Is the future of digital news collaborative?

We all know the problems inherent in creating digital news packages: reporting from disparate geographic locations not only bloats budgets but hampers the ability to make timely decisions; slow uploads and incompatible file conversions often lead to breakdown in communication and impede the flow of critical information; the absence of a centrally shared space further aggravates an already frustrating approval process.

Yet even in the face of the recent rapid democratization of media, coupled with the lowering price threshold on prosumer technology, a truly collaborative platform for news aggregation, collaboration and distribution has alluded us.

That just may have changed last Wednesday when USC Annenberg announced they would be the first major journalism program in the country to adopt Stroome, a robust collaborative online editing community developed by myself and award-winning journalist and documentarian, Nonny de la Peña.

Undoubtedly, my connection to Stroome as co-founder renders me biased. But there is no doubt that Stroome addresses a real pain in the marketplace.

Mark Cooper, director, Annenberg Digital News, put it this way: “Stroome fills a current, yawning gap and constitute[s] a powerful collaborative tool for university journalism learning labs and publications, for student media, for citizen journalism, for pro-am projects and, naturally, for legacy media moving into more networked new media.”

USC Annenberg is using Stroome in all of these ways: in USC classrooms; on Annenberg TV News; and on Neon Tommy, Annenberg’s digital news site.

But Stroome isn’t just gathering ground in the classroom; it’s finding traction among working journalists as well. Just last week the Tiziano Project, which provides community members in conflict, post-conflict, and underreported regions with the equipment and training necessary to report local stories and improve their lives, announced they’ll use Stroome to create a series of video vignettes bridging war and geography. The first piece—a look at the lives of those living in the streets of Mogadishu and Los Angeles’ skid row—will go into production next week.

So what makes Stroome so attractive at a time when ‘pound-the-pavement’ reporting is rapidly giving way to cloud-based digital journalism?

We believe the answer is that it’s because there’s finally a platform where both working and aspiring journalists can create and publish accurate, contextual news in real time by allowing journalists to share and collaboratively edit content right in the browser, exchange comments through remix or text, and push their finished pieces out to designated sites— from small groups to national news outlets.

This model, in which multiple reporters in disparate locations contributed to a single story, was once only reserved for newsweeklies or news organizations with bureau budgets. With Stroome, now anyone with a camera and point of view can work collectively to break news.

It seems we’re not the only ones who think Stroome is going to play a major role in rejuvenating the relationship between news organizations and their audience.

The Online News Association called our platform “a new paradigm for visual and digital journalism” at their 2009 conference in San Francisco this past fall. Then they turned around and awarded Stroome the Audience Award for best new startup.

And while Stroome is well positioned to capitalize on the moniker bestowed by the ONA, those who diligently follow the online digital space are well aware that Stroome didn’t introduce video editing to the web.

So why will Stroome make it when the others have found themselves face down in the digital revolution’s equivalent of the ‘dead pool’? Again, the answer is innovation— and adaptation.

Early entrants into the online editing market such as EyeSpot, Cuts and Mojiti all built an ecosystem around simple, easy-to-use editing tools. But these sites focused on a simple feature set rather than offering group collaboration tools that enable multiple users to contribute to the creation of a video mix. According to Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution, “Stroome has transformed the existing wiki model by replacing text with video in the equation. The result is the ‘Holy Grail’ in participatory journalism: a cloud- based, new media platform that empowers communities and news gathering operations.”

But don’t count out the satellite trucks just yet.

Nonny and I fervently believe participatory video is the future of visual storytelling on the web, and we are devoted to trying to use the technology to support the idea that content creation can be a communal experience instead of merely a tool for passive viewing. But we also recognize that we are asking our users to work as much through the visual and audio material as through text. This, we realize, will require a significant shift in thinking.

And while we would all agree that there is no singular ‘silver bullet’ that’s going to save the news business and revitalize the journalism all in one fell swoop, we are of the belief that if we all put our heads together we just might find a way to rejuvenate both.

What is your strategy for delivering news via Video on Demand?

Sure, go ahead and develop apps for Apple’ new iPad, if you want. Sure, I earlier warned that the iPad wouldn’t save journalism, but application development practice never hurt anyone. And the more experience you can get with developing in HTML 5 (the iPad’s substitute for Flash), the better.

But if you really want to get ahead of the tech curve in online publishing, here’s what you need to be playing with right now:

Video on demand.

Last week, Netflix sent me a disk that allows my family to watch its instant streaming movies and TV shows via our Wii video game console. I’d been watching a few shows online via my MacBook Pro, but watching on the family flat screen provides an infinitely more enjoyable experience. (Netflix also offers streaming via several other devices, including XBox and several brands of Blu-Ray players and HDTVs, not to mention TiVo digital video recorders.)

If I were running a news business producing a substantial amount of video news stories, I’d want to cut a deal with Netflix, or another player in the VOD game, to start streaming my news content via these platforms.

Why? Because video on demand, via the Internet, is the future of home video delivery. Not cable television. Not satellite TV. VOD will do to cable and satellite companies what the Internet did to newspapers and magazines. As TiVo and other brands of DVRs freed viewers from having to abide by a broadcast schedule, VOD destroys the concept of channels and networks in television entirely. Decisions about what to watch are made on a show-by-show basis.

DVRs started us down this path, but with VOD, consumers need not wait for a show to appear on a network in their current channel line-up. As soon as its producer allows the show into the VOD inventory, it’s available.

Video producers will need to learn how to compete in that very different marketplace. Brand value will shift from the network to individual shows, stories and correspondents, just as it shifted on the Web from newspaper brands to individual writers and writer communities with the advent of blogs.

How do you package and promote video news so that people will watch on a VOD service? What grabs VOD viewers’ attention and grows their appetite for more video news on demand? What user interface does a VOD service need to feature news options? How do you promote VOD news to people who don’t have a VOD service, to get them to try it? Most importantly, how do you blend advertising into a VOD news program in a way that won’t cause viewers to click away?

These are important lessons to learn now, while VOD remains under control of media-industry-approved distributors such as Netflix and TiVo. Because sometime in the near future, someone is going to develop an easy-to-use open protocol for VOD on home HDTVs that allows anyone with the ability to upload video to the Web access to millions of TVs worldwide. Video networks will lose their gatekeeper function over the home television the way newspapers and magazines lost their control over the flow of home-delivered text news. Think about how anyone can compete with networks such as NPR in distributing their podcasts through Apple’s iTunes store – except that instead of the medium being iPods, it will be home television.

At that point, legacy video news producers will have to know how to compete in that new space, or they’ll be as lost as their print colleagues were when the Web blew open that business.

If you wait until then to start experimenting, you’ll have no head start, no advantage over new competitors, many of whom likely will be your own junior staff members, eager for a chance to pursue stories and beats that you wouldn’t let them pursue. Or former employees you laid off, but who retain deep connections in their communities. (Just as happened to newspapers.) Remember, these individuals, because they will own what they produce and might be financially dependent upon its success, will be more motivated and able to innovate than your organization will be.

So get started with video news on demand. Today. And you have to pull a few folks off the iPad project to do, so be it.

A free-lance prototype: multimedia and entrepreneurial

The University of Virginia prepared Jason Motlagh very well for his career has a free-lance foreign correspondent.

When he applied to take a journalism elective course, he was rejected because he wasn’t an English major. When he applied for a job as food columnist at the school paper, he was also rejected.

But Motlagh persisted, and eventually won a spot on the school paper as travel columnist. His specialty: Travel to fascinating world spots on very low budgets.

Voila. Today Motlagh has five years of free-lance foreign correspondence under his belt and, in many respects, he is the prototype for the journalist of the future: a free-lancing, multimedia correspondent who knows how to market his work and live on a tight budget.

I found Motlagh through my friend Jon Sawyer, who runs the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and who has made Motlagh, 28, one of the workhorse reporters for his up-and-coming nonprofit. Jon confirmed one of Motlagh’s most attractive traits: his “doggedness.”

In the last two years, Motlagh has covered for Pulitzer the massive flooding in south Asia, the Maoist Naxolite rebels of north-central India, the Nepalese Maoist groups, Sri Lanka’s fight with the Tamil Tigers and, more recently, civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

But that rendition of Motlagh’s recent work doesn’t get at the heart of what he does or what makes it work. Here’s what’s telling:

  • He’s a multimedia journalist. Motlagh doesn’t just write stories. He shoots still photos. He shoots and edits video. He does audio. He blogs. He narrates slide shows. And because he does all of those things, he says, he has a huge advantage over free-lance foreign correspondents working in a single medium. Having multiple media skills is “still unusual,” he said. “There aren’t a whole lot of people yet who have gotten up to speed. If you are, you can make clients an offer they can’t refuse.”
  • He’s an entrepreneur. This isn’t a new part of a free-lancer’s life, but it’s becoming increasingly important as traditional clients fall by the wayside. In the last two years he lost two important outlets in the San Francisco Chronicle and U.S. News & World Report. But landing work at the Pulitzer Center, and increasing billings through his multimedia work, fills the gaps.
  • He lives modestly and accepts that there may be periods in his work where he’ll have to do something besides journalism to pay the bills.

This question of compensation is something that bedeviled my class at the USC Annenberg School for Communication last semester. Students were thrilled with Jon Sawyer’s presentation about the Pulitzer Center – some of them were ready to go abroad immediately – but were stumped about how they would live when Pulitzer essentially pays only travel stipends (usually $1,500 to $5,000).

One answer for the foreign free-lancer, Motlagh said, is that you can live abroad much more cheaply than you suspect. “I was paying less than $500 a month for a very, very nice place in Delhi,” he said. “Even had a house-cleaner. You can do what I do and live well. You can buy insurance, get an apartment.”

Motlagh was a few years into his free-lance career before hooking up with the Pulitzer Center. He began with a six-month stint in West Africa, came home to work for UPI for about a year, then made a decision to go abroad full time. Over the next three years he focused his work on south and central Asia, producing mostly newspaper stories and photos.

Then, about two years ago, another example of Motlagh’s never-say-die trait played out. He pitched an idea to the Pulitzer Center. Then another. Both were rejected. Finally, the center said yes, and Motlagh has become one of its chief contributors.

He acknowledges that his multimedia skills are a big reason. One of Pulitzer’s key partnerships has been with Foreign Exchange, the weekly public broadcasting show. Now Motlagh and other Pulitzer free-lancers were being asked to produce short video documentaries that could air on the show. He needed to learn video and shooting, on the fly.

“One of the things I’d tell students is if I can do it, the sky is the limit,” he jokes. “I’m comfortable with it now. I can shoot and edit my own video.”

In addition to giving him free-lance assignments and a productive nudge on the multimedia front, Pulitzer maneuvered to connect Motlagh with other possibilities: He’s done a couple of IWitness webcam interviews for Frontline/World – work for which Pulitzer pays him $1,000 per interview. It also put him in touch with Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways, resulting in a 7,500-word article on the Asian ethnic insurgencies. (Another Virginia Quarterly Review piece, on the anniversary of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, is forthcoming.)

Perhaps most rewarding to Motlagh have been the campus lectures he’s done for Pulitzer’s schools outreach program. Pulitzer made his India work the focus of its schools program last year, and created a Web site that includes lesson plans plans and an interactive chat room. The school visits, to Ohio University, Southern Illinois University, Washington University (St. Louis) and several St. Louis high schools, produced a $500 honorarium for each trip, but also gave Motlagh an emotional charge.

“It’s very satisfying,” he said. “You get more mileage for the work you do; you get feedback, dialogue. You get students interested in foreign concerns.”

I asked Motlagh to circle back to the questions of my students, wondering if their interest in foreign reporting can square with financial realties.

“I feel my case is evidence that this is very possible for young journalist to do,” he said. “As grim as it might look, there are opportunities out there… The other thing I’d say is just go if you think this is what you want to do. Sometimes it’s just being there that creates the opportunity.”

At least for Motlagh, being there is what he wants to do. After a brief stateside visit, he’s heading back to Afghanistan.