Shining Through the Gloom  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   February/March 2009

Shining Through the Gloom   

Traditional news organizations are producing excellent multimedia work.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


With the news media in a funk of low self-esteem and paranoia, celebrations of good work seem to come less often and to feel a little flat. So what if newspaper journalists produced a strong investigative series? The same reporters might be laid off next month. Who cares if online viewership is growing? Ad revenue is shrinking with the economy or being sucked up by Google. It's both easy and dangerous to fall into that train of thought. Now more than ever, it's important to take pride in the innovative work that somehow continues to get done.

In August, I spent three days at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, judging hundreds of entries in the Society for News Design's annual Best of Multimedia Design contest. The judges were warned that the process would be exhausting, but for someone whose days are consumed with budgets and business plans, the experience was refreshing and uplifting. Two aspects of it have stayed with me:

First, the bar is definitely rising for multimedia storytelling. In this contest alone, dozens of entries stood out for their design quality, user engagement, news value and appropriate choice of media for the information being conveyed. Two of the winners dealt with the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in August 2007:

Minneapolis' StarTribune.com won an Award of Excellence for a multimedia presentation centered around an aerial photograph of the collapsed freeway, cluttered with wrecked and abandoned vehicles. Each vehicle is marked with a number which, when clicked, will display a profile of the passengers, whether they survived, and how they came to be on the bridge at the fateful moment. It would be hard to come up with a better way of showing the scale of the disaster and the individual human stories at the same time.

In response to nationwide concerns about bridge safety following the Minneapolis incident, msnbc.com produced an interactive map that allows users to check the safety of the bridges they cross every day. After the user enters his or her starting point and destination, the application maps the route, using icons to indicate each bridge that will be crossed along the way. Moving the mouse over a bridge reveals several pieces of information about it, including its most recent inspection date, the evaluation it was given, when it was constructed and how many vehicles cross it each day.

This project represents a growing form of digital journalism that lets the user manipulate data to create his or her own story. It is also proof that multimedia journalists know how to do legwork; the MSNBC team went to great lengths to acquire and parse a patchwork of government reports, and double-check their conclusions with state and federal agencies. MSNBC's Bridge Tracker won the Society for News Design's Silver Award.

There were many entries that reported on the Presidential race, and all were significant improvements on interactive elections presentations from four or even two years ago. NYTimes.com created several of those, including a Silver Award-winning application that let viewers compare primary votes for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama using criteria such as race, gender, age and income.

NYTimes.com also scored the only two Gold Awards in the competition: one for a breaking news infographic explaining the Manhattan crane collapse in May and the other for an incredible multimedia journal of a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro.

To see some of the digital talent and creativity that exists inside traditional media companies, browse all of the 2007-2008 SND Best of Multimedia Design winners at: update.snd.org/update/entry/best-of-multimedia-design/.

The second striking aspect of the judging experience was meeting some of the students in UNC's multimedia program and observing the environment in which they work. If UNC is representative of other top journalism schools, as it seems to be, then academia is finally catching up with the needs and realities of online news operations. Students are learning the right things Flash design, usability, multimedia storytelling with equipment and software they will encounter in the workplace. (If anything, some of these students might be over-prepared for newsrooms that haven't updated their computers in several years.)

The students themselves also seem to be more aware of the marketplace than they used to be. Many of them truly desire to go to work for a newspaper or TV Web site, but they're likely to have backup plans involving marketing, PR or commercial design. The skills they're learning would easily transfer. One might wonder why anybody would choose a career in journalism at a time like this but thank goodness some of these bright students have made that choice, or media companies would really be in trouble.

True, none of this will fix our broken business models. Probably nothing can save today's media companies from several more years of drastic and painful cuts. But if there is a solution out there, this type of training and talent will surely be part of it.

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