News Technologies: This Changes Everything
A big, wide-open floor, in a towering building, cigar and cigarette smoke clouding the air, and a gruff old coot of an editor (Can you say Ed Asner? Jason Robards? Or Perry White?) barking assignments to reporters.
That was the 20th century newsroom. Kerry Northrup, an American who is the Executive Director for the German-based Ifra Centre for Advanced News Operations, has a rather different view of how news will be created and delivered in the not-too-distant future.
Northrup heads a project for Ifra called the Advanced Journalistic Technologies Project. “Every year we evaluate hundreds of different pieces of equipment, different technologies, different software, to try to identify the ones that seem to have the most utility, the most application for a modern, multiple-media news operation.”
Not surprisingly, Northrup sees advanced Wireless Internet technologies such as the WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) cell phone playing a rather large part in the future of news delivery and even reporting. Since 1999, “We’ve been prompting our members to start thinking in terms of delivery of news through wireless services,” Northrup says. “We’re telling them that the Internet took them by surprise, and that wireless is going to have an even bigger impact on society, changing how people get their news, and forcing us to adapt our news delivery.
“What will happen is that you’ll want to get the breaking news, you’ll want to get the key facts, instantly, sorted by topics that are of interest to you, that you’ve already registered with your news provider.” Northrup says the news alerts will come “quick and dirty, very direct, through whatever appliance you happening to be using, such as a PDA or cell phone.”
[A PDA is a Personal Digital Assistant such as a Palm Pilot.]
If a major event, such as the tragedy of September 11, occurs, Northrup says, “you’ll get the headline on your device. However, when you want more details on it, the small screen and the wireless bandwidth are probably not going to be your first choice for sitting down to do an in-depth knowledge transfer from the news organization to you.”
That’s when you’ll turn to the computer on your desk, or your laptop. Or, Northrup says, you’ll be able to tell your PDA “‘Hey, this is an major story. Have the full details ready for me when I get home.’ So then your personal news printer at home kicks out some nicely designed pages that enhance the knowledge transfer from the organization with graphics and maybe have links to further information that you can call up over the Internet, or through your TV.”
“In other words, the WAP-enabled device offers immediate delivery of breaking news, and then leads people to say, for the things I want more detail on, I need to go to a different media in my multi-media mix.”
The 21st Century Newsroom
Behind the scenes, Northrup sees reporters having a level of autonomy much closer to the controversial Matt Drudge, than to 19th and 20th century standards. Drudge, of course, is the Internet muckraker who has broken many stories, not the least of which was President Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky imbroglio. While he dresses the part of the traditional print reporter, appearing on TV with a rumpled brown fedora and loosened tie, Drudge’s “newsroom” is stripped down, and if not on the cutting edge, is certainly high-tech, especially when compared to the traditional reporter. With no real background in conventional journalism, Drudge has turned a telephone, and an old 486 computer with an HTML editor and Internet access, into first a Web site, and then a multimillion-dollar, multimedia news business called the Drudge Report.
Rather than being the quirky exception to the rule, Drudge’s independence and entrepreneurship, if not his mercurial content, may very well be a harbinger of the future of journalismthe freelance reporter who isn’t employed by any newspaper but either self-publishes, like Drudge, or sells his news on the open market.
When reporters start using much more advanced technology than Drudge’s initial arsenal, how the news is reported will dramatically change. But, Northrup says, it may be a while before the technology is fully accepted by most editors, to whom change is anathema. “Organizationally, newspapers in the United States in particular have a good ways to go before they are ready to feel comfortable with that sort of reporting core.”
Why? Because many senior editors of big-city newspapers are uncomfortable with having so many of the writers “in the field” and therefore decentralized. Northrup’s goal is to change the perception of editors who feel threatened by technology, and make them comfortable with the idea of their reporters almost never being in the newsroom.
E-lancers on the Scene
Let’s use a large and entirely hypothetical contingent of expatriates from Scottsdale, Arizona now living in France, who still want coverage of their old home town as an example of how Northrup’s strategies could impact how their news is reported. Northrup says their local French newspaper “might want to get a hold of some ‘e-lance’ news group in Scottsdale and buy a report from them on a weekly or daily basis to satisfy these readers.”
Northrup clearly likes buzzwords such as e-lance and e-lancer, to describe the electronically enhanced freelance reporter. All of the technology to put e-lancers to work exists today, and over the course of this decade, the ramifications could provide them some impressive new leverage and opportunities.
As an example of this leverage, Northrup goes back to his hypothetical. He describes a group of reporters in Scottsdale who know all of the major contacts at the Scottsdale, Arizona city hall. These reporters decide that they’d rather cover their beat independently, rather than work for a single news organization, and so the reporters decide to create their own news bureau. Through the Internet, Northrup pictures these newly minted e-lancers saying, “‘We are going to cover city hall topics every which way, in all the different media - text, video, audio. And we’re going to then sell, license, and franchise our content out to any newspaper, television station, or radio station, having an interest in our local politics.’"
Northrup sees these e-lancers using advanced technologies such as PDAs to access the Internet to do research, and speech recognition software to send typed stories directly out from their cell phones.
While this is a very attractive model to the typical journalist currently bound to a single employer, not surprisingly, Northrup believes that major news organizations will initially oppose the idea, or at least have major reservations. “They will probably never want to completely give up their own news staffs, and be completely reliant on e-lancers, and then be in a position where if they want big, breaking news coverage on something, they’ve got to bargain for it every time.” But Northrup feels it’s possible that the big corporate news organizations might use these outsourcing methods to cut some of their high overhead and staff costs, particularly on those beats that don’t require daily coverage.
Clearly, there are numerous issues that have to be worked out. But there are 1,700 newspapers who are members of Ifra, 250 of which are in the U.S. - and they’re all listening to Northrup. If only a few of Northrup’s ideas are implementedand you can bet some of them will behow we get our news, and how it is reported will soon be radically transformed by technology.
When this happens, how do you suppose you will hear about it?