Live webcasts open up newsrooms

By PAUL J. WEBER - The Associated Press
July 20, 2009 at 2:20 a.m.

VICTORIA - Editors at a recent meeting at The Victoria Advocate settled on covering a local swine flu death, having a reporter chase information on a gang arrest and agreed that Eric Clapton's "Tears In Heaven" was, indeed, a sad song.

Not exactly riveting viewing, but the South Texas newspaper had another goal in mind when it began live streaming its daily news meetings on the Internet last year.

"It's all about demystifying newspapers," Advocate editor Chris Cobler said. "People think we're some monolithic empire. The more we make it easier for people to see what we do, that helps."

The Advocate, The Baltimore Sun and the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., are among newspapers that have experimented with being online fishbowls, letting readers observe an essential industry ritual: The budget meeting, where editors kick around story ideas and map out the next day's paper.

Transparency, that sacred tenet of journalism, is at the core of the idea. No secrets to hide; no mystery about how coverage decisions are made.

The webcasts give a glimpse of normalcy at newspapers during otherwise tumultuous times: Print advertising revenues are still drying up, job losses are mounting and papers continue to fold. Viewers are likely to hear editors listing potential stories and photos and where they should go in the paper.

The Spokesman-Review is credited with pioneering the webcast concept in 2005, then pulled the plug earlier this year.

Gary Graham, the newspaper's editor, said it never generated interest.

"It was more symbolic than anything," Graham said. "I just decided: This isn't really accomplishing anything. It's not attracting readers."

The Sun rolled out its "Page One" webcast earlier this year before temporarily suspending the live stream when the newspaper redesigned its Web site in June. The paper intends to resume the webcasts soon.

In Spokane, some reporters fretted over the camera stifling what can evolve into frank, freewheeling discussions in which participants aren't always concerned about whether something is accurate or potentially libelous.

Sandy Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York, noted that libel is libel, whether printed in a newspaper or offhanded comments made on a webcast. Baron said she can appreciate the benefits of webcasts - the nothing-to-hide view of the fishbowl, interacting with readers - but also recognizes the possibly thorny legal risks.

"I would hate to see that chill the discussion in a newsroom," Baron said. "Thinking out loud can be risky when thinking out loud is suddenly published online."

And concerns about competition from other news sources meant the Spokesman-Review wasn't transparent about everything. What Internet viewers couldn't see was "NO TALK" scrawled next to some story descriptions on the papers editors shuffled in their hands. The notation meant editors weren't supposed to discuss those stories until the camera was off, so as not to hand over a scoop to their competitors before lunch.

But Graham said the decision to stop the webcast came down to what dooms all low-rated programming: Lack of an audience.

"We never had any more than half-dozen people," Graham said. "Sometimes it was just two or three."

In an industry desperate to cut costs, the technology is cheap: The Advocate uses the free service Livestream, whereas Graham said the Spokesman-Review spent at least $1,000 in camera and microphone equipment.

But participation isn't significantly higher in Victoria, a blue-collar city of about 62,000 people 100 miles southwest of Houston. Each day, about a dozen people outside the newsroom participate in the Advocate's webcast, which includes a chat panel that allows readers to offer story ideas and interact with the staff.

Among the regular viewers in Victoria is George Matthews, the county's election administrator, who often peeks into the meetings. Matthews said he wants to see how the paper is handling stories in his community.

"I guess I'm curious as to what direction they're taking," Matthews said.

Howard Finberg at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida, said the webcasts are a public service.

"I think there's a misunderstanding of some citizens what the role of the press is," said Finberg, the director of interactive learning at Poynter. "This provides another way to explain the process."



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