According to Klinenberg,

“…today newspapers have plenty of competitors for revenue. They’ve lost most of their classifieds. Their advertisers are cutting back, or posting ads online at a fraction of the price they used to pay to be in print. Their audience is refusing to subscribe if they can get content for free. The local TV stations they purchased are also in trouble. And the industry’s technological fantasy, that they could merge print, TV, and Internet reporters into efficient and more profitable multimedia operations, just hasn’t panned out.”

While most evidence would support this observation about multimedia at this point in time, I would say that Mr. Klinenberg’s comments are actually reflective of a much deeper, longer-held reality.  Historically, newspapers have been skewed fundamentally in their organizational structure and focus of reporting energy.  Rather than striving for equality between text and visual resource expenditures, and equality in actual display in print, most newspapers have created work processes and staff structures that place overwhelming emphasis on text as the point of focus for creating new information and sharing it with the public.  Storytelling and information development is done principally through the prism of text.

Further, in the world of print, photography is employed most often in a subservient role to text, supporting and validating facts expressed in the text reporting.  Or alternatively, images are used often as attention-getting devices, similar to headlines.  Limited resources, held in thrall to such missions, help explain perhaps why multimedia has had such a hard time gaining traction within news websites created by big media companies in the past 15 years. Old habits have carried over to the online world and practitioners have struggled to overcome these constraints in a new environment for storytelling.

It is true that strong multimedia reporting can be a time-consuming, labor-intensive proposition and not necessarily a route to the kind of profit margin expectations that were routinely met in the last 20 years of the 20th century.  As media organizations struggle to stay afloat on the premises of current business models, there is little incentive to change staffing structures or shift resource allocations.  My frequently asked question about  staffing whenever I enter a newsroom has yielded a remarkably consistent ratio, regardless of newsroom overall scale.  Invariably, the ratio of those working with visual content versus those with text is in the range of 1:8 – 1:20.  There is little deviation from these percentages.

At the same time, this disparity is accentuated by very different expectations placed on those who produce text versus those who create visual journalism.  Until recently, most newspapers would think little about allowing a print reporter to work a week, a month, or even several months on a big story.  At the same time, newspaper photographers and online video journalists are expected to cover multiple assignments daily.  Many newsroom managers would regard the visual journalists as insufficiently productive if they were to seek the same opportunities for narrative story-telling observation being accorded text-producing peers.

To me, these are value judgments built into the DNA of media organizations, and yet never questioned as to their impacts.

I don’t think we can gauge accurately the audience’s appetite for visual journalism storytelling and their appreciation of multimedia in the online world until resources and effort are allocated in a more even-handed way and online presentations reflect more parity between visual information and that supplied by text.

Per Mr.Klinenberg, this may all be too wrenching a change for media companies to contemplate in the current environment.  But notwithstanding the challenges securing revenue and market share, I wonder why these same companies aren’t willing to reconsider all operational decisions in light of declining audience interest and support for their journalistic activity.  Something more than the business model is amiss.

If he is right, then it would seem aspiring multimedia journalists, newly-minted by university journalism programs, have no choice but to invent new company structures to take advantage of the democratized delivery platforms now afforded by technological innovation and the Internet. They need to do so to avoid be trapped and thwarted by the limiting media organizational structures, text-centric as they have been until now.

As a veteran visual journalist, I’d work happily alongside young talent seeking to create alternative mechanisms for content creation and delivery, simply because I think it affords a better chance for creating meaningful multimedia journalism than a system that is so stacked against doing effective multimedia reporting.

For those of you working as visual journalists inside mainstream media companies, I am interested in your thoughts on this topic.  Do you believe multimedia is “dead on arrival” within your company as a journalism form/force due to the concerns over production costs?  Do you believe it can still be a vital force for reconnecting journalism with an audience in the future?  Do you think it can reach full flower only if developed outside today’s large media companies?  Let me know your thoughts.  Thanks.