Last month, a conference to explore the challenges of the Digital Age was held by Temple University and Bell Atlantic. Chaired by George Gerbner, Bell Atlantic Professor of Telecommunications, a small group of Academics and media professionals spent two days exploring the promises and pitfalls the world will experience in the headlong dash to broadband digital communication.
The effects upon society--from a political and cultural perspective, the challenges to the family and community, and the roles of the media were discussed. Our aim was to present an agenda for the development of a broad set of guidelines for this medium that has the capacity to dramatically change the life of virtually everyone on the planet in the decades to come.
Because of The Platypus Workshop and its recognition of the dramatic changes in the role the visual journalist will face in the coming years, we were invited to examine the Media's prospects concerning this new world of communication. We would like to share these thoughts with you.
THE IMPACT OF BROADBAND DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY ON VISUAL JOURNALISM, THE CHALLENGE TO MEDIA, AND THE EMPOWERMENT 0F THE INDIVIDUAL JOURNALIST.
I'm old enough to remember the days when the weekly Life magazine used to arrive at our home. As a schoolchild, I was mentally transported to wonderful, exotic foreign lands; watched in awe as wars, disasters, epic human events, the famous and infamous were revealed to me through the pictures of many talented photographers. This was before the age of television, and those images were responsible for fanning an inner flame in me that resulted in my career choice--following in the footsteps of those photographers.
In the late '40s, my parents bought our first television set. There wasn't much to watch in those early days. By the '50s, though, I could tune in to "Howdy Doody," "Captain Video and His Space Cadets," and a black and white live western that was beamed from a set in the wilds of New Jersey.
By the time I was in high school, Edward R. Murrow was setting the standard for television news, and the Army-McCarthy hearings were being televised live from Washington--I was mesmerized.
During my college years, there were three major TV networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. Through the fifties, sixties, seventies, and into the eighties, these networks grew in power, eventually driving magazines such as Life and Look out of business. By the end of the '80s, network TV, at its peak, offered viewers 64,000 hours of television per year. With a monopoly on the finite hours and minutes of the broadcast day, the networks were "printing money" for themselves. Powerful programing was built and paid for by these enormous flows of cash.
Print journalists were in awe of the huge sums paid to their broadcast colleagues, and it was not uncommon to see a network producer arriving on the scene of a story with a briefcase literally filled with $100 bills.
In the meantime, as MBA's arrived in print journalism, expense accounts and travel were slashed, advertising dropped, and space to display our work began to dwindle.
Then in the '90s, the network balloons were suddenly punctured--Cable had arrived. Within a few years, the combined broadcasting hours available on cable had climbed to over 2.5 million per year. Now, the networks no longer owned the 24-hour clock. As the competition for the viewer increased, network shares plummeted. Suddenly, foreign bureaus were abandoned, lucrative sports contracts moved to cable. ESPN now overshadowed the big three networks combined.
Something monumental had occurred.
THE PARADIGM SHIFT
Two things were happening simultaneously--changing forever the world of journalism. One, was the explosive growth of programing hours that needed to be filled. The other, was that the cost of equipment necessary to produce that programming was falling.
Until very recently, it has quite expensive to make television programming. A hierarchy of executives made decisions that fielded crews of producers, camera people, and reporters. The cost of travel, pre and post production time, and the equipment necessary to produce programs was prohibitively high.
Then, along came digital. It was possible to take a $5,000 digital camera, instead of a $60,000 Betacam, and shoot tape that looked even better than the previous network standard. You could take a laptop and a software program and duplicate what essentially would cost a TV station several hundred-thousand dollars, for less than $10,000.
At the same time, still photojournalists who were watching in terror as their publications continued to shrink, started to look for alternative ways to tell their stories. They began to realize that if the glory days of photojournalism were ever going to come back, it would not be on the printed page, but rather on the screens of cable, satellite, and the World Wide Web. Further, these new outlets would be looking for the kind of singular vision, individual acts of storytelling that the journalists had always practiced--it was just a matter of learning new skills.
The first Platypus Workshop resulted from
the need to teach these new skills. Following two intensive weeks of training
in conjunction with the National Press Photographers Association TV News
Workshop, 30 still photojournalists, some of whom are among the most famous
in the world, started to take their place in the ranks of multimedia journalism.
Their stories have been seen in the past few months on such television
programs as ABC's Nightline and on the Web--in the pages of The Digital
THE EFFECT ON EXISTING MEDIA
One of the paradoxes of the journalism world is, for a medium that places so much emphasis on being on top of things, they have a tendency to stick their heads in the sand when it comes to basic changes in their own operating procedures.
Even though most major magazines and newspapers today have websites, the reality is that they are considered "bastard children" by the editors and publishers of the print side. Working with print editors is often a contentious role for the online editor. In some cases, the online version is regarded with suspicion if not outright hostility. God forbid, if the online version should actually display a story better. Overworked and underpaid, online editors find themselves struggling in dark corporate corridors. There is almost no money available for funding of original content, while huge amounts of money are spent for rent of office space and executive salaries.
The establishment of "megasites" such as MSNBC Online, CNN Online, and Time Warner's late "Pathfinder," has been problematic for both the corporate owners and the employees. As these sites have designed their pages for advertising, they early on fell into the trap of "banner" advertising. At a time when the Internet was still largely text-driven, a banner atop or alongside a page seemed a logical way to bring in dollars. However, both the megasites and advertising agencies fell into a trap by using these models. As the Web has changed to a graphics (and eventually video) driven medium, the established layout of banners clutters pages, slows down loading, and lessens impact for advertisers. The result is tiresome to the viewer, and inhibits audience growth.
As a result, the new reality is that the people who are probably most ill-equipped to take on the challenges of the new media, are in fact the dominant players in existing media. Their hierarchies are entrenched in the old ways of doing business. Although there are well intentioned CEO's who understand the challenges as opportunities, they find their hands are largely tied by their own organizational infrastructure, and can only sit and wait for people to take their buy-outs.
What all this means is now there are enormous
opportunities for journalists and artists to create their own publications,
and even broadcast outlets online. Growth and acceptance of these programs
will be determined largely by quality of content - a concept that is in
increasingly short supply at major media corporations. The Web viewer will
not be able to determine whether a web publication is pushed out by a few
people working in a basement, or a Fortune 500 Company. Both will have
equal access to advertising dollars.
THE CHALLENGE TO MEDIA
The concept of content as king rests to a large degree on acceptance by the audience, and the loyalty developed by that audience for the program or publication. A recent Editor and Publisher article polled newspaper publishers to determine the relative asset base of their papers. Less than 20% of value was connected with the Real Estate, the Building, the Presses, the Trucks, Cars, Vans, etc. "Goodwill"--the reputation of the newspaper among its audience and advertisers--was 80%. Online publishing offers individuals great opportunity to build goodwill bases at minimum cost.
Dan Okrent, former head of New Media for Time Inc., recently pointed out that Time Inc. had spent $900,000,000 in 1997 for paper and postage--all to get the magazines to the reader. In an online environment, a publisher can save all that money. This is an economic imperative that will eventually drive print to the Web.
A key aspect of "goodwill" maintenance is the credibility of the online publication. It is essential that individual journalists regard the Web as the ultimate vehicle for honest, fair and thorough content. Those sites that can demonstrate to their audience that their content is dependable, will move to the fore. The same standards that have traditionally been observed in print and broadcast must be transferred to even the smallest websites.
This is the quality that has distinguished good journalists from the hacks, the good publications from the trash. In the new environment, even more responsibility will be placed on new media journalists.
A key advantage of web publishing or cable programing from conventional publishing and broadcast, is that it is no longer necessary to have content dictated by the lowest common denominator of a vast audience. Eventually, major media companies will start to "aggregate" websites, picking the best and helping them to find common advertiser dollars.
Whether it is in text, photography, or video-driven journalism, the Digital Age has provided an extraordinary leveler in cost of opportunity. Since the invention of the printing press, writing has produced a rich environment for the masses. Thousands upon thousands of people, writing with pen by candlelight, then clunky old typewriters with gooseneck lamps bent over to light the page, up to today's writers, their faces illuminated by the glow from a computer screen, have always been able to take ideas and fashion them into words. The best of those, have been recognized, found markets, and have become the Robert Louis Stevenson's, the Emily Dickenson's, the John Updike's, and the Ernest Hemingway's.
Similarly, when photojournalism was in full flower, thousands of people with their Nikons, Canons, and Leicas, snapped away at those things that interested them, and again, the best rose to the top, giving us the Eisenstaedt's, the Eugene Smith's, and the Turnley's.
The area that has always been considered off-limits is television, because of the cost of equipment and systems. That last bastion is now crumbling. We already see people around the world, from every walk of life, using inexpensive digital video cameras. Some of these people are beginning to create new and exciting programming. In many cases, using their laptops and software programs such as Apple's Final Cut Pro or Adobe's Premiere, to produce their own online television.
One challenge to existing media, is to be able to recognize those who are producing this new journalism, and help them--whether financially, or with advice and moral support. The journalists, in turn, will help the fading giants find new vitality, with an infusion of new content.
One of the least understood characteristics of new media, by the online players, is the fundamental paradigm shift in how content is to be treated. In the world of print and broadcasting, you are as good as your latest "exclusive." Sometimes these stories are assembled in utter secrecy, lest the competition find out what is being planned, as though the ultimate weapon were being created. In this new world, it is "brand" that is paramount. To spread your brand across as wide a spectrum as possible, you need to share your content, as long as the brand is displayed. Advertising and sponsorship is affixed to the brand, not to a set of printed pages.
In this model, the new online journalists become partners with the major media corporations, not competitors.
The infinite space available in new media, means that many more communities will find their voices. Freed from the tyranny of print costs, and the restrictions of the 24-hour broadcast day, space and time will expand to accommodate the words, pictures and television of even the smallest community groups.
The challenge to media is to truly comprehend these changes, and expand their vision to match the new possibilities.
THIS EDITORIAL IS COPYRIGHTED BY DIRCK HALSTEAD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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