Tim's Qs, my As on online journalism

Ever-industrious Tim Harrower, working on a new edition of one of his textbooks, recently asked me some questions about journalism, online and the intersection of the two. My replies follow. I know he asked others in online media, so I hope maybe some of those folks will share what they said, too — start of a new meme, perhaps?

On to the Q&A:

Question: Most journalism students are intimidated when professors tell them that, if they want to become reporters, they'll have to write stories, shoot video, narrate slideshows, record podcasts and create Flash graphics. But really, how realistic is that?

Answer: No one should expect the same journalist to produce Pulitzer-quality stories, NPPA-quality photos, Emmy-quality video, SND-quality motion graphics and Murrow-quality podcast interviews. But, with the possible exception of motion graphics, the basics of these activities are easy enough to grasp.

Media companies can no longer afford the degree of specialization they used to provide in covering the news. The once-routine notion of sending a reporter for an interview and a photographer, separately, to shoot a mugshot seems so wasteful now. The same holds for a broadcast newsroom sending a satellite truck, on-air reporter, videographer and sometimes a producer out for spot news. These days, “mojos” — mobile journalists — do the best they can alone covering spot news for many local TV stations.

I liken this new generalism to NASA sending astronauts to the moon. In those days, as we all know, the best we could do was two people at a time, covering the whole moon — certainly a hostile environment for information gathering. Also remember that most astronauts in those days had highly specialized backgrounds as pilots, not geologists, biologists, miners, photographers or moon buggy drivers. Nevertheless, they did the best they could at all those things, because they were the only ones on the scene.

Journalists must go out prepared to gather the “moon rocks” — story elements — with all the tools to write, shoot, record, even sketch. We're now observers of events and curators of information all rolled up.

Q. In print, a standard story is a 15-inch block of text, MAYBE with a photo. How is that standard changing for stories you produce for the Web?

A. The notion of a “standard” story is dissolving before our eyes. Yes, our online architectures and content management systems still treat “articles” as the most granular units of a news site — but an “article” online can be a single element of data, or a search form, or a video clip with metadata for search optimization, or a blog post, or a user-controlled photo gallery, or a package with a more typical prose story that links off to any of those other elements.

If we have done our jobs observing events and gathering information, we should have the raw materials at our disposal to tell stories verbally, visually or facilitated by the user's interactions with data. Add in users' ability to comment and react, and stories keep telling themselves, especially if we remain alert enough to follow up on the things site users tell us.

Q. When it comes to producing good online content — say, a story with a smart mix of text, links and a few multimedia extras — how important is collaboration? Or to ask another way: Can you create effective online content WITHOUT collaboration and planning?

A. Collaboration before, during and after information gathering makes stories noticeably better online — maybe more so than good planning ever did in print. If we're bold enough to send out journalists with all these multimedia tools, but too tame to work as teams to edit and package what comes back, we lose opportunities to engage online users more deeply. In fact, collaboration extends to the users themselves, if we are smart enough to engage them in discussions in and around stories.

Q. In many online newsrooms, reporters, photographers and online staffers just don't collaborate productively. Why? What's the solution?

A. Believe it or not, the financial pressure on our industry may force our hand on this one, by making silos and specialization too expensive to justify. If even the largest newsrooms become staffed with generalists instead of specialists, walls come down among functions, then among people. The old assembly-line flow of assignments and copy becomes cleaner groupings of hunter-gatherers and editors-curators-auteurs. Those groups must collaborate to tell a story effectively.

Q. If you could generalize — to give students a rough idea — how much time is spent planning and producing a complex multimedia project? (And why do things take that long?)

A. In general, journalists' story planning can fill as much time as they have, and that trait can be marvelous or dangerous. For example, if you intend to prepare a huge coverage initiative for the Olympics, or a political convention or election, those are events you know about months or years ahead of time. They also offer your news organization nothing exclusive vs. any other.

In those cases, I believe, the planning effort and the coverage work itself almost always overshoots the results, from an audience engagement, traffic or business standpoint.

Long-term planning for investigative reporting can take from a few weeks to months, though the differential to tell the story online may not be that far from planning for print. That depends on the nature of the investigation: if, for example, it involves public records databases, online planners may need hours or days to gather the databases and program them to be searchable online.

The best-planned packages I see online tend to be excellence in the line of fire: planning on the fly to cover big breaking news with more than just a quick alert and a writethru in text a couple of hours later. Those stories, naturally, don't give you days or weeks to plan, but journalists' greatest skill is thinking on their feet.

Q. In fact, what's the most ambitious online project you've worked on — and how long did that project take?

A. The most ambitious I worked on directly was aftermath coverage of 9/11 for Belo's 18 newspaper and TV sites. We had teams distributed across four time zones, covering local and global angles all on deadline in the shocking aftermath of the most pivotal event of the last 15 years. You might think we were just reacting, but in fact I have never seen better planning and strategy, whether in the moment or with months to think it over.

We covered the story, added perspective, let people open up and express their feelings, and carried the tone and structure of that coverage through the initial U.S. response in Afghanistan and the run-up to the Iraq War — many months of heightened effort.

Q. What's the one piece of advice you'd give to a beginning online journalist?

A. Be flexible and nimble — mentally, physically and emotionally. You will need it. Fortunately, a starting journalist's salary will hardly allow you to gain much weight.