BY MARK BLAINE | OB BLOGGER
In early October, Oregon Public Broadcasting's Thin Ice: Exploring Mount Hood's Glacier Caves appeared, and it's an interesting example of what traditional local news outlets can do to diversify their approaches to stories. What's also interesting to me is a small thing: I can't remember how I learned about the story. I do know, however, that it wasn't by tuning in to one of OPB's traditional outlets. I found it in the space outside of the regularly scheduled broadcasts.
This is a story that was going to be hard for me to miss: I teach digital storytelling and I like to play and work in the mountains. One of my networks was going to feed it to me pretty quickly, and that's the digital story strategy: Effective stories work across platforms, and incorporate partners and networks.
Is this the future of news? For some of us who are in this business, it's what we wish we could be doing with every story, but stories of this scope, both technically and traditionally, don't come along every day, and they're expensive and time consuming to produce. The story invited comparisons to last year's New York Times' multimedia story Snow Fall about a deadly avalanche at Tunnel Creek in Washington, which was an amazing high-end mix of media.
Not every story deserves or is suited to such a range of applications. But the heart of Thin Ice, its flexibility in presentation and its coverage of many platforms does point a way forward for storytelling and news. The story doesn't run in lockstep with a television time slot, rather it's built to connect with readers in many ways. You could wait to tune in to Oregon Field Guide, but you don't have to. That's an articulation of both the problem and the solution for local television.
Having lots of digital edges, having many ways in for readers and users to find and consume stories, is a problem that newspapers have struggled to manage. Local television has been spared much of the disruption, until now, writes Terry Heaton in NetNewsCheck.com. Heaton's prescription sounds a lot like many other predictions made for print media, and he makes the point that the industry itself doesn't pay much attention because it may be hard to believe that we're about to enter a world in which people have other things to do at 6 o'clock than watch 6 o'clock news. This is a world with multiple screens, over-scheduled audience members who want programming delivered on their terms, and an advertising model that goes straight to consumers and voters, bypassing local television.
His observations are obvious, but that's his point. How can a whole industry be so blind to the change in the market? In these arguments, the discussion often turns to backing up the prediction with data, evidence that usually has a hard time standing up against the solid numbers of the status quo. Anyway, it's not so much blindness but a rational unwillingness to step away from a core, very profitable business into an unknown new model. For now, according to Pew Research, local television numbers are still pretty good, with a record year in 2012, but Heaton points out that the newspaper crash began with a record year, "hardly a bellwether of comfort and joy." As for quantifying change with data, we now have the advantage of hindsight in a parallel industry: Just look at the recent calculation of how much Craigslist affected newspapers. That's a big blow from the newspaper perspective, but if you look at it from the user's point of view, classified-ad buyers saved billions of dollars on a system that served them better.
What a similar decline in television news will do to our local communities is open for speculation, but changes in the local television business model will have a profound effect on local media in general, from news to advertising. That's why OPB's recent diversified approach – by innovating around questions of audience, platform and partnerships – is a hopeful sign.
As a local broadcaster, OPB's funding model is different from other commercial television stations, but its foundation is in traditional radio and television programming. The philosophy that has moved OPB forward in the last few years is reflected in the content of projects like Thin Ice. Particularly, they're rethinking audience and experimenting with a networked model of story development and dissemination with the Public Insight Network, an initiative that started with Minnesota Public Radio, and is networked with American Public Media. With a $302,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Community Information Challenge, OPB is also establishing a collaborative network of other news outlets across the state that's a model for developing more robust rural coverage.
OPB's moves, Craigslist's takeaways and local television's reality check point to a user-centered approach to media as we go forward, one that tests and develops content just as technologists test and develop platforms. Thin Ice used most of the tools in the multimedia digital kit and distributed the story in web text, web audio, radio and television platforms: a rich visual exploration of a compelling story by Amelia Templeton and Ed Jahn. But even after all of that, the first comment on the web story that went with the Soundcloud web audio piece was a request for more pictures. The audience is hungry for content, and we just have to keep finding new ways to deliver it.
Mark Blaine blogs on the media biz for OregonBusiness.com. He is an award-winning investigative reporter and the coordinator of the Gateway to Media series in the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications.