The Digital Journalist

The Platypus Papers
Part Four

by Dirck Halstead

"When in 1798 the skin of yet another mysterious animal was sent from Australia to London, the zoologists were on guard. As it was probably the most fantastic ever seen in the west., the obvious conclusion was that it must be an outrageous fraud, and used every means possible to uncover the hoax. On this occasion though, they were pleased to find that they had a rare and priceless species on their hands, which would eventually herald a scientific revolution."
(Anthony Smith)

In the early 1930s, a young black photographer began to take pictures for a department store in Kansas. He proved he had a unique vision, and made his way north to New York, where he eventually became a staff photographer for LIFE magazine. His name was Gordon Parks.

Over the next decades, he became one of the most famous photojournalists in the world . Yet in the mid 1960s, at the top of his craft, he found that he was unfulfilled. On the suggestion of a friend, he tried to write a few pages about his life as a young man, and was astonished when overnight, a publisher came forth to print his book.

The book, The Learning Tree became a critical success, and he was quickly offered a large payment for the rights to make a movie. With no experience in Hollywood, he refused to sell the property unless he could direct the feature film himself. Not only was the movie a success, but he then went on to directing other films, and when he found that he was dissatisfied with the music for one of his films, he decided to write the score himself.

As I write this, Gordon Parks is in London, directing his latest movie. Now in his eighties, his work continues to grow and change, moving into new combinations of vision and sound.

Lest you think the Platypus is a new sighting, the reality is that they have been around for quite a while, we just have to learn how to look for them.

So, where is all this going ? In this essay, I will offer some suggestions. These are only my opinions, based on what I see and hear around me, but the evidence is that something major is happening in our profession.

While the heads of major corporations were spending millions of dollars in the late eighties and early nineties trying to conjure up "the communications superhighway", unnoticed, college students around the world were jury rigging computer networks that would eventually give birth to the world wide web. In its early form, the "net" was designed for text, but in a short time, with the rapid advance of technology, the words gave way to graphics.

There is no doubt that today, the web has become a graphic "publication."

The biggest single obstacles that the web faces in becoming a dominant means of presenting information to the public are bandwidth and money.

Bandwidth simply is enlarging "the pipe" that funnels information into your computer to allow faster delivery of photographs, audio, and video. Today, despite 38.8 modems the time it takes to download this material makes it for the most part impractical for the average user. The solutions commonly pointed to is to use your tv cable instead of the phone line to deliver this data, in which case the speed of delivery could be increased to the point where photos and video could be accessed in near "real time." Fiber optic cable is also a possibility that many local governments are urging their cable providers to install. However, the cost of rewiring the country is daunting to even the largest corporations . . with the questions being asked over and over in boardrooms and congressional committees."Who's going to pay for it?".

The answer may be that just as with publications and broadcasting, it will turn out to be the advertisers. However, before that can happen, there has to a way to quantify and qualify the effectiveness of reaching the consumer. Until now, that solution has proved elusive.

However, last spring, I attended the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, and listened as the heads of major U.S. advertising agencies told pained broadcast executives that "every client now asks us what are we doing for the web?" The agencies pointed out that by nature, advertising on broadcast networks is "shotgun," and not cost-effective when compared to the potential of targeting selected consumers that the web stands to offer.

Early this year, there was a profound new movement taken up by major on-line providers. Rather than using the "interactive" capabilities of the web as the prime concept, now the trend is towards linear delivery in which material would be "forced delivery" to a site, meaning that the designer would use the conventional story telling methods, allowing additional screens to be downloaded while the viewer is reading the first page. This alone, will increase the speed of delivery by a substantial amount. It will allow the story teller to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and most importantly, it will allow the advertiser to use the television model in the placement of personalized commercials. Through the use of this technique, a major revenue stream can be tapped.

In the meantime, breakthroughs in speed of delivery are being made on a nearly daily basis. Set top boxes that will allow digital delivery of video and data to a television or computer, have dropped in cost from 4,000 per unit to one tenth that. In addition, the thinking in the industry now is that the problem of rewiring with fiber optic can be forestalled simply by splitting the the return leg from the consumer to the provider off onto a conventional telephone line. All of this means that broadband is moving ahead faster than even the most optimistic had dared dream.

This leads to the suggestion that by the year 2,000, despite all the problems we see with AOL and other providers, there will be sufficient improvements in delivery to allow the critical "crossover" at which point the web and intercasting will become the major source of information to the home.

So, if this is the case, the next big question is "what are they going to put on it?"

This is where the new breed of journalists come in. At the moment, "content" has been largely forgotten in all this development. Once the web starts pumping its billions of bytes into every home, there is going to be an explosion of demand for product.

The authors of this content will become the stars of this new world...just as the photographers of LIFE were the precursors to stars of 60 Minutes in these last years of this century.

Iin the conclusion of the Platypus Papers, we will try to answer Andrew Tolson's questions of what we will need to learn, and the equipment that we will need to become a "Digital Journalist."


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