The Web is swallowing everything, and most newspaper companies are responding by doing what they’ve always done when big news stories roll into town—throwing everything they can at them. Two years ago, they threw blogs. Last year, podcasts. This year, it’s videos.

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The Web—mysterious, frightening and inspiring—is all of these things (blogs, podcasts, videos), and it is none of them. And if newspaper companies (as well as television and radio news organizations) take the time to understand this new medium and set strategic goals to transition to becoming Web-centric news organizations, they’ll remain an integral and important part of the journalistic enterprise. If not, they’ll go the way of blacksmiths—not disappearing, but pushed into a niche so far off the highway that they no longer are traveling on it.

This journey toward the new begins with the basics—and this means learning the characteristics of the Web. A journalist might ask why anyone needs to know something so seemingly arcane as the characteristics of a communications medium, but when you don’t know how a game—football, soccer, baseball—works, it’s hard to play it. And if you don’t understand foreign words, you can’t speak the language. Another way to look at it is this: The first film was a recording of a theater production, and film isn’t theater. The first TV production was a radio program, and we know that television isn’t radio. But when the Web came along, newspapers thought it was a place to put text and still photos; radio news thought it was a place to put audio files (and text scripts of audio files), and television news treated it as a place to put videos (and text scripts of video stories).

The Web is its own medium with its own characteristics. It is not newspapers. It is not TV news. It is not radio.

Understanding the Web

Before the Web existed, there was (and still is) the Internet. From the get-go, the Internet was a solution-oriented medium: Ask a question, get an answer. And it was an interactive medium: No longer were you sitting back and waiting to be told what you needed to know. You asked the question. The Internet was participatory: You and all of those other people out there were connecting—and sharing and talking—with everyone else.

Along came the Web, and not only were these basic traits—solution-oriented, interactive and participatory—expanded with new technologies, but other facets emerged. Rather than go through the chronology, here are the characteristics as they apply to news organizations:

Solution-Oriented Stories: No longer can news organizations just point out the problem. They’ve got to address a solution, including looking at other communities that have solved the problem. News organizations can do this by providing links to these successful efforts. Also, no longer are solutions personal—as in how you can make your home thief-proof? They’re also community-oriented and aimed at prevention. How can my community be more thief-proof? How can we prevent people from turning into thieves?

Context: The Web is infinitely deep and all points on it are connected. That means stories no longer stand alone. They’re embedded in a matrix—a Web shell—that connects to stories done in the past, to data, to all the players and organizations involved in the story or the issue addressed, and to resources.

Real Time = Continuity: For the first time, a communications medium mirrors life. Artificial constructs of 24-hour newspaper deadlines or multiple daily TV or radio deadlines are gone. Most news organizations figured this out a while back and have established continuous news desks or are busy doing so now. This also means the end of “been there, done that” journalism. Just because journalists drop in, do a story, and go away, the issue doesn’t. Occasionally, for example, news organizations do a series about domestic violence in their communities. Once they publish, they won’t tackle the subject again for at least a year, usually longer, and rarely do they cover this issue with regularity, unless celebrities or politicians are involved. But domestic violence is often the leading felony aggravated assault in a community and the economic and emotional costs in dealing with it are enormous. In some large cities, grappling with the effects of domestic violence takes a big bite out of the budgets of the medical community (EMTs and emergency rooms), the police, adult courts, juvenile courts, welfare agencies, child protective services, and schools. Now community members have a communications medium that is on 24/7 and can absorb input from many sources to foster solutions to problems, whether journalists are involved or not.

Participatory: Blogs, ratings sites, wikis, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, etc. To traditional top-down journalists, this looks like a cacophonic community at its best and communication anarchy at its worst. To those who embrace the Web, it looks like a dynamic opportunity for continuous worldwide conversations. The bottom line: News organizations need to embrace and integrate the community’s conversation. Perfectly positioned for Web 2.0, with its emphasis on social networking, news organizations have an opportunity to provide a place for such interactions and also involve the members of their communities in reporting. Besides community Web sites (with citizen blogs, podcasts and videos), it’s time to institutionalize the knowledge of the community, as Michael Skoler has done with his Public Insight Journalism at Minnesota Public Radio.

BBC’s Iraq site
– Iraq War page
Personalization: Stories embedded in a matrix of data and resources enable people to “personalize” the story to pursue their own interests and questions that arise when they read, see or experience it. The BBC’s Iraq site, for example, provides links to maps; updated graphics of oil production, civilian deaths, and school openings; timelines; photographs; historical information, and others involved in the conflict. Other news organizations don’t do this nearly as well. For example, The New York Times has comparable news coverage but hasn’t taken such advantage of the Web. There’s an added benefit to this approach: A news organization that provides “one-stop shopping” for an issue or beat creates a place that people come to even before they search across the Web.

Multimedia Stories and Information: On the Web, storytelling and information become multimedia stories and information. When done well, these multimedia presentations offer some combination of video, text, audio, still photos, graphics and interactivity in a nonlinear format in which the information in each medium is complementary, not redundant. Emphasis is on the visual, with supporting text. In newspapers, stories have to be told in text, with accompanying photographs. On TV, stories have to be told in video. In radio, stories have to be told in audio. On the Web, the story decides how it is to be told. That sounds a little Zen-like, but here’s the point: When doing a story, a journalist evaluates what part of it works best in photos, what part in audio, what part in video, what part in text, what part in infographics, and then assembles the story using the best parts in each medium. This makes for much more powerful and informative storytelling.

Becoming a Web-Centric News Organization

By understanding the medium, a news organization can set goals for a transition to a Web-centric newsroom, which is oriented to doing stories for the Web first, then spinning off text, photos, audio, video and infographics for print, PDAs, iPods, iPods with video, cell phones, and any other communications platform.

Journalism That Matters list
A list of steps to take to become a Web-centric newsroom emerged after two years of cyber, phone and occasional face-to-face conversation among members of a think tank called Journalism That Matters (JTM). JTM involves the thinking and experiences of many different kinds of journalists: citizen and community journalists, newspaper editors and managing editors, newspaper reporters, freelance reporters, bloggers, TV producers, a former chief financial officer for a major metropolitan daily, directors of journalism think tanks, a media expert from Wall Street, and a general manager from a forward-thinking (and doing) news company. What follows is the collective advice that JTM generated after a face-to-face meeting in October 2005:

  1. For those who are entangled, disentangle from Wall Street and 20-plus percent profit margins. The Wall Street average is 11 percent. Put the rest into training, updating and research into figuring out how to transition from a print-centric to a Web-centric news organization. (1A. Stop calling yourself a newspaper! 1B. Stop calling yourself TV news! 1C. Stop calling yourself a radio news organization!)
  2. Set one-year, two-year, three-year, four-year, five-year goals to transition from a print-centric to a Web-centric news organization.
  3. Merge online and print/television/radio.
  4. Train reporters and editors to be multimedia reporters and editors. At the core of the economic model of a newspaper, radio and many TV news operations is one story/one reporter. That means all reporters have to be backpack, or multimedia, journalists. Adding a layer of multimedia producers to “enhance” reporters’ print stories is not economically sustainable.
  5. Hire Web infographics editors and database programmers who understand news; they are integral to a Web-centric news organization.
  6. If you haven’t, set up a continuous news desk. The people assigned to this desk distribute news in different media (audio, video, text, photos) to different platforms (cell phones, PDAs, video updates on the Web, multimedia stories to the Web, etc.).
  7. Journalists’ major roles: managing breaking news (including content from citizens) and contextual information in Web shells; acting as community watchdogs who provide in-depth, ongoing stories of consequence to the community, and as traditional storytellers.
  8. Every story belongs in a Web shell, the area where journalists express their role as managers of information and news in the form of searchable databases, backgrounders, maps and links to resources, archives and research.
  9. All stories are multimedia stories. That doesn’t mean that all stories have video. It means that the story and resources (time and staff) dictate the approach taken. Maybe the story is a few words on a timeline. Maybe it’s a series of photos with audio. Maybe it’s only video. Maybe it’s a mix of stills/audio/video/text. Maybe it’s graphics with supporting text. Moment of Zen: The story will tell you.
  10. For local news organizations: Local. Local. Hyperlocal. That doesn’t mean ignoring national and international news; it means making the connection to the local community.
  11. Distribute news organization staff throughout the community. That means journalists’ main office is in or near the community they’re covering. It’s the end of cavernous or centralized newsrooms.
  12. News is a conversation, so involve the members of the community via blogs, wikis, adding to stories, pursuing follow-up on stories, and helping to direct stories.
  13. Set up neighborhood Web sites where stories from community members and professional journalists appear together. In other words, don’t put citizen journalism in a ghetto.
  14. Set up separate youth, kids, mothers, parents, ethnic, sports, etc. sites. These Web sites—and the neighborhood sites—are often the first points of entry to the news organization’s community of sites. Going through the home page is not a given.
  15. For newspapers, publish a print edition one to four days a week and change the content. No more breaking news. Putting breaking news in the newspaper is like going to Jack-in-the-Box, ordering a hamburger and having it delivered, cold and tasteless, on your doorstep 12 hours later.
  16. Stay in close touch with top-notch Web advertising (or in the case of public radio, fundraising) staff who are focusing on incorporating local advertisers into the news organization matrix to keep tabs on the approaching print/Web, TV news/Web, radio news/Web tipping point.
  17. Use a content management system that can handle all of this.

This list is just the beginning. No one news organization is doing all of these things, but a few have decided to take the big gulp and start the transition to a Web-centric news organization. To keep tabs on their progress, and to see any changes to this list or updates that will emerge as part two of “The Road Map,” keep an eye on Rejournalism—the Journalism That Matters group blog. It’s a place where the talk is all about what journalism is in the arena of the Web.

Jane Ellen Stevens does multimedia reporting and storytelling for a variety of organizations and consults with news organizations that are committed to making the transition to a Web-centric presentation. She also teaches multimedia reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and for the Knight New Media Center’s multimedia reporting workshops.

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