digital technology & new media journalism

its been a long time since i’ve read a paper copy of the new york times. its been an even longer time since i read a copy of the boston globe. yet everyday, i manage to peruse these publications in great depth, because their websites have become better and better, and i am spending more time (and getting more acclimated to) reading print content online.

electronic media will have the texture or the type of light reflection or the feel of paper. the kindle, for all of its e-ink hype is not a device to replace paper, but to emulate it enough so as to allow digital media technology to work behind a better reading interface. what will inevitably allow the kindle to gain marketshare on books, will not be its impressive simulation of paper reading surfaces, but it’s ability to make print dynamic. this means that the readers of the future are eventually going to overcome their paper-codex fetishism for the practicalities of digital technology. we’ve seen this in sound reproduction (in an arc from the phonograph to the ipod) and in video (from celluloid to dvd) and no we are going to see it happen to paper.

making print dynamic is the real mission of the emerging field of new media journalism. i using the term new media journalism in partial homage to john pavlik’s seminal text on the subject “journalism and new media.” its worth a read if you want to get situated in why the standard practices producing journalism for the past fifty years are suddenly being overthrown. a quick google serach however we reveal that the ‘new media journalism‘ is an operative buzz word being used by j-schools and media pundits alike. going back to ‘making print dynamic’ most definitions of new media journalism underscore the fact that unidimensional journalism (reporter writes story) have become insufficient in the digital age. this is for two reasons:

  1. new digital based technologies like digital cameras, audio recorders, and computers have become cheap enough, light enough, and easy enough for journalists to use in the field
  2. new digital markets (most notably the internet) have an infinitely insatiable desire for more content

digital technology has thus supplied both the means and the ends of new media journalism. synthesizing the points above, new media journalism aspires to produce multidimensional journalism, or put it more literally, multimedia journalism (its a tragedy of semantics that the word ‘multimedia’ has become a somewhat dated term for cheesy graphics and limited interactivity circa 1997). and multimedia journalism in turn, is what is enabled and expected in the increasingly digitally mediated world we live in.

the first instantiation of the new media journalist did what the boston globe (aka boston.com) continues to do today. instead of just writing a story, the journalist might make a short accompanying web video, something like a tour of the neighborhood the article deals with, or a short interview with a person being profiled. eventually, the web video became something more akin to bite-sized broadcast journalism. something like what the wall street journal did recently on badminton players in san francisco (see below).

photo galleries and discussion threads round-out new media journalism 1.0. again, good old boston.com is replete with photo galleries and discussion threads, sometimes even producing photo galleries for things that are not best suited to be displayed as a slides (see this morning’s irish film round-up). the problem with misapplying new media solutions (thinking let’s make this more dynamic) is that these mistakes reiterate the problems new media journalism wanted to escape from in the first place. if there was an ethos of new media journalism, it would be conscious consideration of which media best allows a subject to be expressed. and if you thought a slide show was best for movies, you were wrong.

it isn’t too hard to figure out that moving images need moving images to report on them. which is why the new york times (or nytimes.com) “anatomy of a scene” features are so wonderful. as an example of what to do, “anatomy of a scene” presents a short section of a major film, and gives its director the ability to discuss the section as a sort of introduction for his/her directorial impulses (see the ‘Quantum of Solace‘ one, or the more recent ‘Watchmen‘ gloss). allowing a user to see a film as they learn about it reinforces the particular media being interrogated, and fulfills the ethos of new media journalism.

beyond nmj 1.0, there is the dream that digital technology will not only allow multimedia engagement of a subject, but produce entirely unique interfaces to learn and engage a subject. this is, put simply, the dream for journalism to develop the ability to publish its own applets and software. where else could journalism go in this digital age, save into the terrain of developing reporting platforms based on the paradigms of the computer itself.

this is where the question of the user and interactivity so crucial to web 2.0 become absorbed into the task of new media journalism. where print, audio, and video provided merely playback content, web 2.0 journalism stresses interactivity. interfaces like this recession map (from nytimes.com) or this new england foliage map (from boston.com) allow informatics to become interactive news items through which users learn through their own agency. clicking and pointing, dragging and dropping, changing and selecting, the user in web 2.0 journalism gains a new ability to control what they learn and how. for the new media journalist, this means finding new ways to tie information together, and finding new ways to give a user (through an applet interface) the ability to control that information. a good example of this, is the superbowl tweets map (from nytimes.com) which tied the superbowls time, score and narrative, to twitter activity mapped onto the united states. tying three entirely separate bodies of information together (geography, tweets, sports scores) this superbowl map created a journalistic report that would be impossible to communicate in print, video, or audio. it is only though digital technology that this story could be told.

this is the journalism we stand on the brink of: a journalism that tells new stories by culling, correlating, and displaying information through digital media. it doesn’t replace journalism, it augments it, adding new dimensionality to the work of the journalist, and placing new tools (and challenges) before journalism. by embracing these tools, and working within digital media, journalism will discover that it is not so much changing as growing. print reporting will remain a core value without which journalism will be lost (for what would we do with copy and editorial perspective?) photography, audio, and video will remain important tools for documentation, for how else are we to communicate/preserve the experience of linear reality? no, new media journalism is not an end but a beginning, and i for one am more than ready to start reading.

  • for further readings/examples of new media journalism follow my “digital journalism” and “flash” tag on delicious. i come across a lot of stuff i consider ‘new media journalism’ and have tons of examples that i didn’t touch on in this post.
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