I’m soaking in the tub at my home in Santiago, Chile, when my wife hands me the portable phone. It’s the broadcast desk of the Associated Press calling, wanting some Q-and-A for radio. I wonder if the echo from the yellowwall tiles and glass shower door is noticeable and will spoil my report, but I decide to stay put. I need to clean up and, just as much, I need the rest.
“Testing. Testing. Does this sound OK?” I ask the producer. He’s sitting in a recording booth in Washington, D.C. I don’t tell him exactly where I am. I just try not to slosh around too much.
“Really. It’s great. Let’s start….”
That was back in 1988, when I was the Associated Press’s Bureau Chief in Chile, where the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet was surrendering power to civilians in a riveting political process with lots of national angst and a fair amount of tear gas. My primary duty was putting out AP’s written report, an around-the-clock affair since the agency provides stories not just to thousands of American newspapers but to thousands more papers, television and radio stations elsewhere around the world. From Santiago we did this in two languages, English and Spanish. I also oversaw our photographic service, directing our Chilean photographers, often writing their captions and transmitting their photos. Sometimes I’d even make prints for them and, on rare occasions, take a photo myself. And since the AP also provided sound to radio stations, I helped out with that.
Back then, nobody talked about multimedia, or new media. Those terms, a hot currency now in the industry and in journalism schools, had yet to be coined, just as the World Wide Web had yet to spin itself over all of our lives. But some of us, especially those of us in the AP and some other news agencies, were already well acquainted with the challenges of juggling the demands of several news media and with the expectation of instant delivery in each.
A decade later, as the new media become the big issue everywhere, from Wall Street trading floors to journalism school lecture halls, some of us are asking ourselves—quietly, because we know it could make us sound like old cranks when we do it—what’s really new here?
Certainly it is not the concept of quick, almost constant updates. I’d been with the AP eight years, and overseas for four, when I did that direct-from-the-bath broadcast. And I’d long been accustomed to the difference between my work and that of the newspaper correspondents, who would head off for dinner or bed after filing their one story of the day. I stayed at my desk or my laptop until midnight doing updates for late editions of morning papers, and then filing a final “turn” of the story for early editions of afternoon papers. Then, in the morning, I’d be back at it, “freshening” that story with the day’s first events, and then again at noon, and so on.
This is standard procedure for agency reporters around the world and, of course, was long before even the advent of CNN. In larger bureaus, such as London, Moscow and Tokyo, a large staff can divide the labor into shifts. They also can specialize to a degree, in economics reporting, say, or in sports. But in smaller bureaus, such as Hanoi, Abidjan, or Santiago, to name just a few, it’s up to one or two reporters to handle it all of the time and to help out in all different kinds of media.
Four years ago, the AP joined the news video industry, adding yet another dimension to our jobs. While experienced, professional television camera operators and producers were hired and assigned around the world, the AP writers already in place had to work with them, sharing cars and planes. AP correspondents had to start “thinking visually,” as well as in words, radio and still pictures. It was not unheard of for a writer to be asked, in a real pinch, to carry a high-8 camera and take some video while on assignment, just as TV producers and still photographers are sometimes asked to provide written stories when a writer isn’t around. (And they sometimes come up with the day’s best stories.)
At the AP, we’ve come to take this collaboration, and the “multitasking” it often requires of us, for granted. I was reminded that not everyone does when I read Kari Huus’s account, in the Winter 1998 Nieman Reports, of her work as MSNBC’s correspondent in Jakarta, Indonesia. Huus wrote: “Had I been with a newspaper or magazine reporter, I would have been taking notes and planning to go back to the hotel to write only when my weekly and daily print deadline was upon me. Had I been working in television or radio, I would have been shooting with a particular news slot in mind. But writing for the Internet, making the usual editorial calls—when and how much to file—is more complicated. The medium’s strong suits—speed and versatility—mean the scope of choices is enormous.”
Agency journalists rarely find themselves with all of the demands that Huus did, simultaneously carrying a video camera, still camera, recorder and notebook. But in many respects the new media world Huus found herself in is the same old world for agency journalists. One proof of that assertion is found in the technology she describes using to deliver her words and images—digital cameras and recorders, which were largely developed for, and first put to use by, the news agencies. For years now we’ve also been toting satellite telephones and other high-tech gear used to transmit news from the world’s most remote locations.
Of course the Internet has its own special qualities, including, as Huus aptly points out, a direct connection to the public. The feedback, intense and immediate, that she describes getting from viewers and readers is something I never received in my years reporting from abroad. There was always a long time lag as letters moved through the international mails. She is right to wonder about the implications of an instant public response and the whole concept of “interactive” news. Agency journalists get feedback, but it usually comes first from the editors who monitor our services at newspapers and TV and radio stations. They’ve never been shy about calling right away to point out what they perceive as a problem in the coverage—an error, a hole, a contradiction between one agency’s story and another’s. Cards and lettersfrom the public come more slowly, and less frequently, because we’re one step removed from it. We reach the public only when our stories are carried by a newspaper, TV or radio station, so consequently those news outlets are the ones that often get the attention.
When The Dallas Morning News publishes an AP story, or ABC-TV carries it, the public is inclined to see that story as a product of The Dallas Morning News, or ABC-TV, even if it carries that (AP) logo or, in the case of TV, if it is attributed to us. The lack of a direct connection is now starting to change, with the advent a couple of years ago of The Wire, the AP’s news Web site. We don’t offer it directly to the public, and it can only be reached when a newspaper or broadcast outlet contracts with us for the service. But the public responds directly with E-mailed comments, which then are relayed to writers and editors.
But we still remain, in some senses, in the shadows, easy to overlook despite our key role in the traditional news industry—and our equally important role in the so-called “new media.” Take a close look at any news Web site, be it run by a newspaper or television channel or a hot new Internet startup. You will see that the bulk of the stories and images it is offering for consumption is news that is being updated throughout the day and night which comes from the so-called traditional news agencies. It’s the same old agency reporting that used to feed only into a newsroom ticker and then when the world became computerized went into the newsroom mainframe. Only now it has a new look and, of course, with nifty linking of words, sound and video.
I do sometimes wonder how in their discussion of new media issues journalists can forget about this. Yet in the steady drone of panel discussions, oped commentaries, journalism articles and so forth, it is remarkable how rarely any reference to news agencies is made. But of course, some journalists themselves are not much more familiar than the public with what the news agencies are producing or the practices they are employing. (I’d humbly suggest that they might pursue a greater familiarity with how we work for answers to some of their questions on how, for instance, to deliver news quickly and, at the same time, try to ensure balance and fairness and avoid breathlessness or hype.)
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all unhappy with innovation, or jealous of new media. The truth is I’m thrilled, and nearly all my news agency colleagues are delighted to see our news reports appearing within seconds on hundreds of news Web sites. And we’re excited about what many new technological advances are allowing us—reporters and editors alike—to accomplish. From the most distant, disconnected corners of the plant—Antarctica, for instance, or the Brazilian rainforest—we are able to send stories and images over the Internet. Satellite phones shrink in size and price every year, and now laptop-sized models can be used to transmit words and photos from, say, a jungle outpost or from a city cut off from the world by war. Larger systems still are needed to transmit video by our TV crews, but those are becoming more compact, too.
Not only can a reporter send a story from that remote location, but an editor can send it back minutes later with changes for review by the reporter. Then editor and reporter can get on the phone to discuss finer points of structure, context and word choice, and the need for an in-depth follow-up or sidebar or details for a graphic. I’ve had these discussions with reporters as they sat out on some African walking trail or in a slum alleyway 6,000 miles away from my desk at AP’s New York headquarters.
My guess is that not all reporters would always say they are thrilled at becoming so accessible to their editors. But it does enable us to put out a quicker, better written and more informed report. It has enabled us to reach and cover stories that would not have been covered nearly as thoroughly or quickly. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for instance, and the refugee crisis that followed it would have gone largely uncovered, or would have been covered with a significant delay, without the satellite phones that AP could bring to Kigali and to Goma and many places in between. The war in Chechnya also would have gone largely uncovered: There were no phones at the front.
By working in several media, we are able to create an impact that words alone, or even words and still photos alone, could not have, not just on The Wire Web site but almost more importantly, in the venue we are most familiar with: the newsroom. We can create a kind of self-reinforcing cycle when we send a TV, photo and writing team to the same story. In TV news centers, editors pick up their morning paper, read the AP story and ask, “Do we have that?” while across town, in the newspaper newsroom, an editor is watching AP’s television footage of the same story and asking, “Do we have that?” The exhilarating result: blanket coverage, all across that town and, often enough, across the world of a story nobody may have otherwise given much notice.
The trick, of course, is not to let the exhilaration, and the intense pressure, of juggling several fast-moving media distract us from the same old core concerns that good reporters and editors always have had: Are we being accurate and fair? Are our sources of information reliable, and should we double-check? Is the story in context, and does it supply the context a reader needs to understand it? Have we told the story clearly and well? Some things are staying, and should stay, the same.
Today a story crossed my desk from a reporter of ours in Shanghai about a Hong Kong businessman’s plan to deliver the Internet to Chinese through their televisions, using a simple and inexpensive joystick instead of a costly PC with keyboard and monitor. Bill Gates was in China several months ago, investing in a project along similar lines. Maybe it will succeed, or maybe some other scheme will come along first. No doubt about it: The world is undergoing some head-spinning changes and the news industry will change, too, because of them.
But as our heads spin with the possibilities of global and instantaneous delivery, media variety, interactivity and so on, we can help keep our balance by asking that cranky-sounding but basic and always valid (especially for journalists) question: What’s really new here?
Kevin Noblet is Deputy International Editor at the Associated Press and a 1991 Nieman Fellow.