TV News in a Postmodern World

The Future is Multimedia

by Terry L. Heaton
Much to the dismay of friends and advisors, I was always much more the grasshopper than the ant when I was young. I played my banjo and sang on TV while my classmates all went off to do their studies. Of course, the draft board didn't have an exemption for banjo players, so I wound up in the service when Lyndon Johnson ordered troop buildups in Vietnam. You'd think I would've learned.

But most of my TV news career was the same way. Settle down? Nah. The adventure of new markets and new challenges drove me. I was a "fixer" news director, not a maintainer. And when I retired in 1998, with no 401k, little cash tucked away, and the business I used to love changing rapidly, I found myself needing to nurture my inner ant and quickly learn some new tricks.

Today, as a grown-up grasshopper-cum-ant, I can clearly see what old Aesop meant when he wrote of the wisdom of preparing for days of necessity. And as I survey the television news landscape these days, I find a lot of floundering grasshoppers (a few ants too!) who are stuck in desperate situations, taking pay cuts with longer hours, and working with no sense of where they're going — probably wondering why they ever got into "the biz" in the first place.

So it is with change, especially the type that pulls the rug right out from underneath you. My heart goes out to these people, and it is to them that this missive is really addressed.

That cliff you're running towards is life, post-broadcasting. The whole idea of mass marketing is being turned on its ear, and the handwriting on the wall is saying you've invested your entire self in a dying industry. As a friend of mine puts it, it's like being drawn to the tar pits by those who enthusiastically shout, "Hey, c'mon. There's food here." Extinction, thy name is mass media.

Ad people are just starting to get it. Kathy Sharpe of Sharpe Partners in New York wrote an op-ed piece for Media Daily News smacking her contemporaries for living in denial. "This is a serious and angry denial involving high-paid executives and threatened litigation, and just about everyone scrambling for cover. But it's still denial, a massive group-think to figure out how to fix the ratings, replace Nielsen, punish Nielsen, or just find out why — specifically — men aren't watching TV anymore."

Ms. Sharpe added that the entire TV ad industry was based on rather elaborate myths and that people are beginning to discover that the foundation isn't just crumbling; it was never there in the first place. But she offers hope through the Internet.

"Despite the best efforts of a few misguided media folks to market it as the proxy for TV, the Internet really is the stand-in for the next generation of TV. It is viewer-controlled, interactive, and thus completely responsive to reality. It is what TV viewers are doing today — already — and in a far more thorough scale."

This post-mass media threat is real not only to broadcasters but print journalists as well, despite the pronouncements of those like Toronto Star publisher, John Honderich. "More and more newspapers are becoming the sole mass medium," he told the Advertising Club of Toronto recently, "particularly for advertising, as television becomes more and more fragmented." This is a shallow and self-serving observation, for even Mr. Honderich knows the preferences of young people, preferences they won't give up when they get older and replace his subscriber base.

My children are the last generation that will know what it's like to wash newsprint ink from their hands. David Card of New York-based Jupiter Research says the future of newspapers is multimedia. "Printed newspapers are not going away in our lifetime," Card told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "But I doubt that a lot of young people who grew up on TV and the Internet are going to retreat to the printed newspaper as they settle into middle age."

Card is right. The future for news people of every hue is a world called multimedia that exists in the interactive conduit we now call the Internet. It may look a lot like TV, but with the user in control, all of the rules are different, and a variety of multimedia skills are absolutely essential for those who will work therein.

The definition of "multimedia" depends on who's writing it, but it's generally thought of as a communication that uses a combination of different media, including text, spoken audio, music, images, animation and video. A newscast is a form of multimedia presentation, with itís audio, video, music and graphics, but in the new world, the multiple specialities of the control room required for real-time broadcasting are reduced to a computer with a single operator — you. It means a modified skill set for journalists, but one that offers unlimited creative possibilities in communicating their stories to people.

In a multimedia environment, the story — and how it's communicated — is all that matters. We don't care about a reporter's walkin', talkin', shuckin' & jivin' stand up. In fact, we could go through the whole story without seeing what the reporter looks like. Some things may be best presented solely as text. Perhaps a slide show with music will do for others. As I've previously written, the days of celebrity anchors are numbered. Along with that will go the media's obsession with personality and presentation over content. Young people will stop going to school only because they "want to be on TV," and we might actually see a return to journalism as a trade for those wishing to make a difference instead of a profession of elite celebrities who don't want to get their hands dirty.

We'll never again be "filling time," because time (rightly) belongs to those with whom we are attempting to communicate. The clock will remain a constant enemy in a competitive environment, but the deadline will be how quickly we can get the story to the people, not one arbitrarily based on the time of day.

In a multimedia news world, there are many ways to tell stories or portions of stories, and we should be welcoming this instead of ignoring it or running from it. The rush of "the story" remains exactly the same as it was in a mass-media world; the only differences are immediacy, form and format. Frankly, it's an environment that would bring me to work every day with a smile on my face.

For existing news people — and I'm specifically referring to those in TV News — you have two choices. Carry on and begin looking for what you really want to do for a living downstream or begin developing the skill set you'll need in the new world. For those who choose the latter, here are 10 recommendations.

  1. Learn the Internet. This is the field of play for multimedia news, and the only way to learn it is to use it — and not just for boredom reduction. It means leaving the safe training wheels of AOL's closed environment, and learning the idiosyncrasies of, for example, Google. Find out who really knows how to search in your shop and spend a little time with them. Explore news sites, and not just those in the US. Don't give up on this until you've become a sophisticated and proficient user.
  2. Get involved in the community of bloggers. Pick a subject of interest to you and start exploring. Use your Google knowledge to find directories or individual blogs. Whatever your hobby or interest, you'll find bloggers writing about it. Blogging is interactive, so interact. This is important, because it'll begin opening your mind to the realities of what's happening on "the streets" of the World Wide Web.
  3. Get yourself an RSS news aggregator. I cannot overstate this in terms of importance. RSS and variances thereof are the news distribution vehicles of the future. They are so, because the user can pick and choose what news he or she wishes to view and where it comes from. The new world isn't about single points "broadcasting" to large audiences. It's the pyramid turned upside down, where the guy at the bottom has the power of choice. RSS is simply a technology he or she can use to exercise that power. You need to be a part of it to fully understand how your work will get to the end user in the years to come.
  4. Learn digital, non-linear editing. If it means coming in on weekends or staying late, learn it, learn it, learn it. The reason for this is simple: storytelling in the world of multimedia — whether it's video, a slideshow, animation, music or effects — is assembled in a form of digital — mostly non-linear — editing. If you can learn an Avid, you can handle anything the multimedia world throws at you. I'm not talking about mastering individual technologies. That will come later. What you need now is a foundational understanding.
  5. Put the camera on your shoulder. Better yet, if you can find one, get behind the wheels of a Sony PD-170 or similar camera. This will be a tool of tomorrow's journalist. The days of 2-person crews are on the wane. The economics don't make sense anymore and neither does the restrictive nature of split functions in the newsgathering process. We've always known that the person looking through the viewfinder (and editing the story) generally has a better grasp of how to put the finished product together than the writer, and this is no longer an issue in the world of the Video Journalist (VJ). Where the idea of the "one-man band" seemed insulting just a few years ago, it's now recognized (at least in Europe) as a better way to do electronic news gathering.
  6. Learn html and Photoshop. Take courses at the local technical institute or make friends with a Web developer and ask for some one-on-one training, even if it costs you money or a few beers. Technology has advanced to where you can create Web pages without knowing html, but being able to write your own code gives you a head start over those who can't. And while there are many photo editing software applications on the market, Photoshop is the choice of nearly everybody in the Web world. If you can use Photoshop, you can use any picture editor. Photoshop comes with a little gem called "Image Ready" that will make animated graphics for you. Learn that and you're on your way to making better stories for a multimedia environment.
  7. Learn PowerPoint. This may seem silly, but producing a nice PowerPoint presentation is an essential part of life in a multimedia world. It's a great way to make a graphically rich, controlled presentation to an audience, whether it's in a boardroom, on a projector, or via the Web. But beyond that, PowerPoint teaches you how to think in ways to illustrate a story with still or animated graphics. It's elementary compared to other technologies, but show me somebody who can make PowerPoint sing, and I'll show you a multimedia producer.
  8. Get to know your station's Webmaster and spend time with him/her. This person should be the most Net-savvy member of your station's staff, and you can and should take the time to do a little brain-picking with such an individual. Only the Webmaster will know ALL of your Internet capabilities and shortcomings, and this is a person you need to know. Ask if you can spend time watching, and don't be afraid to ask questions. You're not looking to replace him or her. You're just seeking helpful knowledge. Be a sponge.
  9. Be proactive in getting your stuff online. Few stations even understand, much less use, all that they could be doing online. Most stations are a part of either the IBS or Worldnow networks, and content is generated through the use of templates and often with strict guidelines. There's room for creativity, but it's usually considered on a case-by-case business, something that defeats the immediacy that the Web can provide. Get to know your stationís limits and be a little pushy when it comes to getting your stuff front and center. The day is rapidly approaching when our beloved "resume tapes" will be presented online and consist of more than just a few standups and a few stories. You're going to want to show off all that you've learned, and the best way is to get it on your station's Website.
  10. Expand your personal network to include multimedia players. Get to know others that are producing nice multimedia news. Chances are you'll find these people at the bigger newspapers, because they are ahead of TV stations in the online multimedia race. I continue to stress that a station's biggest competition downstream is not the other stations in town but the local paper. Cruise the Internet and look at papers that are deep into this. Get on Dirck Halstead's mailing list for The Digital Journalist. These people will be in demand for a long time to come, and becoming a part of the circle is certainly a good idea for any young TV journalist trying to prepare for the future.
There's no time like the present to give some of your grasshopper time to your inner ant. It seems laborious, but it's actually fun, and investing in tomorrow has never been more important than it is today. And I can promise you one thing. You'll like yourself better in the morning.