Take a Blogger to Lunch (And Other Radical Ideas for Journos Struggling to Understand the Web)
Journalists, here's some food for thought: What we do is going away because it has to. We can no longer claim the higher ground. There will be no "transition to the Web" -- the Web exists and is as different from 20th-century journalism as apples are from hand grenades.
If we are to survive as news organizations, survival will have to be charted by people who live in the new world, rather than by people who view the Web as either a threat or a tool to gain temporary power in a mortally wounded industry. New Media, Web 2.0, or whatever you want to call it, is powered by the people for the people. Join them or be ignored. (If you have any doubts about this, just take a look at the latest controversy stirred up by the cell phone videos of the Saddam Hussein execution.)
What our newsrooms need is a mindset that values the Web for what it is, an extention of our human desire for community. The Web is a tool to talk to one anther.
We need to develop a culture in our newsrooms that lets us become part of the conversation that is
already taking place; not as a dominant voice but as one of many. By giving up our position on high we may gain an even higher level of respect in the communities we live in.
As news organizations, we inhabit a temporary existence while we wait for the full birth of this new medium. Traditional news organizations must not invest in transitioning people to this new world; we already live in it.
Instead, we should be inventing this new world with people who already populate it. Real bloggers, photobloggers and vloggers -- embrace them and learn from them. Only then can we continue to be relevant.
Some examples of thinking outside the mainstream-media bubble:
- ABC News has put former Rocketboom host Amanda Congdon to work
- The Washington Post recently held a Blogger Summit for D.C.-area bloggers
Also, check out the Post's Don Graham mixing it up on the No One's Listening podcast.
As visual journalists, we must remember that HTML, the backbone of the Web, is a 'display' format. It was created to make content look better online. We should take that and run with it -- but instead, most of our Web sites overflow with row after row of text, with the visuals often confined to photo gallery and video pop-up ghettos. Again, we are taking old habits into the new world rather than embracing new ways of thinking about what we do and how we do it.
Embracing the Web means embracing visual communication. Hate MySpace and YouTube? Think instead of Egyptian hieroglyphics -- think Tufte and visual displays of information. The challenge to visual journalists is huge; 10 years into the Web and we have yet to figure out the best way to use photography. Many of our video experiments feel like TV doppelgängers -- cheap imitations of the real thing. Where is the innovation? Not in most of our newsrooms.
What our newsrooms do have are decision-makers who have never built a Web page by hand, watched Rocketboom, or listened to a podcast. They don't 'get' YouTube and have never heard of Flickr or del.icio.us or Boing Boing. They think viewing a 30-inch story on a cell phone is cutting-edge and don't understand that I would rather spend 10 minutes downloading littleloca videos or hanging out in Second Life, than reading their newspapers -- even the online version. They are not innovators, they are caretakers.
What our newsrooms do have are decision-makers who have never built a Web page by hand, watched Rocketboom, or listened to a podcast.What we have become are journalists trying to keep things stable. We are trying to survive in the world we've known for another five, 10, 15 years. What you hear in conversations are: "I'm trying to hold out till the next buyout" or "I'm trying to make it to retirement." These are not people facing challenges bravely, but rather people in hiding, hoping to be passed over, undiscovered, until they can make their way safely out of town.
In many of our mainstream-media Web sites, we still have people trying to prove that the print or TV or radio people don't have a clue, rather than new-media journalists who are also Web citizens trying to find the best ways to share and communicate in the era of texting, blogging and MMORPG-ing. What these sites don't get is that they are often as un-hip as the parent organizations that spawned them, visually challenged and risk adverse. Innovators need not apply here, either.
Embracing the Web means embracing visual communication.What result from these attitudes are vested-interest decisions to 'transition' our MSM and Web newsrooms into one; vested-interest decisions to teach our reporters to blog; vested-interest decisions to give everyone video cameras; vested-interest decisions to do whatever we can to preserve a version of the past that we are comfortable with so we can ignore the realities of this new media age. The idea of citizens making and sharing the things they want to read and watch and listen to scares the crap out of us.
But it doesn't have to be this way. There are people in every newsroom who want to get off the boat and come ashore. Find them a guide and help them explore their new world. And take a 20-something blogger from your community to lunch -- you just might learn to be unafraid.
Keith W. Jenkins is the Picture Editor at The Washington Post and has been a blogger since 1999. From 1996-1997 he was Photography Director at washingtonpost.com. He was Photography Director at AOL from 1997-1999.