Online, news publications can speak volumes
Too few Web sites are taking advantage of audio
This column appeared in the March 1999 issue of The American Journalism Review.
By J.D. Lasica
We usually think of the Web as a visual medium, but sometimes we overlook the other senses.
Far too few online news sites take advantage of live audio and sound clips, lumping them in with the multimedia bells and whistles of animation, video and other razzle-dazzle effects that bring modems to a wheezing standstill.
It’s no surprise to see CNN Interactive and MSNBC making wide use of audio. But it’s heartening to see small and mid-size newspapers plunging in, too. Among the early adopters are three papers in the Midwest.
Count John Strauss among the ranks of the true believers. A reporter covering local government for the Indianapolis Star News, Strauss started working with sound files from home, then pitched the idea to the paper’s Web staff. After a small investment ($45 for speakers, a sound card and cables), Strauss was ready to launch his experiment.
When Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., revealed his marital infidelities in a story the Star News broke, Strauss tape-recorded the congressman’s extraordinary confession during a car-ride interview, then posted it on the Indianapolis Newspapers’ Web site. “It’s one thing to read people’s quotes in print, but there’s a great deal communicated through a person’s intonation and emotion,” Strauss says. “For the first time, newspapers can compete in that area on an equal footing with radio and TV.”
He has filed more than two dozen reports, some with just a sound bite but most as a radio news-style package with a narrative voiceover. “When you couple sound with printed text on the computer screen, the effect is very powerful,” he says.
Strauss worked in broadcasting 14 years ago, but he says today’s tools — many loaded on personal computers — are infinitely easier to learn than the days when you had to mark audiotape with a grease pencil and cut and paste. “Anyone can do this, without specialized training,” he says.
At the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the PioneerPlanet has made enterprising use of original audio content. Reporters have phoned into the newsroom from the field and filed voice dispatches for the Web site. When a gas main exploded in downtown St. Cloud and leveled several buildings, a reporter recorded his observations from a helicopter as he surveyed the explosion’s damage, making for a dramatic eyewitness account.
At the Capital-Journal in Topeka, Kansas, a two-person staff at CJ Online has made smart use of sound clips to enhance news, sports and entertainment coverage. “Audio gives us another dimension that you can’t get in print,” says Steve Shelton, the new media manager.
Shelton doesn’t ask reporters to carry special sound equipment. Those little handheld microcassette tape recorders do just fine. And he makes inventive use of local college journalists. Student reporters typically snag lockerroom interviews after Kansas State University football games, and they feed those sound bites to the Catzone, CJ Online’s reader forum on the Wildcats.
“Those audio clips are fantastically popular with fans,” Shelton says. “Fans who’ve moved out of state just love being able to hear the coach and star players.”
CJ Online also put up sound clips of last fall’s gubernatorial debates and has begun running sound bites from phone interviews with rock artists.
When the NBA and its players union reached a settlement in January, the Web site Broadcast.com put up links to local radio stations in every NBA market, letting users “tune in” to hear live talk-radio programs about the ending of the lockout. (Hopefully, someone will figure out how to filter out those AM radio ads on the Web.)
Sound quality has come a long way in the past year, and it’s not hard to imagine dozens of uses for audio on a news site: the president’s weekly radio address; newsmaker interviews; music samples accompanying CD reviews; live broadcasts of local pro, college or high school sports contests; reporters’ comments to accompany in-depth reports; live chats where participants can actually chat instead of type messages.
In most cases, newspapers won’t want to get into the broadcasting business. Savvy site managers will partner with local radio and TV stations or with technology outfits like RealNetworks, the Seattle company that pioneered live broadcasts and streaming audio on the Web. (With a RealAudio file, users can hear sound almost instantly without having to wait for the file to download to their hard drives.)
RealNetworks and Rolling Stone magazine jointly created Rolling Stone Radio, which lets users choose between 12 musical formats, vote on tunes they’d like to hear, and purchase music online. “The Net is allowing media companies to expand their own traditional mediums and deliver personalized programming to consumers,” says Jay Wampold, director of public relations for RealNetworks.