The Future Of Newspapers: Websites, TV Reports And More

May 15, 2007


 The intensifying drive to maximize newspaper websites means print reporters may get pulled in several new directions.

What's more, they'll be expected to do more in the same amount of time for no additional pay, and face the looming possibility of doing something akin to television news reporting – with little or no training.

So why are some leading environmental journalists embracing all this?

"I"m not afraid of taking on more work," says Ken Weiss of the Los Angeles Times, "if it will reach more people in a way that makes them pay attention."

These are some key points from a reporters' panel, "Telling the Environment Story with New Technologies," sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists at the Los Angeles Times in January, moderated by acclaimed television news reporter Judy Muller, now with USC Annenberg. With several Times news managers listening, some leading examples were presented:

Dina Cappiello of the Houston Chronicle: "In Harm's Way" Cappiello showed how her team of more than a dozen staffers created for an entire new dimension to her series "In Harm's Way" exposing the toxic air pollution problem in Houston. Readers could listen to audio clips from Cappiello herself, as well as her guest appearances on English and Spanish radio. Readers could type in their location and see a "hyper local" analysis as well as biographies of affected people nearby. The five-part series included more than a dozen articles that, when transformed onto the web, became a juggernaut to change public policy. toxic/index.html

Ken Weiss of the Los Angeles Times: "Altered Oceans" Weiss' Internet project had all the usual inventive ideas: photos, sidebars, interactive designs, links, and more. The most unusual elements were video news reports on several topics that allowed readers a new way of looking at the work of a print journalist, guided by video editor John Vandewege. The series traveled the globe examining how humans are changing the very chemistry of the planet's oceans and threatening the health of the planet.

Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News and KQED: "Quest" Rogers is a living, breathing example of a print journalist whose title is morphing. The veteran reporter for the Mercury News, Rogers is now also the managing editor of "Quest," a new Northern California television and radio series designed to boost environment and science reporting in broadcasting. Their $7.7 million budget is fueled by foundation money. The website features three-minute video news reports serving as previews of upcoming television segments. They are voiced by producers rather than the normal on-camera reporters, and must engage the viewer without the benefit of an introduction.

Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler of the Seattle Post- Intelligencer: "The Sound of Broken Promises" McClure and fellow print reporter Lisa Stiffler continue their award-winning focus on saving Puget Sound, the gem of the Pacific Northwest. Their latest web transformation uses all the usual tools as well as a slideshow edited together in an animating video-like report written, with three-dimensional graphics, and voiced by Stiffler.

Jeff Burnside of WTVJ NBC 6 News, Miami WTVJ, owned by NBC, is using laptops in the field in new ways. Cameras shoot on hard drives which are plugged into the laptops for editing. Soon, cell phone cards will transmit completed news reports in broadcast quality back to the newsroom. It means no videotape, no awkward microwave vans, and no satellite dishes straddled atop semitrucks. A crew can, for example, go deep into the Everglades and file complete stories from remote areas, including live reports. Also, WTVJ recently aired a report about Floridians aboard the Sea Shepherd ship that rammed a Japanese whaler in the Antarctic. Photographers on board used uplinks to send video via satellite to Sea Shepherd web producers who made several two-minute downloads available globally in high resolution to broadcasters hours after it happened. It marked the first time WTVJ used high-resolution web video, properly sourced on screen, for the basis of a news report.

The panel discussion of technology and the web reflected the changing future of newspapers and, for that matter, delivery of all news. New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger was quoted on saying, "I really don't know whether we'll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don't care either." Sulzberger said more people now read The Times website than the print version, and that the transition to the web will end the day he stops publishing on paper.

When Cornelia Dean was taking her turn as Science Editor of the New York Times several years ago, she was ahead of the game in designating a desk in her department specifically for a web person. Now that Dean is reporting science and the environment again, she's done voiceovers for video slide shows, Podcasts, on-camera talks edited with video and still photos, "anything anyone has ever asked me," she said. "In my opinion we are not asked enough. But, of course, that's a reflection of resources as much as anything else. Everything takes time, staff, money."

Weiss says he never dreamed his newspaper career would lead to doing television-style reporting. "So far, however," warns Weiss, "my editor doesn't take into account the extra time it takes in the field and in the studio to put together a video production."

That newspaper editors are asking print reporters to be involved with video reports with no training suggests some editors think television reporting is easy. But broadcast journalists are quick to say it's more difficult than it looks. Done poorly, critics say, it threatens the integrity of the newspaper brand.

Many newspaper reporters who have dabbled in television news will tell you how surprisingly difficult it is to condense a story down to two minutes or less, to find that perfect marriage of the spoken word and video, and to do it all on deadlines worse than print.

"It's very different," said Weiss. Doing television-style news reporting "has given me greater appreciation for my colleagues in TV news. Stand-ups are hard work. Learning to narrate video is tough to do well. Getting good sound is difficult." Broadcast journalists point out that a video news report for the web simply cannot be the first few paragraphs of a print story covered with video. Compelling television news weaves the spoken word inextricably with very specific video.

Television reporters' tips: If your sentence says "the chimney was all that remained of the historic home" but your video pans from the home to the chimney, you've got to invert your sentence. If your interviewee speaks eloquently but talks unbearably slowly, you've got to draw out soundbites that are more succinct. If you think people are hesitant to speak naturally when they see you writing on a notepad, wait until you see how stiff they become when facing a television camera and microphone. One of the biggest challenges for print reporters is writing and speaking conversationally. The Associated Press offers video news reports that broadcast veterans say are often little more than a few sentences voiced by an announcer and covered with video that has little relevance to the words being spoken.

After generations of professional tension between print reporters and broadcast journalists, the print reporters may someday need to actually try it. Ironically, television journalists are now being asked routinely to re-write text versions of their stories for the web.

Jeff Burnside, an SEJ board member, reports for WTVJ NBC 6 in Miami.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2007 issue.

Topics on the Beat: