Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Is there an Atlantic divide in digital journalism?

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on September 16, 2009

The past year has seen some remarkable pieces of multimedia journalism.

From a stunning biography of a drug addict turned boxer, to a fluent and comprehensive look at the drugs trade in Mexico, to a mind-blowing flash based project on the Great Lakes.

And that’s just the professionals.

Look at the journalism students and you have memorable stories like Maisie Crowe’s film about a boy with a rare genetic condition and Chris Carmichael’s portrait of a family losing their home.

Here’s the thing: they’re all coming from journalists and newsrooms – in America.

US produced multimedia journalismClockwise from left: ESPN, Boston Globe, NYTimes, Chris Carmichael

A quick visit to the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR and ESPN reveal a plethora of enticing, exciting and well produced multimedia projects. Go more local and you can find stunning multimedia from the Boston Globe and the Roanake Times.

More and more have their own designers who work with flash to give them an asthetic appeal as well as journalistic clout.

So what does the UK have in response? The Guardian’s multimedia page has a healthy selection of new videos and the occasional audio slideshow, not to mention some worthy experiments in data sharing, for example this attractive interactive on UK public spending. And there is some nice video pieces – including this excellent alternative look at exam results by John Domokos.

But there are few interactive flash stories, and nothing on the scale of War Without Borders or One in Eight Million (both NY Times).

The BBC News website is (for obvious reasons) packed with original video and audio, and on big stories you’ll find a decent interactive map. But nothing with the ambition and groundbreaking attitude we see over the pond.

You’ll find the occasional audio slideshow, for example this tidy piece marking the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse, but again they are left as slideshows alone and not developed into something bigger.

And it gets worse when you leave London, with some worryingly unimaginative pieces, in small windows; you see pieces like The Fallen (NY Times) and think “in a different league”.

So come on, UK newsrooms, where are you?

Of course it’s all about money, or the lack of it. It is not as if UK media don’t have the talent. But can money really be an excuse? American papers afterall have been hit harder than British ones with more big city closures and layoffs: almost all UK papers that were in print a year ago are still in print today. And of course there are many talented freelancers and independent producers making great stuff, but even that is hard to find.

So what else is it? A lack of ambition? We just don’t get multimedia? Or are we just not interested?

The postcard below awaits your thoughts…


5 Responses

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  1. ciara leeming said, on September 16, 2009 at 8:19 am

    such a great question and one I’ve thought about quite a lot.
    I think it comes down to a lack foresight on the part of our major news outlets…I reckon they see multimedia as something that is an add-on and which can be cut – or not invested in at all…they don’t seem to realise the huge potential that it offers….or, should we say, the bean-counters with their clipboards who are looking for ‘efficiency savings’ on the newsroom floor certainly don’t recognise what we’re talking about here.
    then when it comes to putting together the pieces, it obviously comes down to a lack of ambition – and a lack of funds. Having worked on regional papers, including one that owns something claiming to be a TV station and which does get its print reporters doing some video, I know that time is a huge issue. On newspapers at least, most reporters – and I suspect many photographers as well – resent having to do video or audio or multimedia. That’s for loads of reasons – they aren’t given the time to do things properly, they haven’t been trained well and they don’t appreciate what is possible these days. They have been taught only to put together lame packages that mimic TV news pieces – something that you can’t possibly compete with, and shouldn’t try to….we should be aiming to do something completely different. They are wedded to the printed newspaper and just don’t yet understand that these things can be used in the service of the story. It’s quite a mind-shift from traditional print reporting.
    I’m not sure if those attitudes are the same on our nationals, but there the lack of budget appears to come into play – particularly when it comes to freelancers. I know some of our media groups would expect not to pay for anything multimedia, or the peanuts they can pay won’t cover the time and effort involved in gathering the material and putting it together. As for freelancers, well again I’d suggest it comes down to a mixture of mentality and cost. Self-funding for training isn’t easy for everyone…then there’s the equipment, the time. If you are going to struggle making it pay then maybe some have decided to hang fire and wait until things picked up. I know I need to learn other skills – video and more techy skills but quite frankly I can’t afford it and can’t see when I’ll be able to.
    It seems to me that in the US a lot of this is being driven by forward-thinking professionals (eg Brian Storm, Ed Kashi), forward-thinking universities (I mean, I’m about to do an MA in photojournalism at one of the UK’s best unis for that subject and there is no multimedia on the curriculum at all) and forward-thinking media groups, who see this potential and don’t see it as one other area that they can cut. The US always seems to be ahead of the curve on these things. I guess our job, as young journalists who have recognised this, is just to make sure that we are on the ball and prepared for when the UK finally catches up.

  2. Dan Thornton said, on September 16, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Not to offer either reason as an excuse for the UK not being the equal in terms of quality, but America has had two large advantages:

    – The availability of cheap and fast internet access hit America long before the UK – back in ’99 I came back from a U.S. University which had fast internet connections in labs, dorms, and in private dwellings, to England and 58k dial-up with AOL. Being able to produce anything worthwhile only became available outside of a work environment in the last few years for most people, which limited experimentation and experience.

    – The size of the U.S. market for even a local publication means that the scale for advertising revenue is easier (but not easy) to achieve. Most UK sites are solely focused on selling UK advertising to UK businesses with a UK salesforce, and therefore they won’t get scale and profits sufficient to invest in the resources needed.

    There’s no reason why we can’t get there, and certainly there are non-newspaper people who are producing interesting stuff already. But it takes people to lead the change, and quite often it appears people aren’t willing to look outside UK rivals, unless it’s to explain the reasons why things will never work like that in the UK.

  3. Mary Hamilton said, on September 16, 2009 at 8:44 am

    There seem to be three main problems with doing these sorts of projects at many UK local papers – lack of time, lack of skills and lack of systems. Lack of individual time to create the projects, lack of skilled individuals capable of creating the projects, and lack of appropriate technology and software for both creating and, crucially, distributing the projects.

    I’m baffled too by how and why the US manages to be so far ahead in producing exciting multimedia packages, but I’m willing to bet it involves having more of all three of those elements at their disposal – or perhaps simply being able to acquire them more cheaply. Whether there’s an underlying difference in priorities that drives that is up for question.

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