The art of religion news during the redesign of big news media, 2012-2014
How will the big media goliaths of the industrial age survive? How will their redesign affect the design of religion news? The current answers to this question can be summed up as going: big; social; global; local; and lean.
Big, social, global, local and lean
In 2012 the New York Times launched “Snow Fall,” a path-breaking multi-media six –part series about a deadly avalanche in Oregon. Using a wide-screen, parallax format (i.e. the background of the webpage loaded on a different time track from the foreground) and atmospheric looping videos that came on automatically at the beginning, viewers were immersed into the reality of the avalanche and its victims. Active graphics and multiple types of multi-media were scattered throughout the features. The implications for the design of religion news were multiple: immersion into the experience of the religion news; parallax design; dynamic, interactive mapping; multi-media explainers sprinkled within the main story; and more video inserts.
The project was expensive and time-consuming to make and lost many of its features when viewed on a mobile phone. It also didn’t fit within the format of the Times website. However, it gained high audience numbers and average time spent by the viewers. The results indicated that big industrial age media was learning how to utilize its large resources to define its competitive advantage over smaller start-ups. The large media could also try to gain distinction for its religion news by emphasizing expensive, large scale immersive reports on religion.
If you haven’t already done so, you should check out “Snow Fall” – on your computer.
The Times’ attention would soon turn to another capital intensive project for immersive journalism. Google, Oculus Rift and others came up with cheaper ways to produce headsets and virtual reality films, the Times started experimenting with this format for news reports.
Meanwhile, Liana Zagare launched Corner Media which successfully used a “walking around” approach to establish a network of hyperlocal outlets in Brooklyn. Each site is dedicated to area that is within walking distance from the center of the neighborhood covered. By 2015 the media organization owned eight sites and reached 320,000 monthly users.
“Hollow,” a documentary by Elaine McMillion Sheldon of the rural communities of McDowell County in West Virginia, demonstrated the power of local collaboration. It effectively utilized similar technologies and story style as “Snow Fall,” but with a minuscule budget in comparison. Although it was a graduate student project, the students treated it as a small agency work. This focused approach resulted in a path-breaking documentary. However, to keep the project running, the cost of computer server time was relatively expensive for the small operation. The documentary included just a bit on the religious life of its subjects.
The Guardian of London replied to the Times in 2013 with their “Firestorm,” a documentary about a rash of fires in Australia. The joke was that “Firestorm” competitively melted “Snow Fall.” In fact, “Firestorm” may be a more practical model for most news media with its simplified storyline and more sparing use of distracting and expensive technological bells and whistles. The Australian locale of the story was not incidental to the Guardian’s goal of becoming a global online news leader for the English-speaking audience. In October 2014 its online readers numbered about 47 million, mostly from outside of England. Although “Firestorm” didn’t cover any religious aspects of the story, religious responses to a catastrophe would be powerful aspects to an immersive news report.
The disruption, re-design, and reassembly of news media was taking place at high speed. USA Today changed its printed newspaper design to be more transferable to the web and mobile phones. The blue print logo “USA Today” was consolidated into one blue orb. The disruption also wiped out part of the religion coverage by the paper. USA Today’s leaders decided that it was devoting too many resources to religion reporting. The paper cut its religion blog and laid off its veteran reporter Cathy Grossman. The paper’s decision may have been influenced by newspaper publishers’ perceptions that blogs were not connecting their traffic to the other parts of the parent news organizations.
Staff cuts continued to spread to other news media organizations, either to stay alive or to go “lean.” Assets were sold, and media properties spun off.
In 2013 The Washington Post made plans to sell off its headquarters’ building and made a big strategic change by selling itself to dotcom entrepreneur Jeff Bezos. Since then, the Post has been shifting resources into video and the online paper and redefining itself as a technology company.
The paper let go of its “On Faith” blog. With an eye toward becoming again a newspaper with a national presence, the paper hired a younger religion reporter with an evangelical Christian background. As the paper became focused more on its online audience, further changes in religion coverage would be coming.
Quietly, Bezos was repositioning the paper to become dominant in online viewers and subscribers by offering the Washington Post for free to Amazon Prime’s estimated forty million members. Overnight then, the Post could become the largest circulation paper in the United States. However, the challenge of online competitors was emphasized in January 2014 when blogger Ezra Klein left his acclaimed Wonkblog at the Washington Post to become Editor-in-Chief of news for Vox Media’s news website VOX.
Redefinition of religion journalism
The presence of a burgeoning online news media amplified long-standing concerns that the line between news and advocacy was disappearing. Are these new media organizations part of news, theater, religion, or political action groups?
Vice launched Vice News to enter the online news fray. One of its video reports featured ISIS soldiers doing wheelies with an armored vehicle. Was this a new form of religion? It definitely was a visual scoop. (Since then, Vice has folded this video into longer, more in-depth reporting.)
Activist-journalists like Glenn Greenwald, who launched a blog called Unclaimed Territory and worked as a “fire-breathing blogger” (said New York magazine) for online organizations like Salon.com, moved his commentary over to The Guardian in London. But his most famous mark was as a news journalist for The Guardian breaking the Edward Snowden story, with the collaboration of documentary film activist Laura Poitras. The series to which he contributed won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, an Online News Association award, and many other journalism awards. Were the awards for fire-breathing journalism full of rant and rage theatrics? Some journalists wondered, Who would be the next Pulitizer Prize winner, Sean Penn for his “experiential journalism” or Pat Robertson of the 700 Club?
Religious partisans like pro-life activists were quick to plan their own news media forays. Some churches and other religious organizations launched news units, though they usually inclined more to public relations. A few religious magazines also dropped much of their news coverage in favor of more theology and spirituality content and public relations type news articles.
Various activist groups took advantage of the economical distribution channels on the web to form their own news media organizations. Although these organizations often operated as little more than propaganda outlets, they did break news stories that other news organizations had to pick up. In May 2014 ISIS established Al Hayat Media Center, which is thought to be the brainchild of a former German rapper known as Deso Dogg, according to MEMRI.
The digital news media approach was also driving redesigns of business, advertising and even of cultural institutions. In 2013 the Metropolitan Museum of Art hired Sree Sreenivasan away from Columbia University’s School of Journalism to become its chief digital officer. Sreenivasan says that the museum wanted the strengths of his outsider status to the art world and the digital journalism skills so that the museum could create a full-fledged media unit. Tom Campbell, director and CEO of the Met, made it a priority to “get more of what we’re doing seen by the world.”
Sreenivasan looked upon every item in the museum as a having a story. He wanted to circulate the museum’s holdings as bearers of evergreen stories that could always attract an audience. “Let’s think about resurfacing, resharing, and reposting our content,” he said.
The Met’s Digital Department grew to seventy staff over the next year and created a video series, “Artist Project.” It took the form of a bingeable television series with twenty videos per season released all at once, featuring famous contemporary artists talking about their inspirations from objects at the Met. The digital operation also accelerated the availability of 500,000 images of museum art objects and devoted much effort to build a huge email list.
As beauty was spread throughout the web, the questions that arose were: can a contrary, critical word find a place in the conversation; whose definition of beauty predominates; and are only elite appreciations allowed a voice? Maybe, the Met needed a twenty-video series featuring art appreciation by plumbers, policemen, priests, pastors, and patrons of homeless shelters?
*Lead image take from youtube video: “Gorilla fighting in the wild documentary – mountain gorillas attacks” by Kooora Arabia.