Thursday, December 07, 2006

Getting personal

Editors and broadcasters struggling to master cyber-journalism would do well to stop by CNET.Com today to see the effective and affecting way this tech site covered the tragic death of one of its own.

James Kim, a 35-year-old senior CNET editor, perished in a snowy ravine while trying to find help for his wife and two small children, who were trapped in their Saab on a remote road in the Oregon wilderness while driving home from a festive Thanksgiving weekend.

The mysterious disappearance of the family, the miraculous rescue of the mother and children, the desperate search for James and the eventual discovery of his body appropriately made this a big, emotional story. Traffic nearly doubled at the NBC affiliate in San Jose and page views yesterday ran as high as 3,300 a minute at the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, according to the Chronicle.

For all the considerable resources the broadcasters and newspapers rightfully poured into the story, however, they were beaten by CNET’s unfair advantage. CNET had a library full of James on video. And CNET used it brilliantly.

Going well beyond the limitations of conventional news coverage and talking-head TV, CNET produced a warm and witty video tribute to a cherished colleague by letting James be James.

In the moving CNET video, James jokes about the importance of keeping track of your power cord while heaving one wildly over his shoulder into a tangle of wires in the corner. He grins impishly and keeps talking as he accidentally yanks the arm off a robot in the middle of a product review. And there’s a poignant moment when he talks about how much his little girl liked testing a new MP3 player designed for kids. “She didn’t read the user’s manual, either,” he cracks. “Just like her dad.”

The CNET tribute surpasses conventional coverage, because it reflects an intimacy and immediacy that is impossible to achieve in the remote and mediated formats of traditional print, radio and TV coverage.

Although there is enormous continuing value to the classic forms of reporting, the mainstream media need to understand that they are competing not only with each other but also with new forms of instantaneous and emotional expression, including self-expression, that have compelling appeal for their readers and viewers.

Those who can’t or won’t respond effectively and responsibly in this realm are likely to see their audiences shrink and their franchises fail.

The resources aren’t available at any legacy media company to give every story the CNET treatment. And many stories don’t merit it, either. But traditional journalists need to be thinking about new, gripping ways to tell stories without pandering – and the ways to acquire community-produced assets so they can afford to do so.

To the extent it exists, online video at most newspapers today is bleak. Most TV stations run only warmed-over snippets of their already desiccated newscasts. And radio sites apparently haven’t gotten the memo about the moving-picture thing.

Instead of nasal videos of nattering newspapermen or plucky TV anchorettes plugging sleazy drug shootings, mainstream websites need to augment their limited resources by seeking out home-grown video that helps them tell stories and touch hearts.

Why not get videos from National Guardsmen serving in Iraq, sports highlights from high school teams or tributes from families marking a 50th wedding anniversary, a 100th birthday or the loss of a loved one?

The mainstream media can serve their audiences and help themselves by becoming significant contributors, promoters and beneficiaries of the 24/7 worldwide community.

Or, they can watch their franchises go down the tube. YouTube, that is.