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Thursday, August 6, 2009
Tech Tools

How new technologies will shape newsgathering and consumption

By Karon Speckman

Technology continues to shape journalism, from the rotary press, the telegraph, radio and TV, to the Web and Twitter.

Five journalists researched new journalism shapes during the 2008-09 academic year at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute. Part of the institute’s Fellows Program, the journalists explored how the new technologies aid news outlets in news gathering and dissemination and how the technology can be profitable.

The researchers weren’t interested in just technology, but also in helping journalists produce quality journalism, said Jane Stevens, one of the fellows and director of online strategies for the World Company.

“Be open because this medium is amazing, and we can do better reporting and serve our communities better than we’ve ever been able to with any other medium,” Stevens said. “I believe that is what being a journalist is all about.”

The research projects are highlighted below and on the institute’s Web site, rji.missouri.edu.


E-READERS

What if newspaper subscribers could get highly mobile print content without getting ink on their hands? Roger Fidler, RJI program director for digital publishing who worked with e-readers for his RJI fellows project, said e-readers will be newspapers’ new shape.

“I’m not a believer that newspapers will disappear,” Fidler said. “But more and more they are going to go digital, mostly for economical reasons but also because increasingly people want them in digital form.”

An e-reader is a wireless panel that readers hold like a book. Fidler said an e-reader has the advantage of simplicity, and the portrait orientation is more conducive to reading. Advertising also can be more print-like and less intrusive than on the Web.

“By taking the Web component out of reading, consumers can be exposed to articles that may not be in their interest area but that turn out very interesting, just like readers do when browsing the paper version of The New York Times,” he said.

Although other companies make e-readers, Amazon’s Kindle is the most popular. The new Kindle DX moved to letter-size with a 9.7-inch diagonal screen that can be switched from portrait to landscape and has a text-to-speech component like the earlier version. Other e-reader companies working on larger screens are FirstPaper, Plastic Logic and iRex.

“It’s a pretty good sign that people are willing to pay for conveniently delivered packages of information,” Fidler said, adding that 45 percent of households still have printed newspapers, and many young people do read newspapers

Newspapers get 30 percent of the costs from a Kindle subscription, but Amazon pays all the wireless services and marketing fees. Even though circulation numbers are increasing and that 30 percent is profit for the news organizations, e-readers won’t support newspapers, Fidler said.

He cautioned that before advertising becomes more viable, e-readers will have to attract more users, have color displays for advertising and increase the size of display to letter-size.

INFORMATION VALET

A daily newspaper was traditionally a mix of its own reporters, syndicated columnists, wire services, local movie reviewers and ads, all in one convenient product.

“One of the challenges, historically, is providing a package of information of what consumers needed to get through their daily life,” said Bill Densmore, an RJI fellow and now an RJI consultant.

The information valet concept is a newer answer to that need for one-stop convenience. An information valet has something of value that you entrust to one “valet.” So, for example, a local news organization might be the consumers’ “parking garage” and charge them a basic monthly fee for membership to get its information and other news organizations’ information. One advantage would be no multiple logins. The valet would charge for a basic service. However, premium information from another news organization might cost more than the basic amount, so that premium information fee would be added to your monthly fee.

Taking the step to reality, Densmore is the co-founder of CircLabs, which will produce an information valet or personalized-news-syndication product called Circulate this year. Circulate will not only provide readers for news organizations but also deliver advertising based on readers’ expressed interests. Which news organizations will be part of the project hasn’t been completely negotiated, Densmore said. And how advertising will be available is still being developed.


NICHE NEWS SITES (AKA WEB SHELLS)

Jane Stevens started writing about the Web shell concept in 2002. She used the metaphor of an oyster shell because it contains all the necessary parts to make it whole: gills, heart, mouth, etc. Thus, a Web shell (a home page) is a niche news site with context, information, resources, databases, coverage and vibrant personal networks.

Web shells can be topical or geographic. Topical ones focus on business, technology, sports and entertainment. For example, maxpreps.com is a Web shell that covers high school sports. Although the shells have been mostly topical, they also can be geographic based. Stevens recommends westseattleblog.com as a good geographic model.

Shells are very financially feasible, she said. Marketwatch.com originated on the Web rather than print, and Dow Jones bought it two years ago for $519 million. CBS purchased maxpreps.com.

Web shells are attracting older journalists who understand this new medium and are willing to make the transition and also young journalists who understand what being a journalist means in this medium.

“It has hurt journalists not to understand how their business worked,” Stevens said. “People picked up newspapers as much for the ads as for what the news is.”

The ads on Web shells add value because consumers see the ads as trusted sources and part of the community as well. Consumers also can leave advertiser comments, which Stevens said is a “much more collaborative approach to covering a community and much more transparent.”

For a working list, see jurnos.wikispaces.com/Organizations


MULTI-PLATFORM NEWSROOM

Although the technology isn’t new, journalists are learning how to harness it better in their newsgathering, said Jen Reeves, one of the fellows and associate professor at the University of Missouri.

The tools of blogs, social networks, cell phones and Twitter are changing newsgathering because journalists are sharing with their audience rather than just speaking or presenting. Reeves described a multi-platform newsroom as assessing what the audience wants and consumes and then determining how to deliver that product.

An election-night webcast at RJI showed this concept in action as journalists worked across local platforms: the School of Journalism’s NBC affiliate, its NPR affiliate and its print and digital morning newspaper. About 200 citizens joined the webcast and participated in town hall-style discussions on the webcast. Having the citizens watch media coverage removed a barrier between newsroom and audience.

“I think journalists may not realize that the pedestal of newsrooms is gone,” Reeves said. “And once you learn the pedestal is gone, you learn to have a relationship with your readers, your audience. Journalists have learned that the average person can play a huge role in helping gather information and offering additional context,” she said.

Journalists need to think about using more platforms, Reeves said.

“Multi-platform means thinking of each individual story or market, identifying all the platforms available and deciding which platform is available to use,” she said. “That’s hard because you need to be aware of what your audience wants, where they are and how they consume.”

CONTEXT-RICH WEB SITES

Matt Thompson researched context-rich Web pages that cover topics on a national or local level. For example, a niche publication could discuss the financial crisis or a local issue such as a city’s growth and development. Thompson created ColumbiaTomorrow.com, which covers complex subjects such as zoning and transportation development districts, costs and benefits of growth, and preservation of Columbia, Mo.’s natural resources, in addition to inviting readers’ involvement in discussion topics. More information is available on newsless.org.


Karon Speckman teaches journalism at the University of Missouri.

E-mail her at speckmank@missouri.edu.

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