The Multimedia Journalist

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
2 October, 2018
Editorial: 243
Fecha de publicación original: 28 noviembre, 2000

Those who take too much, don’t get much done

Mark Hinojosa is Associate Managing Editor of the Chicago Tribune. Founded in 1849, it is one of the US’ most prestigious newspapers. Mark is a great believer in “media convergence”, the new job definition of journalists in the electronic age. The idea is that journalists should be completely at home in the printed press, radio, television and the Internet and able to operate and move freely from one to the other. The idea is not just that journalists are able to perform their job in these media. Many are already veterans of this kind of multitasking. The idea is that they are able to gather, process and broadcast information from all of them, if possible, simultaneously. So, from now on, the computer, the tape recorder, the video camera as well as pen and paper become inseparable tools of their trade. This multimedia journalist is the latest creature to be spawned by the Internet in the US.

Mark Hinojosa was one of the main speakers at the IV Congrès de Periodistes de Catalunya (IV Congress of Catalonian Journalists) organised by the Colegio de Periodistes de Catalunya in Barcelona on the 24 and 25 November under the title of “The Role of the Journalist and the Function of Journalism in the XXI Century”. Hinojosa brought a message that had already caused a stir at the 53rd World Newspaper Congress (Congreso Mundial de Periódicos) in Rio de Janeiro last June. It was there that a select group of US newspaper companies advocated multiplying the functions of journalists in order to face the challenges posed by the Internet.The star of the show was a video in which, in true American style, a journalist displayed, in a flash, the weapons at his disposal when faced with a particular challenge at a particular moment: first a pocket-sized computer, then a digital recorder, or, tarumteraa!, a video camera capable of broadcasting via satellite by a mobile phone connected to a computer

Hinojosa gave us an interesting insight into the way the traditional media are being restructured in the US and how they view the new environment being created by the Net. In this regard, there are two crucial aspects to bear in mind. Firstly, all the analysis –and consequently, conclusions– are based on the assumption that demand for information is the demand for information of a general nature. And, in the second place, that this demand can only be satisfied by companies of a particular size. As Hinojosa said, the multiplication of information sources is forcing the media to look for readers wherever they can in order to offer them information when and where they want it. In this race, he said, there are no winners or losers, but it is an investment that only the big companies can afford.

In other words, there are losers, and tons of them, if, as many of us believe, the Internet means just the opposite. When Hinojosa talks about information he is talking about general information. So he is saying that we, as readers, are always looking for what has happened at the latest press conferences, on the stock exchange, the latest football results or a good report on the latest case of corruption within the local administration. Of course we do want this information. Nonetheless, as readers –and emitters of information– we are shifting more and more to increasingly specific areas of information, custom-made to suit us and supplied by teams operating in organisational, economic and thematic fields, such as education, for example, (where there is still a lot of work to be done), health, (the same goes for this sector), training or the creation of politics instead of just following political events via the traditional media.

So, to paraphrase our colleague, the large companies have very little to offer here, they can’t afford the reorientation of editorial policies this would entail. As Hinojosa said in his talk, without going into much detail, personalising information involves structural difficulties, quite different from customising i.e. offering the readers a choice of menus. It is simply not economical for the big corporations to treat their readers as though they were individuals with their own particular universes. There is a massification threshold which they cannot cross unless they want to lose loads of money, as well as what this might mean for what they call “a change in business model”

If we look at it from this perspective, then the multimedia journalist comes across more as a contingency plan drawn up by the traditional media to face the impact of the Internet on the traditional model of communication rather than as a solution to the changes the Net is bringing about to this model. The Chicago Tribune has lost 200,000 weekend readers and some 100,000 during the week over the last few years. As Hinojosa so accurately put it, “people are taking over the distribution systems we used to control. […] Our readers are being seduced away by the immediacy on offer [of the Net]”. So, we are going to give them immediacy, and loads of it. His talk, nevertheless, apart from the standard crowd pleasers, said very little or nothing about content quality, and how relevant it is to real reader demands (why are they abandoning the traditional media?) or whether they should have some say in editorial policies.

Hinojosa, like others experimenting with the multimedia journalist, are concerned with getting there first by any means possible, not with getting there first and where. Consequently, his definition of the new journalist is one who breaks down media barriers (printed press, TV, radio) and becomes a one-person band armed with all the gadgets of each – writing, recording, filming and sending the results to their respective media, in addition to synthesising it all in one package for the Internet. But, is this good journalism? Does being able to manage all the tools guarantee the quality of information? Does being first in all cases imply quality in what one produces? Is immediacy the secret of good information? Is immediacy valid for all types of information, in all kinds of situations? In short, is there something missing?

The speech by the Chicago Tribune’s electronic editor, which is being taken up by many electronic newspapers based on the traditional media, claims that the key to success is “giving the readers what they want”. And what do they want in an environment where they can find everything from information about their professions to how to retrain, train, have fun or die of boredom? How do the readers of the Chicago Tribune let them know what they want and need? This fundamental question was once again left unanswered. Or, to be more accurate, the answer was the classic one from the traditional media: the journalist –or the company– decides.

So, who competes with these newspapers? To put it shortly and sweetly, information distribution services requested by the readers themselves. At the present time, if we count the numbers of distribution lists and the forums that abound on the Internet in the US, the sum total of subscribers account not only for the the loss of readership from the traditional media but also for the creation of a new body of readers with segmented, specific interests who look for information and knowledge relevant to their needs. These virtual spaces, some of them on the web, others in an e-mail environment, many combining the two, add up to millions of subscribers all over the country. And the same thing is happening on the rest of the Internet, although at a much slower pace than in the US, where “Bulletin Board Systems” were enormously popular at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties.

The race that Hinojosa is talking about was lost a long time ago and not just because newspapers were looking in the wrong direction. The reason is that, basically, alongside the traditional media, another platform appeared which allowed for participation (creating new information services), interaction (establishing priorities on the basis of individual needs) and growth (supplying more and more information for a constantly growing population no longer faithful to the big mastheads, but to the content on offer). If new times have arrived, as he maintains, then it is the time for journalists to work with “readers” in a different way. This tendency is beginning to take hold in the US in different forums where journalists have condescended to conversing with readers. The Virginian-Pilot, for example, has begun an experiment of this kind which, as its editors claim in discussion lists on the new media, “is a way of connecting with the community again via the power they have acquired through organising themselves online around issues of particular interest”.

This is the new situation that digital communication has brought about: a transfer of the decision-making process to organised communities which do not bear any resemblance, either sociologically, nor in content interests, nor in their information loyalty, to the readership that still supports the traditional media. Given this state of affairs, the multimedia journalist sounds a bit like that old joke from the fifties and sixties about Spanish immigrants in Germany who went to work in factories full of newfangled technology. The superintendent explained how a machine worked to a new factory hand, recently arrived from a semi-rural background, “When the red light goes on, press the green button; if the yellow light goes on, pull this lever; if both of them light up at the same time, press the black button and hold the lever firmly; if the control panel goes blue press the pedal and pull the lever”. ” Listen”, answers the worker, “why don’t you tie a broom to my backside and that way I can sweep the floor at the same time?” So there we have it, less multimedia, less brooms, more listening and looking at what people do and want and more understanding of the medium one is working with. The Internet is not a space that fills up better or more by keeping all ones fingers (and backside) occupied.

Translation: Bridget King