Predictions 2008

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Lots of people are risking future derision by telling us what to expect in 2008.

Consider some of the dumber predictions from years past. Back in the 1940s, the head of 20th Century Fox didn’t see any kind of future for the new kid on the block: television. “It won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months,” Darryl F. Zanuck said. “People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” The founder of Digital Equipment Corp—now known as Hewlett Packard or HP–was just as tone deaf about computers. Thirty years ago, Kenneth Olson said “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” A real visionary, that guy.

So it’s with some trepidation that I make any predictions at all. But I do think 2008 will be the year that solo TV journalists make a mark at the national level. ABC News took the first big leap, creating one-person international bureaus back in October. Look for other major news organizations to follow suit. And watch for more local TV stations to add “backpack” journalists, as Gannett has done.

What else should you look for in 2008?

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What a new journalist needs

Jessica Chapin has been on the job at WMBB-TV in Panama City, Fla. for a little more than six months now. We asked her to think about what she’s already learned at work, what part of her education has helped the most and what else she needed while still in school:

1. What do you wish you had learned more about in college to help you prepare for the job?

“More tips on how to gather and maintain contacts for beats. It may be the new location, but I felt like it took awhile for me to get really comfortable with my sources.”

2. What did you learn/do in school that has really helped you in the job?

“Day-ofs! (These are story assignments given to students at 9 a.m. in the morning with the expectation that they will have completed a TV news package by 6 p.m.) It really helps prepare you for working on deadline in real-world time.”

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What’s an online journalist?

It may sound like a simple question, but Craig McGill says it wasn’t easy to find a definition for the term online or digital journalist:

I’ve asked a bunch of people this question over the last few days – inside and outside media circles – and the answers have ranged from “they type the stories up for the web” to “they get the story, the video, the audio and put it up on the site” and everything in between, which seems to make for a helluva lot of work.

The best definition I’ve found in response to McGill’s post is this one, from Bryan Murley:

To me, an online journalist is one who is comfortable with the online world. This is a journalist who understands that a story isn’t just print, or video, or audio, but a mixture of those things and others (maps, anyone?). I see an online journalist as one more in mindset than anything.

That should sound familiar to anyone who’s read the first chapter of Advancing the Story! In our view, online journalists aren’t defined by their technical skills but rather by the way they think about stories and how to tell them.

How histograms help

Most digital still cameras have the ability to display a histogram–a graphic display of brightness levels in a scene. Photographer Michael Reichmann calls it “the greatest invention since the built-in light meter.” If you’re not using your camera’s histogram function, you should.

A histogram basically lets you know whether your image is properly exposed. The graph runs from dark to light, left to right. If the graph has a peak at one edge or the other, you may have a problem. A peak on the left signals underexposure. A peak on the extreme right and your image may be overexposed.

Reichmann says one rule of thumb many photographers follow is to “expose to the right.”

…bias your exposures so that the histogram is snugged up to the right, but not to the point that the highlights are blown. This can usually be seen by the flashing alert on most camera review screens. Just back off so that the flashing stops…This will accomplish a number of things. The first is that it will maximize the signal to noise ratio. The second is that it will minimize the posterization and noise that potentially occurs in the darker regions of the image.

There are a couple of caveats, however. To make this work, you have to use a RAW converter like Camera RAW. And because this technique requires slower shutter speeds and wider apertures, you may not want to try it if you’re shooting hand-held or shooting moving objects. For more detail on histograms, check this “how to” article in Professional Photographer Magazine.

Breaking news literally breaks in

Breaking news is a staple of local TV, but it doesn’t often happen like this.  Two minutes into the 10 p.m. newscast on Chicago’s WLS-TV on Dec. 23, 2007,  a minivan crashed into the studio.  The driver later was quoted as saying he “wanted to be on the news.”  Here’s how anchor Ravi Baichwal reacted:

Kudos to Ravi for keeping it clean.  But the incident does make you wonder about the wisdom of glass-fronted, street-level studios, doesn’t it?

Twittering traffic

Some news organizations have used the microblog site Twitter in the past to send updates about breaking news stories like the Minneapolis bridge collapse and the California wildfires. Now the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is “twittering” in a slightly different way about a local highway construction project. The paper has recruited a “twitter team” of commuters, only a few of whom work for the newspaper, to cover the shutdown of Highway 40 and its effect on traffic. The result is a stream of very short comments that range from useful to silly. Examples:

40 E is a parking lot from lindburgh to the city

Drove to work today, because carrying brownies on the metro is tacky. Traffic actually wasn’t terrible.

A lady just stuck her tounge (sic) out @ me after not letting me merge

You can see how getting some of this information in real time could be helpful, but if most comments are like the last two, it wouldn’t surprise me if drivers wind up being frustrated with both the traffic and the newspaper. We’d love to know how it all shakes out.

Layering the news

Slide shows, videos, flash animations–there are lots of different ways to tell a visual story online. Now you can add one more: the photostory collage. A new service from VuVox allows journalists to build multimedia stories in layers. Watch Richard Koci Hernandez of the San Jose Mercury News demonstrate and explain how he uses it:

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Now explore the finished product: Where We Live: Willow Glen.  I like the way the “thought bubbles” let you choose whether to read a caption and also provide links to more information if you want it.  But I did find myself wishing that the links led to more video instead of audio slide shows.  What’s your view?

Students covering campaigns

“Fresh political coverage like you haven’t seen before.” That’s how KDFW-TV in Dallas describes what it hopes will result from a new partnership with Southern Methodist University.

FOX 4 News has teamed up with the school to cover the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary. Eight student journalists will cover the events extensively, providing instant text messaging updates, video blogs and reports featuring fresh angles from the perspectives of young people.

The students are all journalism majors. They will be credentialed as Fox journalists and will produce content for Fox station Web sites and broadcasts. They won’t be the only students reporting on the primaries. Some American University students “will spend several days reporting, filming, and conducting surveys, interviewing and analyzing polls” in New Hampshire. They plan to produce a short documentary film, with print and online companion pieces. Are other schools doing anything similar? And do you think these projects are valuable?

FCC changes ownership rules…again

It took 32 years, but the FCC has now said broadcasters in the country’s 20 largest television markets can also own a newspaper in the same market.

But, if ever there was a continuing story, this is it. According to the Associated Press, Congress is likely to weigh in on this issue again soon, but that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has some hefty political backing for this decision:

Martin pushed the vote through despite intense pressure from House and Senate members on Capitol Hill to delay it. The chairman, however, has the support of the White House, which has pledged to turn back any congressional action that seeks to undo the vote.

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Convergence in the trenches

Convergence is a reality in local TV newsrooms, but what does it look like? A new research study finds that in most cases what stations call convergence is just repurposing, not truly reporting across media.

The researchers surveyed producers and reporters at small and medium-market stations across the country. Almost all of the respondents indicated that their station practiced some form of convergence. The most common convergence partner is not a surprise: the TV station’s own Web site was cited by 61% of respondents as the focus of their convergent duties. But about one-fifth of respondents said they’re responsible for providing content to another TV station or to a radio station. Less than 10% said they also write for a newspaper outlet.

The survey found that most of what these reporters and producers post online requires little or no new information or reporting. “Very few provide still pictures, add additional facts to a story, or help design the site,” the authors write. “No news workers were tasked with creating Internet-only stories. Fewer than 20% report providing unaired video or sound bites to the Web site, even though such material is readily available.”

It’s possible that these tasks are being performed by photojournalists or Web producers who were not surveyed; more than half of respondents (55%) said their station had at least one staffer whose primary duty was to maintain and post content online. Let’s hope so. If markets below the top 50 aren’t providing anything but “shovelware,” TV news online still has a very long way to go.