Web story airs on NBC

A quiet revolution is underway at NBC News. Earlier this month, a story about a baby penguin that was created originally for the Web aired on the weekend Nightly News. Tim Peek, executive producer for new media at NBC’s Peacock Productions, calls it “one of those small events that may well mark a watershed toward a truly cross-platform world.”

We’ve already noted the work of NBC’s “digital correspondent” Mara Schiavocampo, who files stories both online and on the air.  What’s different now is that NBC has aired a story that was shot, edited and voiced by a Nightly News producer, Clare Duffy. That may not sound like such a big deal, but it’s a radical change for a network news division.

In a post at MediaShift, Peek says NBC has been “pushing the digital journalism agenda as a way to cast a broader newsgathering net and lower production costs.”  Many long-time journalists at NBC have been wary of the effort, he says, worrying that it may compromise quality.  As Peek himself notes, the digital journalist method is efficient but “something’s got to give.”

Not even the best digital journalists can shoot, edit, write and report as well as the dedicated teams of experts who still dominate TV news production. The biggest compromise comes in technical quality. The video from DV cameras is softer than beta; the sound is not a sharp. Producer editing on low-end systems is a stripped-down affair; straight cuts and dissolves. Stand-ups and tracking from producers also can suffer. And time pressure puts everything under the gun — even though the DJ model is more efficient, it still often takes more time to get it all done well.

But in many cases, Peek argues, none of these compromises make much of a difference, and the result is a story that’s plenty good enough for any medium.

This has the potential to dramatically alter the economics of network news production by allowing much broader use of these web-oriented stories. It also means that news organizations can more easily use their content on whatever platform makes the most sense, without recutting, revoicing or repackaging to meet the quality standards of the high-end platforms (stories can now just as easily travel up the quality stream from web to broadcast as down it).

I can hear some VJ advocates now, saying “Duh!” and “About time!”  But even Duffy, the producer/reporter of the NBC penguin story, has concerns about a wholesale move to “solo” journalism:

What I do worry about is the loss of the collaborative nature of what we do…There’s a reason the best TV has been made that way since its inception and it’s something that should not be chucked out wholesale as irredeemably ‘old media’ simply because people are overly entranced by the idea of saving money. Losing that will yield a product that’s not worth very much.

There’s truth is, they’re both right. Some stories are best told by a solo journalist with a small camera; other stories turn out better when developed by a collaborative team.  But the “digital journalist” revolution is already well underway, and it’s good to see some recognition of that at the network level.