The discussion of what’s next was organized around two major themes: blogging and interactive multimedia packages. Despite all the buzz about these topics over the last few years, there is obviously still a lot of uncertainty and trepidation surrounding them. Why, when, and how to launch a blog or Flashy (like the software) graphic are not the only unresolved questions. The more fundamental puzzlement-are these products journalism?-still pops up surprisingly often, and many journalists seem to struggle with what should, by now, be a pretty simple answer: sometimes.
MSNBC.com’s Alan Boyle, who runs the blog Cosmic Log and has spent a significant amount of time developing impressive multimedia packages, tried his best to dispel some of the remaining fog about the increasing frequency of graphical elements used to buttress traditional reporting. He offered a nuts-and-bolts presentation of what is possible with varying degrees of interactivity, and the minimum newsroom resources and know-how (a three-person team with a point man, which he likened to Charlie’s Angels) to pitch and produce such a project.
Boyle’s matter-of-fact lecture contrasted with a talk the next day by Henry Jenkins, the co-director of MIT’s comparative media program, whose talk moved farther away from the realm of traditional journalism. Jenkins stressed the lessons for reporters in modern pop culture, highlighting video games like Spore, a Sim City-like product that allows users to create a life form and put it through the rigors of evolution. “This is usually something that’s covered on the entertainment page,” he told the crowd, “But shouldn’t science journalists be engaging with a game like Spore on the science page and explaining the underlying principles?” It was good point, but Jenkins doesn’t want reporters to merely cover these games, he wants them to emulate them in news packages. “Traditional journalism doesn’t ask [readers] to do anything,” he said, and creative new Web sites, “teach the public to think scientifically rather than just report science.” But many of Jenkins’ examples seemed to blur the line between genuine reportage and educational toys.
“I feel a bit queasy about the role of science journalism in this-it feels like too much PR,” said a reporter from the journal Science. “Is there a way to define journalism that is separate from all these other worlds?” asked another.
Mindy McAdams, who teaches journalism technology at the University of Florida, spoke after Jenkins and reinforced a few of his points while drawing the discussion back to the type of story-telling that most people in the room were familiar with. Like it or not, she said, “Journalists need different hooks to communicate with today’s YouTube and videogame generations.” McAdams, however, was very careful to point out that she was “not saying that you should stop writing long stories,” but rather was encouraging journalists to think about “layering” their stories in ways that were not possible before, and “letting the reader choose what he or she wants to do next.” The conference-goers seemed fairly impressed, or at least more comfortable, with McAdams’ suggestions and examples, although a few questioned whether research data supports the contention that fancy graphics actually boost readership of long stories and encourages people to spend more time on a publication’s Web site.