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TVNewser Summit: Digital News Chiefs Try Skating To Where The Puck Will Be

“How do I explain this job to my parents?”That was the first moment of trepidation that consumed Joel Schwartzberg, director of new media for Now on PBS, after landing his first gig in digital media.

Although it seems everyone–if not quite everyone’s mother–is watching videos online, posting Facebook links and tapping out Twitter tweets, there remains a vast digital divide for old-line TV networks–and their audiences–to cross.

In a panel discussion with the digital brain trust representing some of those networks Tuesday afternoon at the TVNewser Summit in New York City, presented by the Media Bistro blog, it was clear that the business model for transporting news content across that digital divide remains elusive.

“We have a new app for iTunes which is, I think, the best in breed–and will be for the next week,” said Paul Slavin, senior VP of ABC News Digital, riffing on the new-today-old-tomorrow nature of many digital media innovations.

Joining Slavin on the panel were Dan Farber, editor-in-chief of; Jeff Misenti, VP and GM of Fox News Digital; and Jonathan Shar, GM and senior VP of Schwartzberg was the panel’s moderator.

The digital chiefs discussed the importance of hiring editorial talent that could multi-task–write, edit, shoot and report the same story for different platforms. They also talked about how to reach Internet viewers with short attention spans (Misenti said data showed most Internet TV viewers click off video news clips after 90 seconds), airing grittier content that would not appear on network television, and how to use social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, to drive viewers to content.

But for all the new ways these division heads are trying to reach their audience, they concede one glaring fact: Nobody has yet found a model to bring monetary success to the digital news world.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever see the kind of money we saw in broadcast on the web,” Slavin said. “But I don’t know if broadcast television will ever see the kind of money [it once saw].”

That problem puts digital news directors in a difficult position. They all agree that an online presence is vital, but they are reluctant to pool huge resources into Web content given the fact that they don’t have a proven way to make money with it.

For Farber, the way to begin getting some bang for his buck may be to make users pay a small fee for content. “For the price of a Starbucks coffee each month, we could do a lot to support investigative journalism,” Farber said, noting that news on the Internet got off on the wrong foot when it was given to consumers for free, giving the impression that it always should be. A small fee could help the broadcast media go from making “pennies to dollars” online he said.

If there is a silver lining for broadcast news divisions feeling the money crunch and watching audiences continue to fragment to the interactive allure of the Web, it may be that the blogosphere depends, in large part, on broadcast news organizations to provide the content that drives their source material.

A number of the panelists praised the broadcast industry for “seeing around the curve” and understanding quickly that content on the Web is the wave of the future, unlike the newspaper industry which (perhaps fatally) failed to see the toll the Internet would take on them. It seems like broadcast news’ “digital evangelists,” as Schwartzberg called them, are, at the very least, getting the message.

Farber used a hockey analogy when probing the importance of setting up a presence for CBS across interactive news platforms. He mentioned NHL great Wayne Gretzky, who once said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where the puck is.” Said Farber, “Social media is where the puck is going to be.”