Valley of the dolls

Kids! Don’t mix ’n’ match your pills!

Oh, you knew that already. But did Julie Christie in the NUblog’s Movie of the Week, Fahrenheit 451 (op cit.)? Well, no. She mixed pills bearing the wrong colours and numbers, and Morag had to phone up and try to get her detoxed – and, in this illiterate dystopia, all without written words.

Words, for heaven’s sake. It’s what the media are about. (Photographers, we acknowledge your objections in advance.) But two examples show that uniting divergent media builds up obstacles in the simple task of handling copy. It’s another ludicrously misguided idea from convergence apologists.

Down in Tampa, they’re trying to unite a newspaper, a Web site, and a TV station. And she’s not workin’, this.

Because allthree media partners have different – and incompatible-- computer systems, this model of convergence shares newsbudgets or stories by printing out hard copies and running themaround to the various departments.... An even more serious problem, however, is the paucity of softwarethat can simultaneously handle newspaper text, online copy, andvideo.

Every vendor of newspaper composition systems has some kind of gateway to “repurpose” print stories to the Web. But they work no better than a word processor’s export feature, and invariably leave out any kind of hyperlink. And how to you go in the other direction? Someday, a newspaper somewhere will publish in print something that was natively written for the Web, with links and proper HTML encoding and the whole shooting match. What then?

And on-air scripts are very different creatures from any other variation of human writing. Run that sort of thing in a print publication and people will laugh you out of town; do it online and you’ll be Slashdotted to death. The scripts are that different.

(Factoid: Online and in print, stories are edited. In broadcasting, scripts are vetted. Same planet, different worlds.)

Presently, studio composition systems cannot even reformat Teleprompter copy to conform with television captioning standards. (The words always end up looking like they came from a prompter, in ways we could explain if anyone cares to inquire.)

So how can any system, even one based on XML, automagically transform one story into formats as different as print, Web, prompter or radio script, and, of course, captions? It can’t. Reality check: This isn’t a question of markup. You have to rewrite the words. This sort of thing requires human knowledge and intervention every step of the way.

...a whiz-bang demonstration of oneattempt that could efficiently handle electronic and videoinformation – but hadn’t been configured to allow reportersto see the size of their stories. “A single vendor with asolution to all these issues simply doesn’t exist yet,” [a source] said.

Like, no kidding. A person who expects software to mold words is a person who sees beauty in clip art and Microsoft wizards.

Meanwhile, CNN is shitcanning a few hundred people, and we don’t particularly care. CNN, you see, is boring. (We won’t explain why, because that would involve linking to terms like “Stephen Marshall” and “Channel Zero,” and we’re not feeling up to that this week.) A memo explains:

CNN newsgatherers must be multi-skilled and meet the requirements of our TV, radio and interactive services. No longer will a newsgatherer work only for TV or Radio or Interactive. Correspondents whose expertise is TV reporting must know how to write for Interactive and provide tracks for Radio and deliver for them as needed. Newsgathering bosses, at the same time, must be judicious and reasonable in assigning cross-platform reporting. On occasion, for example, a correspondent who usually reports for TV might be assigned to report only for Interactive or Radio, while another correspondent focuses on TV. [...]

Look for the quick introduction of small, high-quality DV cameras and laptop editing equipment (a Mac laptop), enabling us to deploy smaller reporting teams one or two people at times when it makes sense. Larger gear will be with us for some time to come and will be used as needed. But the days of routinely dispatching three- and four-person reporting teams with cases of bulky equipment are approaching an end. As we introduce this new gear, correspondents would do well to learn how to shoot and edit (even if called upon only occasionally to utilize those skills), and smart shooters and editors will learn how to write and track. While this is not a one-size-fits-all strategy and CNN will always value exceptional ability, the more multi-talented a newsgatherer, the more opportunity the News Group will provide that person.

CNN (that is, AOL) has issued an edict:

Mark our words: The living will envy the dead. 50-year-old producers who happen to be held in low esteem and who just cannot get this Web stuff will be slowly ostracized, with fewer “opportunities,” a Business English euphemism rivaling “final solution” for barely-hidden menace.

The programming is bad enough as-is. How much worse will things get when CNN Radio journos start writing Web articles, and TV producers start shooting their own tape?

In truth, divergent media require specialists, not generalists. Experienced TV presenters, writers, and producers should stick with TV, as should radio and Web types, respectively.

But CNN could have gotten it right:

SuperDesk: A revolutionary concept. Keith McAllister’s idea placing CNN’s shift leaders from U.S. and International Newsgathering and our key outlets together at a to-be-constructed Atlanta newsroom roundtable. The results: faster, smarter editorial decision-making; enhanced cross-service/platform thinking/communications; better prioritizing; clearer direction to bureaus; better matching of talent to tasks; create organic continuity, a rolling, collaborative editorial process for same-day and futures’ decision-making; demonstrate “one CNN” by example.

Instead of forcing alien media on specialists, we say combine specialists into groups. CNN now expects one person to produce stories for up to three media. Why not expect a group of ten people (producers, writers, presenters, shooters, editors) to act as their own SuperDesk? They can divide up tasks as they see fit and buttress each other’s weaknesses. CNN seems to want one story from one employee rather than one story from a small crew, as is presently done. Why not ask for multiple stories from a larger crew? The ratio of stories to staff would increase noticeably in the modified-SuperDesk approach.

And indeed, another story suggests the Age of the WebRadioVideographer will not soon come to the bunkers of Atlanta:

“We shared what we have learned with other people in the company – our success and our mistakes,” [some well-paid fonctionnaire said]. “You will always have television producers producing television and interactive producers producing interactive. It’s the way in which they work together in managing the news and info and stories that come in from the field that’s the real true test.”

(No, stupid. Send everyone out to the field together. There’s no duplication: The Web kids can carry el-cheapo cameras suitable for MPEG video, and the now-disparaged-and-interchangeable broadcast crew can carry the Betacams. We concede: Everyone will probably have a tape recorder. But, hey, you can interview more than one source at a time this way, on the record.)

Every advantage conferred to the elite CNN managerial class by the SuperDesk approach should rightly be conferred to the actual workers. Because that’s where the results will actually show: In the programming, not the management.

If you want to form a gestalt, let the right people do it. CNN journos are now expected to perform every task alone, while the managers are granted the luxury of collaboration.

We continue to loathe convergent media.

Posted on 2001-01-24