Yahoo Leaps Into Media Void

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before an information tool such as a search engine grew into a source of information on its own. Yahoo last month took that leap, announcing Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone, a multimedia effort to bring online news to life.

Yahoo says that it is not looking to duplicate the efforts of other journalists, but instead will send Sites, a journalist and blogger who has covered war zones throughout the world for a variety of news organizations, to unique locations spanning the globe.

Yahoo also says that it will continue to broaden its range of original content and is already in the process of hiring financial columnists.

Hit the Refresh Button

Whether Google and Microsoft, Yahoo’s two biggest competitors, will follow in its footsteps remains to be seen. What is clear to many of those who study and practice journalism is that news gathering and dissemination could use a refresh, and Yahoo’s effort is a good start.

“I think it’s ambitious and laudable, and a terrific crucible for trying out new systems and genres for reporting,” Leslie-Jean Thornton, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s journalism school, told TechNewsWorld. “That it’s being done by a ‘non-journalism’ organization is particularly interesting. What does it say when a journalistically sound project of this scope, produced by a small team of professionals, finds its venue outside the news giants that are traditionally associated with large-scale, ‘big picture’ reporting? Most are so resource-starved that they couldn’t begin to launch something like this.”

But what is “something like this” and how does it differ from traditional reporting?

Jane Ellen Stevens, a freelance reporter who teaches multimedia reporting at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, says: “The two underlying characteristics of multimedia reporting are that the stories are solution-oriented and interactive. That’s how the Internet began — people asked a question and then they themselves searched for an answer. When the Web appeared, so did multimedia reporting, which is some combination of video, still photos, audio, graphics, text and interactivity presented in a nonlinear format in which the information within each medium is complementary, not redundant.”

Breaking With Tradition

While Microsoft’s joint effort with NBC, MSNBC, offers some multimedia content on the Web, it is more entrenched in reporting traditions. Yahoo, however, insists that it will not establish newsrooms or expand into covering the same ground as other media outlets. The “hot zone” site contains photo essays, video and opportunities for reader comment and discussion as well as text. It is also available in an RSS feed.

“It lived up to its words when the Sites team decided to continue focusing on the Congo rather than move to Pakistan to cover the earthquake,” Thornton said. “There’s one line from that dispatch that haunts me: ‘We decided it would be irresponsible to swap the reporting of one people’s suffering for another’s.’ There are too many overlooked stories in the world. Sometimes it’s because journalists don’t see them, but more often they can’t find a way to get to them within the scope of what they need to do on a daily basis.”

This approach moves Yahoo into a different arena; while it is still competing with Google for unique sets of eyes, it may be grabbing those page views from different sources.

“If organizations like Yahoo embrace the characteristics of the Web — and among information aggregators, Yahoo is leading the way in this transition — then it will become a major media company,” Stevens said.

“The Knight Ridders, the Tribune [media] companies aren’t likely to be the powerhouses that they once were.”

Thornton agrees that the face of news gathering and reporting is in flux.

“I think we’re being given phenomenal tools with which to work, and as the traditional media ground crumbles beneath us, we’ll need to find new outlets. I think collaboration will be a huge factor, as will technology and, probably, new funding sources,” she said. “I think the news will of necessity be more interactive, meaning that the non-journalist will have a role in ensuring news gets reported accurately, in depth and in context.”

Original Content of All Kinds

Yahoo’s plans include expanding into original entertainment content, but its foray into news gathering has opened a door to a new audience.

“Because of the way the Internet is integrated into more and more people’s lives, these reports stand a good chance of actually being seen and heard, perhaps even understood,” Thornton said.

Stevens’ vision for journalism’s future also looks more like the one Yahoo and Sites are experimenting with. At a journalism retreat, she and 34 other “discouraged journalists” put together a framework for future news organizations, one that includes the need for a Web-based news reporting that may then land in print or on video.

She also points out that the gaps that Yahoo talks about are broader than simply missing a single story.

“Many news organizations just aren’t covering any issues or beats using a multimedia approach,” Stevens said. “That’s one way of thinking about gaps in coverage — just telling stories in the new medium, instead of shoveling the old medium into the new. The other is by the topic or beat itself; coverage of local issues is wide open in most communities, especially health, environment, education, sports.”

As the shape of news coverage shift, so too will the industry itself. Yahoo has taken the first steps into the void. It remains to be seen if others will follow and if Yahoo’s model will work well enough for it to choose to take more steps.

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