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Teaching Online Journalism

Photojournalism: American Diversity Project

The 2007 American Diversity Project is set in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It’s a photojournalism package with audio, multimedia, and traditional (silent) photo stories that documents a place.

2007 American Diversity Project
The photo work is excellent, well worth a look.

The Flash package has some very good points and a few unfortunate bits.

Good points: Single-screen interface, no pop-up windows, no scrolling. Easy to use, consistent. The interface does not interfere with the stories or your experience of viewing, listening and reading. SEPARATE HTML PAGES: This is AWESOME. It means you can bookmark, for example, Stories or Multimedia or Photographers. Each segment has its own unique URL. Too cool!

2007 American Diversity Project
Unfortunate bits: The package design is too tall for 1024 x 768 (but the width is perfect). It is only just barely too tall — but the menu and navigation for almost everything in the package is at the BOTTOM. This became increasingly frustrating for me the longer I spent in the package. The tiny overflow in height would not have been a real problem except that I had to scroll to navigate on every single segment.

The maximum dimensions my screen can accommodate at 1024 x 768: 1005 pixels in width, 588 pixels in height. According to recent stats at Browser News, about 81 percent of today’s Web page accesses show a monitor resolution of 1024 x 768. PLEASE convey this information to your designers and multimedia producers!

2007 American Diversity Project
The text has that slightly blurry problem that Flash text is prone to if you don’t make the proper choices while authoring in Flash. In other words, you don’t need to settle for fuzzy fonts in Flash! But you have to know what to do to ensure that the text is sharp and clear.

For me, the site menu had too many items on it. I would rather have seen section pages that clustered the photo work, the “about” materials, and the backgrounders.

Also, what about a map, folks? Where is Clarksdale, Mississippi?

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Cool online internship

The advertisement reads:

INTERACTIVE Help build our award-winning website. Assist with online community building, web research, interactive features, HTML coding, image/audio/video editing and writing articles and interviews.

The internship is at P.O.V. (Point-of-View), the public television series of independent non-fiction film and video. “P.O.V. films have won every coveted television and film award, including 18 Emmys, 11 George Foster Peabody Awards, eight Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Broadcast Journalism Awards, three Academy Awards, and the Prix Italia.”

P.O.V. also has a very cool Web site, where all kinds of additional material (and video) has been posted about their excellent documentaries.

P.O.V. is seeking entries of documentaries for the next TV season. The deadline is one month away.

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The no-fear guide to multimedia skills

I gave a 90-minute talk at the National Writers Workshop in Wichita, Kansas, on Saturday. You can download the handout and get all the relevant links here. This was the program text:

The No-Fear Guide to Multimedia Skills

Confounded by audio? Scared to death of video? Wondering if you’ll ever master multimedia packages? Take a deep breath and relax, and check out this special 90-minute session, where you’ll find that it’s way easier than you fear, and nowhere near as expensive as you think. We’ll cover the tools and techniques you need to start producing quality audio and video, quickly and economically, and use them to build packages that will generate traffic and bring readers back for more.

The talk was broken into three equal parts: audio, Soundslides, video. The audience was primarily newspaper reporters, as well as a group of journalism educators.

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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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