(First published on blogcritics.org)
Two SXSW panels demonstrated that journalism, like many other industries born in the brick and mortar era, must evolve or die. The first panel was populated by professional zombies, unaware how pathetic their whining sounded. The second panel contained innovators of the Superhero mold.
Here Come the Zombies
The “Cinematic Storytelling and Journalism” panel presented four journalists (participant names withheld out of respect for the creatively dead) who discussed the pitfalls and pressures of telling stories in an age of visual-media sophistication. What was that again? The audience is sophisticated? The tools are amazing and easy to use? How bad can this get?
The presentation did began on a high note by showing a brilliant British satire of the typical 60-Minutes style reportage we have all seen hundreds of times: cliché visuals, condescending journalist, predictable structure. I first sensed that I might be in a creepy place when one of the panelists actually defended this style, with, “Well, you know, it’s what people are comfortable with.”
The next video example was a beautiful piece showing the work of a woman who made artificial eyes. This became her lifetime passion when her child lost his eye at an early age. It began with close-up shots of the eyes being created, then slowly introduced us to the woman and her story. Again, the panel had problems with it because of its non-traditional format.
The last example, a report on the 2010 Japanese tsunami, contained no narrative, only music.
The tsunami report was disparaged because it was “too beautiful”, although it showed the destruction and death in graphic detail. One of the panelists said that she expected to be hit up at the end of it with an appeal for money from some relief organization (as if that would have been a distasteful thing). To his credit, the moderator countered this argument with an appeal to the traditions of photojournalism, which tells stories with striking images.
The panel discussed the pressure some felt to make their reporting “look like MTV”, while another complained that it was hard to get his organization to adopt new approaches to reporting. A question from the floor, from an NPR reporter, bemoaned the fact that the web was full of amateurs trying to be journalists, without the training or ethics of the professional.
This cry of “we are professionals and they are not” is the mark of a dying profession. “Journalist”, from the French word jour, day, meaning one who records the events of the day, can certainly be applied to bloggers who do, after all, record the events of the day. The other disparaging term, “amateurs”, also comes from French. The word amour means love. An amateur is one who performs an activity for the love of it, not for money. It does not pertain to quality.
My years in public relations taught me that you don’t learn to be ethical by going to journalism school. I have seen newspapers print articles that I know were pure invention.
Journalism, as opposed to historical writing, began in the 17th Century, a relatively recent addition to the culture of the West. By the end of the 18th Century it was viewed as important enough to be enshrined in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
It may have reached its peak as a profession in the first half of the 20th Century when the existence of democracy was tied to the existence of a vibrant free press.
Journalism, 19th Century Style: You need a printing press: a large, complicated and expensive machine for pressing the images of letters and graphics on paper. Not something very many people in colonial America, or anywhere else in the world, could afford. Creating a newspaper required a heavy investment in capital, management and distribution.
Journalism, 21th Century Style: You need a computer and an internet connection. That’s something nearly everyone above the poverty level can afford. Oh, wait, that doesn’t make you a journalist, you’re just a blogger. What if the person who coined the term “web log” had decided to call it a “web journal”? Would that have made the great unwashed into “web journalists”?
But, enough of these zombies.
Behold the Superheroes
The “Second Screen Dashboard: Cover Live Events Better” showed that big organizations can adapt to and innovate in the Internet world.
Journalist Superheroes sharing their secrets at this session included ESPN.com’s Patrick Stiegman, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief, and the New York Times’ Brian Hamman, Deputy Editor, Interactive News, and Julie Bloom, Culture Web Editor. Their adventures in reaching the bleeding edge of second screen innovation included covering the Oscars, elections and sporting events worldwide.
The “second screen” can be a traditional PC, a tablet or even a phone that people turn to for additional information about an event they are watching on a television. Do people really do this?
According to Stiegman, 85 million American use the Internet and TV simultaneously each day. Among sports fans, 39% turn on TV and other media simultaneously. One might think that the second screen is called up mostly “on the road”, but 60% of ESPN web usage is engaged in at home. ESPN users are most interested in watching multiple events and in the shot-by-shot statistics that drive fantasy sports. With the ESPN app, Stiegman explained, users can watch four ESPN channels at once.
For The Times’ Hamman and Bloom, the objective was not to just supplement TV coverage, but to provide better and more in-depth information for people interested in a particular event than TV could. The events of which they are most proud are the Oscars and the recent presidential primary election nights.
The technological challenge, according to Hamman is that there is not just one “second screen”. After analyzing all the possible devices that might receive the Times live internet coverage, they decided they had to be ready for thirty-six second screens. This attention to multiple platforms was meant to avoid crashing people’s devices or creating black holes on their screens.
Rather than taking the easy route and dumbing down the web coverage for the least capable device, they tailored their web pages to be aware of the device upon which it was being viewed. Not all viewers could see everything, but none, Hamman hoped, would have a reason for regretting going to The Times’ site for coverage.
Several features elevated The Times coverage of the Oscars from mere live blogging, to Superhero Journalism.
Times bloggers sent their posts to an editor who reviewed and published their work, creating 167 updates to the Times Oscar page during the Oscar broadcast.
Culture Editor Bloom pointed out that on TV you could see about 20 gowns. On The Times site you could see every gown that came down the red carpet. This was accomplished by having a camera directly connected to an internet cable. Each photo was sent to two editors; one for celebrity information in the captions and one for designer information. Every photo that was published was tweetable and sharable.
Another innovation was the creation of a show within a show. When TV went to a commercial, The Times’ site brought up a live commentary by Times’ movie critic A. O. Scott, giving people a reason to stay on the site.
The Times also tied-in its site to its Facebook page, where it conducted Oscar voting. The entire effort brought people together in a huge Oscar party.
The next day, Bloom added, they broke all the various feeds and data into separate features, even an app that let you “play with the fashions”.
Do these Superhero Journalists have any weaknesses? According to Hamman and Bloom some they hit some speed bumps because of the newness of it all. Hammen said that here are no API’s for this. They have to crceate everything as they go along. They also said that users were not expecting the changes that were happening to their screens, so they learned to notify users that something was about to change.
From ESPN’s standpoint the big problem they see coming is more subtle. Professional sports teams are becoming concerned that viewing an event live — with parking problems, drunken strangers, no wi-fi, and no second screen – may become less desirable than watching it on TV.
During the Q&A, questions came from attendees working for USA Today, Yahoo and Univision. These Superheroes have fans in the profession.
Most of the questions revolved around the future and our Superheroes had several ideas. “Ubiquiscreen” will allow a user to take one screen with him from device to device. “Synchronicity” will allow sounds broadcast over TV to launch data streams on your phone or tablet. And then there is ESPN’s “Project 2016”. Steigman said he couldn’t say too much about it, but that the project would be “a multi-screen experience interacting with fans across devices”.
I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds super.