Juan Thomassie, senior designer for UsaToday.com, is a model for how editors will have to lead in the multimedia environment.
First and foremost he is a journalist and storyteller. He understands that we serve our audiences best with immediacy, accuracy and relevance.
He is a skilled craftsman. He understands how to harness images and design to create powerful messages.
He is a master technician and orchestrator. He understands how to pull together sound, image, database information and words to create packages.
He is a collaborator. What Juan told a group of editors at a multimedia seminar at the Poynter Institute was that in order for us to harness the full power of the web, we need to create teams with the right people and the right talents.
USA Today's interactive Candidate Match Game required close collaboration between designers and the political editors, who compiled the positions of 17 candidates on 11 issues that matter to voters.
The jazz model
A good model for leading in multimedia is the jazz combo. You have five or six outstanding performers, each an expert on how to do their own thing. But in a jazz environment, each musician is always listening to all the others and taking cues from the changes in rhythm, melody and tone. Each takes a turn soloing, but if you listen closely you notice that the trumpet soloist is picking up little cues from the piano and bass, and vice versa. They look to complement each other while still maintaining an individual voice. There is a leader who calls the tune, but everyone works to make the whole experience exciting for the listener. The parts make for a richer whole.
The technologies are emerging so fast that it can be daunting, from widgets and gadgets to Twitter news feeds for cell phones. Rob King, vice president/editor-in-chief of espn.com, showed us some of the features of his website aimed at delivering news and video to cell phones. Fans want information now, and they want it in depth. King is in a daily sprint to meet their needs as platforms and devices change.
Don't sweat it if you don't understand all of the technology, he told us. Focus on your mission. Keep coming back to that, and it will guide you through the uncharted territory.
Collaboration is key
We saw a number of impressive projects that combined, video, audio, slide shows, blogs, links to print and other ways of storytelling.
Ben de La Cruz, senior editor/multimedia for WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive, described how the print and web departments of the Post achieved success in their series on Being a Black Man because they planned together from the beginning, kept each other informed, shared information and broke through the silos. The Post's series worked in spite of the fact that the web and print teams work on opposite sides of the river.
The importance of culture
High performing teams share a common culture, says Kenny Irby, visual journalism group leader and director of diversity.
That means they share values, they have a common vocabulary, they plan together, they coordinate their actions and they share workspace.
This doesn't occur by accident. It requires teaching of these values so that they reach through the generations of journalists working in an organization. The Post series embodied that.
Multimedia response to breaking news
Regina McCombs, senior producer for multimedia for StarTribune.com, showed how multimedia can provide rich reporting on deadline with the Star Tribune's coverage of the collapse of of the I-35 bridge, a special package called 13 Seconds in August
She urged us to draft a disaster-response plan. It begins with creating a culture of urgency so that people develop the right habits before disaster strikes. Have enough gear on hand so that many people can shoot video. Make sure everyone has each other's cell phone numbers.
When disaster strikes, have a plan in place for how information and news should flow. Have one person handle editing of video and sound for speed and to avoid duplication. Understand that cell phone towers get overloaded when a disaster strikes (Text messages can break through even when voice can't). Have people work in teams; it makes both more effective.
The Strib has used the elements of breaking news to create a longer-term project of telling the stories of everyone on the bridge. As more of these stories are discovered, they are added to a database and the stories are told in the best medium available -- text, video, audio or a combination.
High anxiety shared
During a session led by Chip Scanlan, senior faculty member at Poynter, all of us learned that we have anxieties and fears about this technology.
We should relax, roll with it. Don't expect to know it all. Learn what we can. Draw on the strengths of others all around us. We're all a bit scared.
Important takeaways for newsroom leaders
-- Communicate the passion. We're giving power to the people. The new technology puts us closer to the people than ever before. It's an exciting time, and the traffic is flying toward us at freeway speed. This is nothing less than a communications revolution. If ever a free press could support true democracy, it's now.
-- Relax. No, you don't know about action script and dynamic databases. But chances are, someone on your staff does and might be willing to teach you.
-- Match tasks with talents. Give all your people a chance to try and learn all the new technologies. Encourage them but don't force-feed them. Put them on teams with other talented people and let them self select the directions they want to go.
-- Lead by example. Be the first to start communication, provide information and share resources. Make it safe for people to say "I don't know how to do that." Make it safe for people to question authority. Make decisions and then be willing to admit that they might have been wrong.
-- Open your processes to readers. Be transparent about how you've made decisions. They have a right to know, and they will respect you for your honesty.