Opinion: Where's the Multimedia in Online Journalism?Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Every newspaper and newsmagazine that has a Web site likes to brag that it is involved in that trendy move to what's being called "New Media." But that moniker, aptly applied to the spider-webby network of cables and wires that connect millions of data receivers (computers), is totally inappropriate when also applied to the content being presented on this new medium. That misapplication may be a large part of why development of true multimedia-journalism content for the World Wide Web has been so slow.
What we put on the Web is not new. It is words and pictures. We've been generating words and pictures for many hundreds of years. There is nothing new or original about putting the same old stuff on a new medium.
The New Media term may have come from the very people who have only lately jumped on the electronic or digital bandwagon — the newspaper industry. Remember when the Macintosh was introduced in 1984, and soon thereafter the publishing professionals in art, advertising, television, and magazines were embracing electronic production? Remember how long it took the newspaper industry to catch on? And remember how they then coined a new phrase, "pagination," to describe the very same kind of desktop electronic production that corporate communicators, advertising agencies and magazines had been doing for years? New Media is the pagination of the late 90s.
The Web is a medium in continual transition, yet the content , principally text, that newspapers (and journals) put there is nothing new. Newspapers have yet to catch up to multimedia, even though that isn't new either. The Web's most advanced and technologically up-to-date presentation is only a slowed-down and adapted version of old-fashioned multimedia, the kind of stuff we see in movie theaters, classrooms, conventions, and at home on TV.
Multimedia: Decades Old
Multimedia is the concurrent use of multiple presentation media to communicate a message. It can be as simple as using still pictures and narration. Basic multimedia presentations — filmstrips with audio-tape accompaniment, multi-projector audio/visual presentations featured in large convention halls, even sound-and-motion pictures and videos — have been produced for decades. The only real difference is that on the Web multimedia is slower because of the relatively slow transmission rates of the data needed for displaying the presentations on a computer screen. But as those rates increase — and it seems they do every month — the best content on the Web will begin to look more and more like a form of multimedia that is anything but new, television.
(Some might argue that the interactivity of the Web is new or unique. But it really isn't. Interactivity is the abilityto control the information coming at you, to be an active rather than a passive recipient. Sure, the computer offers us faster interactivity and access to millions of volumes at our fingertips. But we could always restart a filmstrip where we wanted, and we could always start and stop a film or videotape when we wanted, and we could always change the channel — why else would many Website navigation buttons be configured like a TV remote? For that matter, we were always able pick up a newspaper or magazine and turn right to a particular section or page we wanted, bypassing the linear progression from front to back cover.)
"Stop thinking of tomorrow's Web window as a computer and to start thinking of it as a television with built-in interactivity"
The danger, then, is failing to recognize that what is today "new" for this new medium will tomorrow be history. The danger is failing to recognize that we should be obsessed not with the medium, but with the content we put on the medium. The solution is to stop thinking of tomorrow's Web window as a computer and to start thinking of it as a television with built-in interactivity. To stop thinking of television as separate from the computer and start thinking of it as the eventual primary receiver of the Web's datastream.
It's not hard to find good-looking and user-friendly Web sites published by the traditional print media, where you can choose to read their previously published print content, where you can choose to have your favorite content "pushed" to you, where you can even search back through months or years of published content. But even the best of them really amount only to glorified print archives, where usually the only content even approaching what we would call multimedia is in the clever ads of brave, pioneering Web advertisers.
How many of those print journalism Web sites allow you to do more than read? How many of them allow you to listen? Or watch even a rudimentary motion picture? How many of them offer something that wasn't first published on paper? There are exceptions, of course, but the rule is static and boring text on what could be an exciting and enticing active medium.
The Convergence of the Web and TV
Look ahead to the convergence of the Web and TV. Imagine trying to compete for advertising dollars and Website visitors with a Website that allows visitors to come home and, at their leisure, launch multimedia coverage of news from a menu of stories, each of which would be presented by a Peter Jennings-type anchorperson, complete with full-screen video footage and sound. That's where we're headed: interactive TV. Relatively soon, the computer and the TV are going to converge in an information-access system that will be like interactive cable television. Reader/viewers will be able to pick and choose what they want to watch or hear — down to the specific news or information item — at the moment they want it.
At that point, who's going to care about "reading" journalism on something like today's old-fashioned World Wide Web?
Maybe that is still five or more years down the road, but it is coming. To remain competitive in the media market, newspapers and magazines (and even journals) need to begin now to fully explore this new medium.
The technology and the resources are available right now to newspaper publishers: Simple multimedia enhancements can be produced quickly and cheaply with existing hardware and software.
Active-multimedia content is missing from these media outlets primarily because the professionals who could create it for newspaper and magazine publishers are also missing. One reason is that the first person a publisher hires to create a presence on this new medium is a Webmaster or a Web manager (or someone with a similar title) fromamong colleagues, friends and associates in the print medium. He or she may even find someone who's a talented "uni-media" Web professional, someone who knows the technology, but has experience producing for only one medium. Few among those newspaper and magazine managers, designers or photojournalists — even those who have enough technological moxie to handle these new jobs — also know anything about how to produce a video or multimedia presentation.
"City hall is burning! Let's go to the Daily Blab's on-line site and watch!"
Relying on Newsroom Content
Because of the single-medium career paths followed by many contemporary print journalists, these de facto Web leaders often fall back and rely on the content already being developed in their newsrooms. There seems to be a general inability to see the real capabilities of this new medium. Few newspaper editors are ready to cry, "City hall is burning! Grab your video camera and get down there!" Those traditionally trained editors would instead scream for banner headlines and perhaps even color photos showing the burned hulk, but those words and still pictures would be dumped right onto the Web — as is. And they would just sit there.
It's no wonder, then, that you're probably not likely to soon hear a devoted newspaper subscriber cry out, "City hall is burning! Let's go to the Daily Blab's on-line site and watch!"
No, it's a lot more likely that they will say, "Let's call up KWWW's on-line channel!" because they know they'll be able to see the true audio/visual presentation of the news.
It would be wonderful to hear that newspaper editor call for something as simple as even a three-frame animated gif showing before, during and after shots of the building. Or for sound bites from the mayor or others at the scene. It wouldn't have to be full-motion video and sound. But it would be something multimedia.
That type of simple multimedia enhancement could be incorporated into Web sites today: It doesn't appreciably slow download times, and it doesn't require a huge investment. The Mac software that creates animated GIFs, Gif Builder, is available free. Search C-Net's Shareware.Com and other download sites for free or cheap Windows animated Gif-creation shareware. Simple sound recording and editing software is included with both the Mac and Windows operating systems. Supply the creativity, and you're off.
What Must Publishers Do?
With all that in mind, then, what must publishers consider when deciding what to do with their on-line presence? First, they must decide what kind of presence they want and can handle. If all they really want is to plant their flag on-line, so their readers can look at the classifieds and research past issues, then maybe all they need is a Webmaster who's a half-decent designer and savvy with databases.
But if a publisher realizes that to leave even a minor media empire for his or her children and their children, he or she must prepare for the possibility that in 50 years print likely won't be much of a moneymaker. That loss of revenue will happen slowly and gather momentum as electronic-presentation technology improves. The wise publisher could start small: Add some sound bites. Move some graphics. Use motion, use sound. Get going.
Then, if print publishers decide to adapt to the sweeping tide toward the "televization" of the Web, if they want a Web site that provides readers with content that maximizes their on-line information gathering, then they must tear down the paper curtain that separates traditional print journalists and broadcast journalists. Hire journalists who know something about both the Web and multimedia production. Hire some staffers who know their way around an editing suite. And be prepared to lay out some cash — or strike up an alliance with a local TV station or cable programming provider.
Where can a publisher find those new-journalism staffers? In newsrooms across the country, even among the crusty old journeymen and women of journalism, there are seasoned professionals who have experience both in print and on electronic media. On campuses across the country, there are many more college students who dream of being Dan Rather or Connie Chung than students who dream of being Jack Anderson or Erma Bombeck. Those students crowd into the broadcast courses, learning to write and produce for a "multi"-medium. The more modern and enlightened journalism schools are closing the gap between their print and electronic disciplines to educate these computer- and Web-savvy students, who will then have both print training and practice, and electronic-journalism experience.
If print publishers don't make those shifts in thinking and approaching news-content production and delivery, the traditional broadcast media will easily capture the online-journalism viewers and run away with the online-advertising dollars, dollars that may be the only dollars available when our grandchildren take over.
The way to capture tomorrow's online-journalism viewers (and the advertising dollars they represent) is to be there, in all media. In multimedia.
Mike Cuenca is an assistant professor at the University of Kansas' William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications. His lifelong love of graphic arts started in 1970, when he learned to set metal type by hand from a California Job Case. He has been using computers to produce published words and pictures since 1975. He is the author of the Adobe Photoshop 5 ACE Exam Cram for Coriolis/Certification Insider Press, due out in the fall of 1998.