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Home > Publications > Quill > The ever-evolving newspaper

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Friday, December 1, 2006
The ever-evolving newspaper

companies must embrace new technology to be viable in today’s media

By Michele Holtkamp Frye

Your kids get the latest hype about their world by text messaging their friends, but your neighbor still relies on an ink-on-paper newspaper to bring his news to his doorstep.

Some go to the Internet only to check e-mail or read about a specific topic, while others watch every video posted to a news site.

News organizations, to survive, must understand these behaviors and be willing to adapt and distribute information in a variety of formats. But they must be smart about what new technologies they explore and how they implement them, multimedia managers and experts said. News outlets must recognize that there may be some value in text messaging or digital publishing that only 1,000 people use.

“The reality is that for the future, there won’t be any single product that will capture a large audience,” said Roger Fidler, the director of technology initiatives for the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism.

“To survive, it means that newspapers need to be able to use a number of devices,” said Fidler, who founded and directed the first computer news graphics service, Knight Ridder/Tribune Graphics Service, the industry’s first global intranet called Press Link and later a digital publishing information design laboratory for Knight Ridder.

Fidler provides the following guidelines when considering new electronic delivery methods: Do your homework. Don’t jump on the latest trends being hyped at the moment. Look for the business model behind the idea. Cool technologies aren’t useful if there is no way to pay for it or readers don’t notice it.

Newspapers tend to fall in the trap of thinking that they must provide instant news, and Fidler resists the thinking that a newspaper is already a day old by the time it’s in readers’ hands. Grabbing the quickest information and publishing it instantly isn’t the right answer, he said. They must provide a context for the news and greater depth.

Those trademarks can’t fall to the side in the rush to use new technologies, he said.

Newspapers are dealing with increasing fragmentation of readership, but they’ve been coping with that since the 1960s, Fidler said. With the increasing competition for time being one of the greatest challenges, newspapers will never get back to the way they were.

Instead of pushing to maintain profit margins at outrageous percentages, Fidler recommends that organizations demand less profit and put more money into developing an array of products that newspapers will need to survive.

If newspapers don’t do this, they’ll see entrepreneurs finding ways to eat their lunch, he warns.

What some are trying

Getting important breaking news to readers on their cell phones happened by chance at the Times of Northwest Indiana.

The Valparaiso Police Department approached the newspaper looking for a sponsor for a text messaging system, and the newspaper embraced it as a way to get information out to those who want it, said Donald Asher, the deputy executive editor.

The police department sends most of the alerts, such as road closures or sex offender alerts, Asher said.

The newspaper controls its own alert, however.

Asher anticipates conflicts eventually arising because the police department and the newspaper have different missions, but none have yet.

The newsroom hasn’t sent many text messages and is trying to figure out how to maximize the technology while still being sensitive to those who are signed up to receive the messages.

In September, the newspaper sent out a text message about a commuter train hitting a freight train on a Sunday morning. The message drove readers to the next day’s print edition, Asher said.

The text message system is in its infancy, but Asher said there are opportunities to use it to let readers know game scores, for example.

Technology can also be used to give readers more ownership in the newspaper.

During a previous election, the Bakersfield Californian gave each candidate a blog on the newspaper’s Web site. Readers could go online and ask candidates questions directly. The best were also included in the print newspaper, said Logan Molen, vice president of interactive media at the 73,000-circulation daily newspaper.

“It was surprising because some of the questions that the public asked were probably questions that we may not have normally asked, so we got some interesting answers,” said Molen, who is the previous managing editor. “It was a new layer of civic conversation that was rewarding.”

For example, a couple of candidates in the messy sheriff’s race were asked about their infidelity.

“Those are probably questions we wouldn’t have asked, but the public was into it,” Molen said.

The candidates admitted their mistakes, by the way.

Another candidate answered a reader’s question about whether he had ever committed a crime.

Reprinting some of the Web-first content in the newspaper brings a whole new dimension to news coverage, Molen said, making it lively and conversational.

It also drives readers back and forth between the Web and the newspaper.

“Online, it’s telling people we want them to be part of the conversation and we are giving you these tools to bring you one step closer to the sources. We want you to share in the mission of the site and our products,” Molen said.

Besides the election coverage, the newspaper has e-mail newsletters that include daily headlines, oil prices and news alerts. Alerts are sent for news or prep football scores.

The newspaper also produces an automated mobile version of the Web site with much less content, Molen said.

The features haven’t brought an increase in print subscribers, but circulation erosion is not nearly as great as it has been at other newspapers, Molen said.

Tom Priddy, the online producer at the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina, knows the community is interested in prep football. The newspaper does six live audio feeds from prep football games in the area and has video interviews with coaches.

Those features get a lot of response, he said.

Priddy traveled with the Byrnes Rebels football team from a local high school to a three-night trip to Cincinnati to compete in the Kirk Herbstreit Ohio vs. USA Challenge with the goal of telling the story of the trip, which was likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of the student athletes.

He collected natural sound, photographed every step, wrote news stories, posted two photo galleries every day and wrote blogs. The game was also shown live on the Web. In the end, Priddy produced a nearly eight-minute audio slideshow complete with sound from team meetings, photos from every step and music.

Audio slideshows are a natural progression from what’s been done for years in the newspaper business, such as compiling photo pages and recording interviews, Priddy said.

For example, newspapers already gather photos and information about upcoming events, movies, restaurant features and other entertainment.

The Herald-Journal took the next step to get audio about the information from the entertainment editor and use the photos to make an audio slideshow.

How to approach it

To truly invest in expanding beyond the print product, newspapers have to stop some of their old practices.

At the Bakersfield newspaper, editors decided to get serious about multimedia, even though no money was allotted for additional employees. Editors evaluated the beats and made tough decisions about what to stop covering and created a department-head-level position for the new products. That sent a strong message that Web was going to be a priority, Molen said.

The newspaper created a Web editor who updates the site with overnight news and blogs about the hot topics of the days. Those positions were carved out of a print-focused staff, Molen said.

“Say no to something. Question something if the readership and impact isn’t there and just stop doing it. I think editors would be surprised at how little outcry there is for things they think are probably sacred,” Molen said.

Besides Web, e-mail and cell phone delivery of news, digital publishing devices are being developed that will ultimately become a true alternative to ink-on-paper publishing in the first 10 to 20 years of this century, Fidler said.

He has developed an electronic media print, known as eMprint, that is a hybrid digital publishing format that marries the characteristics of the print product with the interaction of the Web.

The products are advanced PDFs that can be read online or offline on nearly all contemporary computers using Adobe Reader.

As companies develop lightweight reading devices, digital publishing will take hold, Fidler said.

When considering new technologies, Fidler’s approach to digital publishing applies. He proceeds by thinking about what the public would read and be comfortable with, rather than thinking first about what technologies would be really cool.

Other guiding factors should be considered.

Newspapers are frustrated, Fidler said, because everyone has the newest and latest technology that we have to try.

Newsrooms can’t do everything. If they try, they’ll wear out their staff.

It’s an exciting time, but finding enough time to explore new technologies and meet expectations is tough, he said.

At smaller news organizations, start small with an audio slideshow on a topic that the newspaper is already working on. Search for a project that would appeal to the community, such as prep sports, golf or whatever is popular, Priddy said.

If reporters and photographers are already conducting interviews and shooting photos, the audio slideshow is under way.

“Anybody can do it,” Priddy said. “It’s really not something that requires a lot of training. It just requires a different way of telling a story. It just requires a commitment to jump in and give it a try.”

Pick a project that sets a mood or is entertaining, informative or visually appealing, Priddy said.

When considering any new technologies, the first question to answer is whether it will build audience, said Chris Maikisch, new media manager at the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

“That’s the first thing. We’re famous for ‘ooh, will this make us money?’ and absolutely, we have to make money. But in so many cases we’re chasing a dollar and not really thinking if that makes the best use of the technology,” Maikisch said.

If the audience is growing, then advertisers will want to get their message in the product, therefore increasing revenue, Maikisch said.

Test the market. Ask people what technologies they use. Listen.

Sure, you might see kids text messaging at the mall, but the question is whether they want text messages from the newspaper.

Break it down, Molen said.

Consider whether parents are getting increasingly comfortable with text messaging because they are communicating with their children, he said.

“One of the challenges with technology is that everything is cool, but you need to find a common denominator and stick with technology that is kind of middle of the road,” Molen said.

Include technology experts in the conversations, but include those at the other end of the spectrum who are probably closer to the average consumer, he said.

Bakersfield hasn’t done a lot of in-depth multimedia projects that take a lot of time and effort to build. While that work is important, the newspaper is starting with what Molen called low-hanging fruit that is easier to produce, rather than spending two months on something that might get minimal traffic.

Don’t hesitate to swallow your pride when a new feature isn’t working. Rely on the metrics of the Web that show how many readers visited a certain feature. But ask yourself if it was promoted appropriately too, Molen said.

“Is this a true picture of if readers care about this subject?” Molen said. “If you go through all that and nobody is looking, swallow your pride and move on.”

Get the newsroom on board

At Bakersfield, new employees are hired to be journalists, not print reporters. They are expected to write Web bulletins and shoot audio and video. They’re also told they may be working on some new technology that is just around the corner.

“We’re telling our journalists that the world is changing and we need to change with our market,” Molen said.

That doesn’t mean that the time and energy spent honing the craft of storytelling is for naught. The newspaper still values the written word.

“One thing we consistently say is that print is not dead, it’s just evolving,” Molen said. “There is going to be a print product for years and years to come.”

Molen envisions a print product that has a long story form with deep analysis on local issues. That kind of content isn’t friendly online, on the phone, in a podcast or in video.

“There will be an audience there for people who appreciate long-form journalism at the local level,” Molen said.

Priddy’s job at the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina is to produce content, such as photos, audio slide shows, video and blogs, that are unique to the Web.

To do it, he needs reporters and photographers to be more aware of what they can do on a regular basis as they cover stories to add another dimension to the coverage.

In some cases, it doesn’t require much of a shift. Photographers are used to shooting dozens of photos, but just suggesting a few for the print product. Now, Priddy takes the rest.

Reporters routinely record interviews; now Priddy wants the interviews and what he calls natural sound that also tells the story.

“We like to work it right into their normal process of newsgathering,” he said.

Priddy uses the newspaper’s story tracker system to peruse the week’s assignments and talk to reporters and photographers who have assignments that look inviting for multimedia coverage.

“When people see what we do with their work they are pretty enthusiastic about it,” he said.

Video: start small

Adding photos to a story on the Web generally increases that piece’s audience, said Maikisch of the News-Journal. The same thing happens when video is added.

To sell the newsroom on video, he recommends adding footage to a story, then comparing the page views to other typical stories without video.

“If that audience difference doesn’t sell the newsroom, then with all due respect, you need a new editor,” Maikisch said. “His job is to grow audience by growing organic content out of the newsroom.”

At Bakersfield, reporters carry $300 Cybershot cameras that capture lo-fi video but is better than you might think, Molen said.

The downside to video is that most stories don’t have video angles.

News consumers expect Web or digital publishing videos to add to the story or help them understand something visually that they couldn’t with written word, Fidler said.

Plus, some news consumers avoid clicking on videos because they face long delays, files that aren’t compatible with their video players or are too big. If they do wait and sort through the technology, most times it isn’t worth it, Fidler said.

From a newspaper’s perspective, audio clips can be easier to use and better than video, Fidler said.

Although video is harder to break into, Priddy encourages newspapers to start small, such as setting up a tripod and recording candidates’ answers to questions. The video can be split into topics and posted on the Web.

Newspapers should resist thinking that they have to spend a lot of money in a video studio so they can compete with television, Fidler said.

“I would argue that newspapers’ greatest strength is in the written word and in their ability to gather and package information,” he said. “Where papers are making a mistake is believing that the whole world is shifting to video so that we should pay more attention to the quality of videos and less to the quality of the written word.”

Make an audio slideshow for about $120 in startup costs

Source: Tom Priddy, Spartanburg Herald-Journal

Get the right equipment.

* Production tool: Download Soundslides for $40 from This is the production tool you’ll use to put photos and audio together on a timeline without using flash technology.

* Digital recorder: Get a digital recorder that will allow you to download those digital files onto your computer. Suggestion: A DS2 from Olympus costs about $80.

* Audio editing: Download Audacity, a free audio editing software, from

Pick your project

* Start with something reporters are already working on.

* Send a reporter and photographer to a Friday night football game with instructions to take dozens more photographs from behind-the-scenes action and the game.

* The reporter could use the digital recorder to record the coach’s pep talk to players, the sounds from the sidelines, referee’s calls, radio commentary and the sounds of helmets crashing together.

Edit your photos and audio copy

* Photos: Look at all your photos.Determine what story you want to tell, and renumber the photos in that logical sequence. Determine how many seconds you want each photo to appear in the slideshow.

* Audio: Your new audio recorder should come with a CD. Install it and plug the recorder into the computer. Run the software, and copy the audio files to the computer.Convert the audio files into AIFS format using Quick Time. Use Audacity to cut and paste your audio clips, getting them in the order you want and deleting “ums,” “ers” and long pauses. Save it and set it aside.

Put it together

* Find your background or overlay music, if you want it. You can not use copyrighted music off a CD or the radio. Go to or other similar Web sites. Download the clip the same way you’d put music on your iPod. Convert it into AIFS files as well. Bring the music into Audacity software. It allows you to reduce the music volume so natural sounds or speech can be heard over the tunes. Open up Soundslides. Import your photos and the audio track. The audio timeline shows where photos will be displayed along the audio track, so space it out so users will see the right picture at the right time. Soundslides exports a folder that you simply upload to your Web site.

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