Tightening the Seams

The future is multimedia, and journalists are quickly learning to tailor their work for different mediums

Late last year, Chicago Tribune reporter William Gaines got together with the newspaper’s jazz critic, Howard Reich, to do a piece about jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton.

They wrote the article, and it ran in the paper.

If it had been a typical article, or an average newspaper, that would have been the end of the piece, barring developments that called for follow-up articles.

But at the Chicago Tribune, one of the leaders in multimedia Web content, the piece took on a new life – and a bigger life on the Internet.

“In this case the story just cried out for more to be done,” said Tribune Regional Programming News Editor Mitch Locin, who helps run the Tribune’s broadcast unit.

The Jelly Roll Morton package on the Chicago Tribune Web site, chicagotribune.com, includes not only the text of the original article but also video interviews, an interactive time line, a photo gallery, and, of course, music recordings.

According to Chet Rhodes, senior multimedia producer at washingtonpost.com, that’s just the beginning.

“The Internet will be everywhere,” he said. “Your refrigerator, your car, your watch. And with HDTV just on the horizon, I think that’s really going to push this convergence of text and graphics and video.”

The way it’s going to happen, he said, is that Web pages will begin to be designed so they can be read by any kind of browser out there.

“It’s already happening,” he said. “The new standard in industry is XML, and that allows content to be broken down into its discrete parts so that it can be delivered to and formatted for whatever device it’s sent to.”

THE CONTENT IS OUT THERE

Although larger news organizations have the resources to create original multimedia content, most smaller outfits have a hard time using their Web sites for anything other than rerunning content they’ve already used.

But organizations such as the Associated Press offer video and audio to use online. Some 300 AP members currently link to the AP’s wire.com for its articles, photographs, audio and video.

“It’s a fairly decent experience, even at 28.8 and 56k on a regular modem,” said AP’s Multimedia Services Director Jim Kennedy. “All of our 300 wire.com subscribers are already using video because it’s already on the site.”

In January, the AP rolled out a new multimedia service. It includes a steady stream of audio news summaries throughout the day that resemble anchored radio broadcasts, audio and video clips to accompany major news stories, and live coverage of at least one news event daily.

“It looks like the content is coming directly from the customer,” Kennedy said. “It takes a great expense off their hands. They don’t have to edit the content; they don’t have to host it.”

A few newspapers have been using the beta version of the service since last summer, including The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

Other content providers include companies like Virage, which archives video of political candidates from C-SPAN.

“Readers can search by candidate, they can search by party, by keyword,” said nytimes.com Associate Editor Meredith Artley. “You have the full text of what the candidate says and you can highlight a portion of the text, hit a key and get the video.”

The New York Times also is looking at Reuters and BBC for foreign video coverage, said Multimedia Editor John Decker.

A wealth of free multimedia content also is available on the Internet. Newstream.com, for example, is a source of multimedia press releases, which include corporate logos, video and audio clips, photographs and graphics. Online publications can either link to these materials or download them and use them on their own Web sites.

BATTLE FOR BANDWIDTH

Another large obstacle preventing more multimedia content from reaching more consumers is the lack of bandwidth on the Internet; the pipes, so to speak, that carry the content to the individual computer screens just aren’t big enough for television-quality video, much less high-definition digital video.

At the slowest end of the bandwidth spectrum are the individuals with 28.8 and 56k (kilobytes per second) modems. Even graphics and banner ads take time to download, and audio and video often is unusable. But some content providers have found ways to deliver multimedia even at these slow speeds.

“You can watch Internet video at rates as low as 28.8,” said Gregg Makuch, radio and music segment manager at RealNetworks’ Real Broadcast Network. RealNetworks is a major provider of Web multimedia products and acts as a host for the AP’s multimedia offerings.

“Thousands of broadcasters provide video today at this rate using RealNetworks products and services. Slower-action, talking-head programming is compelling at this video rate, and we find news shows to be particularly well-suited.”

More than half of all adults in the United States already have access to the Internet at this speed or better. A faster access speed is possible with cable modems, DSL modems or satellite links, which are currently used by around 2 percent of U.S. households.

And by 2003, the number of cable broadband subscribers will increase to around a quarter of all U.S. households, according to research by Jupiter Communications.

But even though high-speed access isn’t widespread yet, content providers who focus on the slow download speeds of home connections are missing a key element of the picture.

“Don’t ignore the daytime audience, which is huge,” said Rhodes. “Most companies now have high-speed connections.”

And there’s evidence that employees are taking advantage of these high speed lines.

“ABC News’ Sam Donaldson provides viewing options of 28.8k, 56k, 80k and 300k for his thrice-weekly Internet-only news program,” said Makuch, mentioning two dial-up rates and two rates more typical of faster connections. “Over half the viewers of this show have been selecting the 80 and 300 kbps options.”

Once a newspaper or other publication decides to add multimedia to its Web site, however, another kind of bandwidth problem arises. Even if a reader has a high-speed connection, downloads might be slow because of grid block on the provider end.

A newspaper article of a few hundred words can easily be sent to thousands of readers simultaneously over a narrow access road to the Internet. Photographs, which are worth thousands of words, so to speak, are occasional speed bumps. But video streams are worth millions of words and can cause instant traffic jams — especially during live events, when many people try to access them at once.

The simplest way to avoid such jams is for newspapers and other content providers to use multimedia from outside vendors, who provide their own distribution channels. Setups like the AP and Virage are examples of this solution.

But once a newspaper — or television station — starts to produce its own content, then it needs to find a way to distribute it.

The largest publications are able to host their own sites. For example, The Denver Post site, DenverPost.com, is hosted by the new media division of the Post’s parent company, Media News Group.

Other newspapers prefer to focus entirely on content rather than distribution. Some 200 newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News, the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, The Miami Herald and Newsday, use InfiNet, a full-service company that runs the servers, programs up the search engines, and even sets up e-commerce capabilities for Internet news sites.

“We provide all those services with one phone number to call,” said InfiNet Chief Technical Officer Alan Dawkins. “They (the clients) would not have to hire any technical people. They are able to focus all of their resources and all of their talent and energy on their product, their community and not on solving technical problems or reinventing the wheel.”

Dawkins warned that what many content providers might not realize is that it’s not enough to have enough servers to handle the content. To ensure fastest download speeds, the distribution point also must be close to a major Internet backbone.

“It can be the case that if someone is viewing content across the street from the local hosting provider, that the content may actually be traversing great distances on the Internet,” he said. “Distance does not matter on the Internet. The shortest path on the Internet is not the shortest path in space.”

According to Dawkins, there are two prime pieces of Internet real estate in the United States, where a number of major “highways” cross. One is in Silicon Valley in Northern California. The other is in north Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

“We currently have one facility in DC,” he said. “And this year we will be adding a second facility near Silicon Valley.”

However, not all of his clients take advantage of InfiNet’s multimedia capabilities. In fact, only nine newspapers and television station are currently distributing internally-generated multimedia content.

“It’s a small number,” he said. “But the interest is growing. It’s a strong trend and ultimately we expect it to become pervasive on any news or local community site.”

The question of distribution will become more complex, however, as new technologies become more mainstream. Once a publication has passed the hurdle of producing multimedia materials and distributing them, the content can then be displayed — or heard — in a variety of ways. Although the U.S. lags behind Europe in this field, cellular phones already are on the market that can display a stripped-down version of a Web site. Electronic “books” are available for those who want to download now and read later.

Meanwhile, IBM, Netscape and Sun Microsystems have joined forces with GM’s Delphi Electronics to build a “network vehicle” — potentially opening up the drive-time market to content that commuters couldn’t previously access while keeping their eyes on the road and their hands on the steering wheel.

This means that content providers — who had only been worrying about differences between Netscape’s and Microsoft’s browsers up until now — will have to start worrying about car browsers, cell phone browsers, personal digital assistant browsers, not to mention TV-based browsers, and, yes, refrigerator browsers.

According to Rhodes, publishers will have to give up a certain amount of control over the look and feel of their Web sites in order to accommodate the new technologies. “The days of having a perfectly formatted page are pretty much over,” he said.

A QUESTION OF ECONOMICS

Meanwhile, many publications aren’t even starting to think about the coming browser explosion; they’re still catching up to the capabilities of the browsers already out in the marketplace. There are many reasons — the biggest of them financial — that publications are taking a careful look before putting a lot of new features on their sites.

“The bang for the buck really isn’t great,” said nytimes.com’s Decker. “Hopefully, that will change as the bandwidth increases, but we’re definitely not getting our money back at this point. The cost of doing video is pretty high, and the amount of usage that it gets doesn’t justify the cost. But I think it’s important to start working with it.”

This coming year, in addition to the multimedia feeds from the AP and other content providers, The New York Times site will be hosting “Cooking With the Times,” an online multimedia cooking show. In addition, Decker said, the Times will be looking for more partnerships with people and organizations who produce multimedia content.

Other newspapers and television stations still are working on setting up basic news sites — or they’re still thinking about setting up basic news sites.

Multimedia costs money. Not only do newspapers have to spring for better distribution, but they also have to pay for the content itself. Even the lowest-budget alternative, buying a low-end digital camera and PC-based video editing software, isn’t as simple as it might first sound.

“There’s no way that you can send someone to a course for a couple of days and then send them out with an $800 camera and expect them to come back with a good story — on top of their regular reporting,” said The Washington Post’s Rhodes. “I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea to do that, but the expectation shouldn’t be that every day the reporter will come back with a video. Maybe the expectation should be that twice a month the reporter will take a day with the camera and do a story that can only be told with video. Hopefully, these stories are evergreens that stay on the site for a long time, and people will come and watch them.”

FAR AHEAD OF THE PACK

But some newspapers are doing much more than just buying a digital camera — so much that they’ve become pilgrimage destinations for journalists from around the world.

In Chicago’s Tribune Tower, on the fourth floor, right in the middle of the Chicago Tribune newsroom, there’s a little studio that’s been visited by delegations from Africa, Europe, South and Central America, and all over the United States.

“Some universities have spent substantial time here as they try to redesign their programs to make sure their students are prepared for the 21st century,” said Mitch Locin, news editor of Tribune Regional Programming.

What brings them to the Tribune is a new kind of multidisciplinary approach to news production. The Tribune, which also owns CLTV, WGN-TV and WGN Radio, is lever aging all these resources.

Print reporters are often interviewed on the air about areas where they are experts – so much so, Locin said, that sometimes he feels like a booking agent. The newspaper’s Web site, in turn, uses audio and video content from the broadcast stations to augment its offerings.

“What we are about is breaking down the barriers between the different newsrooms to share content of all kinds,” Locin said.

A similar effort is being made by The Washington Post, which is partnering with NBC and MSNBC to produce multimedia content.

“Multimedia could have been a question mark in previous years, but 1999 was the real turning point for audio and video on the Web,” Rhodes said. “In 2000 and beyond it will be a must-have. The whole idea of the Web is people want to get a whole interactive experience. When they come to our site, they expect a certain level of interactivity. They’re going to want the whole enchilada.”