Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Future for Journalism?

There is a lot of hand-wringing about the future of journalism. Editor and Publisher has a list compiled by the AP of daily newspapers that have been downsized, taken online or shutdown. The Chicago Sun Times filed for bankruptcy March 31. So much for going out like a lamb. Unless to the slaughter.

These are trying times for journalists. Scores of reporters, editors and photo-journalists are being asked to take unpaid furloughs if they aren't losing their jobs altogether. And just when you thought it couldn't get worse. Congress is involved. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi has asked the Justice Department to weigh the public good of a newspapers existence against antitrust concerns created over media mergers. I'm sure that will go well.

According to Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, this isn't an industry that is dying, but rather an industry that is disoriented. So there is hope. But while a lot of stories about journalism's demise focus on business that fail or what government intervention would look like, Rosenstiel says it is the individual journalist that will reshape the information landscape. "Power is shifting to individual journalists away from institutions, he said."

In other words, there are a lot of ways to keep journalism vibrant. One way with great potential was on display for the last Space Shuttle launch at Journalists Miles O'Brien (formerly of CNN) and David Waters along with Astronaut Leroy Chiao did a live streaming Webcast for four and a half hours on launch day. They were joined by guests who had long blocks of time to tell their stories. That's much different from a 15-second soundbite or two-minute live shot. It gave the audience depth and context often missing from traditional media.

Above: Astronaut Leroy Chiao, Miles O'Brien and Journalist David Waters discuss the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery. Photo Courtesy Gene Blevins/LA Daily News

"We weren't 'broadcasting' or even 'narrowcasting' we were engaged in a stimulating, informed, in-depth, lengthy dialogue with a community that is thirsting for it," said O'Brien.

The major cable networks cover launches with a few two or three minute slots in the hours leading up to the launch. Once the Shuttle gets safely to orbit, that's about it. So if you want coverage of the mission and more news on it, you won't find it on cable TV. Network news covers it in their evening newscast. Most newspapers pick up the AP dispatches on the mission. Local TV will always show the video of the launch (the only way video of a Shuttle launch could be more spectacular is if someone figured out how to include puppies in the shot.)

Space reporters generally fall into two categories. First is the temporary space expert, covering the launch one day and the Red Cross Blood drive the next. The other is a true expert on the space program (Bill Harwood at CBS, Marcia Dunn of AP, Mark Carreau, formerly of the Houston Chronicle, Todd Halvorson of Florida Today, among others). But, those reporters are often constrained by their formats. They tend to ply their trade in mediums that don’t take advantage of or appreciate their expertise.

So what happened on was this: some of the best space reporters in the world put on a compelling live broadcast embedded in a resource-rich Web site on top of social media-driven audience interaction. People loved it. The audience got loads of information they would never get in the Main Stream Media (not a knock against MSM, just acknowledgment that they serve their audiences in different ways).

(Left: Space Shuttle Discovery blasts off, March 15, 2009. NASA Photo) The nearly five-hour live Webcast had its share of technical difficulties, but the team was up front with the audience about them. The audience didn’t seem to mind. I talked with friends who watched online and they thought it was thrilling to be part of the event.

So now the key is to build on the success of the first test flight during the next launch (STS-125, set to launch May 12 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope). “The format was perfect to get an instant global audience that stuck with us. But the NEXT live show for the Hubble Shuttle launch will blow the last one out of the water,” says Waters.

Not only did people watch worldwide, but advertisers wanted in on the broadcast, too. The Shuttle’s prime contractor United Space Alliance (USA) was the major sponsor (full disclosure: I have consulted with USA since 2001) as well as ATK, the prime contractor for the first stage of NASA’s next generation of rockets, the Ares. There were other sponsors, too.

USA’s Director of Communications, Jeff Carr (above, being interviewed by Miles O'Brien) has been finding creative ways to communicate space exploration for more than two decades. He says best part of the program was the access it gave the audience.

“The story of human exploration sells itself. Given the opportunity to get close to the action and participate in some way, people will come in greater and greater numbers to 'feel' what it must be like to actually be involved in the story, Carr said.”

Audiences are used to seeing companies (and their spokespeople) in the traditional media. As more and more people make the journey from traditional to new media outlets, they will expect to see those traditional players in the new media.

After all, there’s nothing quite like seeing a familiar face when you reach a new destination.

Bill Salvin

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