Doubts Concerning the “Jacks of All Trades”

April 21, 2008 • Newsroom Management • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 07.03.2008

Judging from the  declarations made during media conferences and the targets defined by top managers in the media industry, traditional newsrooms in the US and elsewhere are transforming themselves into fully “integrated ones” applying content to “multimedia platforms” that offer not only traditional texts but audio and video as well.

However, John Russial, a researcher at the University of Oregon, is putting a bit of a damper on all this excitement. In a survey including 210 US daily newspapers, he has analysed the potentially wide gap between ambition and reality in large media companies. His intention was to find out to what extent the oft-proclaimed goal of fusing traditional print offices with their online counterparts has been put into practice.

The results of Russial’s survey, which focuses on newspapers with a circulation of 30,000 and above, are rather significant. While in many places common editorial offices truly have developed into “integrated newsrooms”, upon closer scrutiny it becomes clear that the traditional division of labour among staff members has pretty much remained unchanged. As a case in point, an average print journalist still spends less than 10% of his time working on online-articles. When newsroomss upload their “home made” video clips, they have been mostly produced by in-house photographers. Even when newspapers offer their own multimedia website, they often don’t do much more than uploading a handful of video and audio articles per week. On an operational level, the desired integration seems to progress rather lethargically indeed.

These findings, therefore, serve to qualify somewhat the numbers that were used only last year by the Bivings Group, a consulting firm in Washington, to highlight the speed with which US papers supposedly are seizing the new opportunities afforded by the Web 2.0.

According to Russial, the reason for this standstill doesn’t merely lie in the proverbial “inertia” of large organisations, especially editorial offices of long-established newspapers with their innate tendency to ward off innovations. The costs involved are a vital factor also. Offering video clips on dedicated websites is expensive indeed – but so far it doesn't seem they are attracting any substantial number of additional viewers/readers.

Researcher and journalism professor Russial who, for many years, gathered practical experience as an editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, advises caution to those journalism schools that are intent on offering extensive multimedia training. For not only does he question how well such “jack-of-all-trades” may actually be produced by training alone, but he also doubts whether they are much in demand at all. “Journalists with specialised knowledge will probably continue to have better chances at finding a job than multimedia all-rounders”, Russial comments.

Included in his survey were two production editors at every newspaper, one from their print and online divisions each, the response rate was 44%. At most newspapers, at least one of the two editors answered, so that there are results available for 74% of all originally contacted newspapers, which makes over 150 (of a total of 210).

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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