Newspaper journalism and some challenges of the Web

Is something of value being lost in the frantic dash by American newspapers—spooked by their rapidly declining print readership—to become more “web-centric”? Is the Web encouraging a more visual, aural, and compressed journalism—what some might consider a “lowest common denominator” or “dumbed down” news report? Will the Internet future bring a shallower reportage, hastily cobbled together, that will underserve educated readers (who, by the way, represent the majority of the American newspaper audience)?

Should we worry? Consider the following.

In his farewell column in early May, New York Times public editor Byron Calame raised some concerns about the pressures of an “online world of deadlines every minute”: “The Times’s effort to do more with the same size news staff, and do it 24 hours a day, requires workload decisions that can affect quality, especially in editing.”

Calame warned not only of undue stress on editors, but also of a deadline squeeze on reporters newly burdened with additional “converging media” duties:

Times reporters are now being trained and pushed to quickly prepare video and audio supplements to their articles for the Web version of the paper. With the expanding commitment to get stories online as soon as they are good enough to post, The Times will have to work very hard to keep the time pressure from eroding the quality of either the stories or the supplements.

It goes without saying that if this is a concern at the top of the American journalism food-chain, the realities for reporters at smaller city newspapers will be even more daunting. These smaller papers already have experienced deep cuts in newsroom staffing; any additional Web content or more frequent filing of stories will be added to the considerable current responsibilities of those journalists who survived the pruning. And as anyone with wire-service experience will tell you, even with the best of intentions the rush to “get stories online as soon as they are good enough to post” can pose significant threats to a news organization’s credibility. Overworked and loosely edited reporters make mistakes.

More may be less

There is cheerleading for this media convergence from figures like Sree Sreenivasan, dean of students and a professor at Columbia Journalism School. A recent Poynter Online column by Sreenivasan entitled “MyYouTube” (with a subheadline “Making Simple Online Videos”) explains how easy it is to create videos for the Web, the implication being that working journalists should “let a thousand online videos bloom.”

Yet there are only so many hours in a day; a reporter fiddling with a digital camcorder or mastering the latest video-editing software will spend more time on packaging and processing, and less time reporting and writing. Or he or she may sacrifice considered depth for a once-over multiple-media drive-by (after all, as Calame points out, there are those audio and video supplements to file. ) Forget investigative reporting—there isn’t time. And don’t hold your breath for newspapers to hire additional journalists to pick up the slack for this “more is more” activity.

Coupled with this call for more content (posting stories throughout the news cycle, adding audio, video, photo slide shows, blogs, etc.) there is also a related push for shorter content. A recent Gawker.com story quotes New York Times editor Bill Keller telling his staffers that he wants to see shorter story lengths in the paper (“….Our stories are too often too long… The 1200 word stories could be 800 or 900. There are editors at a Page 1 meeting boasting that a story is only 1400 words.”) Keller’s comments come as the Times prepares to reduce the physical size of its broadsheet (a cost-cutting move largely spurred by the migration of advertising dollars from the Times to electronic media).

Will editors at the Times will focus on shortening the printed story, while posting a fuller version on the Web? Or will reporters be encouraged to turn in shorter copy?

The very nature of the Web (cheap data storage and instant perfect copies through networked delivery) makes “writing to length” an obsolete concept. A reporter or commentator should be able to write as many words necessary, with the complete version posted to the Web and the trimmed alternate appearing in the newspaper. (The Wall Street Journal is employing some of this approach with its recent newspaper redesign). It is depth and detail—often found in longer stories—that many loyal readers appreciate. If they don’t find it in their newspaper (online or off) they will be look for it elsewhere.

Neo-traditionalism?

Publishers and editors should be wary of calls for the rapid posting of (half-baked) news stories and the mantra of “video, audio, and shorter content for the Web.”

Chasing 24/7 Web deadlines is a mistake: newspapers should concentrate on their gate-keeping function and avoid the distractions of too-frequent filing. They should worry less about being scooped (currency), and more about accuracy, consistency, depth, and providing context for readers.

The reality of Google News (and other news-aggregating websites) is that consumers of news now have their choice of thousands of news sources for any given story—why assume they will select on speed, and not on perceived journalistic quality, authority and editorial reliability (what marketers would call “the brand”)?

Pushing for extensive multi-media coverage is another mistake: the time and effort spent on podcasts and YouTube videos shouldn’t come at the expense of basic reporting and editing, nor should they crowd out in-depth journalism. The assumption that younger Web users are attracted primarily by the visual should be questioned—Web 2.0 communities like MySpace and Facebook offer significant amounts of text-on-screen in connecting their members together. It is content that matters and that’s something newspapers are expert at creating.

Taking a neo-traditionalist perspective on newspaper journalism on the Web means rethinking how the paper will cover its community. My hunch is that a vast majority of readers—current and future—will choose accuracy, context, and deeper coverage over YouTube talking head videos. It may mean a smaller audience, but it will be a loyal audience; in a world with a bewildering number of media choices, that should be a winning strategy.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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