Is it time for news websites to stop using Flash?

Like many tech-geek online journalists, I’ve been spending more time with my iPhone in recent months. I use the phone’s Web browser to update my various sites from wherever I am on the road, or even around the house.

And I’m not the only person using Apple’s mobile devices who’s reading my various websites. The percentage of iPhone, iPod and iPad users reading my sites now stands just a hair under five percent, but it’s growing swiftly – up from just over one percent at the beginning of 2010.

So it’s as both a consumer and a publisher that I’ve been following the ongoing battle between Apple and Adobe over the latter’s Flash technology. Journalism educators should be watching this conflict, too, as they need to be making decisions today about what technology their students will need to be able to use in 2011 and years ahead. Today, I’m offering a collection of links for OJR readers who want to get up to speed on this controversy.

Apple’s mobile devices do not display Flash content and won’t be in the future, for reasons Apple’s Steve Jobs laid out in his famous open letter last month. As an iPhone user, that’s led me away from websites that rely on Flash and toward other, more mobile-friendly alternatives.

I’m finding myself doing the same even when I am using my laptop. Ten years ago, I adored Flash photo galleries. Today, watching stuff move on my computer screen isn’t enough to excite me anymore. I prefer user interfaces that allow me to skim and scroll through information quickly, lingering on that which I find interesting and moving swiftly past the rest.

I don’t like having to click and click and click to see something. Nor do I like having to wait for large presentations to load, or annoying transitions instead of instant display when I do have to click. (My wife late last year expressed frustration with Flash-driven websites more eloquently than I could, so – as I often do in life – I defer to her for further argument.)

My experience as a consumer is leading me away from using Flash as a publisher. Is that the case for other publishers? I don’t know. But I think that journalism educators would be smart to start thinking about alternatives to Flash-based presentations when working with students who are trying to find the best form for their online storytelling.

Apple and other platform developers are pushing HTML 5 as an alternative to Flash for displaying motion on webpages. Streaming Media and Wired offer some interesting background suggesting why Adobe’s not been able to convince companies such as Apple to embrace Flash on mobile devices.

But what is HTML 5 and how can it do what Flash has done so long? Roughly Drafted offers a great timeline for the development of HTML 5, tracing it back to the early days of hypertext markup.

Online journalism’s go-to source for Flash training long has been Mindy McAdams, so it’s no surprise that she’s stayed on top of this issue. She defends the continued use of Flash in journalism while offering a sound overview of all that HTML 5 can do. And in a follow-up post, she goes into greater detail about the use of HTML 5’s “canvas” tag, which provides the Flash alternative that many developers are beginning to explore.

Please take a look at these links. Even if Flash survives and thrives as a publishing tool into the 2010s, its use will be influenced by the development of HTML 5, potentially narrowing and sharpening what constitutes the “best use” of Flash.

The controversy over Flash, at the very least, provides journalism educators a teaching moment in which to reinforce the important message that no publishing technology is eternal, and that journalists must be prepared to either train themselves, or seek training, on new publishing tools and techniques throughout their careers.

'Farewell To The Flesh': A Digital-Only Future for The Independent newspaper?

This week’s takeover of ailing UK newspaper The Independent by Russian oligarch (and ex-KGB man) Alexander Lebedev has certainly got tongues wagging. The parlous state of the newspaper was certainly made all too clear when it was announced that it had been sold to Lebedev for a mere £1.00 (and a £9.5 million ‘Golden Goodbye’ from former owners Independent News & Media, in exchange for taking the paper’s liabilities off its hands).

So what next for the paper? Rumours that it will be given away free like Lebedev’s other newspaper, The London Evening Standard, continue, despite its new owner apparently assuring Prime Minister Gordon Brown that it won’t be.

Yet what will happen? Certainly Lebedev will invest a considerable amount of money in the paper, not least because his media properties back home in Russia have always had both his wallet and his backing to rely on, though presumably avoiding any conflict with him. Yet whether this will translate into a viable – let alone profitable – newspaper remains to be seen.

As a broadsheet (despite being tabloid-sized since 2003), The Independent sells only 183,547 copies a day, its Sunday edition a mere 155,661. Compare this to its closest rival, given their shared centre left outlooks, The Guardian, with 284,514 a day, or the right wing ‘qualities’ – The Times and The Telegraph – with 505,062 and 685,177 respectively. It is perhaps with good reason that The Sun’s* notorious ex-editor Kelvin McKenzie described this sector as the ‘unpopular press’ – certainly even The Times makes a yearly loss, whilst The Guardian continues to haemorrage money.

It may simply be the case that there are too many titles in an already over-crowded and undervalued sector of the press. A cynical observer may at this point argues that Lebedev’s actions are those of a billionaire oligarch who has just bought an expensive toy, perhaps evidenced by his son, Evgeny, being placed in charge of the operation. Yet this misses one important point – quality journalism costs money and may in fact be economically nonviable in today’s climate. Outside of rich benefactors and public bodies, how else is it to be funded?

This brings us to the online angle. One possibility Lebedev could pursue is to simply close the newspaper’s print arm altogether and focus on its online version, much as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Christian Scientist Monitor have already done. This does however still pose problems. Apart from the difficulties of making a profit from advertising alone, the centre left web news market has arguably already been colonised, by The Guardian whose site attracts 20,499,858 unique visitors a month versus’s paltry 7,215,928. The TV licence-funded BBC News Online also poses a considerable obstacle – not least with its 350 million page impressions a month. It has better resources, an internationally renowned brand and, some critics argue, a left-wing bias that competes with the Independent’s own similar editorial line. What niche can an online-only Independent occupy?

One suggestion comes from an unlikely source. Libertarian politics blogger Paul Staines, also known as ‘Guido Fawkes’, has always been scathing at what he refers to as ‘The Dead Tree Press’. Yet he also seems to have an attachment to The Independent – going so far as to suggest the paper should go completely digital and become moderate conservative, but also embrace technology the other newspapers have so far not explored – namely an application that allows it to be read by iPhone subscribers, an option Staines sees as a possible financially viable future for print media. Though, perhaps simply by dropping out of print altogether, The Independent could both save a small fortune and provide some room for the other broadsheets to expand into.

If not, then there is the possibility that The Independent may simply fade away, as other UK newspapers such as The Daily Sketch and The Sunday Correspondent** have done. A sometimes innovative newspaper’s final legacy may be that it is the first major UK casualty of the post-print age.

* The Sun’s present circulation is 2,972,763 – almost five times as much as The Telegraph, which is the UK’s most popular broadsheet.

** This publication closed down in 1990 with a circulation of 149,241 – dangerously close to The Independent’s present circulation.

Can the Web forge a marriage between newspaper investigations and documentary filmmaking?

Two weeks ago, Thomas Maier at Newsday pinged me about a project he and the team at Newsday had just published – an ambitious multimedia investigation into the aftermath of U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific. I asked Thomas if he’d answer some questions for OJR readers about the project. His responses got me thinking about the ways that newspaper investigations are naturally evolving into the same space as documentary filmmaking, thanks to multimedia convergence on the Web.

Having sat through so many PBS shows and pledge drives where hosts offer up copies of the network’s documentaries on DVD for $20 a pop and up, Newsday’s initial steps into documentary production suggest, to me at least, a possible alternate medium for newspapers to pursue their so-far elusive paid-content dreams. Forget about reading text on the Web for a moment. How about getting folks to pay for newspaper-produced investigative documentaries on Blu-Ray and DVD? Or pay-per-view or short-term rental via cable, satellite or movie distribution networks such as Netflix? What are the possibilities for long-form video news storytelling?

Robert: Walk us through the short tour of what you folks did, and how you did it. Whose idea was is it to do the video element, and how long did that take to produce?

Thomas: From the very earliest stage, this project was conceived as a multimedia investigation because of the wealth of photos, archival footage of nuclear bombs bursting in air, and the dramatic life stories of the Marshallese who were put back deliberately on their radioactive island as part of Brookhaven National Lab’s 43-year study for the U.S. government. Ideally, we were hoping to combine Newsday’s tradition of hard-hitting investigative reporting with a narrated “Frontline”-style documentary that could be shown on the Web in nine “chapters”, averaging about five minutes or less. With our new owner, Cablevision System Corp., there was also a new opportunity to offer this 32-minute documentary as a single complete presentation without “chapters” on Newsday’s on-demand channel — a new emerging medium that offers the chance to tell our story not only on the small screen of a laptop but also on the much larger at-home TV screen, where the visual and story-telling impact is even greater.

In 2006, I stumbled across a university website that contained many once-confidential documents about U.S. nuclear testing during the Cold War that was made public during the Clinton Administration. Though much has been written about the 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb blast that covered many Marshallese in radioactive, the little-known story about Brookhaven Lab’s actions in the Pacific– with serious allegations of treating people like human “guinea pigs” to learn about the impact of radiation on the human body – emerged by piecing these documents together. By 2007, Newsday decided to send photographer and video journalist John Paraskevas and myself to the Marshall Islands. John and I have worked together for many years at Newsday, beginning with an investigation of police corruption that won the national Sigma Delta Chi prize in 1986. John is generally known as Newsday’s most accomplished video journalist, and I’ve had a long interest in video journalism, dating back to Columbia Journalism School where I won the 1982 documentary prize for an investigation of the mob’s influence at the Fulton Fish Market. Although things at Newsday have been topsy-turvy with three owners since our 2007 trip, John and I continued working on this project when our schedules allowed until the documentary finally appeared along with a 5,000 Sunday magazine piece and on-line sidebars in August.

This project revealed how Brookhaven researchers deliberately returned 250 people to their bomb-contaminated islands in 1957 in order to study the flow of radiation through their bodies. When the Marshallese developed cancer and thyroid problems over the coming decades, more than 100 were paid $25,000 to have questionable thyroid surgery, often without their informed medical consent. For years, they were not told about the rising amount of radiation in their bodies from living on their contaminated homeland, not until they all fled in 1985, leaving their islands abandoned. Now the Obama administration and Congress is being asked to pay for 2007 Nuclear Claims Tribunal award of $1 billion to those from Rongelap, the most affected Marshallese people, whom the Tribunal ruled were deliberately put back on their islands for “military and scientific concerns.”

Our print story and on-line sidebars detailed exactly how things happened, while the video was meant as a epic-like narrative, capturing the sights and sounds over five decades of the Marshallese and the team from Brookhaven, one of Long Island’s most esteemed institutions where six Nobel Prizes have been won. It became Newsday’s first investigative documentary, with hopefully many more to come.

Robert: Did you have to go outside the newsroom for help on this – with production, or at least, training? What help did you get? Did Cablevision get involved?

Thomas: John Paraskevas and myself produced this whole thing as team, with the support of investigations editor Steve Wick, magazine editor Tim Healy and multimedia editor Arnold Miller. In the reporting, John filmed all of our interviews and I edited all the sound bites into a log sheet with time codes, and wrote the script along with numbered photos and clips that pertained to each segment. We were very fortunate to find and collect photos from Brookhaven Lab’s files, the Defense department’s color footage of US nuclear testing, videotaped testimony given before the Nuclear Claims Tribunal as well as personal photos and footage from those interviewed. Both John and I worked with Final Cut Pro (something I think ALL print reporters should know how to do) on various segments along the way, as well as the narration and the use of Soundtrack Pro in providing background music. John kept an eye on the visuals and I did on the story-telling. We both have a deep and long-time interest in documentary-style video. John has produced more in-depth video segments than any Newsday photographer and I’ve produced about 25 separate video stories in the past year. Yet neither of us had been involved in something this seemingly overwhelming.

Although Newsday produced this project independently, Cablevision’s News12 news director Pat Dolan was very gracious in his support. I’m particularly excited by the prospect of making a full-length version of the 32-minute documentary, which we called “Fallout”, available on Newsday’s new on-demand channel on the Cablevision system.

Robert: Is this the most ambitious video project Newsday has done to date? What does a typical Web video project at Newsday look like?

Thomas: By far, this is Newsday’s most ambitious and complex project of any sort involving video. Most newspaper videos are raw visual grabs off the daily news, usually with little or no narration and largely defined by the persons or events being filmed. It is still rare for print reporters to play the role of producers or narrators, synthesizing reporting into a script that is written for the ear as well as the eye. Increasingly, though, this “YouTube” approach is giving way to a more polished presentation, more like the videos found on “Hulu”, which will undoubtedly be appreciated by a smart, affluent suburban audience like Newsday’s readers. Both John and I have been involved in other videos stories of more than five minutes in length, but nothing fully integrated as a 32-minute investigative documentary. We wanted to tell this video in the best form of narrative writing, centering on two main characters – Dr. Robert Conard, the long-time head of Brookhaven’s program and John Anjain, the mayor of Rongelap, most seriously contaiminated Marshallese atoll whose own son died on radiation-related cancer. Over the years, the initial friendship of these two men – which turned to distrust and bitterness – reflected the essential drama of our documentary.

Without a doubt, this was a full-fledged investigation in Newsday’s tradition, both with some really tough reporting here with Brookhaven and U.S. Energy Department officials, and with some very real human logistical and linguistic challenges in the Marshall Islands. During our trip, for instance, we flew about 800 miles in a prop plane to the still abandoned radioactive island of Rongelap, accompanied by two Marshallese bomb survivors who recounted their experiences. Some told us of loved ones who died from radiation, how they got sick or had surgery because of “the poison,” as they called it. In taped on-the-record interviews, they told us what it was like to have their growth retarded by radiation or to worry about birth defects among their children. With the help of a translator, we returned with more than 50 hours of taped interviews and B-roll from our two-week trip.

Down the road, I think the emerging medium of Newsday’s on-demand channel will provide a wonderful opportunity for multimedia projects. If newspapers are going to go “behind the wall” – asking readers to pay for their website offerings – quality journalism will undoubtedly be a main draw. But on-demand cable offerings by newspapers – with HD television viewed on large screens, selected from a menu available whenever people want to watch – may become a natural showcase for investigative and indepth reporting. Where those watching a postage-stamp player in a computer during lunchtime at work may get antzy after a few minutes, a well-produced local documentary report told in “60 Minutes’ or “Frontline”-style may be very appealing to both the audience at home and advertisers. But for John and myself, the sheer challenge of this project – of “flying by the seat of your pants” with a new, emerging medium – was enough fun and excitement to carry us through days and nights of exhausting work.

Robert: How did you decide to draw attention to the video, in print, on the website and within the article? Did you look at any studies or existing data on effective promotion, on-page placement and linkage of online video? If so, what did they tell you?

Thomas: How the stories were played and promoted were decided by Newsday’s editors. With help from our multimedia editor Arnold Miller, we prepared a 15-minute promo – pulled from some clips of the documentary – that appeared on Newsday’s website starting five days before the project appeared. Of course, down the road, newspapers like Newsday might offer a permanent window on their site where in-depth documentaries can be highlighted, and in-house print ads might draw the readers attention to upcoming documentary productions that would be of interest to potential viewers. I’m sure as things change, we’ll get much smarter.

Robert: Have you considered a broadcast/cable presentation of the video, in addition to the Web presentation?

Thomas: Yes, indeed. We’re in the process of re-editing the nine-part Internet version of the documentary into a full-length, non-stop 32-minute presentation for Newsday’s on-demand channel, available to Cablevision’s Long Island audience. We’ve also discussed the possibility of showing the documentary some night this fall at a local cinema along with a panel discussion.

Eventually, I think this new medium of on-demand cable will be the most defining place for newspaper-produced documentaries, particularly if the topic is wide enough and interesting enough to attract a sizeable audience. It will allow video presentations to “breathe” with better visuals and sound presentations, and a pacing that is more engaging to folks sitting on the livingroom couch at home.

Robert: How do you measure the impact of the project, and the video in particular? Circulation, traffic, media mentions, social media links? Policy changes? How do you think you should be measuring the impact of a project such as this?

Thomas: The project had an immediate impact, with the Marshall Island president requesting a meeting this fall with President Obama to discuss the 2007 Tribunal award and whether the U.S. pay will any of the $1 billion damages, including $34 million for “emotional distress” to those people who were deliberately put back on a contaminated island. Ultimately an investigative project like this one showcases your intent to keep your audience informed of the most vital issues in the community. Long-time Newsday readers have come to depend on this “watchdog” journalism. Our late editor, Bob Greene, would be proud of that Steve Wick and I, two member of the old Greene team, were now producing investigative documentaries, trying to carry on the tradition.

Robert: Why did you break the video into so many parts? How do you find the sweet spot between overloading people with a too-large file and losing viewers by having too many segments to click through?

Thomas: Getting a feel for just how long a segment should be turned out to be one of the most vexing questions for us. Our opening chapter was built around our trip with the bomb survivors to abandoned Rongelap island. We used that trip as the vehicle to briefly summarize the consequences of the decision by Brookhaven and U.S. officials to gamble with the lives and health of 250 people, by putting them back on a radioactive island with the intent of studying them. So that first segment – sort of a billboard for our findings — was our longest. The rest of the chapters – which recounted the entire story from the very beginning in the 1950s and reaching chronologically up to today – was told in smaller segments, each around 3-4 minutes. I’m not sure there is an easy answer — except to edit things so that not a moment is wasted. When writing books, I’ve learned that short chapters keep the reader moving along. But I didn’t want to create a rigid template that squeezes out the essential pleasure derived from story-telling (a growing problem in print newspapers these days with cost constraints). Ideally in the future, each chapter in a video documentary on the Web should automatically be linked on a playlist, so they effortlessly move from one to the next. In this case, the chapters were on a carousel and Newsday viewers simply had to click to get the next chapter. Obviously, this documentary wasn’t a quick video grab of a car accident or celebrity sighting, but a long-form story on a website where people usually spend time during their lunch break. Down the road, the name of the game will be to get our viewers to stay with our website for more than a few minutes, and I’m sure hard-hitting investigative videos, if they become a steady diet, will allow newspapers to extend the amount of time that viewers spend on their websites. Great stories, well told. It’s the oldest, hardest, most successful skill of all.

Robert: I notice that you have links to buy the video: How’s that going? Is the revenue there significant?

Thomas: Videos produced by Newsday are routinely offered for sale, and I’m not in a position to comment about revenues and such. We’ve had some inquiries about whether we’ll be selling the whole documentary as one unit, and I think that format may be the best way to go. I’ll be curious to see if we soon offer documentaries like this for sale through on-demand channels. In the near future, I think Newsday’s effort to produce videos on news, sports, documentary and local programming — offered via on-demand channels for cable viewers at home — may emerge as a big part of the newspaper’s efforts and may be even more attractive to advertisers than the Web. This is, of course, for others to decide. Speaking as a journalist, I’m looking forward to more projects told through HD images, vivid sound and music, and becoming a better narrator of my own scripts.

Robert: How do you would justify future multimedia of this magnitude to a skeptical, cost-conscious management? (And if your management loves you now and is willing to fund future projects, how would you advise journalists in other newsrooms to elicit that kind of support?)

Thomas: The future for smart literate newspapers and magazines is clearly in multimedia presentations, showcased in ways that reflect who you’re trying to attract as an audience. The old style of newspaper editors who prefer simply car accidents and cop arrests, turning the Web into a police blotter, are quickly fading. The challenge for newspapers will be in translating the “brain” of the newsroom – all those reporters working beats and developing sources and able to write print stories on deadline – into compelling and complementary video that can be quickly produced, scripted, narrated and edited with the quite efficient technology already available today like Final Cut Pro and Avid. Developing video and print stories together – under the same newsroom umbrella and not as separate units wary of one another – is the only way to go. That’s especially so if your idea is to extend and capitalize on the affluent, well-educated audience of a suburban paper like Newsday and bring it profitably into the video age. This is no easy task, but it should be embraced by any journalist who wants to bring their stories to the widest audience possible. I do believe any print reporter – armed with a small HD camera and after some quick training on Final Cut Pro – can produce a five-minute video to accompany the next important print story you do. In this particular case, John Paraskevas and I worked together because of the sheer volume and complexity of the materials and because we’ve worked together as a team, not only as friends and colleagues for years but also as each’s toughest editor. Documentary-making is the natural video expression of the newspaper investigation series. It’s only a matter of time until newsrooms and their audience realize this.

Join us on OJR on Wednesday, when Kathlyn Clore writes about a coverage opportunity that many local news sites are missing – municipal traffic reports.