My week with Brian Storm and his team at MediaStorm in New York caused me to reflect on what the future of journalism and journalism organizations might look like.
Today’s journalists might not be the ones to figure it out. That task might fall to the next generation of digital natives. I don’t mean kids who grew up with computers. There are already plenty of those in newsrooms. I mean kids who grew up with computers - and Final Cut Pro and other relatively low-cost, high quality digital gear to play with. The key word is play. Journalists can take themselves too seriously. I think there’s room for serious play, and if any space is suited for it, I think it’s multimedia. It’s got to be the most exciting area in journalism right now. So much more is possible than ever before. Why wouldn’t news organizations take advantage of that?
We’re in a period of invention. It was clear from my experience at MediaStorm that multimedia produced by them and others builds on the traditions of still photography, documentary filmmaking and radio storytelling. But something new is happening. That’s driven in part by rapidly changing technology. So many more people can do this work today, because the equipment - everything from laptops to cameras - is so readily available at a reasonable price. And the price of the equipment is still coming down while the quality is still going up. This has made it possible for all kinds of imaginative stories to be produced by individuals who have nowhere near the resources of traditional news organizations. I see that as an inspiration for journalists to step up. The change is also being driven by the fact that the barriers between media are dissolving. For proof of that, spend some time looking at video game technology and what people are doing in that space. (This video and this video are indicative of how dramatic the developments are.) What’s happening there is defining the visual and experiential expectations of many media users. Expectations are rising. The only way to meet them is to embrace what technology makes possible - without forgetting that the most important thing, no matter the form, remains the story.
The first thing any news organization has to do is establish that it is open to working with all media types and on all platforms. This seems obvious. But it’s necessary. Up till now, many companies have seen themselves as newspapers, or TV stations, or magazines, etc. Now any media company truly can tell stories using the best tools for the content. It's easy to pay lip service to this idea. But it's not cheap or easy to take it seriously. In most cases it is going to require news organizations to add new areas of expertise to their team, either as staff or by building a network of independent players.
Second, news organizations should set up freestanding multimedia departments, with their own P&Ls. (A financial statement that summarizes the revenues, costs and expenses of a business.) If the people doing multimedia work aren’t empowered to push it as far as possible, to experiment as best they see fit, it’s unlikely they will. Let the multimedia department put on events, build exhibits, produce books and other specialty publications, develop educational materials, etc. Give this group - or perhaps a division of the group - the ability to serve commercial or non-profit clients by producing multimedia work for hire. This group is going to need many sources of revenue. It could even seek grants to support its high-level journalistic work. This department can establish standards and workflow for this type of work, just the way the news organization did for its historical product. But it shouldn’t have to bend those standards to fit the old model. Let it invent new ones. It should also not be bound by the geographical definition of any historical organization. This group could produce work touching on universal themes that are not bound by place.
Third, be patient. It’s going to take time. Yes, it’s reasonable and appropriate to expect to see signs of results right away. But commitment is going to be essential. The best such work should have a long shelf life and could generate revenue over a number of years. In many news organizations, measures of success are almost instant. This work is going to require new measurements. It’s not a one-shot effort.
Fourth, even if the organization wants to build its Web site as the destination for its content, in the case of multimedia the issue isn’t whether people watch or use it on a company’s site, the challenge is to try to expand distribution opportunities so people can experience it wherever works best for them. That’s how organizations will be able to build larger or more valuable audiences. What once might have just been a newspaper or magazine story - even a special one - can now be distributed on television, the Web and mobile devices. In addition, there’s the possibility of DVD sales, educational software, etc. Find ways to expand the reach of content. And to make money from doing so.
Fifth, don’t lower standards. Raise them. Of course there’s a place for “one-man band” journalism and quick news clips. And user contributed video could play a huge role in interesting new approaches to multimedia storytelling. But multimedia takes more work and it’s vying for attention in a very competitive space, a global space. To build long-term value and a long lifespan for work, make sure to focus on quality projects that will stand out. If a company is going to spread its content across many platforms, the work has to be deserving of the effort.
Sixth, don’t think this work can be done by asking individual journalists to do more or to become experts in every multimedia skill. Yes, everyone working in a multimedia operation should have an understanding of the contribution of each member of the team. But it’s critical to have a focus and set priorities. Otherwise the danger is that content producers will burn out and that multimedia will just mean quick hit digital stories. It’s much more than that - or should be.
Seventh, organizations should think of themselves as curators of content as much as they think of themselves as creators of content. Typically, there are many creative people in any area. Involve them. Leverage what they’re already doing. They could be establishing a base of work that news organizations can evaluate and then extend. Look for good work. Ask whether with a little more effort it could be produced for distribution on multiple platforms.
Eighth, involve the public. Make it possible for everyone to participate. This applies especially to geographically based content companies. Look for ways to partner with other news organizations, not just regionally or nationally, but also around the world. Any news organization now can have a global audience, if it produces the right kind of work. How about producing work that would be of interest to people around the world? Everything from doing a shared project on how people worship to a project on what people eat to start the day. Multimedia can make people's world seem bigger and smaller at the same time. Ask which local stories might resonate with others because they tap into universal themes or issues. Why couldn’t people contribute video, audio or still images that together tell a larger story? News organizations could put out requests for content and guidelines for how to submit it.
Ninth, remember the importance of play. Create excitement by staging events where the public can participate and even produce work that will be tapped to chronicle the event. This might be seen as gimmicky, but don’t think of that as all bad. If an event is “real,” if it generates passionate commitment, then it transcends any such concern. This is a way to help get people to think of traditional brands in a more expansive way and to build excitement around them. Here are a few examples of the personality and attitude that I think news organizations need to unleash if they want to play in this arena.
Stand By Me
Where the hell is Matt
Noah a picture everyday
One Year in 40 seconds
I think all of these are suggestive of things news organizations could do.
Tenth, use multimedia as a way to reposition a news organization's brand. Today, the business side is seen by many as serving only the goal of profit. Relentless cost cutting sends a troubling message - to staff and communities. Multimedia could help a company reestablish its commitment to a purpose - to inform, inspire and entertain. Why? Because if a company pursued this path successfully, it would expand its reach and grow the types of work it does. It would be a visible manifestation of its commitment to being a “content” company rather than a generator of cash.
In the end, why bother doing any or all of this? Because technology has opened exciting new opportunities for content companies. If they don’t seize them, somebody else will. The digital world has opened a space they can enter to connect in an even deeper way with their community and the world, give their journalists even more satisfying jobs and strengthen their financial health.