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Teaching Online Journalism

Map of all homicides in New York

Kudos to The New York Times, which used Google Maps to create a three-year (2003-2005) map of homicides in the five boroughs of New York City. The idea is copied from Adrian Holovaty’s award-winning Chicago Crime site, but that’s okay.

If a newspaper is going to provide a crime map today, this is the way to do it. You do not need to reinvent the wheel to produce an online feature with maps! Just learn how to use the Google Maps API.

I love it that these maps show how much of Manhattan never had a single homicide in a year. For the 11 years when I lived in New York (and later, the six years when I lived in Washington, D.C.), people who lived elsewhere always asked, “Aren’t you afraid?” No, I was not afraid! As the map shows, people are not getting killed everywhere, and what’s more, most killings in American cities are committed by people who know the victim.

In other words, these maps tell a story that many people do not yet understand.

(Found by way of the Lost Remote blog.)

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More pieces of the storytelling puzzle

My questions about how to teach storytelling skills to journalism students persist, so I perked up when I saw an article by the producer of a TV documentary about physics. The title, Seven Rules for Making a (Science) Movie, didn’t grab me, but the blurb on the RSS feed was:

“Filmmaker David Sington shares seven rules for making good TV out of complex topics.

The purpose … is simply to give pleasure to its viewers. But it’s the pleasure of finding things out, the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of understanding something about the world …

This definitely applies to multimedia stories too.

There’s a lot of excellent food for thought in the article. I’ll tempt you with just one:

Don’t be afraid to be difficult

… If a science film is a mystery, and the pleasure lies in solving that mystery, then it must be a challenge to be really enjoyable. It’s like a crossword puzzle: no fun if it’s impossibly difficult, but also no fun if it’s too easy.Unfortunately, many television types seem to think that a viewer who is intellectually challenged is more likely to reach for the remote, and so most science films end up being too easy. I don’t think people turn the channel because they are a bit mystified; they switch because they are bored … Viewers should work a little for their understanding — we all appreciate more the things we’ve had to struggle for.

I find some multimedia journalism packages to be too simple. If you’re going to do all the work necessary to produce good multimedia, then it should be satisfying for the users. The users should feel intrigued — and yes, a little bit challenged as well.

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Nobody cares what you think

An earnest young student described his plans to me last week: He wants to write a series of humor columns. Or maybe they would be entertainment columns. They might really be movie reviews. In any case, he would be telling us what he thinks about popular culture, you see? And if he puts these columns on the Web, it would be online journalism. Wouldn’t it?

Jonathan Last wrote:

Bloggers are forever telling us how easy journalism is, yet very few of them have ever really practiced it. Sure, they may have written opinion pieces that compare favorably to the work of Molly Ivins or Ann Coulter, but opinion writing is a tiny — and let’s be honest, inconsequential — corner of the journalism world. Real journalism — the practice of adding to the store of public knowledge by reporting news — is a difficult, thankless, and often unpleasant task. Bloggers want no part of it. Everyone wants E.J. Dionne’s job; no one wants to be Michael Dobbs … (The Philadephia Inquirer, April 23, 2006)

(In my blog, I don’t have to link to Ann Coulter if I don’t want to. And I can add that while I wouldn’t want to be Michael Dobbs myself, I sure would be proud if I could be Robert O’Harrow.)

Journalism professors like to joke around about how nine out of 10 students want to be Dave Barry. Only we’re not really joking … it sort of makes us feel sick, as in nauseated. It’s not that we don’t like Dave Barry. Who doesn’t like Dave Barry? It’s the idea that a 22-year-old who has never worked a day in his life and has never lived outside the state of Florida would think he could be Dave Barry, like, next week.

I think I should send all these kids a link to this essay about journalism by Dave Barry, so that perhaps they will realize that not even Dave Barry started his career as Dave Barry. My favorite little-known fact about Dave Barry’s journalistic chops is that he wrote and filed the first story about the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. I am not kidding. The guy is a real journalist, and that’s the point: You can’t be like Dave Barry unless you trek along a twisty path to get there. You can’t get there by writing. You get there by living and working and seeing the world.

And no, it isn’t “online journalism” to write on the Web! No, no, no. It’s not.

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What it costs to run the BBC

Talk about transparency! You can see everything about costs and services at the BBC’s Web site. I went to take a look because Jeff Jarvis addressed the matter without providing any figures.

What does the BBC cost the good people of Britain? In 2004-05, it was £10.08 a month, or £120.96 a year. At today’s exchange rate, that is US$220.87 a year. The current fee is apparently £131.50 a year (US$240.11).

I just pledged more than that to my local NPR affiliate, earlier today. (Why? because I listen to Morning Edition or Weekend Edition every morning of the year. It’s my favorite offline news source. And if the affiliates don’t pay NPR, one day we may not have NPR anymore.) I give money to my local radio station — even though I hate most of their other programming (save me from opera!) — because I love those shows, and All Things Considered, and Fresh Air.

About a year ago, I looked into the individual taxpayer’s share of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s annual budget. It was even less than the BBC fee.

But in my country, we do not have real public broadcasting. We have the radio network (NPR) and the separate public television network (PBS), but both of them must go begging for donations twice every year — which most listeners and viewers just hate. What’s worse than having your favorites shows interrupted continually for two solid weeks is the larger result, which is that old rich people give most of the money — so the programming is mostly content that appeals to old rich people. Like opera. And imported BBC costume dramas.

There’s precious little journalism on PBS, unfortunately. Apart from the NewsHour, there’s Frontline and Frontline World (both wonderful), P.O.V., and Now. And they run Independent Lens, which airs cool documentaries like Negroes with Guns. Not a bad bunch … but nothing like the BBC.

Heck, I would pay $240.11 a year for BBC TV, if I could get BBC1 and BBC2.

I would be overjoyed to pay an annual fee in exchange for a true public broadcasting system like the BBC, or Canada’s CBC. But I don’t know, maybe most Americans would not share that attitude.

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How NOT to do video

Doug Fisher writes:

Just as the newspaper industry is slowly — only slowly — learning that blogging isn’t blogging just because you use blogging software, it has to learn that video isn’t video (or useful) just because you give a reporter or photographer a camera and show him or her where the start button is.

Brilliant and directly on target.

Doug makes many more good points in his post:

If you are going to blog … and link to an “interactive feature” that you proudly boast about on April 11, try to remember that 16 days later it is not good to have the link come up as a 404 error….Remember that video on the Web is not the same as the video equivalent of dumping your notebook into the camera….

Why does a newspaper that is touting how it is breaking up its stories think that folks on the Web are going to sit and watch 9 minutes of mind-numbing video?

Too long — MUCH too long — that is the problem with most of the linear content on the Web. I mean BOTH video AND text. Long (and complete) is great for backgrounders and original documents, etc. But for heaven’s sake, get a clue about how long real people can sit still without clicking!

You can look at Nielsen//NetRatings data any day and see the answer:

About 47 seconds per page. That’s the average length of time users spend looking at your stuff.

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Reading list for summer 2006

Books I’m thinking about requiring for my fall course, New Media and a Democratic Society:

Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers, by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, by John Battelle

We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, by Dan Gillmor

Probably not all three … if you’ve read any of these, please leave a comment. Registration is not required.

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Ugly design and good communication

Another thing that’s hard to fit into a journalism curriculum is graphic design. Often we have design wedged into the editing class, and the person teaching the class is someone who’s far, far more experienced with the AP Stylebook than with use of color and typography.

This post by a semi-anonymous Web designer provides a condensed introduction to many of the debates and truisms about designing for online media (found by way of Digg). He provides some excellent links in his post, so take a look.

First, the tension between designers and usability experts centers on this:

Designers have too much emotional bias towards pretty things.

Can a site be both pretty AND usable? It may depend on your idea of what’s “pretty.” I have had students who think some outrageous color combinations are pretty, when in fact they make the Web page impossible to look at for more than 2 seconds!

Second, usability sometimes requires the addition of elements that would be considered “visual clutter” in print design — such as underlining links, which some Web designers consider quite ugly, so they leave the underline off.

Is this a choice fueled by a desire for being pretty or being usable? Given that the eye of a web user finds underlined links more easily, I’d wager it’s the former.

Third, and best of all, the blogger concludes that what works well in one medium often does not work well at all in another medium.

For beginning Web design students — even those who do have some graphic design skills already — that’s probably the most important lesson to learn.

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