Convergent Lines

Revolutions aren’t unusual subjects for the Frontline Club. The walls are thick with them. Though while we nurse our drinks under the portrait of Pinochet, we might not notice the revolution happening around us, borne on the club’s wifi signal. The internet revolution is back on and this time it’s for real: based on genuine innovation.

The innovations themselves – the web, broadband, cheap publishing software, cheap high-quality cameras, cheap band width and hosting, and so on, plus a new huge online audience – have been analysed and over-complicated since their inception during the first dotcom boom. But what were then just predictions on powerpoint slides are now reality.

The things we were promised in 1998 are actually here, and in a cheesy segue, we have to ask what does this mean for working journalists? How does a world of blogs and podcasts and broadband video affect us?

As ever, it really depends on who you are. For opinion writers, the world is now a lot more difficult. While the very best will always stand out (and be worth the cash), mid-ranking columnists and leader-writers are now finding that the internet is full of people who write just as well, with perhaps greater specialist knowledge, and for free.

Managing Editors won’t be slow to notice that the pool of potential recruits is both much larger, and better, than it has ever been: opinion writers have a lot more competition.The same is not true, necessarily, for factual newspaper reporters. Stories from the Middle East are the favourite game, giving rise to a new verb, “Fisking”, meaning to go over a story line by line looking for supposed bias. Worthy checks and balances, perhaps, but nothing to replace primary reporting.

On the broadcast side, television reporters have long been used to two or one man crews, and their equipment only gets better. And although broadcast-quality video shooting and editing gear can be had on the high street, there’s much less competition from skilled amateurs. But they shouldn’t feel too smug: their biggest challenge is about to hit. A TV news network’s online competition isn’t the same as for its broadcast operation. For one thing, more people get the news from the web than watch, say, US cable news. Indeed we’re rapidly approaching the day when more people in the US read “British” newspapers online than watch CNN.

During the last dotcom boom this wouldn’t have been all that interesting: serving video over the web was both expensive and dreadful. Today, though, it’s easy and almost free – see for one hundred million video clips, for example – which means that news operations are suddenly obliged to provide stories across all media, print, audio, and video.

The challenge now is to work out who is best placed to do all three.Technologically speaking, we’re rather good at this nowadays. The problems, as ever, come from how to manage the processes. Broadcasters don’t usually do print, and print operations don’t usually do moving pictures, story packages, or multimedia slideshows made of video, stills, and voice-overs from the photographer. Although this is changing. The Washington Post has seven video journalists, for example; The Guardian produces more than twenty hours a week of audio programming, and so on.

All of these things require new training, yes, but also new concepts of how a newsroom works. The key word for 2007 is convergence – bringing the online and offline worlds together – and over the next year we’ll see convergence happening in two different ways. The first approach is to converge a newsroom entirely, with every journalist being cross-trained. The Daily Telegraph has announced it will be going down this route: sub-editors will be called Production Journalists and will work across all media depending on the time of day.

Convergence there happens at desk level. Other papers are following the lead of the BBC, and converging at the reporter level. With that plan, reporters file to an intake editor, who farms the pictures, words, and video out to specialist production desks. This has two effects. First, it places the web at the same level internally as the printed edition – in fact, it relegates the printed edition to being just a snapshot of the website, dumped onto dead trees – and second it frees the subject desks to concentrate on newsgathering and journalist support, where they would once have concentrated on, say, page layout.

These are, of course, huge cultural changes for newsgathering operations, and will not come without pain. But for the reporter they provide a great many opportunities. A story can now be told in the way that suits it best, internationally, immediately, and individually, by any journalist who embraces the technology. While the lowered barrier to entry might worry news executives, the lowered barrier to reporting is only to be welcomed.