/ 18 June 2010

Reinventing journalism

The internet, far from being the bane of journalism, is fast reinventing the industry, led by the avant-garde geek-cum-journalists from the old monolithic media houses.

When distilled to its core, journalism is about filtering data into information that’s easily consumed by the public. It allows consumers to get their heads around almost unfathomable situations beyond everyday experience — genocides, devastating oil slicks, wars and abject poverty. Whereas the power of the printed word offered some glimpse into these other worlds, the internet gives the creative-minded journalist whole new dimensions in which to craft a story.

Written words are still powerful, but integrate them with photos and visuals, animation, interactive features, sound … a story beyond our ken suddenly comes to life; its impact on us and those living the story is cemented.

Leading this innovation is the New York Times. It has established the New York Times Labs, a collection of the best techies, designers and journalists in the world. As a team, they interpret everything from the war in Iraq and Obama’s inauguration through to the everyday stories of New Yorkers with a new passion and vitality that was unreachable in the old medium.

Take its simple, yet powerful, collection of photo essays, One in Eight Million. Average New Yorkers’ stories are told through excellent black-and-white photography, an audio track provided by the subjects themselves and a Flash packaging that makes the experience seamless and whole. What could be mundane (“The Mature Actress”, “The Jury Clerk”) turns into a classic narrative that gives the New York Times a face, while giving the very people who read it a voice.

Staying with the theme of real people, the New York Times‘s coverage of the Obama election and inauguration was a shining example of taking the vox pop to a level approaching high art. Its Anticipation on a City Block combined the most exquisite Flash animation with people’s stories. The city block, close to the inauguration ceremony, featured two churches that split decades ago over racial lines. The excitement and reform on that block measured the hope for American citizens that Obama would help bridge racial divides.

Although the New York Times is the undisputed trendsetter in this new frontier of journalism, it is by no means the only example. The Boston Globe‘s The Big Picture hosts the world’s best photographs. Its simple photo essays, using an excellent selection of wire photos from the likes of Associated Press and Reuters, as well as some amazing archive footage, creates a powerful visual narrative, covering tough topics such as the Haiti earthquake and lighter subjects — space and science being a regular theme.

The Mail & Guardian itself has started augmenting its print stories with multimedia slideshows and videos. Don’t miss Transcend and Transgress, the slideshow and interview with artist and DJ Leon Botha, one of the world’s longest-surviving progeria sufferers, whose collaborative work with photographer Gordon Clark created a breathtaking photography exhibition. One of our first slideshows, Real Boys Do Ballet, links journalist Karabo Keepile’s story of an underprivileged ballet school with Lisa Skinner’s heartfelt photographs.

But the single piece of work that stands out for me is the New York Times‘s Faces of the Dead, a simple grid, each square representing a soldier who died in Iraq. Clicking on a square brings up a photograph of the dead soldier and some simple details. Suddenly, the toll of the Iraqi war is brought home for the viewer. Your interaction — an almost voyeurist view, a dead man’s Facebook — makes you feel complicit and at the same time sympathetic to the real people behind the numbers of wartime casualties.

For all the threat that the internet poses to traditional news, the possibilities of reinventing journalism are limited only by the imagination of the journalist.