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News at the Crossroads of Multimedia

At about the same time television news sold its soul to the devil, a savvy Internet innovator was standing at the crossroads to salvage the wreckage. Ironically, it was a newspaper--not a television broadcaster--that created what may become an Internet "game changer" in multimedia information storytelling.

Why I am not surprised that an ink-stained "dinosaur" transformed video newsgathering to diamonds from rust? Perhaps because they have the stronger instinct to reinvent themselves and survive in a rapidly changing new media environment.

In order to fully appreciate the recent "major overhaul" of The New York Times Web site, one has to experience it for a few days. After that, it becomes addictive and hard to turn back. What's at work here is not so much revolution, but extremely intelligent evolution. The new pages have a clean, slick, easy-to-read look and feel, improved navigation, and a bunch of ways to personalize interests.

But, the killer feature is how the Web designers at The Times took TV news, stripped it of annoying banality, and integrated it seamlessly into a very coherent multimedia presentation.

Just as a key instrument serves an orchestra, the video resides with text, still images, graphics, and spoken word audio to make up a palette of choices for the storyteller.

When well executed, the components of this palette are used as needed to communicate the information at hand. Video is shown only when it serves the story. Perhaps a photo, or a slide show works better. Or, maybe just text. The creators can pick the best tool for the job.

Unlike TV news, there's no video for video's sake. Video is not necessary to break away for visual relief from Ken and Barbie behind a studio desk. Those live "stand-uppers" just to show off technology become embarrassingly irrelevant.

A wonderful irony is that The New York Times site went online just as the fake TV news scandal erupted. It was if a torch had been passed. Just as one of the most shameful periods in the history of broadcast news began, the Internet proclaimed to the public: "you don't have to take it anymore."

By now, it's no secret that the Center for Media Democracy and Free Press exposed, after a 10-month investigation, an epidemic of fake news infiltrating local television broadcasts across country.

Scores of local stations have apparently slipped commercial "video news releases," or VNRs, into regular news programming without telling viewers. The groups identified 77 television stations actively disguising sponsored content from companies including General Motors, Intel, Pfizer and Capital One to make it look like their own reporting.

Once again, the FCC got left in the dust. While the corporate media moguls beg the commissioners to allow the merger of TV stations and newspapers, one could easily argue that newspapers like The Times don't need any advice from TV news directors.

CRICKEY, MATE!

As perhaps the best new thinkers in television news today, The Times Web news team is doing just fine without the local blow-dried anchor teams.

Having grown up professionally in the early days of TV news, I find the fake news practices outrageous. However, just as bad, in my opinion, are the "product integration" tactics now being used by KRON, Channel 4, in San Francisco.

The station, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report, aired a five-day series of segments called "Australia Week" in its morning newscasts during March. The segments, totaling three hours, were no more than paid tourism ads.

Tourism Australia, the government body that promotes tourist travel, paid an undisclosed amount to KRON for advertising during the news programs. Also included in the deal was the airfare of six KRON reporters and their food and lodging expenses.

"We're appalled," said one staffer who declined to be named told the newspaper. "We essentially let the government of Australia become our news directors."

What was worse was the defense of the tactic by Mark Antonitis, KRON's general manager. Calling business "bad," he accepted the tactic as necessary. "...you have to be creative and do things you might have found difficult in the past," he said, admitting he is looking for new ways to make money including charging "product integration fees" for news.

It's no wonder that broadcasters are in trouble. At a time when their original mission of network program distribution is evaporating, logic would hold that stations should enhance their local news coverage. Yet, many stations seem intent on trivializing and weakening what is their best product and strongest long-term franchise.

Hopefully, the promised FCC investigation into fake news will result in some stiff fines and loss of licenses. Little else will prod broadcasters into cleaning up their acts. The use of the public's airwaves to deceive viewers is the real indecency in broadcasting.

I don't understand what seems to be a "death wish" from many stations, but I do believe the demand for unbiased, quality news and information programming will always be with us. Unfortunately, at least for now, that public trust is gone from TV news. It must now be re-earned.

Fortunately, others are filling the void. We have the Internet and a few good creative people--like The Times--who are reinventing the medium. That, folks, is the good news.

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.