Digital journalism and the rise of the touch tablet

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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.

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Will dark times lead to a renaissance?

After judging the video categories in this month NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest, I am disheartened at the overall quality of the storytelling being entered. Entries are down by a third. I’m wondering if it’s because of the recent layoffs sweeping our industry? Or maybe other producers, like me, are being asked to focus on more traditional photojournalism for the newspaper.  It could also be everyone is too depressed to do good work.

These are dark times. The best and the brightest are being forced out on the street daily. But what of the rest of the journalists who, with some luck, will be the last few standing in their gutted newsrooms? I, for one, didn’t spend the last five years learning multimedia skills to just roll over and die.  I keep telling myself to look at the big picture. The media pundits have been predicting the collapse of newspapers for years. And now that it’s here, we are all feeling the pain. The key to survival is being able to make it through this slow transition from print to online.

The mass slaughter will continue for some time, but when it ends-and it will end, publishers will have to make some pretty tough decisions.  I think everyone is in agreement that the future journalism is primarily online. Great journalism is not about the delivery method, but it’s embedded in the words, pictures and videos that reach out to our communities and the world.

Beyond being terrified of my short-term future, I am also cautiously optimistic. Hopefully, I will be allowed to be a part of the reimagining of journalism.  It is still pretty fuzzy about what form it will take. Everyone left will need to be an innovator. If we can find a revenue model that works, then I hope a journalism renaissance will take place.  Freed of the legacy chains of the past, new opportunities will surely germinate.

The AV Club

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One of the best things to happen to me since I became The Spokesman-Review’s multimedia editor was that I finally got an office with a window. Being stuck in a windowless cave for three years editing video had me looking downright pasty.

Shortly after I was promoted, I was able to make my first hire for an open multimedia producer position. Luckily I didn’t have to look far. Brian Immel had just graduating from Washington State University when I offered him the job. Now Immel and I share a small office crammed with cool technology. Some newsroom smart aleck taped a sign on the our office door proclaiming us members of the “AV Club.”  In a way the high school label fits. It’s just us two geeks talking none-stop about geeky things.

Before I was gifted the office, I was first assigned to the what many of us salt mine workers affectingly call the Death Star– a cluster of six desks that make up the universal assignment desk. My three-months on station there were tough. Nothing sucks the creativity out of you faster than having to listen to a city editor talk endlessly on the phone with angry readers who object to something published in the newspaper. During that dark time, I seriously thought about slinking back to the photo department to ask for my old job and dark edit cave back.

Now in the confines of my sunlit office, I feel reenergized. I am supervisor to three people in online who are wicked smart. They all know their jobs so well that I don’t have to supervise them much. That has left time for me to meddle in other areas like, oh I don’t know—the rest of the newsroom.

One of my longtime mantras has been that there can be no more “just photographers” or “just reporters.” Everyone now needs to be multimedia producers. That’s my story and I’ve been sticking to it. My goal is not to change the newsroom en masse, but to empower one person at a time with the multimedia tools and training that will allow them to be successful in producing content for online. I thought it would be a tough task, but in reality I find the S-R newsroom incredibly receptive.

Over time, I have asked a lot of people, including:

  1. Reporters to not only to write narrative scripts for videos, but also to voice them
  2. Reporters to gather audio to layer with their online stories
  3. Web producers to shoot and edit video
  4. Photographers to add video to their storytelling toolbox
  5. Photographers to gather audio and produce audio slideshows
  6. Editors to help identify and pass on multimedia possibilities quickly

All this has meant that Brian and me spend a lot of time making people in the newsroom feel comfortable with new technology like digital recorders and small video cameras.

If we give someone the multimedia tools they want, I’ve found they will do most of the heavy lifting themselves. Brian and me do a lot of demonstrating of technology to the rest of the newsroom. Every paper should have a Brian Immel on staff. He is the young demographics perfect storm– smart, Internet savvy; a person who searches out and uses all the online tools available. He understands more than anyone else at my newspaper the nuances of the Internet.  He can shoot and edit a video, is photojournalist and he can write code, such as high-level Flash Action Script, to build online tools and content. Yet, he is personable and patient enough to teach technology to the rest of the newsroom. 

I think many other newspapers probably have a Brain Immel on staff. Unfortunately, they are seen as having too little journalism experience to be taken seriously. You just have to peruse The Angry Journalist website to realize how this young generation of journalists are being ignored by newsroom management. Seeing little opportunity, they are fleeing newspapers just when they are needed most. I won’t let that happen to Brian.

What I’ve come to realize in my geeky discussions with Immel, is how little I really know about how his generation uses, shares and connects with information online. I think for newspapers to survive in this rapidly changing digital world, they will need to start listening more to the young people hired fresh out of college like Immel. Let them come to planning meetings with senior staff. Give them a voice and let them use it. If newspapers are ever going to make their online sites successful, then they’ll need to listen to the generation that is actually using the medium to it fullest.