by Brett Mueller, CCJ Website Manager
Wanted: Journalist of the Future. Seeking a new type of storyteller – one able to “tell a new story and tie it into the tapestry of the history of that topic” keeping in mind digital media’s capacity to retrieve archived information, provide images and sound, and create social networks of readers and viewers. Must be open to new ideas, willing to experiment with new technologies, and excited about the opportunities for creativity afforded by telling stories in multiple media formats. Database research experience a plus. Must work well with others. Must possess a strong desire to help others make sense of the world around them and a commitment to the values of integrity, accuracy, and justice.
Many journalists we meet through our Traveling Curriculum newsroom development program are fearful and apprehensive about how their jobs and lives are being changed by media’s ongoing transition from traditional print and broadcast forms to digital (online) ones. But the essential aspects of what it means to be a journalist won’t necessarily change dramatically. This comforting yet rarely (from our observations, at least) presented idea comes from The New York Times and other news organizations that (rightfully) view themselves as being ahead of the curve in transitioning from a purely print orientation to being more digitally-conscious. The Times, says Martin Nisenholtz, Senior Vice President of Digital Operations for the New York Times Company, “is not in the print business; it’s in the journalism business.” However, Nisenholtz suggests that doesn’t mean the skills that make a good print journalist are becoming obsolete – rather, they’re more important than ever. Flexibility, creativity, and a willingness to accept and experiment with new processes and deeper ways of telling stories are going to be key. Nisenholtz made his remarks during his keynote lecture at a May 11, 2007 event at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with an M.A. in communication in 1979. Nisenholtz’s comprehensive talk whizzed through the history of digital media, hitting the big players and events and tying them to where society and the media industry are today. He talked about how The Times has handled growing pains on the web, and provided insights into the online issues of most concern to the paper right now. Along the way, he suggested the need for journalists, especially those at smaller news organizations, to set aside the fears that transitioning to digital journalism will require. Instead he urged journalists to embrace the opportunity to practice their trade in a new, more creative way.
The Four Phases of Media Transformation
Central to Nisenholtz’s lecture was the idea that there are four “phases” of media transformation. The first he called “Aggregation and Sorting.” It was during this stage that some groups and individuals started collecting and organizing the world’s knowledge into centralized data banks – essentially a step beyond libraries because these banks had automation capabilities. The U.S. hit this stage after World War II with the development of early computer prototypes.
The second stage Nisenholtz called “Interface Development and Standardization.” This phase’s identifying characteristic is that it made the information aggregated and sorted during Phase 1 available to global consumers. The U.S. was pushed into Phase Two in the mid-1980s when innovators such as Steve Jobs at Apple started thinking in new ways about interface development. The home computer grew out of the ability to make information accessible through user-friendly interfaces. Importantly, it was during this stage that developers started thinking seriously about linking people to one another through technology. One-way linking to information started giving way to two-way linking between individuals using the same interfaces (think email). According to Nisenholtz, most news organizations are stuck in Phase Two. They present their print or on-air products in text, images and occasionally video and audio. Sometimes they host chats or forums that allow individuals to interact with staff and indirectly interact with each other. Through links they can provide access to deeper information and more information sources than are contained on a single page. But that’s about where it ends.
Then there’s Phase Three: “Creativity in New Media Forms.” It’s in this phase that new publishing media and original ways of communicating are developed – expanding on the concept of accessible interfaces to bring people aggregated and sorted information in creative ways that redefine digital communication. The New York Times and some other “big” news organizations have pushed their way into Phase Three, says Nisenholtz. And he can remember, to the day, when The Times made the leap. On October 11, 2006 a small plane carrying New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and flight instructor Tyler Stanger crashed into a Manhattan high-rise apartment building, killing both men and setting off a wave of confusion and fear of a terrorist attack. This event gave The Times an opportunity to put into action a story coverage plan that until that point had been envisioned but never before implemented. Nisenholtz explained that previously, when an event like this plane crash would have happened, The Times would have followed a traditional process of reporting on the story. There would have been a discussion among relevant editors about the different angles of the story that would need to be covered; assignments would be determined; assigned reporters and photographers would head to scene; and an AP brief would run on the website until the reporting team filed local-angle stories, the copy desk confirmed facts, and images were selected. This time, a new process kicked into gear. The newsroom’s “continuous news desk” was alerted that something was happening downtown and immediately mobilized a team to gather video, graphics, and relevant database materials. An alert was posted to the paper’s website including initial, though sketchy, details about the crash. Reporting angles and assignments were determined, but rather than just reporters and photographers, individuals who could collect audio and video were dispatched to the scene as well. As details of what happened were gathered in the field, they were relayed back to the copy desk for confirmation – no waiting for the stories to be formally filed. The website continuously updated the original news alert with new content and multi-media presentations. Within 24 hours of the crash, the site contained a comprehensive picture of what had happened, including slideshows, graphics, and topographical maps of the plane's flight path and downtown Manhattan. Merely providing basic information had given way to providing a wealth of information in creative, engaging, multi-sensory stimulating ways. So if most news organizations are idling in Phase Two and only a few are breaking ground in Phase Three, what will Phase Four have to offer?
Nisenholtz describes Phase Four as “Disruption.” It’s at this point that new media forms will have become so ubiquitous, accessible, and pleasing to use that their existence will disrupt the status quo, transforming institutions of government, education, and business, to name a few. What this disruption will look like is at this point the stuff of philosophy and science fiction movies. But we may well see it up close within the span of our lifetimes.
What’s Next for The Times?
The next step in moving through Phase Three at The Times, Nisenholtz acknowledged, is recognizing that more can be done to take advantage of technology’s ability to create a “porous membrane” between readers and information suppliers (i.e. newspapers and other media organizations). The Times is actively moving towards allowing people outside of the newsroom to “own” some topics on their website in which these people have great interest and expertise. The Times’ most visible effort at this appears on their Arts, Style and Travel pages where, for instance, readers can write their own reviews of theater productions. The Times’ efforts to get readers involved raises one of the big early challenges in Phase Three, and something that’s been discussed more and more among news organizations that have introduced reader/viewer blogs and forums – “identity management.” Nisenholtz indicated that this is THE big issue The Times is dealing with in terms of their website right now. There’s a push to be transparent with readers about who is contributing content, says Nisenholtz, and to vet contributors before they post too much content so the paper knows who it’s dealing with. Making sure contributors are who they say they are isn’t as easy as it seems. Where does Nisenholtz see things going further down the road for The Times? He indicated that the work of new web video studios such as Heavy, social media hubs such as YouTube and MySpace, and website content packagers such as Federated Media Publishing (The New York Times Company is an investor in this organization) are of interest to the Times as it studies where to grow in the future. Nisenholtz made it clear that whatever form things end up taking on the web the goal is to be comprehensive. “The nature of the web is that the content you find is either comprehensive, or it isn’t.” Nisenholtz shared an example from the Travel pages. “If you come to our site for travel information on Columbus, Ohio and don’t find what you’re looking for, you won’t come back for info on the Caribbean.” The message being, of course, that while Times readers might be more likely to look for info on the Caribbean than Columbus, it is imperative for the sake of the site’s credibility that it have all of its bases covered.
What’s It All Mean For the Average Journalist?
Back to our job description…how does everything Nisenholtz shared about the phases of media transformation and The Times’ goals for the future impact the average journalist and the average CCJ website reader? After Nisenholtz’s lecture, I asked him about where “training” fits into the grand scheme of things. How is the new age storyteller who will need to consider the entire story package rather than his/her individual role in telling the story to be shaped? Nisenholtz’s answer runs counter to what we’ve heard in many newsrooms around the country: “There’s currently no good way to do training on how to transform yourself for the web, Nisenholtz said. “And having your reporters carry around a video camera is not the answer…it’s a workflow issue.” In other words, despite talk in the industry about how the journalist of the future will need to be a generalist who’s able write, shoot pictures and video, record audio, and do all their own research, perhaps the most important things news organizations (especially smaller ones) can be focusing on is reorganizing existing staff and resources more efficiently and planning stories and assignments in ways that make more comprehensive and creative coverage possible. “The economic challenge for small newspapers is to bring in new competencies while staying true to what newspapers do well,” says Nisenholtz. These new competencies need not be contained within single individuals, and news organizations that force that issue may find themselves fighting a losing battle. The Times revelation on the Lidle plane crash story that sent them into Phase Three was utilizing existing resources in a new way, and reorganizing the assignment and copy editing processes to allow for continuous assigning and verification of facts; not trotting reporters out to the scene with audio and video recording devices and expecting them to turn out comprehensive packages on their own. Thus, the “journalist of the future” need not be a super-techie who knows a little something about journalism. Rather, good journalism will become ever more essential, given the access to information journalists will be provided by ever-improving technology and the growing expectations of their technology savvy audiences. Renewed focus on the “old-fashioned” values of getting it right, being proportional, providing context, and a commitment to public service will be paramount. The transformation from print/broadcast media to digital media doesn’t need to be a scary one. It’s an exciting time for journalists who want to learn new things, tell stories in new ways, and make sense of a complex world filled with gossip and noise. We need good journalism more than ever.