Online news still has a way to go despite its net gains

ANNIVERSARY PARTIES SUCH as ITN’s 50th birthday bash last week are a bit like school reunions – only more stressful.

There
are the former colleagues you once insulted, the junior producers who
are now chief executives, plus those you can’t remember but who greet
you like a long-lost friend.

Your entire professional life
flashes past you in a blur. You can panic like a drowning man or you
can wallow serenely in the sea of nostalgia and fond reminiscence. I
recommend the latter.

Above all, anniversaries are a time for
reflection rather than scoping out the future. I really enjoyed
celebrating the past glories of ITN, but raising a toast to 50 golden
years made me realise how middle-aged TV news is as an industry – and
it also got me worrying about the future.

Would the TV news I
grew up with – the traditional appointment-to-view shows with which ITN
made its name – still be around in 10 years’

time? Even 24-hour
news channels (the second generation of TV news) are feeling a bit
whiskery. CNN is celebrating 25 years of rolling news and Sky News,
once the brash new kid on the block, is about to leave its teens and
become a fully fledged adult.

The future of TV news is probably not even on TV, but on broadband – online, on-demand and on its way to a computer near you.

To
counteract that warm fuzzy 50th anniversary feeling I thought I’d take
a brisk walk in cyberspace and see how the future of TV news was
shaping up. I was looking for something which approximated to TV news,
but on my computer rather than the telly.

First stop was The
Times website. Nice and easy to navigate, plenty of stories, but no
moving pictures at all. I’m sure they’ll come one day, but what I
wanted right now was the latest pictures of hurricane Rita and all I
got was a miniature colour still.

After a brief detour onto
Google Map, where I failed to bring up a satellite image of my
neighbour’s back garden, I turned to its news page.

The Google
News home page boasts an awesome 4,500 different media sources, which
it apparently trawls every 15 minutes. The thought of wading through
that lot left me paralysed with fear. When you consider that five years
ago the average TV newsroom used to depend on two or three news
agencies and a few dozen stringers you realise what is meant by the
information revolution.

On the first page were reports from CNN,
the New York Times, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Seattle Intelligencer
to name but a few. Again plenty of verbiage, but you had to use links
to get to any video and that was a bit off-putting frankly.

Yahoo
News was a much more attractive proposition. It seemed more
discriminating and selective, and virtually every story had easily
accessed embedded video. It was global in its outlook, but easily
customised.

NEXT STOP
WAS the Sky News website and I had high expectations given its track
record as a technical pioneer. It was Sky News that first bought us
multiscreen news and weather options at the press of a red button, and
you would expect its website to be equally advanced. In fact, although
it’s nicely laid out, it hasn’t cracked the integration of words and
moving images. You have to go to a separate video menu to select clips,
and there aren’t many to choose from. On the day I visited there were
only four up-to-date clips available, plus a headline video.

Over
on BBC Online, a short film by Darren Jordan introduced me to the BBC
News Player, a one-stop multimedia portal that offers very impressive
access to BBC’s journalism and video.

As well as the main radio
and TV news bulletins, it also allows you on-demand play-outs of news
programmes and current affairs strands, plus live coverage of major
events.

This felt more like an internet/television hybrid and
probably a better clue to the way things are going. The picture quality
was still rough, but here at last was some nice moving shots of
hurricane Rita blowing over the Florida Keys and some great still
photos, too.

The marriage of text, video and audio wasn’t
perfect, but potentially this seemed to offer every variation of news
you could desire, provided you were happy with the BBC version of it.

Having
briefly investigated the future of news on my computer, I settled down
to watch a very good report by Matt Frei on The Six O’clock News in
full, glorious widescreen digital quality. It really hit the spot.

Internet
news may be the future, but it still has a lot of catching up to do. I
don’t think of myself as a new-media knocker, but I am irritated by
those smug bloggers who continually predict the imminent death of
linear TV news.

There is such a thing as too much information and
I certainly suffered overload on Google and Yahoo. I still appreciate
someone else deciding what’s important and telling me why, even if I
sometimes disagree with their priorities.

Intelligent website designers may help you pick and mix your stories more effectively, but sometimes you just want to be told.

Software
writers can create programmes that learn what you’re interested in, but
what about the stuff you never knew you were interested in to begin
with?

Traditional TV news – prioritised, structured, and
delivered as a ready-made package – has a healthy future whatever
platform it ends up on.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller of Five Next week: Alex Thomson

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