Enterprising Journalism in a Multimedia World: With Video, Audio and Interactive Data, the Associated Press Makes Its Investigative Reporting Accessible, Useful to Other News Outlets, and Compelling to Its Consumers
Solomon, John, Nieman Reports
When people first see the title on my new letterhead--Director, Multimedia Investigative Reporting--they often greet me with a blank stare or funny smirk. "What? Were all the good jobs already taken?" my brother joked during his recent visit to the Washington, D.C. bureau of The Associated Press.
I can't blame my brother or numerous other wisecrackers for wondering what's going on. For years I held some of the more standard management titles in the AP, such as news editor or assistant bureau chief. But I'll confess that my new one is growing on me, much as is the work that goes with it.
A little more than a year ago, Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll and Washington Bureau Chief Sandra Johnson put me in charge of an intriguing experiment to combine multimedia reporting with investigative reporting. Their idea was as straightforward as it was tantalizing: take a half dozen of AP's best print reporters, tell them they can pursue any investigative story across the globe but only if they can command audiences in the AP's four news formats simultaneously. The challenge, which was a new one for many AP reporters, was to produce compelling journalism that would captivate a wide variety of news consumer tastes. It also meant adapting to the different attention spans and interests of print, Web, television and radio audiences.
When I heard the proposal, I thought this would be easy. I'd made a few friends through the years in AP's TV division. I listened to NPR during my daily commute, and I'd even gotten into the habit of reading newspapers online, often leaving the print copies in the driveway for my wife to read.
How difficult could this really be? Ask any of our team members today, and they'll explain.
Arriving from our print orientation, this was the journalistic equivalent of "Survivor" contestants trying to fashion rocks into flints so they could light a fire. Every tool, term and colleague from another AP news division seemed completely foreign to us. Our first interactions with TV producers must have looked like American tourists in Paris rifling through a translation guide trying to figure out what was just said. None of us had ever worked in a "cutting room" before nor responded to a request for "b-roll." At one of our first organizational meetings, I tried to introduce the team to software used to create Web interactivity. 'Anyone here ever heard of Flash?" I asked innocently. "That's what the digital camera does when you press the button, right?" one reporter replied, relieving all of us of some of the tension attending our transition.
Our first efforts bordered on comedy. A reporter new to carrying a digital video camera shot what he thought was compelling video--until he realized the lens cap was still on. Great sound, but a very black picture greeted his return. A loud scream (and a few choice words) reverberated through the office on the day when videotapes of interviews with September 11th survivors got lost in the mail between AP departments. The tapes were a key part of an investigative project looking into government disaster loans that went to companies that weren't hurt by the September 11th attacks. Headlines we proposed to tease Web stories came back to us reading in ways we found nonsensical. And an important interview recorded for its ambient sound had to be redone when the microphone on the recorder wasn't fully plugged in.
Fortunately our growing pains were overshadowed by stories the team's reporters investigated and by the limitless possibilities these various formats provided us in presenting what we'd found in our reporting. It didn't take long for team members to rally around a concept that became our mission statement: "Don't just tell readers the news, let them experience it and interact with it."
Here are some ways in which our mission has translated into work:
* When Ted Bridis obtained Pentagon memos showing a growing number of crashes caused by hot-dogging military pilots, he wasn't satisfied with just documenting the evidence. …