Breaking-news Multimedia: Not an Oxymoron

By: Steve Outing

Breaking-news multimedia isn’t an oxymoron. It’s the direction that the online-news industry is taking, particularly as broadband access becomes more common.

I’ll admit that multimedia news is currently a mixed bag. While a handful of news organizations consistently turn out high-quality material, another group of companies is still in experimental mode and, frankly, not doing a great job yet. I liken today’s environment for multimedia news to the days of the first Macintosh, PageMaker software, and laser printers. That new technology got a lot of people designing self-published printed newsletters, but much of their work was not great — until they gained experience. It’s the same with multimedia today.

Some of the best breaking-news multimedia can be found on the Web site of The New York Times, NYTimes.com.

The site is not only leading a trend, it’s doing some of the best multimedia in the news business. I say that because I review a lot of online news features as one of the volunteer judges for the Society of News Design’s SND.ies multimedia-content awards. I’m consistently impressed with the work done by the New York Times Digital (NYTD) crew.

Consistency



Let’s look at some of the site’s recent work. A good example is a multimedia retrospective for Al Hirschfeld, the brilliant Broadway caricaturist who died in January at age 99. Another is a multimedia presentation that accompanied a three-part print and television series called “Dangerous Business,” about a Texas foundry with a dismal record of workers dying or being maimed while on the job. Both of those works are interesting because they combine text, photo slide shows, video, animated graphics, and audio narration by New York Times journalists.

For another breaking-news package, see the site’s interactive presentation about the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia. The site also maintains an index page that lists all recent multimedia work, including interactive slide shows, audio showcases, video features, and “Photographer’s Journals.” The latest feature, on the 50th anniversary of the DNA’s discovery, was just posted Tuesday.

You’ll notice that most of the features look similar. They all open in a browser window that’s the same size (not a full PC-screen window). Each follows a basic template that allows inclusion of various formats of content — photos, audio narration, animated graphics, and video.

This consistency is important for a several reasons, explains NYTimes.com Editor-in-Chief Len Apcar. First, “You don’t want to paint the Mona Lisa each time,” he says. The consistent design structure that allows for a wide variety of content to be included means that Web designers and producers can focus on the content. And because of the flexibility of the template, new content elements (no matter what format) can be inserted or traded out as new information and content elements become available. The template is what allows the Web site staff to execute an ambitious-looking multimedia package often within the space of a single day. (More on that later.)

Templates also are good because not every member of a team producing a multimedia package has to be a multimedia expert. News and section producers at NYTimes.com who are not skilled in Flash production techniques, for example, can fairly quickly produce an interactive slideshow or even put together a basic interactive feature simply by adding multimedia content elements into a template.

The template system is also good for the audience. Apcar says that when readers come to a NYTimes.com multimedia project, it will look familiar to them — they will know how to navigate it. That’s not so for a news site that treats every multimedia project as an independent entity, not bound to existing practices or guidelines. Make it easy for the Web user to view your multimedia, he suggests, while still allowing yourself plenty of flexibility in how a package looks and what content elements are included.

Regarding content elements, Apcar isn’t a fan of using lots of video on the Web. He says he’ll use it for immediacy when called for, but don’t expect to see a lot of video in these types of projects.

Deadlines, deadlines



What’s surprising is the speed with which the NYTimes.com staff has been able to produce these multimedia packages. The Al Hirschfeld retrospective is a classic example. The artist died on Monday, January 20, and it was quickly decided that a multimedia feature was in order. Enterprise Editor Geoff McGhee, who heads up most of the multimedia work for the Web site, says he arrived at work that day around 11:30 a.m. Other staff members already were busy collecting information, images, and video (from an award-winning documentary about Hirschfeld’s life). The entire package was posted online, after an intense all-day effort, shortly after midnight.

McGhee says that including him, five people were involved in that project — a combination of multimedia specialists and Web site news producers.

The Dangerous Business multimedia package, about the Texas foundry, came together in about three days. Apcar says the project combined content from a three-part New York Times print series and a one-hour PBS Frontline video documentary. As often happens with Times print content, the NYTD crew designed an enhanced version for online. Print-edition graphics, for instance, were redesigned with animation to best explain the information (about how the foundry process works and at what steps workers are in extreme danger). Photos were used in slide shows narrated by Frontline‘s Lowell Bergman (a frequent contributor to the Times).

Apcar anticipates that ambitious multimedia content will become more and more the norm on major breaking news. Because the staff has gone through the learning curve, and because of the template system, they can now create multimedia packages on tight deadlines.

For instance, he says, the Web staff felt it was important for them to tell the story of how and why the space shuttle broke up on re-entry in a way that television could not explain. They did that with animated graphics that serve to explain in a more clear way than is possible using TV or print media. “But that would have been no good if we did it better one week later,” Apcar says.

Most stories decline in value with each passing hour, so if you’re going to tell it using multimedia, the clock is ticking. “We’re not a magazine,” Apcar says. “We have got to be as fast as we can, and [at the same time] as thorough as we can.”

The multimedia group at NYTD is small. In addition to McGhee, whose title of “enterprise editor” was specifically designed not to include multimedia, there are two online photo editors, two part-time photo people, and one Flash producer. But what’s not reflected there is the new-media newsroom section producers, who are involved in most of the multimedia packages.

Cross-town meetings



Though NYTimes.com staff are housed in a building several blocks from the print newsroom, online editors regularly trek to the main Times building to attend weekly enterprise planning meetings for various departments. Also, there’s considerable collaboration between print departments and the online crew. “We’re a small team, but we have lots of friends,” McGhee says. The print graphics department, for example, regularly collaborates with online when static print graphics are enhanced for Web presentation. New York Times Television has helped with converting film and video for online use.

For a multimedia package about finalists’ designs for construction at the “Ground Zero” World Trade Center site, an ambitious project that was put together in only one day, the Web division got lots of help from the rest of the company. “It was kind of like a barn-raising,” McGhee says.

Apcar adds that the print and online sides exchange information and content in little and small ways on a regular basis. “The paper has been quite good at aggressively embracing the Web when we need something,” he says. Print-side employees also are increasingly bringing to the Web staff “things that we didn’t know about.”

Audience demand for multimedia



Is anybody viewing all this wonderful multimedia content? That’s always a worry for editors who decide to devote serious resources to multimedia production. In January, multimedia content (including the Hirschfeld and foundry multimedia packages) accounted for 612,000 unique visits at NYTimes.com. (Each time a Web visitor views a multimedia feature, that’s counted as one visit, no matter how many “pages” within the feature are viewed.) By contrast, the first two weeks of February — during the period of the space-shuttle disaster — logged 830,000 unique visits for NYTimes.com multimedia content.

Apcar says that statistic confirms his belief that multimedia content should focus on major breaking news, not just features.

One problem is that multimedia features can be hard to find — they’re not always promoted as well as Apcar would like, or kept on the home page of NYTimes.com long enough. Multimedia features also are not currently included in site-search results — though that functionality is being developed. “I’m pretty sure than some of our busiest [Web] readers do not know that [the multimedia content] is there,” he says. “That’s a big challenge for us.”

An interesting approach to this dilemma is something that the site does occasionally: It includes links on the home page directly to a multimedia project, rather than just to an accompanying story where the reader is then expected to click on a multimedia-content link.

Voices of the ‘Times’



One last element that’s worth noting about NYTimes.com multimedia is the frequent use of New York Times journalists’ voices. It’s a fairly standard element for a reporter, correspondent, or photographer to narrate a section of a multimedia package — most often a photo slide show. This began shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, with “Photographer’s Journals” from the war in Afghanistan, and will be continued with “Correspondent’s Journals,” a new feature to make its debut shortly. Now, audio clips from the journalists will accompany most multimedia projects.

I’ve listened to a lot of these, and for the most part the print journalists do a decent job with audio narration, even though they’re not trained broadcasters. Apcar says that often the journalist’s passion for the subject shows through in the narration, though he acknowledges that Times print reporters don’t sound like professionals from television or radio.

“But I think it’s more than OK for our voices to sound different,” he says. “People expect us to be a little more gravelly voiced.”




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