This week two major print publications demonstrated that they are valuing visual journalism in the online environment by launching a new product and re-launching an old one respectively.
In their ways, The New York Times with its launch of a new feature – “Lens, a blog about photography,video, and visual journalism,” and The Washington Post with its relaunch of “OnBeing”, a video blog featuring “the musings, quirks, and passions of all sorts of people,” both acknowledge the power of visual journalism as a means of sharing experiences.
Each organization has made an extensive commitment to exploring the landscape of visual journalism in the past decade as an extension of print-based reporting. Each is using visual journalism to connect with its audience and to expand concepts of journalistic storytelling.
““Lens” is a valuable exploration of the idea of creating transparency around journalistic experiences and the decision-making process applied to the creation of visual journalism. In addition to providing greater context about the circumstances surrounding specific instances of visual journalism documentation, it gives the opportunity for visual journalists and editors in the office to explain factors that influence their daily decisions. That kind of transparency is an essential part of the “new” news conversation. In an age where media creation can be done readily by professionals and amateurs alike, and no “newsworthy” situation is escaping scrutiny in some fashion, I think it makes sense to provide greater context and visibility into the choices being made by professional journalists. Further, such expressions need to be tied to certain feedback mechanisms so that journalists have a better sense of the information needs of the audience that are either being under-served or not served at all.
“OnBeing” represents another kind of experiment. In the interests of full disclosure, this feature of CameraWorks, the multimedia section of washingtonpost.com, initially grew of conversations I had with my colleague Jennifer Crandall back in 2006 when I was the managing editor for multimedia there. Jenn and I talked about finding some specific way to give citizens a chance to tell something significant about their life as an exploration of a different kind of storytelling. In part, this grows out of my belief that each of us is unique, has a story to tell, and that there is something in our life that can be, if revealed, of interest and value to others, even if it doesn’t rise to the classic definition of “news.” After some initial brainstorming about concepts, Jenn began developing a method to identify and recruit people of interest to her. Interestingly, sometimes the thing that attracted Jenn’s attention initially did not feature prominently in the end result. Instead, another story emerged in the interview process that was far more compelling.
Some professional colleagues have challenged the value of these expressions as journalism. I respect their right to differ from my enthusiasm in their view of it. I would simply say that it has proven to be compelling to a segment of the audience, and effective as an experiment in the concept of “appointment viewing” taken from the broadcasting landscape and applied to web journalism. In fact, during the year of its initial run, I would sometimes have emails waiting at the office for me upon arrival if OnBeing wasn’t being promoted on the home page in the usual place and fashion.
At a time when mainstream media is continually being second-guessed and criticized for multiple failures, I think it is important to acknowledge that creativity is still very present in large organizations and new product innovations can still be found. Visual journalism has often played second fiddle to text in print-driven organizations. I find that ironic, given visual journalism’s power to convey information with emotion, while still affording the same contextual power in the narrative that well-crafted text can provide. These two latest developments suggest that colleagues inside each organization are committed to realizing the possibilities and garnering support to move forward with creativity. Visual journalism can be reinvigorated when fused with other media elements in the web landscape, and these new features express that well.
Knowing how hard it is to do new things inside large, established institutions that are also currently very resource-constrained, I applaud these developments and hope they are harbingers of a new spring for visual journalism online. I know they will inspire visual colleagues elsewhere in the mainstream media, and I hope they build loyal audience followings too.