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Teaching Online Journalism

What is a medium?

What are “new media,” anyway? Vin Crosbie has updated his really long article about new media, and it’s good. I disagree with his central idea, but it’s still good.

Much of what he wrote needed to be said — especially that a lot of people don’t know what a “medium” is, much less what “media” are. My students think the only meaning of “media” is equivalent to “mass media.” (The students do know that mass media might be entertaining or informative, and sometimes both at the same time.)

I love how Vin softens us up for his argument by talking about the three media of transportation: land, water, and air. (Shades of the great Harold Innis and the railroads.) Vin clearly explains that vehicles travel in a medium.

Then he goes on to say that the three media of communication are interpersonal, mass, and … “new.” Wait, don’t stop reading! Vin makes a nice analogy with transportation: You cannot take the same route, or get to the same place, in a land vehicle or a water vehicle. But if you’re in an air vehicle, you can go both to land places and to water places via new routes. This is a lovely way of thinking about what “the new medium” allows us to do — things we cannot do in interpersonal or mass media alone. It is a hybrid, but NOT in the sense that an “amphibious vehicle” is a hybrid — because a vehicle is NOT a medium.

I do not agree with Vin, however, that these are the three media of communication.

In a course I teach about the history of communication technology, we begin not with the printing press, nor even with the alphabet (writing IS a technology), but with the cave and rock paintings of Europe and Australia. This is when humans first created a permanent communication that would remain after the author moved away or died — a communication detached from the human body. (I guess Vin would call these communications “interpersonal.”)

What was the first mass medium? You might want to say it was the scrolls and books that were copied and shared through Arabia, Greece and later Europe about 2,000 years ago, but I would disagree. I say it was not until Gutenberg’s press began turning out thousands of identical copies. Sure, the Chinese invented movable type 400 years before Gutenberg, but their writing system has so many characters, it just wasn’t as efficient to set up type. Gutenberg had an advantage because his people had adopted the compact Latin alphabet back when the Romans overran Western Europe.

Like Innis (and later McLuhan), I look at communication media in terms of speed (time and distance). Speed is dependent on transmission media. Print (mass medium No. 1) requires paper or some other physical surface. Print is a medium that’s produced slowly (although faster now than in the 1450s) and also fixed in time. You can’t erase it. You can destroy it (burning books, for example), and you can write a new version (some old ones may survive), but you can’t scrape it off and rewrite on the same surface. (You COULD do that with the books that preceded the printing press.)

This goes back to Negroponte’s famous atoms and bits idea: Print is a medium of atoms. It physically exists. You can touch it. You cannot touch bits.

The bit about bits (sorry) is hard to apply to analog media, particularly broadcast media. So there’s an in-between medium, in my way of thinking, and it includes audio cassette tapes (which were used to start a revolution in Iran back in the 1970s, as well as their popular use worldwide for copying pop songs from vinyl recordings so teenagers could share them for free) and video tapes and live-to-air broadcasts. The broadcast folks still like to call all this analog audio and video “electronic media,” and that makes everyone feel confused about analog vs. digital.

Digital is definitely about bits — and bits are about infinite replication. Analog copies degrade as copies are copied. Digital copies do not. Transmission speed is instant with a broadcast signal. It is also instant with a digital signal. Both of these must be repeated (using devices called “repeaters”) so that they can travel from one place to a distant other place.

But it’s not only transmission — everything about digital media is instant. Copy-and-paste is instant. Uploading is instant. Corrections and erasures are instant — and largely undetectable! The publication of photographs can be done from the scene, instantly. Other than live-to-air, anlaog was never THAT instant — and live-to-air was for a long time a studio-bound practice. Live-to-air was once as ephemeral as smoke signals.

Vin’s taxonomy of media types looks at the actors or subjects in the act of communication. He’s looking at relationships such as one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many. This is not a bad thing, but I strongly disagree that these classifications define media. They describe, but do not define.

Many-to-many is a state or condition made possible by the medium. Many-to-many is not the medium itself. (Do you consider the Arch of Titus in Rome to be a mass medium? It does communicate one-to-many. But only if you are in Rome, standing within view of it.) Face-to-face communication uses no “medium” at all. Media, as Marshall McLuhan said so succinctly, are extensions of man.

I find it useful to remember that visual artists work in media. “My medium is clay,” a sculptor might say. “My medium is oils,” a painter might reply. The medium that bore the first hieroglyphs of Egypt was stone. The symbols themselves — and the uses of writing — changed when writing was done on papyrus. If the medium of a third artist is digital, won’t that artist’s work be very different from the work of her colleagues in clay and oils?

I definitely agree that too many people still see digital media as nothing more than a vehicle for old content. Just because they see video or text on a Web page or on a mobile phone, they think of the computer or the mobile phone as a new vehicle carrying the same content. This is the biggest error in understanding “new media” — or rather, digital media. The content may look the same — for now — but because this medium is truly different, the content is, in fact, not the same at all. Vin wrote:

Simply because the New Medium encompasses the characteristics and the reach of both of its predecessors and therefore can easily perform each of those media’s capabilities, many people mistake the New Medium as merely an electronic extension [of] previous media.

Humans had books for hundreds of years before Gutenberg. For the first 50 years after Gutenberg perfected his movable cast-metal type, printers worked very hard to make the new printed books look as much as possible like the old hand-written manuscript books.

As the years passed, such imitations of the old medium became fewer and fewer. By 1501, books had become a new vehicle within the new medium of print. Then, after 100 years, another new vehicle was invented. It was what we now call a newspaper (Strasbourg, Germany, 1609).

Things move faster now. The evolution of communication media is all about speed.

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A Flash comic for storytelling

Talk about a cool interface! This would work for certain online journalism stories, I’m quite sure. It is sooo easy to use!

This example comes from the great Web site of the great Scott McCloud, author of both Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics. I learned a LOT about storytelling from Understanding Comics back in 1993. At the time, I was reading a lot of the new wave of American comics (Zot, Watchmen, Love and Rockets, Art Spiegelman’s Maus), and I didn’t expect to learn anything from Understanding Comics — but as soon as I picked it up and started paging through it, I knew I would read it more than once.

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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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