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Teaching Online Journalism

Awesome video advice you can learn from

No surprise that the advice is coming from Angela Grant (at her cool new site, News Videographer). But she’s telling a reporter — yes, the non-visual, word and text-typing kind — exactly how to think about video storytelling. With no jargon. I love Angela!

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So you want to become a video journalist?

A student who will graduate this Saturday came to see me earlier this week. She wasn’t a journalism student, but she has decided she wants to be an independent video journalist. From me she wanted advice: How should she create a Web site to accomplish her goal?

Does she know any HTML? No. Has she taken any of the university’s courses that include Web design and production information? No. And she’s less than a week away from graduating.

You can just imagine how many varied thoughts flew through my head.

But you know, I did not want to tell her: “Don’t do it.” Maybe it’s a crazy idea, but maybe not. She took the time to make an appointment and come to meet with me. She seemed sincere and intelligent. And … she already knows how to shoot and edit video. She’s had some training in that.

The advice I gave her: Start a free blog on either Blogger.com or WordPress.com. She will need to research how to compress and upload her video, but she can start by simply putting it on YouTube. She can embed her YouTube Videos directly on her blog posts.

If she decides she wants to continue this project, she can start her own video channel on Revver or Magnify or Blip.tv.

What she absolutely should not do is wait. She should not wait to read a fat, fat book about HTML. She should not wait until her boyfriend or someone else “builds a Web site” for her. She should not plan, design and build a vast Web site with multiple sections and features.

Why not? She’s only one person, first. She doesn’t know anything at all about HTML, second. And third, if she did all that, she might end up with a big empty Web site that looks great but has no content.

Her idea is to produce content — video journalism. She already knows how to do that. Well, the best advice I could give her, or you, or anybody, is — START RIGHT NOW.

Don’t wait until you have read that fat book, for heaven’s sake! Stop waiting. Just sit down and begin. If you run into a dead end, THEN open the fat book and consult the index.

There’s a manufacturing strategy or system called “just in time” that, back in the 1980s, was credited with the rising success of the Japanese auto makers. The idea behind “just in time,” or JIT, is that you don’t waste resources by first stocking a big warehouse and then starting production afterward. JIT means you set up reliable systems and lines of communications so that the auto parts you need for the assembly line arrive days or hours before they are needed. Less warehouse space needed, lower financial overhead, the ability to change quickly — it was more efficient. It crushed the U.S. auto industry because it was a better system.

In software and Web application design (as well as manufacturing), a related idea is rapid prototyping. An apt example of that: You’re supposed to create a demo, and you decide to learn a new technology to get it done. BAD IDEA!

The point is, if you can get something moving without months of development work, then you can quickly see whether it works, how it works — and adapt.

If you spend lots of time and money developing a new thing and then find out it does not work — all that time and money were wasted.

Moreover, given human nature, you will probably continue to support that bad product for longer than you ought to — because of all the resources you invested in it.

If you start a free blog and after a few months it still has no audience, it’s really no big deal to quit. Or change it.

So stop waiting until you read that book or take that class. Just start doing what you have in mind. Small investment, small risk. Small failures are not so bad, in every way imaginable.

So don’t tell anyone, “You can’t do that.” Instead, encourage them to start small — and start now.

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No-Fear Guide to Multimedia Skills

I will be at the National Writers Workshop in Wichita, Kansas, on May 19. I’ll be doing a 90-minute presentation called “The No-Fear Guide to Multimedia Skills.” Since this is a writers workshop, my session is going to be very much about how you can do it right now: audio, Soundslides, video.

But more interesting to me is the last-minute addition of Robert Bowman, editor in chief of the Virginia Tech Collegiate Times (he was one of two managing editors until last week). He will be interviewed on Saturday by Joe Hight, president of the Executive Committee of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and managing editor of The Oklahoman (Oklahoma City).

This is a pretty inexpensive training opportunity: $75 for professionals and $40 for students. The professional rate will go up to $85 after May 11. And there are student scholarships! So if you live in the middle of the U.S., try to join us. Kevin McGrath, the assistant metro editor/nights at The Wichita Eagle, has put together a great lineup of speakers for two days (see the Wichita NWW page for a complete list).

National Writers Workshops are held at several locations year-round across the U.S.

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Screen Design 101: New York Times Slideshow

So, you have decided to venture out beyond Soundslides and design an original interface for your site’s slideshows (or videos). Let’s take a look at a good example from The New York Times. Amazing Girls is a package of five audio slideshows that accompanied a text story about high-achieving students at Newton North High School, near Boston.

Amazing Girls, The New York Times
I’ve long admired how the typical Times design gives full emphasis to the photos without making the controls or other features hard to find or understand.

New York Times player controls
The main player controls could not be more clear or easy to use. The added color cue (for those of us who are not red-green colorblind, that is) makes a nice extra.

New York Times package info
I’m very fond of how the credits and other information work. (These are opened by the controls in the lower right corner of the package.) First, the slideshow pauses automatically when this opens. Second, everything else dims to give visual priority to the overlay box. Third, the information about the package — including a link to the text story it goes with — is all bundled into the package, so it won’t get separated or disconnected in the future. Notice that the publication date is embedded in the package — what a great idea! (Too many online packages fail to include any date at all, even a year.)

New York Times preloader
The preloader graphic is unobtrusive and easy to understand. Each of the five slideshows loads on demand, which is a smart choice for handling the downloads.

There are two things in this design that I would like to see improved.

New York Times tool tips
The first is very simple. The pop-up “tool tip” labels for the secondary controls (those in the lower right corner) are, unfortunately, partly hidden by the mouse cursor. The solution would be to float the labels above the button text instead of below it.

New York Times segment buttons
The second change I suggest would take more effort, but I think the benefit to the visitor or viewer would really be worth it. There are five buttons across the top of the package that link to the five segments, or slideshows, in the package. They provide nice, clear feedback — when you roll over one, the appearance changes. But what’s missing is a preview. The labels on these buttons are sort of evocative, but they are not very informative.

I think you could preview the content in each slideshow in one of two ways. The first would be a simple teaser, just a text overlay or slide-down panel that told us a little bit about Kat or Colby — so we would know if we really want to click. The second way would be a nice audio snippet, in the girl’s own voice, no more than five seconds. Of course, you could provide both on rollover.

This isn’t hard to do, but it would mean more content work. That is, the editors and producers would have to spend maybe an additional hour on the package to add five previews. But consider the possible pay-off in extra viewing time and satisfaction. After I have already viewed two or three of these slideshows, I might be thinking, “Eh, Kat, Colby, I’ll just skip them.” But if I rolled over and you hooked me with the teaser — then I would click.

I really like the way the Times’s slideshows and other package templates have evolved. As other news organizations start to develop their own templates for audio and visual content, they can learn a lot just by exploring and experiencing the Times’s online packages and thinking about what works well in them — and why.

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Changes at the Orlando Sentinel

Following its announcements of staffing cuts at the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, the Tribune Co. continues to make plans for the future. From the memo to the Orlando Sentinel newsroom:

  • We must grow audience rapidly on the Web. That means changing the way we work. It means gaining new skills and creating new beats. It means becoming a multimedia, 24/7 news operation. It means creating new databases and managing user-generated content.
  • We must keep the newspaper strong. That means a sharper emphasis on watchdog journalism, consumer journalism, unique local coverage, personally useful news, innovative storytelling and provocative commentary. We must focus relentlessly on what readers perceive as valuable – not on our preconceptions or traditions.
  • We must each take ownership of our work. Every staff member needs to take personal responsibility for making the newspaper and web site a success. Individual creativity, commitment and energetic action will be rewarded. The flatter management structure will require more self-discipline, initiative and self-management.

Complete memo at Online News Squared.

And to put all this into perspective, I recommend Matt Waite’s post about controlling your own destiny: Stop waiting for them to save you. Matt’s not an “online guy” per se, but he’s one of those can-do journalists who is absolutely not sitting around waiting for the sword of Damocles to fall.

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Database about local school discipline

Here’s a nice local, local, local package that would grab the attention of parents in your circulation area (if you made your own version, that is):

Who Gets Suspended?

This package about public school suspensions, from the Northwest Florida Daily News (a 38,000-circ. daily located between Pensacola and Panama City on the beautiful Florida panhandle) might look like Flash to you — but it’s not!

It’s all JavaScript and CSS, with a database back-end. Sweet! The database was built from scratch in MySQL for this project by Daily News programmer Matt Minix. The data were gathered by education reporter Rachel Kyler. I got all this from online editor Isaac Sabetai, who feels pretty proud of what they accomplished. I don’t blame him.

The About This Project page explains how the newspaper used public records to create this interesting database. The complete project is here.

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How to Handle a Multi-Part Package

At The Herald-Tribune in Sarasota, Florida:

Special Report – September 11

Special Report - September 11

Lucas Grindley makes all the right points about why it makes sense for this newspaper to invest these resources in this story. Venice, Florida, is less than 20 miles south on the Tamiami Trail from Sarasota — Venice, where three of the terrorist pilots learned to fly. And the elementary school where George W. Bush first heard about the attacks? It’s in Sarasota.

What I’d like to point out, though, is how journalist Melissa Worden and colleagues organized this package. It is one of the best examples in recent years of an online journalism package that’s NOT a warehouse jam-packed with too much stuff. It’s a package that makes the most out of the online medium. What’s more, it did not take a Flash rocket scientist to figure this out.

Here’s what the package provides, in a single-screen, no-scrolling experience:

  1. An enticing 10-second intro (no need to skip it; it’s short!).
  2. Five clearly labeled sections that, by virtue of intelligent text, make you want to click in.
  3. Similar excellent labeling for sub-sections within the five main sections.
  4. Flash video and Soundslides audio slideshows that play seamlessly within the package (no pop-ups or fly-outs!).
  5. Good integration of maps that really help tell the story.
  6. Legible text, short paragraphs, and clear, straightforward writing. One of the most admirable things about this package: It really communicates well.
  7. Click-ability: When you look at this package, be mindful of how it’s so easy to click — a lot. You quickly come to trust the package not to do anything unexpected. You don’t feel lost or confused. So, you feel comfortable clicking on anything and everything, because you see how easy it will be to get back to where you were.

Combine all that with the high-quality content, which is really and truly local AND of interest to people in the Sarasota area.

This is exactly the type of Flash journalism package that SOMEONE in your newsroom should know how to produce. It honestly would not take a year to learn how to do this. If a journalist had a copy of Flash 8 Professional, some time to learn and experiment, and no one breathing down her neck and forcing her to churn out stupid stuff 10 hours a day, five days a week, she could figure out how to get this kind of package into your workflow.

I’m not saying a Flash beginner should attempt this — that would lead to great frustration! But it’s also not something you would need to hire Terra Incognita to do. It’s waaay simpler than that!

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