Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Collaboration, non-profit, and multimedia: the future of journalism?

I'm stepping out of my role as a photographer for a sec and taking a look at the bigger picture, so to say. I will always consider myself a journalist, first. Photography just happens to be my medium of choice for communication. So I follow a lot of web sites and blogs to keep abreast of issues and trends in the industry.

MediaShift, one of my favorites, recently posted a story about a project – UBC Students, Globe and Mail Investigate Hidden Cost of Shrimp It's the type of long-term, labor-intensive investigative journalism that's been falling by the wayside in this era of change and transition. It's also a fascinating study and perhaps an ideal example of the direction journalism might be headed.

Not so long ago, newspapers were tremendously profitable and broadcast networks were willing to operate their news divisions at a loss as a public service in exchange for use of the pubic airwaves. Professional journalists tossed out information for audiences to consume, sometimes without ever knowing if it resonated. But companies were willing to spend vast resources to produce multi-part investigative series and devote multiple pages or air time so photojournalists could explore the world and report their findings visually.

No more.

Stemming the tide of newspaper readers defecting to the Internet for information is a losing battle, no matter how hard or smartly fought. And the advertisers follow the readers. The broadcast industry no longer considers any endeavor that's not wildly profitable to be worth their resources. They are also losing a considerable share of advertisers to the internet.

So these "legacy media" companies must get into the internet game or risk becoming entirely extinct. The Internet is a beast, though. A wild, untamed, spirited beast that's still evolving. It's a medium that requires entirely new ways of thinking: thinking about ways to communicate. Ways to make money. Ways to engage an audience.

The nuances of complex stories are ideally conveyed in a comprehensive multimedia approach.

Journalists who are uncomfortable interacting with their audience need not apply. Reporters specializing in only one medium of communication soon will find out that job listings for their kind are short. Graphic designers and sales representatives specializing in static display advertising better start learning to code, write apps, and teach others how to use them – or retire soon. News companies (once fiercely competitive and protective of their products and brands) who don't learn to share resources might find themselves standing alone – and bankrupt.

It's a brave new world where interaction and multimedia rule the day.

And honestly, that's not such a bad thing. There are lots of details that need to be worked out over time. Such as how to fund journalism in the future. That's a pretty big detail, if talented folks want to continue and make a career in journalism.

This collaboration between the University of British Columbia journalism students and the Globe and Mail, largely funded by a private foundation, could be one of many possible frameworks for the future.

I can tell you that the legacy media companies, particularly newspapers, aren't relishing the non-profit aspect, but they probably need to face up to the fact that the days of 20-30% profit margins common in the mid-to-late 1990s are unlikely to ever return. Non-profit isn't the only new tract for funding journalism. In fact, recent non-profit ventures have had their share of setbacks. There are numerous ways to develop new sources of revenue, limited only by the imagination and the level of willingness to try new things.

But they will have to start buying in to the collaboration part if they want to survive. If they don't embrace collaboration, they will end up competing against the very people they've laid off in recent years: the so-called journalism entrepreneurs who are cropping up in communities everywhere. These lean, mean, often one-man or one-woman operations already have advantages over the legacy companies by having to adapt and innovate out of necessity. The legacy companies ought to think twice before creating David vs. Goliath scenarios. We know how that one turned out. A smaller, adaptable, skilled combatant shouldn't necessarily be considered an underdog against a stubborn, slow-moving giant. Rather than competing, media companies and entrepreneurs ought to start thinking of ways they can mutually benefit from collaborations. Like I said – brave new world.

The multimedia nature of the shrimp project is an example of how different the Internet is from print and broadcast. The production published on the Globe and Mail website, The high environmental cost of global shrimp, is a web video snapshot of the larger project. However, we really see the benefits and potential of multimedia production on the journalism school's self-produced micro-website: CHEAP SHRIMP: Hidden costs. Says student Erin Empey:

"This worked well as a multimedia project because of its complexity. By using several multimedia tools and breaking the video into chapters, we were able to present the nuances of the story clearly."

The nuances of complex stories are ideally conveyed in a comprehensive multimedia approach. Words. Images. Sound. Timelines. Maps. Links galore. All in a relevant, dynamic fashion. An editor or producer doesn't decide entirely how facts and ideas are presented, and in what order. Folks who view this project can choose how they wish to experience it. They can comment on its effectiveness. They can ask further questions. They can interact with those who produced this work – journalism where its practitioners are directly accountable to their audience. In this capacity, the Internet shines.

There are lots of really good examples of on-line journalism out there, if you look. This one hits home, though.

Think a project generated in Canada isn't relevant to you? Think again. If a report on the shrimping industry isn't meaningful to folks in Southeast Georgia, I don't know what is.

So, let me know how you see the future of journalism.

How can the news media use the Internet to better serve the community? How can they interact and collaborate with each other? With you, the audience? With the business community to provide services, create connections with potential customers, and help fund professional journalism?

And what's in your low country boil?

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