A decade after newspapers began to publish online, there is still trepidation about technology among reporters and editors, columnists and photojournalists. Some reporters worry that they will look like traveling junk dealers as they try to gently approach reluctant sources in the field while juggling video cameras, audio recorders, notebooks and satellite phones. Yet fear is yielding to innovative thinking about how what we do online can enhance the quality of journalism.

One example: Having to file midday updates for the Web, like radio or wire reporters already do, seems to conflict with the idea that a newspaper journalist spends the day doing the interviews and thinking through the analysis that form tomorrow’s story. But many at The New York Times who have tried this new approach are finding it makes their work better, not worse.

Experiencing the Change

The transition to real-time journalism is easier for reporters who’ve done it before, like Micheline Maynard, our Detroit bureau chief. With experience at RELATED WEB LINK
Micheline Maynard’s Times Topics page
– topics.nytimes.com
United Press International and Reuters, Maynard knows how to file quick updates. What is different now is that as she covers breaking news by filing to our Continuous News Desk (CND) she is also working on her next-day article for the paper.

"Now, because I’m going to be writing at least two versions, I have to be present tense and future tense in the way I handle a story," Maynard said. "So as I’m reading a release, or talking to sources, my questions aren’t simply, ‘What happened and what does this mean?’ but ‘What’s going to happen as a result of this?’"

Writing quickly for the Web, picking a lead, and then backing it up with a complete story filed to the paper’s news desk causes Maynard to focus on what’s most important and how she’ll approach the rest of her reporting day. "The Web story is essentially the first effort," she said. "Then that helps me find the thread for the print story that will take it forward."

Science writer Andrew C. Revkin agreed about the challenges of reporting for rolling deadlines. Not only do Times reporters file to the Continuous News Desk, but they also meet the European and Asian deadlines of the International Herald Tribune (IHT), which is owned by the Times. "Filing early for CND and the IHT can create issues, particularly when the news hasn’t quite gelled," Revkin said. "But it always helps me focus my thoughts and provides at least a skeleton to build the final version of the story on."

Revkin also enjoys taking direct questions from readers online, as he did in October after he reported on sharp declines in spending on energy research by governments and corporations. From such exchanges he can learn the names of new sources and get ideas for follow-up stories while he helps readers to better understand the news.

And there’s another advantage: space. "The best thing about the recent energy-climate conversation was that it gave me an opportunity to get elements that didn’t fit in my energy challenge story into the paper’s online side," Revkin said. "In quite a few of the 60-plus back-and-forths with reader/commentators, I actually was able to slip in quotes and other context that had to be cut from the print story."

The additional space available online enables new approaches to journalism:

  • Some reporters use blogs to deliver short bites of news during the day while working on their longer stories for the newspaper, as a team of metro reporters does while covering state politics through a blog called The Empire Zone.
  • Some articles that have to be trimmed for print can run longer online.
  • During the World Cup, reporters delivered real-time play-by-play coverage online while fans joined in a simultaneous conversation.

There are many more examples, but in each case there’s a similar theme: Journalists are able to cover their subjects more deeply, in new ways, and deliver more to the reader than was possible before.

Revkin’s involvement with "Times Topics"—Web pages dedicated to in-depth RELATED WEB LINK
Andrew Revkin’s Times Topics page
– topics.nytimes.com
examinations of specific topics—illustrates the long-term value of publishing online. Newspaper stories are designed to be read the next day, but Revkin’s Web page about global warming collects relevant Times articles, multimedia reports, links to other Web resources, and more. His personal page highlights his best articles, his multimedia work, and even a window into his other passion: Readers can download music from his band, an acoustic-roots quartet called Uncle Wade. Insight into his work and background on his topics "helps build the credibility of our product and a connection with us as trusted guides to complicated issues," Revkin said.

How to Get Multimedia Stories Online

Whether it’s filing quickly for the Web, recording video or audio, blogging, or just thinking smartly about the way a story will appear both in print and online, one strategy has worked well so far at the Times: letting journalists decide what’s comfortable for them. Rather than forcing new ideas on people, Web and video producers at the Times make equipment and training available and invite participation.

Some of the new things reporters are often asked to do take only a small amount of time:

  • Talk to a producer on the phone for 15 minutes about the story and an audio slide show of the story will be readied to appear online.
  • Sit in front of a camera for a quick video interview, perhaps to relate a different way to understand today’s news or to create a video "sidebar" with an angle that won’t make it into the printed story.
  • Take notes about what Web sites were used in reporting the story. Decide which might be of use to readers and post them with the story. Sometimes this means copying a quick link, but it can also be more work: "I had to spend a couple of hours working up a set of links to include in my energy-climate research story," Revkin said. "But I think it’s great to have the extra depth there for readers who are inclined to seek it."

Other things take more effort, but the expenditure of time and energy can prove to be worthwhile. Some reporters carry video cameras, especially in foreign bureaus; many use digital audio recorders (simple models are available for less than $120) instead of cassette recorders and keep sound files on their laptop computers that can be sent to the Web site when a link to the full interview is worth adding to a story. In most cases, reporters who put in the extra effort say they’re pleased with the increased readership and enthusiastic reader response.

Another successful strategy: Play to your strengths. After 25 years of RELATED WEB LINK
Linda Greenhouse’s Times Topics page
– topics.nytimes.com
reporting on the U.S. Supreme Court and a Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting, Linda Greenhouse was clearly the reporter to write the obituary of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist when he died last year. But she also spent a significant amount of time on something new—a long-form video obituary. The mix of audio, video, photographs and Times’ headlines from previously published stories offered a compelling way to capture in one place the scope of Rehnquist’s lengthy and influential career—something that could only be achieved with the unique combination of Greenhouse’s expertise and the archive of stories and photos.

Reporters and editors who think about material they can obtain to enhance the telling of their story—audio, video, CDs containing data, Web sites—from the beginning of an assignment often end up with compelling online packages. Piecing such packages together after reporting has taken place is more difficult, and the resulting product can be less rewarding.

Economics columnist David Leonhardt uses online components to explain some of the complex issues he tackles. "Throughout the reporting for each week’s column, I try to think about what will make for good Web extras," he said. "I ask researchers if they’ll send me PDFs or links so we can post their work online. I talk to the graphics department about what to show online." Leonhardt sometimes runs into the problem of having more good ideas than the Web producers or graphics editors have time to execute, and this is RELATED WEB LINK
David Leonhardt’s Times Topics page
– topics.nytimes.com
becoming a familiar challenge. Efforts are underway to develop tools to allow reporters and editors to do more on the Web without having to learn extensive new skills or invest large amounts of time.

Perhaps the biggest change in the newsroom since the advent of Web publishing is the response from readers. Reporters sometimes have the joy of watching their story climb toward the top of the "most e-mailed articles" list. Or they will respond to a few reader questions and hear from dozens more. "It’s common for subsequent reader responses to cite earlier ones, suggesting that the writer read both the column and the replies," Leonhardt said.

Interacting with readers and doing the extra work required for blogs and other new forms of journalism does take additional time, and editors are working closely with reporters to manage those demands. Sometimes it means a change of assignments or dropping something else to make room in the schedule. Sometimes it means sneaking in bits of online work whenever there’s time. But the limited number of hours in the day mandates smart time management as the demands of online journalism continue to grow.

Multimedia note-taking can create advantages for reporters. "When I’m doing field reporting and shoot pictures or video," Revkin said, "while it can be a pain, it can also help the final written product—particularly when I’m in circumstances that prevent a lot of note-taking, as was the case when I was on a bobbing fishing boat with Carl Safina last summer, and in the Arctic. The images and video then provide detail—What color was that coat?—and a record of conversations that I can review later, when conditions allow."

While helping Revkin to refresh his memory, this valuable trove of sounds and images—with the Web producer’s assistance—will bring his story alive online.

Neil Chase is editor of the Continuous News Desk at The New York Times.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment