don’t change fast, they won’t stick around for the sinking of the ship.

Rosenblumtv.com: Rabble-rousing at its finest

You gotta love Michael Rosemblum over at Rosenblumtv.com The man knows how to make the media cogs squirm in their seats. 

The web offers not just another platform for distribution of product, but rather an entirely new calculus for how an online media company can be run. By its very nature, it changes the construct of most media businesses. Migrate your newspaper to the web completely and you suddenly lose the cost of ink, paper, presses, pressmen, delivery trucks, distribution and paperboys. Tell your writers to work from home and you can lose the building, the desks, the lights, the cleaning services and most of the management as well. Cut all those costs, and suddenly your ad based web revenue can look pretty good in comparison. Its the overhead that is killing you. Lose it. You don’t need it.

Heavy words, but alas, I think this is what will eventually befall our industry. Thankfully we’re not there yet. But if traditional newspaper advertising continues its year-after-year declines, you have to wonder when that line will be crossed–that it becomes more economically viable for publishers to cut the overhead and just publish on the web.

For this transition to happen though, a lot of blood has to be let. It will be gut wrenching for the truck drivers, paperboys, pressmen and others who will lose their jobs. But after this transition, what happens next? Will a journalism renaissance take place or will the brand names of newspaper mastheads fade into the noise of the web? 

If you haven’t perused Rosenblum’s blog you should. He pulls a lot of weight in the media industry. Rosenblum and his VNI (Video News International) colleagues of the mid-nineties were the first to push the idea of using the video journalist concept. Small digital video cameras in lieu of big broadcast betacams, One man bands. Produce from the field not from an edit suite. This new workflow has encountered a wall of resistance from traditional TV news shooters, who for some reason, are uncomfortable with losing all that weight they lug around.

The interesting thing here, is that the VJ model has been embraced by us newspaper video shooters who know nothing of lugging twenty pound tripod around or editing tape to tape. Rosenblum is a rabble-rouser, a square peg trying to change an industry one TV news station at a time. He loves to pick on Katie Couric and the whole TV news anchor paradigm:

Perhaps the last gasp of a defunct and completely out of touch management was Katie Couric’s pornographic $15 million a year salary – to work 22 minutes a night reading what someone else had written. The sheer stupidity of this, the sheer short-sightedness of it now becomes obvious to everyone. For Couric’s reported $15 million, CBS could have (could have) hired and fielded an astonishing 150 Videojournalists worldwide, paying them a quite honorable $100,000 a year to report for CBS News. CBS News could have (could have) placed itself on the cutting edge of the digital news revolution. Instead they opted to become the dinosaur poster child of the end of old media. Goodbye Tiffany Network. You blew it.

Rosenblum is moving forward with his vision. His ongoing Travel Channel Academy video workshops are full of people wanting to learn to produce video for TV and the web. He is helping newspapers integrate video storytelling into their websites. The momentum is in his favor. As the hinges on the foundations of traditional media start to break away, those of us that have embraced the VJ model will hopefully be left standing long after Ivory towers have come crumbling down.

 

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?