After a reasonably short, arresting intro video, the package proper opens with a sliding aerial photo of the entire length of the 35W bridge after its collapse into the Mississippi River. Each vehicle in the photo is identified with a number inside a circle (black ones mean there was a death). Click the number and, in most cases, you’ll see a video of the person or people who were in that vehicle. Even when there is no video, there is a brief text story.
You can easily scroll the bridge photo to view all of it.
Unfortunately, it seems that the Strib is rearranging things on their Web servers, and the link inviting people to share their (additional) stories is broken. There are also a couple of broken links on the credits page, which weirdly opens in a new window.
Local readers are quite impressed by the package and have been posting compliments on a blog set up for feedback. That’s a very nice add-on, working well. (I don’t mind that the comments blog opens in a new window. To me, that seems logical, whereas separating package credits from package does not.) It also serves as a fine counter-argument to all the critics who say readers post too much trash-talk when comments are allowed.
In many different situations, I hear journalists asking for Flash training. I love Flash, and I will confidently proclaim that Flash is hands-down the best tool for building a full-fledged multimedia package for digital, online journalism.
Huh? Is my headline inconsistent with my lede?
As is so often the case, the answer depends on the question.
The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association invited me up to Harrisburg to do a day’s training — general multimedia skills, plus planning the larger package. There were 15 evaluation forms at the end of the day; 12 people were really happy and three were not. One of them had wanted a video editing workshop (sorry, this was not that). The other two apparently expected more advanced material.
The question raised was in the side comments — what else did you want, what do you want next? Flash, Flash, and more Flash. Everybody wants to learn Flash.
First, let’s take an inventory in your newsroom. Who’s on your online team? Do you have a real online team, or do you have a couple of “night producers” who clean up after the messes your CMS makes? If it’s the latter, those guys probably have no free time for developing Flash packages. What’s your job title? Graphic artist or designer? Okay, you’re in. Reporter, editor, photojournalist? Keep reading.
Second, let’s look around your Web site. Has anyone been producing any audio slideshows or videos that have … um (trying to be tactful) … substance? Value to the audience? Or are people just throwing random spaghetti at the wall? Because if that’s what your newsroom is doing, maybe you’re not ready to produce packages yet. Maybe you don’t have a strategy for your Web site — and if you don’t, then what are you going to use Flash for?
Flash is not a magic elixir. Flash will not make your Web site better if it’s generally bad, and it won’t make your stories better if you’re not already telling stories well with sound and pictures.
What Do You Know About Packages?
One comment on the Pennsylvania evaluation forms was that I should have done more straight “how-to” during the packages session. It was nice to see and discuss examples of multimedia packages, the person wrote, but that’s no use if you don’t know how to make them.
I’m going to try to convince you that the commenter is mistaken.
How can you plan a package if you don’t evaluate other newsrooms’ packages?
If you look at my list of examples, you should notice pretty quickly that each of the packages is quite different from all the others. Planning the package — and the labor that will go into making it — depends on your familiarity with what does and does not work well in packaging multimedia journalism. A lot of people who try to learn Flash do not have a very clear idea of what they are going to do with it. So seek out others’ packages and spend time with them, the way a person in the audience would. Figure out what is confusing. Notice what annoys you. Make notes about what is delightful, or smooth, or especially interesting. Make notes too about anything that is hard to use, or doesn’t work the way you thought it would.
That will be your apprenticeship, little Flash grasshopper.
If you try to learn Flash before you study and evaluate the packages made by others, you won’t know what to do with Flash even if you do successfully learn it.
On a Different Tangent
Does your newsroom own a recent copy of Flash? Flash CS3 costs about $700 per license. One workshop participant told us his newspaper’s management has explicitly refused to buy even one copy of Flash. Another participant told us that his management finally saw the light after some staffers specifically described a really cool interactive feature they wanted to build to enhance an ongoing local news story. Management said great, let’s do it. The staffers admitted they couldn’t build it unless they had Flash. Guess what? Management signed the check. Woot!
How about this argument, folks? Photoshop CS3 costs about $650 per license. Every photojournalist in your news organization has a licensed copy of Photoshop. Count the photojournalists. Okay, your Web site — is it not the future of our entire field? Does your very business not depend on the Web site? And your management cannot buy even one licensed copy of Flash for your newsroom?
Maybe it’s time to just shutter the whole enterprise, in that case. Roll up the sidewalks and turn out the lights.
What Is the Question?
Maybe you want to create an integrated package of video, animated graphics and other online assets. Flash is the best tool for that. But do you understand typography and design? Do you know enough to make a package that looks good — looks professional?
Maybe you want to build an awesome interactive database application. Are you the database reporter? Are you the right person to build the Flash portion of the package?
Maybe you want to animate graphics you are already producing for the printed newspaper.
It’s possible that the best thing for your newsroom would be to hire a Flash designer. I know your budget is tight and there’s a hiring freeze. But let’s look at this logically: It’s going to take lots and lots of hours, weeks, months, for you or your friend at the next desk to learn Flash from scratch. Those are hours you will be taken away from other work, depriving the newsroom of your skills.
Flash is not simple.
Maybe you’re not the best person to learn Flash from scratch in your newsroom. Maybe your friend at the next desk is a much better prospect, because she is already a skilled designer, or graphic artist, or programmer, or database reporter.
Or maybe you are the best prospect, for any number of reasons. But right now you don’t really know what kind of packages you would make, or your idea of a package is — admit it — rather fuzzy and indefinite.
Figure out what your question is — what challenge you are trying to address. Figure out what makes a package succeed or fail. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of your Web site — and the current staffing levels for the Web site. Finally, look at the multimedia your newsroom is producing today — who is producing it, with what equipment, with what kind of frequency or consistency?
One of the more important questions is, How can we improve what we’re doing online?
According to a column by Guy Berger, a South African journalist and journalism educator, a Howard University journalism professor has complained that her writing has been published under another author’s name in a very well-regarded textbook.
Howard’s Anju Chaudhary, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, co-authored the Asia section of the third edition of the textbook Global Journalism, published by Allyn & Bacon — a company that produces many of the best-known textbooks in our field. In the fourth edition of the same textbook, according to Berger, two different authors were hired to write the Asia section — Jiafei Yin, of Central Michigan University, and Gregg Payne, of Chapman University. Apparently, no credit (or payment) was given to Chaudhary for the new edition (see the table of contents).
Berger (Rhodes University, Grahamstown) has taken some time to compare the two editions, and his findings will look familiar to just about every journalism educator who has ever compared a graduate student paper to the published sources that are cited in the paper: Paraphrasing without attribution.
Another issue arises if you examine Berger’s comparison: Even though 10 years separate the two editions of the book, some numbers in the Asia section have not changed at all. Is it likely that the literacy rate in India did not change by even 1 percentage point between 1995 and 2004? That exactly the same number of daily, weekly AND monthly newspapers were published in Bangladesh in 1995 and in 2004? According to Berger, the population of Bhutan is given as “less than 1 million” in both editions. The CIA World Factbook gives a 2007 population estimate for Bhutan of 2,327,849. Should we assume the population more than doubled between 2004 and 2007?
This question concerns more than copy-and-paste scholarship. It concerns more than turn-a-blind-eye editors, and more than budget-obsessed publishers who provide no fact-checking oversight at all for the textbooks they publish — and for which they charge such high prices. The very accuracy of the text appears to be at issue in this case.
I showed this to my students last week, and apparently most of them agreed with me — this is not your average Soundslides.
At 5 min. 27 sec., it’s much longer than what works best for most audio slideshows. Consensus among people who watch a lot of audio slideshows is that after 2 minutes, most of these pieces get really boring, really fast. Redundancy or “drift” is usually the culprit. Boredom sets in when the repetition starts, or when the story loses focus or turns to a second topic.
So maybe that’s why I sat through this piece — an interview with one man — for more than 5 minutes and never lost interest. As I told the students, all the planets are aligned here:
A single strong, interesting character
An unusual story
Great photos that add depth to the story (not just wallpaper)
Some slideshows have great photos but lack a strong story to carry the viewer through to the end. Some stories have a few great photos and a lot of filler images that grind away and kill our interest. Someone remarked to me that this story ought to have some nat sound to take it to the next level; usually I would agree, but in this case I don’t think it’s necessary.
At the workshop I led on Saturday (about journalist blogs), someone raised a question about libel while we were discussing non-editing of blogs. I did a few searches and found some interesting information.
One of our grad students has done some research about related cases (not published yet, so I don’t want to give away his case law), and so far the courts have acted wisely, showing a clear understanding that some libel suits are filed with the sole intention of silencing the speaker (chilling free speech). When the posted comment has been deemed by the courts to be purely an opinion rather than a statement of fact, in more than one case, the court has dismissed the lawsuit.
The Media Law Resource Center has a page that lists “legal cases in the United States in which bloggers have been sued for libel and related claims.” I searched for the word newspaper and could not find a case in which any blog affiliated with a newspaper has been named in a libel suit.
One part of the concern is whether a blogger will receive the same protections as a journalist if named in a libel suit.
Another concern is whether a journalist-blogger — specifically, a full-time paid journalist blogging for the news organization that pays him or her — will one day be named in a legitimate libel suit.
The news organization represents a fatter cow for the plaintiff to try to slaughter. The lonely blogger probably doesn’t have a lot of cash to pay out, if he or she loses the legal battle. But some libel suits are actually about reputation rather than money. And as I already said, some libel suits are just trying to shut someone up — such as a whistle-blower.
Under U.S. law, truth is an absolute defense. That is, if you can prove that what you wrote is true, you are not at fault. However, as the EFF guide says, “the truth may be difficult and expensive to prove.”
Moreover, many other countries’ laws do not afford the same protection — to journalists or to anyone else.
Disclaimer: Obviously I am not a lawyer, so do not take this as legal advice!
At the end of the Q&A with nytimes.com editor Fiona Spruill (mentioned here on Friday), a reader asked how multimedia packages are planned and what role the reporter plays in the process.
As for collaboration on multimedia projects between reporters, photographers and editors from print and online, Spruill said:
Web producers sit near print reporters and editors in our new building. They attend meetings together and they brainstorm about potential multimedia features for upcoming stories. They conceive of and execute Web-only projects together. It is a collaborative process, but the collaboration can take shape in different ways.
When reporters and photographers have gathered audio or video, they often hand it over to Web producers, who edit it. “Occasionally,” Spruill said, they edit their own audio or video. In other cases, Web producers both gather and edit audio.
Reporters often write scripts and record voiceovers for multimedia features.
The point is that integrating the two newsrooms has changed the old ways of doing things in separate silos. We have deliberately tried to break down the barriers of who does what, and instead create an environment where people from both print and Web backgrounds are all part of the storytelling process.
As you might expect, a lot of multimedia packages are planned in advance. That might mean a couple of days, or it might mean months.
When choosing the stories that will be enhanced with interactive graphics, audio or video, Times editors give priority to stories that:
“Lend themselves particularly well to visual translation or explication;
“Have strong characters whose voices we can bring to life for readers; or
“Have data we have gathered in the process of reporting and can share.”
That list provides a very nice measurement tool that all of us can use.
It’s so important to realize that just because someone had a camera and got some video or some stills, it doesn’t mean the story warrants the time it’s going to take to process — to edit and produce — a multimedia component. Just because someone in your newsroom has a particular skill or talent and says, “I want to — ” doesn’t mean that anyone else in the world is going to think that’s an interesting story.
In these days when we are still feeling our way, when the world has changed and we are still adapting to our new environment, there is a tendency to say, “Let’s try it!” with perhaps too little deliberation. (I think that is less true at The New York Times than at some other news organizations.) It’s really important to manage the limited resources available in today’s newsrooms so that journalists can produce stories that help prove to audiences that journalism is relevant and does have value to them in their daily lives.
Set priorities and weigh the shelf-life of these time-consuming projects.
Produce lots of multimedia journalism! But choose the right stories.