Mark Bowden, an Atlantic correspondent and author of Black Hawk Down, has a great piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the future of journalism in the digital age. Here’s an “old fuddy-duddy,” as he calls himself, who has opened his mind to a the future of multimedia journalism in way that puts many newspaper editors and executives to shame:

I wrote here last week that I believe newspapers, despite their current hard times, will ultimately survive. I think the print edition will probably endure to some extent, but, without any doubt, the future of daily journalism is digital, not because it is the latest thing, but because it is, quite simply, a far better medium than paper and ink.

There are many editors who would still blanch at the idea that digital media is better than print media in all instances — but for news, it’s really hard to argue that it isn’t. Mobile device manufacturers (e.g. iPhone) are making progress on the portability issue every day.

Most newspaper sites are little more than Web editions of the paper product, and more difficult to use. They are a little bit like early movies, in which the director essentially filmed a stage play. But because journalism itself has value, eventually publishers will work out the profit problem.

It’s amazing that after 10 years on the web, newspaper websites are still so much like print newspapers. Many newspapers have launched innovative online video editorial products, aiming to compete with local TV stations, but those innovations are still dragging the rest of the site along like an albatross.

Unlike with TV and radio, which are stuck with people reading out loud, customers of digital journalism will get the best of all media forms. They can wade into any story that attracts them as deeply as they wish. Readers will gravitate toward prose, while those who prefer sounds and images can simply watch and listen. The digital report will not be locked into the strict chronological format of TV and radio news, but will be much more like a newspaper, which permits you to begin with sports and weather, if you wish, or go right to the editorials or comics.

I agree that atomization of video news, combined with text-based versions, is what will pull people away from their TV newscasts and their print newspapers to a fully digital news experience.

For example, the Washington Post’s latest package on ongoing inadequacies of care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center includes a video series, a narrated slide show, and an online discussion, all of which do what neither newspapers nor TV nor radio could ever have done alone:

Washington Post Walter Reed Multimedia

Of course, it would be great if the Washington Post made it’s video and slide players embeddable, so that they could be distributed at a grassroots level.

For newspapers, the business challenge is to find a way to subsidize this kind of multimedia investigative reporting — if the future of journalism is indeed digital, then at some point newspaper will have to consider laying off the printing presses.

Bowden also points to a much discussed model where staff journalists collaborate with citizen journalists, thus expanding what each person on the payroll can accomplish.

The old idea of reporters covering a beat might well be replaced by an online reporter/editor who oversees a subject area driven by the entire community – a constantly updating police blotter or transit map, for instance. Digital thinkers refer to this as a pro-am (professional-amateur) model, in which the reporter is corrected, tipped off and guided – just as I was with Black Hawk Down – by the expertise of his readers. Blog sites offer a rudimentary working model.

It’s a model that newspapers need to hurry up and develop while their businesses can still support a staff to learn it.