Monday, September 25, 2006

Changes in Online Journalism: Big Media Can Learn from a Student Effort

A webzine developed by a journalism class at Arizona State University (ASU), with its fantastic splattering of issues pertinent to college life, hardly seems to have any direct correlation to a blog written about business journalism topics. While the dialogue between the practice of business journalism and changes to the news industry is a very topical discussion, it would seem that facilitating a similar conversation between business news and college undergraduates is nearly impossible. Those under that assumption would find it untrue after a visit to The Devil’s Tale, the fall 2005 version of the online Cronkite Zine. The webzine serves as an intriguing example of the direction journalism may be heading in terms of accessibility to readers. The online environment, news organizations have already witnessed, is becoming the public's preferred portal to receive news. Since readers of business journalism typically tend to demand their news more quickly than readers of other topics, they are even more likely to seek information from the internet. Business news organizations can look to The Devil’s Tale as a prototype of online journalism's future: the transition of a generalized scope in news to a finely-focused production catering to a small niche group. The webzine, operating without an enslaving profit motivation, has the ability to freely segment news seekers in providing stories topical only to ASU students. Though business news organizations will likely want to widen their target audience, the site provides a pliable model for personalizing the news.

Online versions of newspapers, including those specific to the financial community, closely resemble their paper counterparts. Their layout functions much like conventional publications, with news links divided in a fashion that corresponds to formalized newspaper sections. According to the Web Style Guide – an online tool, similar to a style guide in the traditional book form, that suggests design and style guidelines for websites – leading “news sites have largely adapted the existing design genres of print newspapers and magazines to the smaller format of the Web.” Indeed, most online news sites have not strayed from the paper news’ formula. Citing The New York Times’ website as an example, the style guide observes that the online designs are “well-established print precedents.”

The Devil’s Tale does not suffer from this unfortunate lack of java creativity. Its staff has met the challenge of reinterpreting news form to better fit the context of the online realm. The staff's efforts to bring the publication to online readers have been met with such success that the site was a nominee in the student category of the 2006 Webby Awards. In fact, the site has completely reorganized the entire structure of its news links, evoking categories more over-arching than the historic news section titles that other online news sites have adopted. The Web Style Guide directs site developers to “arrange the content to best meet [the] audience’s needs.” Arranging its website according to “issues,” “people," "photos," and so on, the site is successful in its presentation of a sampler of topics that focus on terms more accessible to students than the usual journalism constructs of "local," "state," "world," or "politics." This theme of accessibility continues with the hyper textual links that display a picture and an enticing “teaser” lead upon scrolling over each article headline. Students would certainly be drawn to read an article whose teaser proclaims the nail technicians around their campus talk about clients while performing services. Teasers and other conventions of the site’s design require users to download a flash player, but the experience atypical of a news website remains unmitigated.

Although specific figures of the number of hits and time duration readers spend on the webzine’s site are not available, it is reasonable to surmise that The Devil’s Tale has claimed a portion of ASU’s news audience for itself. Perhaps the genesis of the project, the webzine has created an alternative news outlet to The State Press, ASU’s daily newspaper (which also posts its articles online) for the university community. While the Press' main focus is to report headline news of the day, the webzine has made itself appealing by producing “featurized,” non-breaking news content. The layout of the site resembles an interactive art magazine more than a staid newspaper formatted line-by-line. Some reasons for adapting this design from a conventional journalism layout probably came from pressure to attract more of the escalating numbers of people that read news online. The Pew Internet & American Life Project has recorded statistics in its "Usage Over Time" section that show in January 2005, up to 75 percent of men and 71 percent of women polled have gone online for news content – significant growth from March 2000 figures where 66 percent of men and 53 percent of women were online news readers. The Webby Awards considers site structure and navigation as criteria in its judging process, qualifying a successful site as one that conceives "a mental model of the information provided."

The Devil's Tale wants to engage the online audience rather than simply inform it. Evidence of this intent is witnessed in the site's reliance on large, moving tabs that organize topics by splicing news into categories previously discussed in this blog. After reviewing the site's divisions, the reader is not forced to scroll to choose a destination. Instead, the articles float towards him. In a movement that is not unlike a turning page, he is aware that he has chosen to enter a specific section and understands the identiy of it with a pertinent graphic. Through the site's archives section, it is observed that four of the five past versions of the webzine utilized a design with flashing pictures and headlines. Though the designs were still distant resemblances from other websites, flashing content revealed that their goal was similar: convince visitors of news' immediacy. Previous versions of the site were in denial of the non-breaking quality of their news. The current version discontinues the almost offensive flashing graphics and allows readers more direct control of the content that appears on their screens, increasing the site's capacity for reader interaction. Although this outline structuring of the site is quite engaging, the secondary destination pages - the webzine's news content - are limited in interactivity opportunities. Not intended to be maintained after the initial post, the website engages its readership with maps and quizzes in place of adding new pictures and user comment functions.

The site's content is a driving factor for its existence as a news website. One of the most significant portions of the site is its copy. Journalist Kanupriya Vashisht's first person prose declares in the lead of her article, "I had this urge to dive into a soothing mantle of silver stars." Almost every piece of journalism of the zine - including radio sound bytes - is written with the use of first person lead. Rarely does that voice fade into third person lower in the article. This "I" convention results in a fresh, compelling writing style that makes little application of journalism's staple inverted pyramid. Even some of the site's copy is presented with complexities not usually seen in news articles. "Dying for the Story," a specially-formatted piece by a group of journalists has interactive copy that differs on each page.

Equally important in communicating the essence of staff writers' stories are photographs, which are used extensively for both their news value and asthetic context, and thus appear on every page. They are sometimes irrelevant to the piece and fuction in roles that do more to identify the author, such as where Marilyn Hawkes pictures herself with her son in her article, "My Own Worst Enemy." The role of Shana Hogan's photograph of the Jerome Grand Hotel, placed in an article titled, "Spooked in Jerome," is one that aligns better with traditional photojournalism. A "photos" section on the site devotes space to photojournalism essays. A stimulating piece, "Through Senior Eyes," by Cronkite photographers documents the activites in which senior citizens engage themselves. As a collective body, the site's feature content inherent in its photographs and copy will likely interest students in issues confronting groups other than their own. The appeal of the webzine's content is its capacity to function almost as conceptual art. Without an action element and the fact that it is cirucularly cropped, a photograph of a bowl in Lindsay Walker's article about artifacts prompts more interest than a photograph adherring to photojournalism rules would.

Considerations of disseminating the news in the online medium are addressed by the webzine fairly conscientiously. The site’s approach to meeting the challenge of satiating erratic readers includes making use of traditional elements in print journalism – copy and photographs – as well as incorporating broadcast journalism’s video content and radio’s sound bytes. Perhaps unwittingly experiencing it, web surfers of ASU’s community are exposed to the site’s appropriate fusion of elements from various journalism mediums together with web design and java script to create a multimedia convergence experience. The integration of these animated elements - another of the Webby Award's judging criterion - adds significant value to the site's experience. In the "interactivity" section of the criteria, Webby Awards stipulates that "good interactivity is more than a rollover or choosing what to click on next; it allows... a user to give and receive." What the team of journalism students failed to adhere to were the guidelines of good copy editing present in the journalism fields they drew from to create this project. Grammar and AP style mistakes combined with a penchant to misplace quote markers and forget spaces between sentences has left the student effort with sloppy copy.

Sarah J. Ellis' article, "Route 61: A Cultural Trip through Phoenix," describes a man as "Hispanic" instead of "Latino" as the AP dictates, while Marilyn Hawkes' leading character is a missed quoation mark. "Fab Frogs" by Rita Washko ends with a grammar error in a catchy sentence, "While this debates continue, nature’s canary is dying." Writer Anya Britzius' entire article, entitled "Home is Where the Mold is," is riddled with mistakes. She identifies the doctor she quotes throughout the article a total of four times. Britzius also commits another major print journalism mistake: each time she attributes a quote, she uses "says" instead of "said."

Comprehending that it is not excusable to publish improperly edited content, major news striving to break stories quickly also struggle to ensure their copy is properly edited before posting onto the internet. Working with softer deadlines than major media, The Devil's Tale staff should have corrected their errors, even if they were noticed after posting. While this issue needs attention, the webzine is plagued with a more serious violation of reporting procedures as some stories contain factual errors. In a piece by Kristin Curry entitled, “Drowning in Debt,” the student loan lender Sallie Mae is referred to as “Nellie Mae.” A major criticism of online news is its lack of authority. Content, the Webby Awards says, "communicates a site's body of knowledge." The copy mistakes the webzine's writers have made question this knowledge, an effect that hinders the progression of the site's credibility.

Other mistakes threaten to shed additional degrees of credibility the site won with its reportage and design. The website neglects to provide links to parent organizations that support it – the main university webpage or the school of journalism. By failing to thread these links into the site, the publication weakens itself in two key areas: it does not benefit from the established authority of these larger entities and places limitations on full inclusion in the online community. Fact boxes extraneous to individual articles are the only links that lend the zine any authority. Still, these links to recognized institutions substantiate the articles themselves. Their purpose is to ameliorate the use of first person in the articles, not provide definitive authority to the site. Even in trying to establish authority in this limited sense, the site struggles. The links the site does post are generalized and leave readers to peruse through them for applicable information. Some may argue that readers’ ability to conduct research themselves demonstrates one of the benefits of the online environment. Because the content of the news articles is based largely on personal accounts, this particular website would be stronger if it followed professional journalism’s lead and siphoned through the provided links to highlight specific information rather than generalizing sources.

While the webzine certainly does not aspire to position itself as a source for late-breaking news, it is difficult to glean exactly in what direction the publication wishes to journey. A visitor can understand that part of the site’s intent is to target a readership segment that is typically more or less unresponsive to the media through the use of a new technology form, but without a clear assertion of goals, the parameters of the project remain indistinct. An “About Us” page is the closest the project comes to explaining itself. The page’s link is included with every article on the site, but it functions as a temptress of readers’ curiosities. Interpreting the page’s title, one presumes that it would include an explanatory text about the group’s overall objectives and then might focus on individual reporters’ identities. This is not the case. Reporters are not featured on the site. Without the aid of job titles, one can only assume the students that appear are those occupying editorial positions. Even trying to find information about the site from external sources is not fruitful. An internet search for the webzine yields an article from The State Press entitled, “Journalism Class’ Site Nominated for Webby,” from an April 4, 2006 news article by ASU student Andrea Adams. Aside from reading the first few lines of the article the search engine provides, only those with an ASU user account may access it in full. To ensure a higher level of inclusion in the university online community, editors of the next edition of the webzine will certainly want to include an outline of the site’s intentions and lobby the school’s journalism department to link to the site.

Apart from a few criticisms, the site serves as an excellent experiment from which media organizations can model future versions of their own sites to better meet the needs of their readers. Some sites, such as the Wall Street Journal and Yahoo’s news service, partially attain this goal by allowing subscribers or registered users to customize the articles that appear with a personalized page. The Devil’s Tale is more successful in satisfying this directive; the entirety of the zine reflects a reorganization of a news site’s components, including writing style and the page's arrangement in an outline form. The webzine successfully targets its readership by meeting viewers' demands to provide information on topics highly relevant to them. Other sites would do well to follow the webzine’s initiative and maximize the internet’s capabilities to revamp news and the way it is delivered.

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