Multimedia journalism – which often includes a print or online story supplemented by some other form of media that is more interactive than just text – is becoming a prevalent way to “do” journalism. New technologies will solidify this trend. Multimedia stories require additional skills from journalists, but provide readers with more choices to interact and be informed. If they choose to do so, readers can only read the article; however, they can also watch the supplemental video and be “on-the-scene” with the reporter, or listen to sound clips taken at the scene. The stories become more enjoyable and may help some readers better understand an issue if they are aural learners, for example. In addition, readers may save time by watching a two-minute video clip instead of taking five minutes to read an article.
Multimedia journalism, enabled by new technologies, has provided readers and journalists alike with new opportunities, as well as transformed how they interact with each other.
Online interactions based on articles published on the Internet have become instant, paving the way for a changing relationship between journalists and readers, and offering opportunities for readers to be more engaged with what they are reading. Print journalists used to have very little interaction with readers. Journalists would write the story, and readers would read it and then move on to another article, as did the journalists. If a reader had something to say, she would write a “letter to the editor” and hope to get her comment published.
Today many reporters have their contact information at the end of online articles, opening up the lines of communication. It is no longer just a one-way conversation, but a dialogue. The ability to more easily communicate with editors and reporters is important to online users, according to Online Public Attitudes (2006) – 47 percent said it’s “very important for news sites to provide readers with e-mail addresses to contact the site’s editorial staff,” (2006, p. 1) an increase from 36 percent in 2002. Readers don’t want to feel like they’re being “force fed” information, but they want to give their input and share ideas. They also like the feeling of instant gratification, or rather, feeling good about doing something on the spot, knowing their voices will be heard.
Informing versus Marketing
The newspaper industry’s need to stabilize the decline in print and grow online readership has intensified the focus on readership behavior and preferences, changing the relationship between reporters and newspapers. The transition to multimedia journalism, like most significant transformations, poses its share of potential problems. For example, unresolved tension exists between those journalists who think they should be the gatekeeper of information and arbiters of what is “newsworthy,” and those journalists who think readers should to a large extent define what is to be reported, while staying true to immutable journalistic principles of integrity, accuracy and fairness.
According to an unpublished research paper written by Shera Balgobin, a Medill graduate student, journalists differ in how they think this tension should be resolved and fall into three general groups.
The first group of journalists is called “critical skeptics.” These include the journalists who think focusing on marketing newspapers to increase revenue has lowered the quality of journalism and has not improved newspapers. They also believe that “journalism should lead public opinion rather than follow it” (2007, p. 3).
The second group, which consists of “resigned pragmatists,” believes that some sort of change in the news industry is necessary, but “are wary of marketing’s impact on good journalism” (2007, p. 3). Despite this, they “actively solicit reader feedback,” (2007, p. 3) although they are cautious when reviewing the results.
The last group, the “change agents,” is completely behind the idea of marketing newspapers and allowing it to “inform” content to better serve newspapers’ readers.
This is one of the ways in which multimedia journalism has presented challenges as well as opportunities. Journalists must now find the balance between keeping up with the changing industry while maintaining journalistic values and enhancing journalism through multimedia. Stories are now being written differently, perhaps using a “feature style” or being written shorter, and the journalists and designers need to work together to find a way to report the news while making it interesting.
Multimedia journalism poses another challenge for journalists. Diana Day, who created the blogs BeTwinned and inSierra Madre, wrote in an email interview about the challenges and the ways in which multimedia journalism can be counterproductive:
“The worst quality of multimedia journalism is when the multimedia aspect is trivial or is done just to fit a trend or just to “go multimedia” for its own sake. When the story is primary and when the storytelling medium chosen fits the story that is being told, that's when multimedia is at its best,” Day wrote.
Blogs have been around for about ten years and become more popular over time, becoming almost an expected presence in many newspapers. Blogs present another opportunity for increased reader engagement and satisfaction, giving reporters another outlet for reporting the news or expressing their informed opinion on a topic, while allowing readers to comment and read others’ comments. Most online newspapers have “official” blogs, but blogs can be created by anyone who has Internet access. In The New York Times, blogs range from “The Caucus,” in which the Times’ politics staff covers the latest news in the presidential election, to “The Pour,” in which Eric Asimov discusses “the pleasure, culture and business of wine, beer and spirits.”
There are difficult issues though regarding the most effective way to monitor blogs. The opportunities offered by blogs are severely limited by the bookend problems of too much or inappropriate censorship, on the one end, and senseless ranting, on the other end. Even with blogs on news sites there is usually some sort of comment filtering system to avoid people breaking out into fights and to maintain a level of civility. When dealing with blogs, newspapers are facing three main problems: 1) how to make sure the most opinionated people commenting aren’t turning off more moderately opinionated people; 2) how to most effectively filter comments; and 3) whether comments should be filtered at all. The major problem, according to Mark Glaser in the article “Traditional Media Ready to Elevate the Conversation Online – with Moderation” (2008), is: “How do you harness the audience’s knowledge and participation without the forums devolving into a messy online brawl that requires time-intensive moderation?”
Currently there is no set or uniform way in which newspapers are dealing with this issue, although some have come up with various techniques. The New York Times, for example, has a feature in which readers can recommend other readers’ comments. There are also “Editor’s Selections,” which allow editors to choose which comments they think are “worthy” of being profiled in some way. By doing this, the New York Times is letting readers decide what they think are the “best” comments. If readers are skeptical about allowing other readers decide what is “good,” they can also look at “Editor’s Selections” or just look through all the comments themselves.
In the same article, Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor for digital journalism at the New York Times, said positive and negative reinforcement is the way to make blog-commenting successful. This suggestion makes much sense, as it is human nature for people to want to feel “special” or feel that they may be more knowledgeable about certain subjects than another person. People – and in this case it becomes especially true for readers – like to be rewarded for their hard work and the time they took to comment.
“Blog comments should absolutely be monitored using technological tools and also human intervention. Trash (i.e. slander, hatred, etc.) should not be published,” Day wrote. “For my blogs, I generally do not allow comments to run until I have moderated them. Obviously I do not edit comments. They either run or they don't.”
Newspapers need to work towards having comments of quality. Although newspapers are seeking high-quality comments, who has the right to decide which comments are appropriate or “of high quality”? The “who” usually consists of editors or readers who provide rating feedback. However, when deciding what is “high quality,” there is always the risk of too much censorship. Readers may rate others’ comments poorly because they disagree with others’ views, or the readers themselves don’t understand the issue and thus can’t “grade” appropriately. On the other hand, the potential for inappropriate censorship existed even with print. Readers never knew how many comments may have been submitted but not published.
Chances are that if a comment shows understanding of the issue at hand and is written in a logical, balanced and convincing manner, then it will be viewed that way by other readers. If a standard is set, then a majority of those who comment will match that standard. If someone doesn’t adhere to the standards, readers will be able to notice them right away. Also, readers have to have some faith in editors’ ability to view the comments in a balanced way (or objectively) and that any comments they’re filtering are probably best for the reader, either because the comment is illogical, the person doesn’t understand the issue, or there is unnecessary profanity.
An example of “high quality commenting” is seen with the blog IndyMoms, which targets moms in Indiana. According to the article “IndyMoms Draws Busy Parents with Discussion, Niche Content” by Rich Gordon, 10 “discussion leaders” were hired, or rather, moms who were paid $25 a week to “initiate and participate in discussions on the site” (p. 2). In the article, Jennifer Gombach, a brand manager in the Indianapolis Star’s marketing department, was quoted on the role of these discussion leaders:
“They often start discussions that are at a higher sophistication level than some other posters. They kind of set the tone from the get-go.”
In addition, Elpha Riche, who was hired by the Star, was quoted in the article saying that knowing which topics are heated or controversial helps beforehand. She said in the article:
“Sometimes I’ll go in and say, ‘OK, everyone, let’s take a breather. Step away from the computer and think before you type.’ If it’s not something you would say to a room full of people you just met, you should twice about posting it to our forum.”
This mindset needs to become the norm among bloggers. By having this mindset, readers can present more logical comments that don’t yell out “you have to believe what I believe, and I’m going to keep arguing until you do.”
However, some blogs are not worth monitoring. Cheré Coen, who was Readership Editor at The Bakersfield Californian and whose job was to make the newspaper more reader-friendly, wrote in an email interview about unofficial blogs:
“Now, blogs are another story. As a journalist, I cringe when I hear about people accepting things like blogs and unofficial stories as news,” she wrote. “One big difference is you know you're getting some form of professionalism with print as opposed to sites that aren't part of the mainstream media.”
Videos have become an important storytelling tool of multimedia journalism and have potential for growing readership. They are visually stimulating and bring people in a story to life. Use of news videos has grown significantly over the past 12 to 18 months, according to the American Journalism Review (2008). In addition, video consumers – which can include those who visit sites like YouTube – generally tend to be younger than the overall population. According to “The Video Explosion” (2008) in the American Journalism Review, the audiences attracted to videos “have higher incomes and more education” (2008, p. 5). The article reported that the Nielsen Co. reported that 129 million Americans have access to broadband, and that a report made by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in July shows that 57 percent of all online viewers watch or download videos. The number increases to 74 percent for broadband users. Based on these numbers, it seems that having videos accompanying articles is bound to attract more readers, especially the younger generation, which is crucial in contributing to increased newspaper readership.
In the same article, an author named Gene Weingarten (Washington Post) wrote a story about Joshua Bell, “one of the world's most esteemed classical violinists” (2008), impersonating a street performer, whom the public ignored. The article ran in the print version of the paper with photos, but video clips were added to the online version of the story. Weingarten was quoted in the article saying that his story was more effective online with the video, although this isn’t necessarily always the case. His definition of effective seemed to stem from the fact that the story reached more people than it would have without the video, including those in Beijing.
Frame grabs are also a new part of journalism and have arisen from video. Frame grabs are still shots taken from a video camera, able to be put on print as seen with the San Jose Mercury News or the Detroit Free Press, or online. They serve as a new, creative way to display information and add to multimedia journalism. David Leeson, who was interviewed in “The Video Explosion” (2008), started shooting video for the Dallas Morning News in 2000, and said in the article that he believes a journalist will soon win a Pulitzer Prize in photography from frame grabs. Videos play an important role in journalism, in particular online journalism, and are becoming a form of interactivity that is continually gaining popularity.
Other interactive features
Although videos are one of the most prominent forms of multimedia, others include sound clips, timelines, maps, and whatever else newspapers can create. Interactive features like maps are another way to attract readers to a story – while having readers read the actual story is ideal, as researched in my first two papers, they often don’t have the time. Interactive features accompanying articles allow the reader to get quick information about what happened and help grab their attention. A good example of an interactive map was seen in the New York Times regarding the Virginia Tech tragedy; the map had 16 slides that showed different areas of campus and the killer’s path, as well as descriptions of different scenes and facts.
Multimedia journalism has created opportunity for journalists, but it requires them, no matter what age, to learn new skills.
“Not everyone is adept with all the new storytelling tools, so sending reporters out into the field with videocameras [sic], for example, may or may not be helpful if the reporter is not a visual person,” Day wrote in an email interview. “Reporters have to want to use new tools and have to understand how these many new tools can add to a story. It's challenging to use multimedia tools in an additive fashion rather than in a subtractive fashion. It takes practice to shoot good video, to record compelling sound.”
If you asked a journalist ten years ago what their job was, they could respond with “I’m a print journalist” or “I do broadcast.” Today, though, a journalist has to be multi-skilled to keep up with the changing world. They need to know how to write the story and also supplement it and perhaps take video or record sound clips. Not only that, but once the story has been uploaded or printed, they now have a responsibility to lead discussion and to actively engage in it. Journalists can no longer sit idly after reporting a story, expecting readers to read it and then move on. Readers want to talk about what they read and engage with people all over the world. Journalists need to embrace this new movement and serve as leaders and role models.
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Layton, Charles. (2008). The Video Explosion. American Journalism Review. Retrieved February 7, 2008.
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© Robert Niles