"All that is old and already formed can continue to live only if it allows within itself the conditions of a new beginning."
RTNDA: For Journalists, The Times They Are A-Changin'
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA, U.S.A., 2000 SEP 14 (NB) -- As recently as two or three years ago, many US news executives at print, radio and TV operations viewed the Internet as an interesting development in communications, but little more than an unwelcome budgetary constraint on their own companies. Many put up Web sites; few put much thought or effort into developing them.
"It seems like a toy to me," one Southern Minnesota daily newspaper publisher was heard to say in 1997. "I prefer to get my entertainment away from my computer."
If discussions during the past few days at the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) 2000 convention in Minneapolis are any indication, such attitudes have changed with a vengeance. The Internet now, to use the vernacular, is in the media's face and it can't be ignored.
Mark Thalhimer, project director at RTNDA and an event organizer, indicated that the new attitudes he is detecting among participants at this year's conference, which started Wednesday and ends Saturday, have been a long time in coming. "The bottom-line message," he said, "is you've got to take this seriously. And too many ... have not."
Thalhimer said the price of past negligence among many in the news business is the fear they are experiencing now that the promise of the Web for the news business is becoming more clear. "Fear and greed," he said. "Those two words, I think are a big part of what you are seeing."
Thalhimer said it's hard to know if all that is a product of the Internet's two-year winning streak on the NASDAQ or if it's because news executives themselves have teen-aged children who are ignoring their newspapers and broadcasts in favor of getting news from the Net. But the attitude among participants, he said, has changed significantly from previous years at the 2000 conference, the 55th annual RTNDA convention.
Panelists, many of whom Thalhimer labeled "pioneering types," gave numerous examples of news convergence during various talks. One was especially illustrative: A Tampa, Fla., TV reporter recently was dispatched to work day and night during a murder trial, putting stories on TV, writing stories for the station's Internet site and even composing front-page pieces for the local morning paper, all of which are owned by the same company. The idea of blending news media in the information age was a common, recurring theme.
"The line between radio and television is about to disappear," said Dan Potter, news director at WBAP-AM in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, who moderated a panel discussion about online radio news later on Friday. "We are all going to be just 'media journalists.'"
It was clear from another panel earlier in the day, "Looking to the Future: Making Broadcast, Newspaper and Web Partnerships Work," that Potter's comment could appropriately be extended to include newspapers, highlighting the anticipated blending of all current media into a single online, multimedia platform. Merrill Brown, editor-in-chief at MSNBC.com, hammered the point home.
"It's all about the Internet," said Brown. "The Internet is where we're all headed."
He pointed out that his site, which was developed in 1995 in partnership with NBC-TV and Microsoft and has since grown to include partnerships with the Washington Post and Newsweek, has a massive daily audience. "We think it's the most important relationship anywhere of its kind in journalism," Brown told the audience of roughly 300 who attended that panel.
He said, partly because of the partnerships, MSNBC logs 2 million individual viewers every day. On big news days, when there is an important political development or major air tragedy or something similarly attention-grabbing, Brown said the site garners more than 3 million viewers, making it larger than the biggest daily US newspaper on those days. There's an important message in those numbers, he said, given that only about half of US adults are online and many of those still fumble with inadequate narrowband dial-up connections. More people, and a bigger audience still, is on the way.
The MSNBC-Post-Newsweek combination was only one such media amalgamation discussed during the early morning panel. Other panelists there included Cissy Baker, Washington news bureau chief of Tribune Broadcasting, which recently merged with Times Mirror; Bradley of WFLA-TV and Donna Reed, managing editor of the Tampa Tribune, which both are owned by the same company and operate under one roof with their combined Web site, the Tampa Bay Online Network; and Brad Kalbfeld of the Associated Press Broadcast News Center in Washington, which works with all those news operations. Marlis Majerus, news director at online-only news talk radio station WTOP2 in Washington, DC, and Tina Gulland, director of television projects at the Washington Post Co., rounded out the panel, among the best-attended of the conference.
"I think when all is said and done, all these circumstances are going to be about winning on the Internet," said MSNBC's Brown. "The scale of the Internet news opportunity and the risks to people - whether they are in television or in print (who) aren't moving quickly in this regard - are enormous."
The implications of that were a particular worry to many attendees. Questions from the audience during the two panels Friday frequently sought input on what kind of skills journalists in the new blended-media age will need. College professors, in particular, were concerned that their curricula are not adequate to turn out professionals capable of producing news stories while also taking digital photos, encoding HTML, filming video and recording audio to accompany news that would appear on multiple media channels owned by merging umbrella companies.
And in both panels Friday, the reaction to that question was the same. Don't worry about that, panelists in effect said, give us young people who can write.
"The core of convergence is journalism," said Dan Bradley, news director of WFLA-TV in Tampa, Fla. "The audience doesn't distinguish between platforms. Whether it is fair and accurate is what matters." The AP's Kalbfeld echoed the theme: "We want it right," he said, to which the Post's Gulland added, "The big thing is to teach them English; the pendulum has swung to an emphasis on technology, and now, no one can write."
Still, Brown cautioned the educators in the audience not to relax on the issue of technology in their curricula. He said incoming journalists, at a minimum, need to have some grasp on the ways that software programs and other technology can transform their capabilities, and the expectations they will face in the newsroom of the near future.
Such talk left a lasting impression on Henry Lippold, who has for several decades served as a broadcast instructor at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. He noted that several ideas discussed at the conference run counter to journalists' tradition of staunch individualism, including the notion that reporters soon will no longer be able to consider news scoops their own, instead belonging to their multimedia organizations that might make them available to partner Web sites or TV stations, effectively scooping themselves. That kind of thing will be tough for many to swallow, the professor said.
"I think that the main thing that I picked up here is that we have to get on the ball and start educating students to be prepared for this situation," Lippold said.
"Overall," he said, "it was kind of a wake-up call. If that's the way the business is, we can't just say, 'That's terrible, we're not going to cooperate, we won't do it!' Otherwise our young people will be pure, but unemployed."
Information about the RTNDA 2000 convention is on the Web at http://www.rtnda.org/convention/convention.shtml
Reported by Newsbytes.com, http://www.newsbytes.com
Kevin Featherly, a former managing editor at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, is a Minnesota journalist who covers politics and technology. He has authored or contributed to five previous books, Guide to Building a Newsroom Web Site (1998), The Wired Journalist (1999), Elements of Language (2001), Pop Music and the Press (2002) and Encyclopedia of New Media (2003). His byline has appeared in Editor & Publisher, the San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Online Journalism Review and Minnesota Law and Politics, among other publications. In 2000, he was a media coordinator for Web, White & Blue, the first online presidential debates.
Copyright 2004, by Kevin Featherly