Video Killed the Text-News Star

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Having barely figured out how to present their print reporting on Web sites, newspapers were warned this weekend that their online audience will soon expect them to deliver breaking news by video.

At the fourth annual conference of the Online News Association (ONA) Nov. 14-15, two themes dominated: the relevance of blogging to journalism and the status of online video news. Of the two, video brought out the forecaster in speakers — even as they repeatedly reminded attendees that predictions are notoriously unreliable in the world of new media.

“This is not a prediction … but 2004 will be the year video takes off,” said Richard Deverell, who runs News Interactive at BBC News.

Leonard Apcar, editor in chief of The New York Times on the Web, suggested the 2004 presidential election could be, for online video, one of those tipping points that propels a brand-new news delivery technology — and newspapers had better seize the day.

“Video is actually coming,” Apcar said. “We have a moment in front of us in which news Web sites can capture a significant market and make real strides … Video as a story-telling device can no longer be ignored –especially by newspaper-oriented sites — or downplayed.”

Pushing this perceived demand for video delivery are two big technological trends: the ubiquity of high-speed Internet access in offices and its rapid spread among home users, plus the development of ever more easy-to-use multimedia reporting devices.

At the ONA meeting, Martha Stone, the training director at Ifra Newsplex, showed off a digital media recorder the size of a personal digital assistant (PDA), video cameras that record on mini digital discs, and a software package (Serious Magic Visual Communicator Pro) that allows a reporter to compile a broadcast-quality video story with a simple drag-and-drop interface. In less than a minute, Stone produced a sample story for ONA attendees.

The devices are simple enough that journalists can concentrate on journalism rather than the whiz-bang technology, Stone said.

Some experts see video delivered to computer screens as only a first step toward delivery to cell phone and other wireless devices. In fact, that’s already happening outside the United States, said Andrew Locke, deputy editor of multimedia at MSNBC.com: “There are soap operas in Korea that are available only on mobile phones, and they are wildly popular. There are news organizations that have more users on their wireless technology than they do on the Web. We’re tremendously behind the curve in this country.”

ONA also heard from skeptics. Jai Singh, vice president and editor in chief of CNet News.com, reminded attendees of his company’s unsuccessful past forays into video — and said he doesn’t believe video news delivery will pay off any time soon. “Here we are barely able to figure out a business plan for Web-based sites — and we want to go to cell phones and Blackberries and whatever else,” he said. “Do we think about who’s going to pay for it? People will pay for sports and horoscopes and people will pay for some things, but news has become such a commodity, why would you pay for it?”

Newspapers and other news organizations will eventually have to charge for their online news content, Tribune Publishing President Jack Fuller declared in the opening speech of the ONA conference, according to ONA’s online newspaper. When and how that will happen, however, remains unclear, he added: “Nobody wants to go first. If you go first, you lose.”

The commodification of news was a key theme underlying the sometimes contentious talk about blogging at the ONA conference. Instead of asking “Why pay for news?” the pro-blogging speakers asked, “Why pay for edited news?” In a keynote speech, Web log pioneer Andrew Sullivan declared that newspaper op-ed columnists would eventually be replaced by online bloggers such as himself.

Some editors among the ONA speakers were not so ready to concede their irrelevance. “Down with blogging,” Retha Hill, vice president for content at BET.com, said when asked for a final sound bite on one panel. Yet, Hill said the problem with many news Web sites is they do not allow for the two-way interactive dialogue that Web users want.

Even the most avid news junkies accessing the Web do not want to deal with the massive amounts of information without help, added Ruth Gersh, editorial director of The Associated Press’ AP Digital: “They don’t want to have to sift through it, so there is still a need for, dare I say it, editorial judgement.”

ONA also announced the 2003 Online Journalism Award Winners.

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