Amy Gahran asks good questions

By David Johnson 

Amy Gahran’s blog contentious.com is a very good read, and she’s one smart cookie who has been asking some very good questions lately in her role as a contributor to Poynter’s e-Media Tidbits blog. Last week, she asked if online journalism awards are old hat and also produced a brilliant post on why journalists should care about online ad networks. These broach two topics that are near and dear to my heart, so I jumped in and commented there, and want to share some thoughts with our readers here to see what the LR community thinks.

Online Journalism Awards are Old Hat

I say this all the time: Online journalism needs to be awarded when it is journalism that takes advantage of the capabilities that only online offers, not simply repurposing and stitching together platform agnostic content that could just as easily be done on traditional platforms.

In my comment at Poynter, I singled out the Lansing State Journal’s database of state employee salaries as a great example of online journalism. You can only do that story that way online. If you printed it, it would be a phonebook in a broadsheet. If you ran it on air, it would be hours of text crawling on screen. Online, you can use the data to tell the story personally, shoot right into the heart of the issue and dissect it in multiple ways. With online capabilities, CAR and data-driven reporting is going into a whole new world now, and professional journalists should start brushing up on their math skills. (Here are two good places to start).

onBeing is going to win big in many awards this year. Rob Curley is good at winning awards. Don’t get me wrong, it is great (Rob’s great, too). But, it also isn’t anything that couldn’t have been done on public access television, or in a smartly produced film, or even in a well packaged print piece of interviews and photo essays, or on radio, like NPR is doing.

But, the database explosion that happened when Adrian Holovaty joined them is truly special. In the history of journalism, these tools and applications do something new that is unique to the online medium. Mountains of data can be filtered and dissected to tell stories in totally personal ways for each person that interacts with them. Even though map mashups are the trademark or much of the work, they aren’t sexy or slick to the untrained eye, but they are informative and powerful and bring something original to the media mix.

Aside from creative presentation of computer assisted reporting (CAR is suddenly very real now with our online tools in the information age, not just a handful of geeky journos cranking text stories out of database analysis), the other thing that strikes me as completely unique to the online/interactive medium is visualization and virtual reality. I carp on the power of using game technology to create journalism all the time, and I am not going to stop anytime soon. We are starting to dabble in flash games, and there will be a discussion at ONA about them, but we aren’t being at all serious about using this new medium for delivering serious information that is timely, accurate and factual.

Games are a $13 billion industry that is living on nothing but candy, and it is time to balance the diet by offering some meat and potatoes. People in the industry dismiss me all the time saying that gamers only want to play, but we aren’t giving them any choice. Can you imagine if when film appeared, we dismissed it to Keystone Cops and never entered documentary storytelling? That platform is the most powerful and engaging communications technology ever created, and we’re laughing it off in our arrogant ignorance of the capabilities and the audience. Mike Musgrove, the @Play columnist at the Washington Post, has written about storytelling as an artform in games, so I am not completely alone in this. But my background in digital media stems from my earlier research in trying to create accurate three-dimensional solid models of archaeological finds, and I believe the technology is rapidly maturing to the point where journalists can start talking about spacial and tangible data in terms way beyond google maps and tinkertoy GIS systems. Offering personal interactivity and immersive experiences in gaming platforms to relate accurate and true models of reality offers storytelling like nothing ever seen.

Journalists need to understand online ad networks

Yes, they do, because traditional publishers in general do not appreciate or understand online advertising. If they did, media companies would have created their own adwords products to compete with Google and the rest instead of partnering with them to get the cheap bucks quickly.

Because they did that, and are now splitting the online pennies down the middle with Sergey and Larry, journalists are getting laid off and having to go on their own. Since journalists don’t want to sell their own ads, they might make a living producing content and sharing the wealth. Take a look at the technorati top 100. That’s your future if you are good. Doc Searls has this opinion.

But media companies used to own every single dollar that was spent in their traditional products. They sold the ads, created the ads, distributed the ads. Now they broker their ad space on their sites, compete with infinite inventory, and wonder why the profits lost aren’t matching the profits coming in. The newspaper consortium with Yahoo may be the savior now.

Papers are widget crazy (and happy, too). In my mind, though, marketing widgets to drive traffic isn’t the game. Selling ads on widgets is where cit-j and core media can make it happen together. The station or paper in the market creates their own ad words program and offers the widget or ad block to the blogger. The blogger signs up, adds the widget and the big media site starts aggregating the rss feed back into the community/cit-j portal. The ad money is split between the paper/station and the blogger.

That’s the part of the Google model we need to copy. Did we forget that we are advertising platforms first and foremost as we went online, and our content is part of building the audience relationship that provides our advertising customers something valuable? Maybe we faced a tough sell trying to get local advertisers into our sites as we put our core media reps out on the streets, but now there isn’t time to say ‘I don’t get computers’ or ‘Online advertising doesn’t work for me.’

I think we are getting it now. I don’t think it is too late. But this is what has to happen to survive. Take note from big online companies like Yahoo buying advertising networks, good news for the Newspaper Consortium. That’s our business, folks. IBS should be trying to do what Revver is trying to do. Is Murdoch there already?

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