When trains cross certain borders—entering China from Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, for example—they have to stop and change wheels. The wheel assemblies, called trucks or bogies, used on trains in Mongolia (and Belarus and Kazakhstan and pretty much all of the old Russian Empire) won’t work in China. These two countries have different rail gauges: the distance between the metal tracks that the train rolls on is 1.52m in Mongolia (called Russian or broad gauge), while China uses the so-called standard gauge of 1.435m. A difference of eight-and-a-half centimeters. You could drop a Chinese train on American or Peruvian or Norwegian tracks and it should roll fine. But try going next door to Mongolia or Russia and you’ve got problems.
So if you’re going to stick with the same train, there’s nothing to be done but hoist up the cars, roll out the old wheels, and install a new set that fits the tracks.
Photo by Nathan Messer used under Creative Commons.
I’ve been thinking about that lately as the media froths in frenzied anticipation of an Apple tablet. The tablet, for which we all have high hopes, is being heralded as the latest thing to save (print) media. Surely it will change how we interact with media online, and it will no doubt provide many opportunities for innovation. But it’s all left me with a nagging question. How are we going to do it?
If these media outlets are serious about going through with this, then creating a feature-rich publication full of interactive graphics and video on a regular basis means fundamentally altering the process from story conception through reporting and into design, editing, and production. (Even more so if they want to maintain editorial standards using the same, probably reduced, staff.) It means people who’ve spent a career working in print have to figure out which combination of media work best to tell a specific story and how producing that works, shepherding the print story through the process along with, say, a video or an interactive Flash application.
For the last few years, I’ve helped teach dozens of journalists how to plan for, use, edit, and integrate multiple media (video, audio, photo, Flash, etc) at the Knight Digital Media Center at Berkeley’s journalism school. They come from news organizations wrestling with their online presence and product. Yes, participants pick up concrete skills, and some actually develop and use them when they return to their newsrooms. But what I consider the key benefit of the experience is the understanding they gain of of the relative strengths and weaknesses of specific forms and when best to use them, a kind of literacy of multimedia journalism. They learn that some things that look easy to make are actually quite hard, sometimes things that seem hard to do can be done relatively easily, and most of it takes more time than they thought. All of it useful whether they are producing it themselves, or commissioning and overseeing these kinds of projects.
When I was a geology student, the more I learned about rocks and earth systems and what goes into making the planet work, the more my perspective on the landscape changed. There was the view as I used to see it, and the view as a geologist sees it. Happens all the time, as someone develops a relationship with a set of knowledge or a craft. After the KDMC workshop, people who arrived with little or no experience could begin to figure out how a video story was shot or a radio piece was put together because they had come to understand the tools and the process.
Anyway, back to gauge breaks and bogey replacements. The media organization is the train. There’s a fixed destination (millions of adoring readers and viability, if not profit). They can see a route that will lead them there. But there’s a border where the track is interrupted. On one side, the tracks are the traditional methods that they’ve employed for years, and on the other the tracks are a different size, a larger set of responsibilities and new methods of production. Hesitate too long at the border and risk being left behind; push forward without planning and risk jumping the tracks entirely. I’m curious to see how they do it, whether they re-tool their organizations, and what it might mean for me as a freelancer. How are they going to change the wheels?
- I’m not saying everyone needs to take the KDMC workshop. But I do believe that editors are going to have to expand their sensibilities and come to a better understanding of timing. It’s one thing to rewrite a section at the last minute, another to re-edit an audio story or re-cut narration at the same time. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it can happen. In individual fields—a radio station, a design firm, a news broadcast—they might be able to do handle that element easily. But here it’s a question of timing the tides so that all boats rise together.
- The general manager of FOLIO magazine, Tony Silber, has a 2010 prediction: “Staff sizes will rebound as managers realize that staffs designed for print can’t do print and a whole host of new initiatives on top of that, at least not effectively.” I agree about the second part, but we’ll see about the first, whether media organizations will invest in more people for regular production. (Incidentally, in that same feature, Bob Cohn, at the Atlantic, makes a hesitant case for collaboration, an issue that desperately needs addressing at another time.)
- If all this tablet stuff works out, expect a resurgence in Flash. Some people are very anti-Flash. If you have the option of using Flash or not, often people will advise against it. It’s long been a kind of black box for metrics and contents aren’t picked up by search engines. But we can hope for innovations on that front, because it sounds like these tablet apps will be built in Adobe AIR, which a contact at Adobe says ought to be known simply as Flash for the desktop. (Tweetdeck, if you use that, is an AIR app.)
- Why hasn’t more of this type of stuff been done already? While the physical engagement of a tablet and the user experience will be new, especially in terms of getting around some HTML design constraints, many of the component features won’t: video, Flash, etc. I guess the tablet has finally spurred media outlets to seriously think about enriching their online arms. Please send me examples of outlets that currently make good use of multimedia, if you have them (other than the New York Times).
- And as tablet anticipation goes up, Jack Shafer at Slate inevitably bats it down.
- Disclosure: I have a freelance relationship with Wired Magazine, another of the expected tablet publications. My views in no way represent those of Wired or Condé Nast, and are not informed by any special insight as a result of that relationship. I have no knowledge of what any publishing groups with tablet plans are doing beyond what they have publicly announced.
- I still believe text and informational graphics are the most efficient mode of communication for media producers and consumers. Just thought I’d throw that in. That’s like the number one thing for people jumping into multimedia to remember. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the best way to tell a story. Otherwise we’d never see photo essays.
- BONUS: For some mind-numbing fun, see the CIA’s thorough list of how much rail each country has and what size gauges they use.