National Public Radio is reinventing itself as a multimedia news organization, and is retraining its staff for this new mission. In the latest issue of American Journalism Review, Jennifer Doroh reports that NPR hopes to have 450 staffers up to speed in multimedia by this time next year. So what are they learning?
Arts and culture reporter Neda Ulaby describes the training as “transformative” and “scary.”
Learning how to write for the Web was probably the single most significant piece of training that I received. When you’re reading a radio script, it doesn’t read the way it sounds. An emphasis that might be clear from someone’s tone of voice just isn’t clear on a radio script.
Compare the online text of one of her stories to the audio version and the differences are obvious. Here’s how she opens her radio story about product placement:
When executives at television networks talk about product integration, they favor a word more often associated with high-end, environmentally friendly groceries. SOUNDBITE: “Organically does it work in the story? Organically, does it work for the brand?”
Online, the text version of the story begins entirely differently, and it uses italics for emphasis:
When you see giant Coke cups sitting at the fingertips of American Idol judges, that’s not just product placement. That’s full-fledged product integration — when a brand becomes inextricably identified with the content of a show.
Ulaby tells AJR that her job has also changed in other ways. She often carries a camera on assignment now, but she doesn’t file photos for every story. Instead, she’s learned to devote more energy to the online versions of stories with strong visual elements.
I don’t think we’re going to replace professional photographers. But especially in the really splashy stories that we’re going to pay a lot of attention to, it’s just not going to hurt to take some photos that reflect a little bit of knowledge: being able to use light, being able to take close-ups, knowing what we need to focus on in order to enhance the story.
While Ulaby says the time she puts into the Web doesn’t detract from her radio work, others at NPR say it’s hard to do it all. Art Silverman is a senior producer for “All Things Considered”:
People get praised for creating multimedia. If Miss X did a slide show or if someone else did a written story for the Web, they get a lot of praise. But when you drill down, and ask, ‘How did you fit that in?’ they say, ‘Oh, I did it on my own time and stayed up late at night finishing it.’ In order to get the attention one must tear oneself out of the day and do extra work. Time is often not allotted to do these things.
Silverman believes that to be successful at multimedia, NPR will need to do more than retrain its people. It will also need to overhaul the way work is assigned.