Newspapers, The Internet and Video

In the late 90’s, I became the President of New York Times Television. It was a new company, one that was founded when Punch Sulzberger bought my company, Video News International. I had told Mr. Sulzberger that I would create the video analog of the newspaper; some of the best journalists in the world reporting in video.

New York Times TV was housed in the Hippodrome, on 6th Avenue, a few blocks from The Times’ building on 42nd Street. We shared a floor with Martin Niesenholtz, who was just starting up NYTimes.com, the Times’ website.

Right after moving into my new office, I got a call from Joe Lellyveld, the Managin Editor of the paper.  He invited me to lunch in the executive dining room. White linen tablecloths, white gloved stewards and steamed salmon.  Lellyveld was extremely gracious.

“Congratulations on your new job” he said, and poured the white wine.

I acknowledged his thanks.

“There is just one thing I want to tell you”, he said.

I tasted the salmon. “Fantastic”,  I said.  He smiled.  I waited.

“I don’t want you coming anywhere near my newsroom…. more salad?”

He was, I think, equally difficult with Niesenholtz and the NY Times’ embryonic website.  They (the newspaper) would not allow anything on the website that had not already been published in the paper.

This, of course, is completely anithetical to the very way in which the web works; particularly a website for news. One cannot wait for the news to be published in the paper paper (so to speak) and then appear on the web. The Interent is all about immediacy.

It took the newspaper some time before they would allow stories to lead on the website and then be followed up in print.

I am reminded of this whenever I deal with local TV news stations (or conventional TV production of any kind for that matter).  Television, because it has since its inception been the dominant medium of our time, believes that it leads.  Local TV news stations (and cable channels that producer and air programming with websites) believe that the website is at best a repository for leftover video, or a place for viewers to see stories or programs over and over again, after they have aired.

This, of course, is the exact opposite of how the web works.

The Internet is, if anything, about immediacy.

In the world of local news, we are endlessly fixated on ‘breaking news’. This is true for networks as well.  We flash ‘breaking news’ all the time.  But by the time a television news program is assembled, edited, scripted and airs, almost all of the ‘breaking news’ is old news.

The web is the logical place to put ‘breaking news’, because it runs and is updated live 24 hours a day.  News should lead on the website and the ‘show’ should follow.  The web is the place where breaking news takes place; the show is the place where there is analysis and followup of what everyone already knows.

This might seem logical, but it is very very difficult to instill because it requires a completely different way of thinking about what the web is and what the program that airs is. It is very very difficult for people who have spent their lives believing that their ‘show’ is the dominant event in the evening rundown to realize that they must now play support role to the web.  But that is indeed the case.

This is not just the case for local news. It is also the case for weekly magazines that find themselves online in order to survive.  The magazine comes out once a week. For publications like Time or Newsweek, by the time the publication has come out, everyone already knows all the news in the mag. That is why if you pick up a copy of Time, (literally), it will fold across the staples.

That does not mean that Time or Newsweek have no place in the world of online immediacy. But it means that reporters like Teddy White (in the glory days of Time) would be filing from China online, to give a sense of immediacy. The printed version would be more of an analysis, based on what the viewser (viewer+user, if I may coin the word) already knows.

The same even applies for TV shows. Most of them have companion websites. But those websites are reserved for leftover video, if there is any, and ‘more information’.  Websites for weekly shows, (for HGTV or TLC for example) should also lead, then the show follows.  It makes sense. It is more congruous with what the web does best.

If publishers or producers trying to move to a ‘multi platform’ format listened to what the web was telling them, they would indeed create a new kind of programming that would leverage off of what print, television and web all do best, and in concert.

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