Jody Brannon, 45, is executive producer for news at USATODAY.com. Prior to joining USAToday.com in December 2001, she worked for washingtonpost.com for six years, first as managing editor and then as executive producer. Before getting into online media in 1995, Brannon was a reporter for the Seattle Times and the Tacoma News Tribune. Brannon holds a doctorate in mass communications from the University of Maryland, College Park, a master's in public affairs journalism from American University in D.C. and a BA in journalism from Seattle University. For her 1999 dissertation, she explored issues of maximizing content and staff performance at online news sites, comparing leading national newspaper, radio and television Web operations. She spoke with JournalismJobs.com about online journalism.
JournalismJobs.com: You've been involved with online news since April 1995, well before the Internet craze. Why did you choose that path then?
Jody Brannon: An ad for a seasoned copy editor intrigued with the potential of online news caught my eye, as did the idea of working for The Washington Post's fledgling online service, Digital Ink, part of the Interchange Network. Aside from being a starving grad student needing a summer job, the frontier aspect of this new journalistic terrain intrigued me. I became smitten with the medium on the first day, but I must say it's not an easygoing love affair. Despite its challenges and sporatic rewards, my passion goes deep because of its multimedic nature. That's a word I invented for my dissertation to explain the intersection of the medium and the mindset.
JournalismJobs.com: How have news sites changed since you researched them in 1999 for your doctoral thesis? In what ways have they gotten better?
Jody Brannon: Speaking informally for the industry, we get better every day, but we're not improving fast enough. Adoption and adaptation to technology, on the part of news organizations and consumers, is slower than we thought or had hoped. Some journalism from the late 1990s was deeper than similar projects now, but in that experimental era we went overboard. Today, the ambition and vision remains, tempered by reality, in terms of production costs and user interest. Bottom line, sites are better at doing more with less. I wrote my dissertation to provide insights into the way journalism was performed in the autumn of 1998 -- a history of sorts -- and to explore the frontline and managerial pressures of inventing and doing online journalism while learning, experimenting and adapting. My dissertation's main title was "Maximizing the Medium," and I'm still all about that. My dissertation's penultimate paragraph challenges online managers in three ways: get out of the repurposing business; develop content to maximize medium and user's experience; and spend time developing staff into technologic journalists. The challenge still holds.
JournalismJobs.com: Some describe an online editor's job as 'chaos management.' Describe the chaos you confront and how you manage it.
Jody Brannon: It's a more manageable goal to contain chaos. We need to do a better job at anticipating bumps in the road and managing expectations. We all want to do cooler, deeper content than we can achieve. We can't be everything to everybody, but we can be the best at doing the kinds of content people expect from us, with the polish we demand of ourselves. My favorite symbolic commercial from the Internet era is the famous Super Bowl commercial for Cisco and the cowboys who herd cats. It still makes me laugh, thinking of all those weary wranglers, their hairballs, scruffy yarn and catcalls. Doing online journalism amid daily chaos is hard. But in the end, if you're a cat lover, even scratches that scar can't make you stop loving cats.
JournalismJobs.com: How can a newspaper's web site differentiate itself from its print pages? Why is that important?
David Shuster: It's keenly important that the site of a publication be different than its original incarnation. As a richer medium, the Web provides a much deeper way to engage the user in news or content. The features inherent to a medium must be maximized when appropriate. If you have a way to convey text, video, audio, interactivity, graphics, community and more, why would you just plop words on a screen? Especially when every generation of news consumer since the Vietnam War has been raised on visuals. The future is now.
JournalismJobs.com: When it comes to doling out useful information to readers, how would you compare your role as executive producer of a national web site to your previous role as a reporter for The Seattle Times?
Jody Brannon: The medium is different, the mission is the same: To enrich the news consumer's understanding of events based on available assets. In my earlier incarnation, I did that through my beat-up reporter's notebook and a lot of phone work; now I leverage multiple media streams into an always-available experience.
JournalismJobs.com: Newspaper reporters now compete, not in their pages the next morning, but on their Web sites each hour. How do you deal with that kind of competitive pressure? How do you make sure to get it right?
Jody Brannon: The litmus tests remain the same: Don't post news, despite pressures, until the story is determined to be accurate, balanced and authentic, using available sources. We're in the communication business. The old adage holds true: When in doubt, leave it out. When news is uncertain, we rely on USA TODAY reporters in the field, work the phones ourselves and craft the story appropriately and carefully as it develops. We want to be right, not first. That said, we've awfully good at getting it right first.
JournalismJobs.com: By the time most people get home from work, they already know about the top news stories of the day from the Internet and other electronic devices. Will local TV news and morning newspapers become obsolete in the next 15-20 years?
Jody Brannon: Historically, existing medium don't disappear with the invention of another, and we'll see if that holds true. The Internet is shaking things up mightily, that's for sure. While the number of TV stations and morning papers will shrink in a Darwinian process, journalists will cover news and disseminate their reportage on appropriate platforms. I envision the era of the technologic journalist, as I defined in my dissertation. These people possess what I called a "node of thinking" that represents a deep understanding and respect of how to tell a story. It's going to be a demanding job, but it'll be way fun because it'll never be boring.
JournalismJobs.com: What's the future of online news?
Jody Brannon: Extraordinarily bright, if the money holds out. I deeply believe this is *the* medium, through responsible journalism, that can best save us from media saturation. That may seem contradictory, given how deep the Web is. But people will need to rely on trusted news organizations to make sense of their lives and the world. It's our challenge to retain their confidence, wow them by making smart use of their time (and attention) and turn them into loyal digital news junkies.
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