Sunday, May 27, 2007

At The Beginning

The term "Internet journalism" may be an oxymoron, especially for many journalists still primarily employed by "traditional" media organizations -- newspapers, radio, television, magazines -- and yet, it is what many of us are practicing even now, and will be practicing, for years to come.

We are here in significant numbers, some not entirely by design, working (as I sometimes like to think) at the beginning of all things. Or, rather, at the beginning of another great thing. We're on the cutting edge of a new news medium, more far-reaching than all that have come before. One that truly creates a global news village. It has already happened. Yet, by far, many of us are unknown, unrecognized, undocumented, providing news and information to millions around the world. We inform and influence thousands, but few know who we are or how we do what we do.

Who are we? What are we doing? What are we trying to do? Why are we doing it? What are we encountering along the way?

These are the questions framing this blog, which I hope will draw the comments, experiences and expertise of Internet journalists around the globe. I also see it as a way to provide a Web history of what we are going through as we build this new medium, this new journalism "discipline." In college, I learned about what Edward R. Murrow did as he shaped what came to be known as television journalism. A few years ago, I read a biography of William Randolph Hearst, who helped shape newspaper journalism. Now it's our turn to write the book on the beginnings of Internet journalism, using our medium, the Internet.

In a way, it doesn't feel unusual to be working in a new news medium. As one of my bosses at Internet Broadcasting said a few years ago, "If you're looking for a guidebook on how to do what we do, don't. We're writing it every day." It's not the first time I've been on the cutting edge of a journalism job.

More than 25 years ago, I got my start as a journalist working at a television station in Austin, Texas. We were still using manual typewriters then, (small type) and ripping wire off huge machines that spewed out reams of copy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We would tear copy and organize it by category -- sports, news, entertainment -- slapping it on to nails on the wall designated for each. The engineers were excited when we first tried transmitting "live" from a remote location. This being Texas, they sent me to do a live shot from the rodeo. They had a remote van that looked like an ice cream truck and it seemed like they were using twine and bubble gum to get the job done, but somehow it worked. They were elated when they were able to beam a picture back, and I felt a little like a human guinea pig.

A few years later, I was working for a television station in Tampa, Fla., WTVT, and it was one of the first local stations (if not the first) in the country to own and operate its own satellite truck. At that time, only the networks were operating satellite trucks. My assignment desk sent me down to Naples, Fla., to do a story on some beached whales, and my managers decided that, since we were out of microwave range, it was a good time to test our new satellite capabilities. The only problem was, we still didn't have a communications package entirely established. I didn't have IFB, the little ear piece that fits in a broadcast reporter's ear connecting them to the directors, producers and control room back at their stations.

No problem. They decided to go with the shot anyway, since they could see and hear me. They would have the photographer I was working with talk via walkie-talkie to another photog in a small motel down the road, who would in turn be communicating via telephone with the control room in Tampa. I stood there gamely until my photographer hissed "go" and simply began talking. Voila. On the air was our first satellite feed from Naples to Tampa in which I never heard a cue and didn't even have a monitor to look at to see what I was doing. Looking back, not having the benefit of "direction" from a producer was sometimes the greatest blessing the universe could bestow upon a reporter, but at the time it felt like flying blind. Again, I felt a little like a human guinea pig.

Years later I went "retro." I had a child and decided to leave journalism and paid work entirely. I wanted to focus a bit on raising another human being. I was never able to stay away from a keyboard for long, however, and eventually decided to try my hand at print journalism, which had always been my first love. I spent the next six years learning the newspaper business from the ground up. I even learned, quite literally, how to cut and paste. After assigning stories to reporters, spending hours editing their copy and then laying out each page of the paper, I would go out to the printing plant to oversee "paste up," sometimes going so far as to take the small Exacto-style knives in my own hand to cut tiny lines of newsprint from an article or headline to make it "fit" into its alloted space.

It was a "back to the future" experience, because it gave me the newspaper experience I lacked, having started my career in broadcasting. It also gave me some of the most fulfilling years of my professional life because of the great latitude we had in "enterprising" news stories. Noticing a trend toward the construction of larger "McMansions," we could write a story that we'd see a month later in the big daily newspapers and, later, in national magazines. There was tremendous satisfaction in rooting out stories and trends, not merely "reporting" events that had already occurred or were occurring, as I had done for so many years as a television reporter.

For my money, being able to enterprise a story is about as good as it gets for a journalist. It's what puts the "new" in the "news." Everything else is just "repurposing," which is what many journalists do on a daily basis, not really realizing it. They see a story someone else has done and they modify it for their medium and run with it. But to be the reporter who first spots a trend or informs about a topic, issue or event which has never been published before --that, to me, is the Holy Grail of journalism.

So here I am, again at the "cutting edge" of a new news medium, and much of what we are still doing on the Internet is "repurposing," just as in the early days of radio announcers would simply read stories that were printed in newspapers to fill air time (until the newspapers put a stop to it) and just as television reporters have been reporting stories out of the newspapers for decades.

We won't, however, be doing this for very long. Even now, when news breaks, Internet journalists are racing to get a few bits of information populated to their sites, long before a story is on the wire, printed in the paper or read over the air. We know the world sits poised at desktops everywhere, waiting for whatever details we can provide. My first experience of this was when I was still working at the newspaper as the Columbine High massacres were broadcast live on national television. We immediately turned to the Web sites of Denver newspapers for any shred of detail that could place the unfolding tragedy into some kind of context. Today it is passe' for news consumers everywhere to come to go to the Internet first.

We, however, are struggling as we work within a still-evolving new news infrastructure. It is so new, and there are still so few of us, that having an opportunity to enterprise a story is still an almost unheard of luxury. News managers are racing to create and implement guidelines that will be relevant to the developing news environment in which we operate. We adhere to traditional print style guidelines and conventions, and yet we know that the Internet requires, and offers, through multiple media options, a different approach to presentation . Additionally, the roles of journalists who work within the new medium are changing as well. Newspaper journalists are shooting pictures and videos to include in their Internet reports. Soon, broadcast reporters will be asked to produce print-worthy copy that can live on the Internet.

How will it all end? That's what we're finding out. We do know some "traditional" journalists are worried and threatened by the Internet as a news medium, but that train has left the station. What they should embrace is the potential if they want to continue doing what they love. We are all looked upon now not so much as "journalists" but as "content providers" for multiple information "platforms." Those platforms are always going to need content. People who know how to gather information and communicate it to the public, regardless of the medium, will still have a place to work -- their work may now just reach a wider audience on more "platforms."

How we go about the work of Internet journalism on day-to-day basis is what this blog will be all about. I see myself, again, as a bit of a pioneer or "guinea pig" working on the cutting edge of a new news medium. I think it's important that we have a record of what we're building, the obstacles we encounter, and a dialogue about what works and why. So, in this forum, I'll talk as often as I can about the day's work and the issues we confront. It often seems it's never easy, but sometimes it can be fun ... and it's always enlightening.

1 comment:

macbuck said...

Great opening post! Though as a former news producer, there are so many twinkies out there, nothing would get on the air in any understandable fashion with out an under-paid over-worked, yet brilliant and all knowing producer "in their ear." Good luck with the blog!