Journalism’s future is in global dialogue

Just about 10 years ago, when I was working to present a 29-part serialization in The Philadelphia Inquirer of what would become my book Black Hawk Down, we had some discussions about presenting the story at the same time on the paper’s Web site.

At the time, it seemed like a fairly simple task. To the extent I thought about it at all, I figured it meant we would just display the text of the story each day online, along with the rest of the paper’s offerings. That was when Jennifer Musser (now Jennifer Musser-Metz), a young woman who worked for the online edition, stopped by my desk to ask me what sort of research material and documentation I had for the project.

I had been working on it for years at that point, and had piles of audiotapes, notes, documents, radio transcripts, photos, etc.

“Could you bring them in?” she asked.

I brought in bags of stuff, and Jennifer and the other folks at put together a Web site.

I can brag about this Web site because, other than writing the story and supplying the background material, I had nothing to do with creating it. It blew me away. When I started in the newspaper business, I learned to work on a typewriter with carbon paper, paste pot and scissors. Jennifer’s creation combined text, video, audio, documents, maps, illustrations and a sprawling Q&A feature into something that was more than an amazing presentation — it was a glimpse of journalism’s future. It demonstrated the clear superiority of the Internet over the printing press.

In the case of Black Hawk Down, apart from all the multimedia razzle-dazzle, it opened up a global dialogue with readers, including men who had fought in the battle. They corrected my mistakes, pointed me to better information, and offered to be interviewed, allowing me to improve greatly on the story before it was published as a book in 1999. Mine may have been, thanks to Jennifer, the first book that ever benefited from this new journalistic tool. In a sense, the story was edited by the entire world.

But little has happened in the 10 years since. Surprisingly, the site Jennifer created is still in the vanguard of Internet story presentation.

I wrote recently that I believe newspapers, despite their current hard times, will ultimately survive. I think the print edition will probably endure to some extent, but, without any doubt, the future of daily journalism is digital, not because it is the latest thing, but because it is, quite simply, a far better medium than paper and ink.

Right now, the technology is still in its infancy. Video and audio links have improved a great deal in the last decade, but remain primitive, with annoying download delays for all but the fastest computers, and often with herky-jerky quality on screens no bigger than those on iPods. Most newspaper sites are little more than Web editions of the paper product, and more difficult to use. They are a little bit like early movies, in which the director essentially filmed a stage play. But because journalism itself has value, eventually publishers will work out the profit problem. The multimedia aspect will grow seamless. What will news sites look like then?

“A short answer is that they will probably look like a lot of things; there won’t be one single form,” said Don Kimelman, a former Inquirer editor who today, as a managing director for the Pew Charitable Trusts, has overseen initiatives to explore this very question. “There is a lot of experimentation right now, but the old media still govern the new media. The best sites are run by the traditional dominant news organizations. While everyone recognizes that the future of news is online, for now the advertising money is considered insufficient for the real pioneers to take the plunge.”

When they do, I suspect news sites will open with a bang, displaying the most powerful video image of the day in the way editors have long chosen the day’s most dramatic or informative still images to anchor Page One. In that sense, they will look more like TV news than a newspaper — with this difference: All these production values will lead into detailed written stories.

Unlike with TV and radio, which are stuck with people reading out loud, customers of digital journalism will get the best of all media forms. They can wade into any story that attracts them as deeply as they wish. Readers will gravitate toward prose, while those who prefer sounds and images can simply watch and listen. The digital report will not be locked into the strict chronological format of TV and radio news, but will be much more like a newspaper, which permits you to begin with sports and weather, if you wish, or go right to the editorials or comics.

The old idea of reporters covering a beat might well be replaced by an online reporter/editor who oversees a subject area driven by the entire community — a constantly updating police blotter or transit map, for instance. Digital thinkers refer to this as a pro-am (professional-amateur) model, in which the reporter is corrected, tipped off and guided — just as I was with “Black Hawk Down” — by the expertise of his readers. Blog sites offer a rudimentary working model.

Old fuddy-duddies like me will still want their news on paper and in the driveway every morning, but we won’t live forever, and already two of the biggest newspapers in America — the New York Times and the Washington Post — are reaching more customers online than in print.

I advise young journalists today to learn how to use a digital video camera, and to get used to working in multimedia. Nearly every story I write today for the Atlantic, and every book I undertake, I do in conjunction with a documentary filmmaker. This results in a documentary version of the story, which can be marketed to TV but also compiles the audio and video needed to produce a Web presentation comparable to Jennifer Musser-Metz’s “Black Hawk Down” project.

If a dinosaur like me can do that, just think what a creative young mind raised in front of a video screen and keyboard will come up with. I literally can’t imagine.



Mark Bowden is author of Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam. He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer; e-mail: mbowden AT phillynews dot com.