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Teaching Online Journalism

Popular Flash Journalism tips

I was poking around in the stats for my Flash Journalism site and noticed that a few of the very short “tips” tutorials are quite popular — there seem to be a lot of searches for these.

Also popular: The page of links to professional examples.

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Video storytelling tips from a veteran reporter

When Ken Speake was a young TV reporter, he received a bit of criticism from an older, wiser journalist: “You don’t have a style.” To improve, he was told to choose two reporters he really liked, then watch and analyze everything they did for two weeks.

At the end of the two weeks, he reported back to his mentor, who gave him his next task: “Now copy them.”

In this way, young grasshopper, you too can improve.

I was introduced to the work of Ken Speake in a column written by Al Tompkins a few months ago. What I didn’t learn from the column was how humble — and how sincere — Speake is. What’s more, he’s a natural teacher. If you get the chance to see him, go.

Preparation. Everyone tells us about the importance of luck and hard work in journalism. A veteran such as Speake adds that it’s vital also to prepare yourself — so you know how to make the most of your good luck when you find it. Learn, study, think about options. Not prepared? All the good luck in the world won’t help you.

Curiosity. After years and years on the job, a journalist can think, “Ho hum, another state fair, another this, another that.” Speake advises you to find something in the story about which you can be curious. Work at it. No matter how boring the story is, instead of plodding through it with your mind on finishing it and getting rid of it, think hard and come up with an angle that makes you ask questions for which you don’t already know the answers.

“Everybody sees the ‘normal’ story,” Speake said. “I don’t want to do the normal story.”

Details. After showing a story about a crime scene investigation in an open outdoor area, Speake answered some questions about the variety of shots showing, for example, a police officer finding a bloody leaf and placing it in an evidence container; a checkered cloth stuffed inside a brown paper bag. These gave an unusual behind-the-scenes feel to the story.

“Detail makes all the difference in the world,” he said. Details not only allow the viewer to feel like an insider; they also add to the reporter’s credentials. That is, you are more believable when you supply important details.

Awareness. “Be aware of your surroundings,” Speake said. This means using not only your eyes but also your ears. “The best photographers shoot with their ears,” he said. The real story might not be where the camera is pointing — what you hear can tip you off to that.

I was struck by Speake’s obvious enthusiasm for the work he did for three decades. “Sound is so cool,” he said gleefully. He showed the same enthusiasm for a change in his job requirements — when he was asked to write his stories for the KARE-11 Web site. Instead of looking at it as a chore, he said, “I was excited to be able to add so much detail.”

Many in the audience seemed to be inspired by the examples Speake showed us. There were several questions about how he managed to produce such interesting stories.

One technique that came out was a real spirit of collaboration. “It’s important, when you start [at the scene], to talk it over with your photographer.” Speake gave a lot of credit to the photographers who shot the stories he showed (he didn’t shoot any of the examples he showed us), but he also made it clear that he didn’t expect a reporter and a photographer to go their separate ways. Sometimes one of the two must explain to the other exactly what he’s going after — and sometimes it won’t be completely clear until after the script is written. He also did not expect his photographer to be a slave to the reporter. It sounded to me like they were equal partners.

One of the most telling details Speake shared was this:

“I never know how I’m going to be able to tell the story until I go over the tape.” This might happen in the car, driving back to the office; he’s replaying the footage and watching it on the camera’s little monitor. What struck me about this statement was the openness, the flexibility, that it revealed. When he was out on the scene, interviewing people, discussing options with the photographer, Speake surely had a lot of ideas about the potential for this story. But in the end, he must defer to the visuals. He has to consider what the pictures show before he writes, before he thinks about what to write.

I’ve never had any broadcast journalism training. Luckily I had a good dose of film studies, so I know a little about framing shots and advancing the action visually. But this partnership between the audio and the visual, this mutuality of word and image, this way of choosing how to tell the story — it’s new to me, and very challenging. But it’s so cool.

Listening to Ken Speake, I had a series of tiny breakthroughs. Some things about video storytelling make more sense to me now, thanks to him.

One of the best things I gained from his talk was a new appreciation for how standard practices and “following the rules” might be responsible for some of the things that are so annoying about so much broadcast news video. Apart from the endless stories about crime and highway accidents on the local TV news, there’s that awful tone of voice so many reporters use. They “punch out” certain words in such an artificial, mechanical way, it seems as if they don’t even know what they’re saying. They sound inhuman.

Speake’s narrations had none of that. He stressed that video is more intimate than print, and you must “write the way people talk” in a broadcast script. He also emphasized the need to make a connection between what’s in the video and the viewer’s real life.

I don’t get that from most TV news stories. But Speake’s stories showed us that it is possible.

(Ken Speake spoke at the National Writers Workshop in Wichita, Kansas, on May 19, 2007.)

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Journalists can apply for Fulbright grants

This is off-topic, but I feel so strongly that international experience is one of the best things you can ever give yourself — I hope you’ll excuse the interruption.

Journalists (who are not educators) are eligible to receive Fulbright funding to go abroad to selected countries. You must be a U.S. citizen when you apply. The deadline for applications is August 1, 2007. Check the Guide to Awards Open to Professionals: 2008-09 and look for journalism. I found 24 different countries that are seeking professional journalists.

There are also up to nine lecturing, research or combined lecturing/research awards for journalism educators during the 2008-09 academic year in Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Israel, Maldives, Syria or the West Bank. Go to this page and start by choosing either a country or a discipline.

The application form is long, but you can complete it in little bits and pieces. It is all online, and you can save it safely many times as you work through it.

I went to Malaysia on a Fulbright (lecturing/research) from November 2004 to July 2005, and it was absolutely one of the best and most wonderful things I have ever done. Do I speak the Malay language? Sadly, no. Many Fulbright grants are open to people who are fluent only in English.

You can apply for only one grant per year, so you must select the country and the award that interests you most and apply for that one. Awards are tied to specific countries.

The deadline for U.S. students applying for a Fulbright is Oct. 19, 2007.

For journalists, what could be a better way to go abroad and research and produce the story of your dreams? You would be funded, and you’d be your own boss.

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Local TV news: That sky already fell

The only Web sites uglier than the assorted “We have no staff and our CMS sucks” newspaper sites are those of the majority of local TV stations. Not only is the front page hideous, designed like the earth stopped in 1999, and pathetically short on content — but the one thing they ought to do right (video) is often even worse than everything else.

Steve Safran takes his TV news peers to task:

We’re accused here at Lost Remote of being Chicken Little and crying “The sky is falling.” No more. The sky fell. Local TV news ratings are crashing. People are spending their time doing other things with their eyeballs. The networks are going around the locals. Look — on the ground — it’s the sky.

There is one last opportunity: niche broadband video channels.

Broadband video is here. Joost has proven the model. Brightcove is signing partners every day. Video is ruling the pipes. And this is worth mentioning: the ad rates beat the holy hell out of buttons and banners.

Last night I was simultaneously downloading TV shows from my TiVo to my MacBook and watching video feeds (like the fabulous and addictive Hometown Baghdad) on my (free) Democracy player.

Earlier today, I was browsing on the KING-5 site (maybe the best non-network TV news Web site in the U.S.), and I started watching an episode of NW Backroads. The episode itself was great (about a boy and his dad hunting wild turkeys: “I think this is pretty fun!”), but the video quality was pretty poor — compared with what I was watching last night. And there’s no RSS feed (at least, none that I could find), so I can’t watch NW Backroads in the nifty Democracy player.

I would join Steve in urging those local TV operations to wake up, and fast — but I would also urge my colleagues in the formerly print news business to think hard about what might happen if the local TV competition DOES step up. The golden age of online video experiments and innovation might be short, like the so-called golden age of radio.

Update (4:15 p.m.): The New York Times senior VP of Digital Operations, Martin Nisenholtz, gets it. He knows damn well what I was doing last night.

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Double dust-up in online photography world

Part 1 was the deletion of a very successful Flickr member’s photo, a subsequent apology from Flickr management, and a discussion about copyright and disputed naïveté. (The member is Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir, whose commercial success via Flickr was recently the subject of a fascinating post at the photo-flash blog Strobist. Photocritic posted a great how-to about what to do when people steal your photos, which is connected to why Rebekka’s deleted photo drew Flickr management’s attention in the first place.)

Two points of value I saw in the discussions and events:

(a) Once again, we witness that people do perceive they are part of a private and personal society — a community, if you will — when they belong to a purely online (and even purely commercial) group. An earlier example was the uprising at Facebook in September, when it imposed a News Feed feature on users that made them feel virtually naked.

(b) Anything you put on a server that you do not control might be deleted, erased, destroyed. The simple lesson: Always keep backups of your work. The broader lesson: Somebody else owns the rights to that space. The owner makes the rules.

Part 2 was the departure of Derek Powazek and Heather Champ from 8020 Publishing and JPG Magazine. There’s a similarity to Part 1 because contributors to JPG Magazine have that same sense of belonging to a society (and in fact, JPG Magazine grew out of a Flickr group). There’s also a link in that Champ works for Flickr, although that didn’t bear directly on the JPG Magazine incident, so far as I know.

JPG Magazine has now cut ties with its origins (see the bottom half of the About page):

The first version of JPG Magazine was created by the husband and wife team of Derek Powazek and Heather Powazek Champ. It was a quarterly printed publication devoted to brave new photography that took submissions over the internet and printed on good old fashioned paper. It was edited by Derek and Heather, printed in digest format, and sold through Lulu.com.

These first six issues of JPG Magazine served as inspiration for the new JPG Magazine, and they are available exclusively through Lulu.com.

You’ll notice there are no discussion forums at the JPG Magazine site.

I was on the verge of subscribing to JPG Magazine last month, but I subscribed instead to Wholphin, a quarterly DVD of hard-to-see video published by McSweeney’s. Now I won’t subscribe, because part of what appealed to me about JPG Magazine was the same thing that led me to join the Flickr group — a sense of community and people doing something in a peer-to-peer manner. Now it’s clear that it’s just a business.

Like Facebook, the printed magazine was always “just a business.” Don’t think I’m naïve. But also, don’t underestimate the power and commitment of a group of people who feel like — no, believe – they are part of a community.

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Participation, collaboration in election coverage

Spain will hold regional and municipal elections in 10 days, and the two major newspapers, El País and El Mundo, have pulled out all the stops in their online coverage. Be sure to compare these two comprehensive packages to appreciate their differences.

Guillermo López writes that the two news organizations make these three associated elements really shine:

  1. Emphasis on multimedia, with lots of video, audio and infographics.
  2. Increased circulation (or even symbiosis) between the content generated for the Web and other information media. For example, El País includes, in the print version, articles sent by the citizens to its “I, journalist” online section; meanwhile, journalists who work for various regional editions hold forth online in numerous diverse blogs linked to the site, writing about the campaigns in the country’s autonomous communities.
  3. Relevance conferred on the participation of the public. El País invites people to send SMS messages addressing complaints, proposals and initiatives to the new government of their municipality. Both news sites also invited people to speak out in a section titled “If I were mayor” (“Si yo fuera alcalde”; El País and El Mundo). El Mundo has also opened its site to free election publicity — which helps the minority candidates, López points out.

Participation from — and with — the public is evident throughout both sites’ coverage. Will we see the same in the 2008 U.S. election? (Or will the U.S. media continue to alienate the public by paying more attention to the horse race than to the issues?)

(Muchas gracias para Infotendencias.com.)

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A survey about blog use and political information

Two researchers who have conducted several studies about blog readers, Tom Johnson and Barbara Kaye, have launched a new survey on this topic. They are seeking survey participants who read blogs and who also seek out political information.

If you’d like to help them out, please complete their online survey.

(See a list of research about blogs.)

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