Ten Toes in the Multimedia Waters
Editor's note: This article is the second of a two-part series based
on Poynter faculty members' visits to print and TV newsrooms this
spring. Their goal was to learn more about what news organizations are
doing to develop their online products. This article, and a previous post on breaking news, is an analysis of the insights they collected. For more
information on the metholodogy of the faculty study and to see which
news organizations participated, see the sidebar below.
It has been just two years since a damning University of Texas study found that a majority of newspaper Web sites were stocked with
almost nothing but "shovelware," recycled versions of the morning's print
stories. With the exception of a few high-profile converged operations,
local television station Web sites were even more barren.
No more. Economic necessity has combined with fast improvements in
audio and video, wild-card
technologies like the podcast and the high penetration of broadband to make a cornucopia of online offerings
the rule now rather than the exception.
We might simply count the varieties of multimedia content, but that
list is long and familiar, full of permutations like combining photo
galleries with an audio report, which has been a signature format at NYTimes.com since
early 2005. You could call it a Great Leap Forward for the industry,
though there is no reason to think it will end as disastrously as Mao's 1958-1960 economic modernization movement in China.
In multimedia -- as in, posting breaking news online
-- our survey of more than a dozen news organizations this spring found
a range of strategies and a set of emerging issues. At one end are
the large, well-established sites. There, the order of the day, as one online
executive put it, is "slow and certain growth." Caution,
especially directed at the explosive incivility of wide-open user
discussions, is very much a factor.
Regional newspapers and television stations, late to the party, may be
more urgent and experimental in their online endeavors. "A land rush," one online manager
told us. Get more people to visit and linger at the sites as soon
as possible in as many ways as possible. Monetize the traffic
later and be ready to scrap what doesn't work.
Here are some of the current trends that we found -- some of them
particular to newspaper sites, nearly all of them have resonance across
the board, and a number have a flavor of paradox:
1.) Video and audio are hot -- but for how long?
The addition -- or, in some cases, the ramp-up -- of audio and video on
local Web sites is
nearly universal. Quality at both the transmitting and
broadband-receiving end has been on a steady upswing. The introduction
online video this March at very attractive rates (free for now) gives
further impetus to news organizations to supplement AP's national and international coverage with local video.
Still, there seems to be a certain tokenism at present -- a local post
of audio/video once or twice a day and that's it. Several online
editors told us there is a bottleneck for now, both in technology and
staff expertise, that blocks exploiting these features in a more
And dissenters see some glitches in the making. Efficient uploads and a
complete high-fidelity play-through are still not a guarantee at
many sites. One television executive volunteered that "audio is not our
friend" in office settings, where traffic to news sites is robust during
the working day. In an environment in which pop-up blockers are prevalent, there seems now to be
a strong supply of 15-second spots looking for video content to
sponsor, but consumer patience could sour as the clips become less of a
2.) Measurement is easy.
Actionable measurement is tougher. It has long been a feature of online
content that it is easy to count which offerings draw traffic and
which, comparatively, don't. So blockbusters are often as not instant
hits and a guide to further content development.
But when some newspaper sites turn on the "heat map" (a track of what
is most popular on the display front), they are confronting their own
version of "if it bleeds, it leads." Crime stories and assorted
novelty items are the biggest draw -- but does it then follow that they
should be even more numerous and get even bigger play?
As a host of new features are being added, what is a reasonable time
period to figure out whether one is catching on? If 20 news staffers
are trying blogs, it may be straightforward to drop the ones that are
not drawing an audience after only a month or two. But what about a
midday, broadcast-quality news summary? That may be a bigger
investment, more prominently featured, deserving a longer trial run.
The macro-numbers -- clicks, page views, unique visitors per month --
are even more problematic. As we have observed in an earlier story,
much ado about users who visit a site once or twice a month, often through
the side door of a search engine, is at odds with a traditional
newspaper or local TV sales story that readers and viewers are engaged,
making the media credible for advertising messages.
3.) Multimedia yes, interactivity maybe.
Old media certainly are trying new tricks. You might argue, though,
that audio, video, picture galleries, podcasts, staff blogs, the deep
background and interview tapes in big-story packages, are all new
versions of us-talking-to-you. Using the Gillmor-Rosen terminology,
these are more like enhanced lectures than true conversations.
Of course, there is a basic level of interactivity in simply choosing which bells and whistles users add as a
consumer of a given story. For example, USAToday.com counts among a
recent collection of interactive features one about off-the-Interstate summer vacation getaways. Users can click on each of five trips to access a story, a video and more information.
For more full-fledged interactivity on news sites, we see some cross-currents. Most sites allow users to post feedback to
blogs. Many host sports and entertainment discussions. Some are
the yen out there to post pet and vacation pictures. But we found some
balking at unfiltered citizen journalism with its penchant for
anonymous posts and incivility. "Not for us," say some editors.
A bellwether could be WashingtonPost.com's decision this month to allow
online comment on all posted news stories in the near future. Between a
good profanity blocker and some reading behind by the site's staff,
editor Jim Brady said, the benefits should outweigh the problems. The Post
has had long success with moderated online discussions between the public and the paper's
reporters and editors, as well as the occasional newsmaker. But for
true-believer interactive enthusiasts, my sense is that this capability
at many news sites still looks like a fenced-off sandbox.
4.) Bad at the basics -- where are the links?
As organizations charge ahead with new online features, the most basic
element of presentation on the Internet -- linking content to other sources -- is often AWOL. We have heard two
explanations. For stories imported from the daily paper or mid-cycle
breaking news alerts, it would be cumbersome and expensive to insert
links. Then there is the conventional wisdom that once a visitor is on
the site, you want to keep him or her there rather than provide a path
out. (Not that leaving temporarily to research a point of curiosity on
Google is all that difficult.)
NYTimes.com has a halfway solution. In a foreign affairs story, for
instance, you are likely to find hotlinks from "Condoleezza Rice" to
other recent news stories and some background pieces. But all of those
stories are from The New York Times. The Times has a beta form of RSS feed that allows users to construct a personalized display page that includes Times stories as well as other content. Among regional papers, some staff blogs do link out, many others don't.
Still, links have been around since the earliest days of a general-use Web,
and their absence can be jarring. As Kathleen Fulton argued in a Columbia Journalism Review
article a decade ago, online stories require a different logic for the
writer and reader. Blogs, for instance, which often include short
summaries of or commentary on articles elsewhere, use outside links
In short, if you sense a missing ingredient in your online news diet,
you're right. Were he not still alive, Tim Berners-Lee would be rolling
in his grave.
5.) Additive online development makes for cluttered sites.
Several of the online executives we visited conceded their sites were
nothing special to look at: More stuff all the time, not much space to
put it on a display page and some organizational confusion about what's
where. The situation has been aggravated by cookie-cutter corporate
designs at several large chains.
As problems go, this one is fixable. Several of the Tribune Co.
properties we visited are looking better already. A popular consensus
format currently is to put the breaking news, Web specials and
highlighted advertising "above the fold," leaving stories from the
morning print edition for the bottom. Sites like NYTimes.com and
AJC.com, for instance, typically have two full screens of Web specials before the rest of their homepage content.
How much is too much may be an open question. Lots of choices may be a
sign of health, and there is an active body of studies (Poynter's
EyeTrack project among them) at work to learn more about how
online users read the news. Still it is easy to spot the
distinction between a graceful look -- like KnoxNews.com, a 2005 Digital Edge Award winner -- and cluttered, densely packed sites.
6.) The movement online brings with it time-management and workload issues.
First-wave bloggers seemed content to squeeze time out of breaks and
evenings to produce these works. But online work is work, and both
managers and reporters are currently figuring out what else has to give.
You don't have to be a futurist to see more of a stretch for news
staffs approaching -- as an increasing percentage of the old-media staff
In a general way, companies talk of adding online staff and
"reallocating" slots from the flagship paper or television station. But
we also heard that the budget cuts, which typically follow
disappointing ad results, have been felt this year on the online side
as well, despite its robust advertising growth
7.) In television, the "broadcast-quality" barrier.
Posting audio and video online poses no great challenge for local TV
stations. The issue, we were told, is what to settle for, short of
traditional standards for on-air quality. If a site posts 15 videos a
day, a number of those will be raw footage. "The threshold has to be
lower than TV," one exec told us.
8.) Do froth and snarkiness have a place at media sites?
Froth certainly does. It's in the paper, too. AP Online Video isn't all
Israel-Hezbollah and the stem-cell veto. One recent offering was
"Strange Fish Has Human-Like Teeth" (someone apparently dropped a
piranha in a Colorado lake). At NYTimes.com, the much-discussed
article, "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage,"
in which a woman uses positive-reinforcement animal training techniques
on her husband, is completing a monthlong run near the top of the "most
But should the sites be venturing into YouTube land, clips from The Daily Show, homemade lip-synching parodies and the like? They are hot --
and one broadcast executive argued at a recent Poynter conference that they could be the online equivalent of the comics: a fun
traffic-builder that brings in a crowd, and keeps users on the site for a sound diet of real news.
Certainly staff bloggers are encouraged to be conversational and
informal. Sports writing these days has been influenced by the
popularity of radio and cable sports talk, and that seems all the more
a fit online. But we found executives generally clinging to notions of
seriousness of purpose and evident reporting/verification that rule out
the wilder and meaner kinds of online discourse.
Youth papers like the Chicago Tribune's Red Eye or the St. Petersburg Times' tbt*
offer another alternative -- be as snarky as you want in a venue that
sober-sided suburban 60-year-olds are less likely to see.
9.) Convergence strategies diverge.
Early triple-threat operations like those in Sarasota,
Fla.; Phoenix; Lawrence, Kan. and Tampa, Fla. (not part of Poynter's recent study) think the benefits are blossoming
with time. All receive a continuing stream of curious visitors hoping
to see the future at work, and Lawrence now has a money-making sideline
offering convergence conferences. Joint ownership of the newspaper and
a television station makes some collaboration and lots of
cross-promotion logical. Where there isn't an ownership connection,
papers are increasingly pulling back, ditching "sister station" deals
and asking, "What's in it for me?" as they consider individual
collaborations with several stations in the market.
Radio is on the rise as a no-fuss way to promote the paper itself or one of the newspaper's "branded" subject-area experts. The Washington Post took the full plunge earlier this year when it acquired a radio station that broadcasts a mix of Post-related and other programming.
10.) Mingling as managing.
A consensus question without a consensus answer is how to manage this
change. (Likewise, what is the business model for making it all work.)
As we noted in our report on the Future of News conference at Poynter
in May, this may be an exercise in leading into the unknown, where the
right direction is obvious -- but not all the details.
We did hear more than once about a trend over recent months to include
online editors in all the key news meetings during the working day.
Newsrooms are also being reconfigured to interweave the online and
traditional media staffs together in the same space. Robert Thomson,
editor of The Times of London, referred to the trend in an interview this month as "sensible newsroom geography."
Watch for more "radical restructuring" along these lines, something that the Financial Times
recently announced it would undertake. Belo Corp. CEO Robert Decherd
told analysts and investors in June that similar changes are being planned for The Dallas Morning News.
We found one structured approach at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
where online development is organized around four guiding
concepts: urgency, interactivity, utility and visual energy.
Combined with a heavy emphasis on in-house training
(30 hours a year for managers, at least 20 hours for other staffers),
the structure gives the paper a vehicle for focused daily conversation
about Web development and issues.
Organizing this report around emerging issues may imply that the fast
movement to a more robust online presence is wracked with problems. To the
contrary, though, the predominant tone of our visits to news
organizations was excitement at finally getting on with it at an
appropriate pace -- together with knowledge that plenty remains to be
sorted out along the way.
If there is a big question lurking for these organizations, it is
probably whether authoritative news remains both their mission and
their competitive strength in the online arena. Or is that
next-generation traditionalism and therefore a formula for too little
experimentation to hold tech-savvy users?