Multimedia journalists who assembled recently at C|NET in San Francisco for a panel discussion on broadband seemed to collectively say: We've come a long way, we've got a long way to go, but today ? right now ? many online content sites are serving up a richer, more satisfying news experience for consumers.
Michael Silberman, executive editor of MSNBC.com, observed that on election night, fully 20 percent of the site's 5.5 million visitors went to a video page to watch a video stream of election coverage, such as concession and acceptance speeches from around the country. That's more than a million people who chose the Web over watching the coverage on their television sets. 'That, to me, is a real sign that broadband has arrived,' he said.
'At MSNBC we think about broadband in two ways: as rich content, as video, as animation, about how we can combine those elements into a single experience,' Silberman said. 'And we think about it as an always-on connection, making it much more of an Internet appliance, letting you have the option of having a kick-back, more passive entertainment experience.'
It's those technical limitations that have been broadband's bane from day one. Today the vast majority of online users ? 91 percent ? have slow dial-up connections. The wired elite, who rely mostly on high-speed, fat-pipe cable modems and DSL phone connections, comprise 17 million office workers, 12 million college students and 9.3 million home users. By 2003, according to industry estimates, 71 percent of U.S. businesses and 33 percent of households will have broadband connections. Wired homes will have bits and bytes streaming not just into their PCs but into set-top boxes, Internet appliances, smart TVs, stereos and other devices.
The Internet's second wave
Daniel Webster, West Coast vice president of The FeedRoom, surveyed the scene this way: 'We believe the second wave of the Internet revolution will be a video and audio wave. Are we there yet? Not at all. We're in much better shape than a few years ago, but we've only just scratched the surface.'
Webster said too many Web sites fail to take advantage of the medium's potential. 'When we allow for a multisensorial experience ? the power of video and sound combined with the context and depth of the written word ? the result is a much richer media environment.' Audio, in particular, is an underappreciated tool on Web sites, he said. 'You can multitask to your heart's content while listening to a news clip.'
The FeedRoom, a broadband-only site, aggregates video content from a network of stations. The company collects the latest news, business, sports, weather and traffic video from networks, local TV stations and independent news providers and combines them in a rich-media format that melds television with Internet technology.
'The power of pictures and the interactivity of the Internet to create depth, context and perspective will create a new form of journalism that we haven't yet begun to appreciate,' Webster said. 'Ultimately, you want to provide users with more depth on every story ? unedited interviews with the CEO, locker room interviews with sports stars. You'd be surprised how many people will want to watch.'
On the horizon: Personal broadcasting
Tracy Swedlow, president and editor of InteractiveTV Today, painted a portrait of a fast-changing landscape in which interactive television will dominate our consumer culture a few years from now. 'Bringing television into an interactive environment is an incredibly powerful combination. It'll give people access to a mind-boggling array of news, information, products and services. When the digital signal becomes available to everyone, you won't believe the number of services that will come rushing at you over your television, PC or handheld.'
Televisions outnumber telephones and PCs combined worldwide, Swedlow pointed out. 'That makes a very powerful platform for communication, investigation, interaction, gaming and t-commerce ? e-commerce on television. Video on demand will be a huge application. You'll be able to post comments and interact with others in elaborate communication environments. You'll be able to drill down in interactive documentaries to find out more information about the crew, the setting, the issues, and to share your own stories with others.'
Already, we're seeing the potential of the convergence between television and computing, she said. On election night, PBS's NewsHour teamed up with WebTV to offer election coverage on an interactive platform. Viewers in any state could drill down for more detailed information by making choices to see election returns by state or city, candidates' positions on the issues, acceptance and concession speeches and the like. Viewers could also interact by sending e-mail to others and taking instant polls.
A few years from now, the networks and cable programming will have competition from a new source: viewers themselves. 'Personal broadcasting will allow people to create their own programming,' Swedlow said. 'News will be the most powerful application of this technology, with individuals reporting directly from a news scene.' Costs are still prohibitive today, but a basic setup, including uplink to a satellite, could come down to $10,000 in three to four years. Mass personal broadcasting is at least seven years away, she estimated.
While users today can post a video clip on their home page, she said, 'Personal broadcasting is about push rather than pull. People will be able to tape their own video, edit it, beam it up to a satellite and broadcast it all over the place. You'll have a much more robust experience because the speed of satellite transmission is so much greater than Internet connections.'
Broadband's proper role
Jai Singh, founding editor of the tech news site CNET News.com, recalled the pioneer days of broadband: 'Back in 1996 when News.com was just starting out we called it multimedia. We would go to a press conference with our DAT recorders and bulky video recorders, upload a multimedia package to the site, and guess what? People read the stories but nobody gave a hoot about the video or audio.'
Today, Singh said, 'that's slowly changing. There's certainly increased interest in broadband now. If we put up a video that complements a high-visibility personality or newsmaker, we get high click-throughs on some days and not so high on others.' He wouldn't disclose click-through rates for competitive reasons.
Singh showed the 105 onlookers at the Online News Association event a streaming video clip that News.com had run on the resignation of a vice president at Oracle. 'For users who follow Oracle closely, they wanted to hear first-hand from this executive why he left the company, in his own words and without our interpretation.'
One factor that drives the decision on whether to add video to a story is whether the segment has the potential to make News.com's television program that airs on CNBC every weekend. A second factor is whether the news subject can be interviewed in a setting with the required technical setup: A video feed requires a fiber-optic line or satellite uplink to handle the transmission.
At the financial news site CBS MarketWatch.com, Neil Chase, managing editor for broadband, said news value is the sole driving force behind whether to add multimedia to a story package. 'It's based on what the lead stories are and how long they're going to be around before they drop off the site,' he said.
Chase related the internal debate at CBS MarketWatch over whether to break out broadband into a separate channel on the site on a par with Personal Finance, Mutual Funds and Commentary. 'I came aboard a year ago and said, 'Wait a minute. Broadband isn't a separate channel, it's a delivery method.' ' After much internal debate, he said, 'I lost that battle,' so there's now a separate channel for broadband on the site's main page. At the same time, broadband is being integrated into the main news offerings.
Chase said CBS MarketWatch is trying to broaden broadband's appeal to a wider audience. 'We realize that the term broadband is scaring people away. We're thinking of calling it TV and radio.' Internally, Chase said the site's editors are encouraging reporters to think outside the box. 'We're pushing people to think of things not as audio or video or text, but as stories. This is really about story-telling. Right now we're pushing harder on audio than video because it's easier to get.'
Students: Get your hands dirty
News consumers with whippet-fast connections have a bounty of options these days: streaming video from CNN.com and washingtonpost.com, audiocasts from NPR and ABC, live market coverage from Yahoo's FinanceVision.
That trend toward multimedia will only accelerate in the coming years, said Roland De Wolk, a producer at KTVU Investigative Reports and an online journalism professor at San Francisco State University. Today, 90 percent of the content on the Web is text, but as the pipes grow fatter, 'text will become more of a supplement rather than the main meal,' De Wolk told the crowd.
'I have news for you,' he said. 'A lot of what we're talking about tonight is about broadcast and television, and about how to wed those traditions to the plasticity and interactivity of the Web. Everyone in this room who's interested in going into new media has to become a producer. And that means a reporter seeking original news and information, not just refried beans ? repurposed content. It also means being able to provide real depth and telling compelling stories by harnessing the tools of audio and video that really drive audiences.
'That old journalism adage, 'Show, don't tell,' is best told in a broadband medium. Show it, don't tell it ? make sure you put the newsmakers on your site so that people can see the news first-hand.'
Even though broadband isn't pervasive yet, De Wolk tells his students, 'You've got to get ready. It's the charlatans and poseurs who'll take over if you don't, and by the time the real journalists come along to fill these positions it'll be too late.'
Swedlow of InteractiveTV Today ? who has written a white paper on interactive enhanced television geared toward content providers ? also advised students and aspiring journalists to pick up experience as a multimedia producer to supplement their journalism skills. 'You're going to have to tell the story not just in text but in video and audio and applications and interactive tools. So I encourage you to immerse yourself in the subject and participate in a collaborative way so that you can speak the same language as the technicians you'll be interacting with on the job.'
Students thinking about a career in journalism need to develop multi-dimensional skills set so that they can confidently navigate this fast-changing new media landscape. It's time to dig in and get your hands dirty.