… at Clicked — a blog from MSNBC.com that’s about breaking news online.
Clicked offers a wide-ranging look at who is covering the fires, and how they’re doing it.
Update (10:32 a.m.): USA Today has two very cool fire features online — a continually updated fire map, and an explanatory graphic that shows how that map is evolving over time. The latter is great instructional material for multimedia journalists.
The embedding of the “Wildfire Primer” (button at top, far right) is very nice. USA Today understands that it’s lousy UI to make package elements fly out into new windows. Hooray!
Someone shot a county sheriff to death on a January morning in 2005 while he was serving a warrant. Almost three years later, a capital murder trial is under way in Eureka, Kansas, a town about an hour’s drive from Wichita. Wichita Eagle court reporter Ron Sylvester sits in the courtroom daily, recording the details provided by witnesses on the stand and uploading them “live” to the newspaper’s Web site.
A methamphetamine lab in a ramshackle country house. A town with about 2,600 residents. Gunshots. A 23-year-old suspect. The scourge of meth addiction in the heartland of America.
The Wichita Eagle is hampered by the inflexible online templates inherited from Real Cities, a misguided Web strategy foisted upon the Knight Ridder newspapers. Making the best of what they’ve got, Web diva Katie Lohrenz senior Web producer Jeff Butts set up an index page for all the trial coverage, with a nice short URL: http://www.kansas.com/cheever/ (the defendant is Scott Cheever). There’s an RSS feed for trial coverage, good clear audio of key testimony, and some dramatic courtroom photographs. Headlines are informative and to the point. The organization is simple, straightforward. And there are 49 pages of tributes to the sheriff who died.
In an e-mail, Ron told me some folks in the newsroom are saying his live reports are “not like a real story.” But Nick Jungman, the Eagle’s senior interactive editor, is standing up for innovation. Bravo! It may seem like a small step, compared with flashy efforts from larger newspapers — but by publishing straight to the Web, the Eagle is walking confidently toward the future.
I just hope they are promoting the online updates (and the exact URL) on Page One every morning.
Madison.com is the Web site of the Wisconsin State Journal, in Madison, Wisconsin. I have to confess, I knew nothing about the newspaper until a few weeks ago, when I examined one of their very first multimedia packages, Hip Hop 101. I wasn’t very excited about the package, but on Friday night the Online News Association gave it first place in the “Outstanding Use of Digital Media” (smaller sites) category.
I met Ellen Foley, editor of the WSJ, at the ONA conference in Toronto last week. She signed up for my Flash beginners class. (Okay, how many editors do you know who would ever take a five-hour Flash class?) She pointed me to another package from the energetic crew at Madison.com: Seventeen Seasons of Number Four, about Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre. In terms of design, it’s about 100 times better than Hip Hop 101. It’s mostly just a lot of static graphics bundled together in a Flash wrapper (with an inexplicably separate “QB game” that opens in a new window), but it’s clear and easy to use, and it makes an attractive tribute to a sports star.
Ellen explained that the State Journal hired an animator — Brent Bollenbach, a young man with an art school degree and no journalism background — and his Flash knowledge has blazed the trail for these new packages. Two other staff members are using Flash now, and maybe more are on the way.
Two weeks ago, Madison.com won a Silver award in the SNDies, the interactive awards from the Society of News Design, for Dangerous as It Is Beautiful, a multimedia story about Devil’s Lake State Park, a nearby lure for daredevil climbers.
I really admire the WSJ for letting the designers take the lead and brainstorm new projects and ideas for the Web site. (If only more newspapers were so supportive of new talent and innovation!) I hope they will soon adopt a few good practices:
Put a proper, SEO-friendly HTML title on the page that holds the package. (WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL in full caps ain’t gettin’ you nothing!)
Start using SWFObject immediately. Geez, embed tags are so HTML 4.0 …
Learn to use SWFAddress, an add-on to SWFObject, to enable deep linking within your Flash packages.
Use some SEO-friendly text and some proper meta tags on your package pages. None of this stuff from Madison.com Googles at all.
I have a theory: Put “graphics” in a panel title anywhere outside a Society of News Design conference, and attendance will be low — but use the words “Flash” or “storytelling,” and that room will fill up.
Three news graphic artists showed examples of their online work to a packed room during a panel titled “Integrating Multimedia in Storytelling” at the Online News Association conference, on Friday afternoon. I don’t think anyone in the audience was unhappy to be looking at great animated graphics. But I do think half of those people would not have come if the panel had been called “Great Online News Graphics.” I don’t know why — maybe people think “graphics” means “pie chart”?
Newsweek graphics? Yes!
I loved it when Xaquin Gonzalez Veira (assistant art director for Newsweek, responsible for the magazine’s online interactive graphics) implored us to make multimedia pieces “real stories” — not merely add-ons to something else such as a text article.
He called this 3-D package about IEDs (improvised explosive devices) “a failure,” because it isn’t able to stand alone. His team wanted to add an audio interview with a military expert on IEDs, but they ran out of time. Gonzalez counted as a success this original treatment of the September 11 anniversary — The Hole in Manhattan’s Heart — because it can stand on its own. The idea was to look at other huge building projects that had been started and completed since 2001, while the infamous site at Ground Zero remains barren.
From the first, it was conceived as a multimedia piece, and not as anything else, Gonzalez said. It was the lead feature on the Newsweek site and at MSNBC.com that day. It drew eight times the traffic of the next most-visited feature.
This story impressed me because I wanted to learn more, immediately, about why construction still has not begun at the New York site. Great journalism: Make me ask why, make me want to find the answer, and give me the means to do so.
Outgrowing bad Tribune technology
At the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, interactive graphics were long consigned to a ghetto of hidden sections and pop-up windows, in spite of a talented group of artists and award-winning projects. Why? Because of the weak content management system imposed on the organization by the corporate parent, Tribune Co.
Len De Groot (graphics director at the Sun-Sentinel) showed us how a new CMS is finally allowing graphics to appear where they belong: front and center, at the top of the page. Check it out. He made a couple of wry cracks about “putting in a change order” to the CMS vendor — which seemed to be much appreciated by other suffering designers in the room.
Meanwhile, in New York …
Matthew Ericson (deputy graphics director, The New York Times) explained how the Times has been refining its graphics template to streamline workflow. “People are not coming to our graphic to learn a new interface every time. They’re coming for the content of the graphic,” he said. (I wrote about their smart template in August, when the Times used it for the Minneapolis bridge collapse graphic.)
Ericson works in the still-separate print graphics department at NYT — but nowadays they have a multimedia producer sitting with them (Only one? I thought), and that’s brought a world of improvement. He described the old days, when sometimes the print graphics desk would remember to call the multimedia staff … and sometimes, they wouldn’t. Or things would run way over schedule, and at midnight when it was all completely done, they’d call the online folks and say, “You can have it now … we’re goin’ home!”
The memorable plane crash graphic from fall 2006 was one of the first they did after multimedia wizard Shan Carter joined the print graphics desk. Communication improved immensely, Ericson said, because “you can just yell over and say, ‘That floor plan in frame 8? Ain’t happening!’”
A couple of recent beauties that Ericson showed off: Assessing the “Surge”: A Survey of Baghdad Neighborhoods (please be sure to click on the map and see the detail page for one neighborhood — the reporting is awesome, and the left-side navigation is a wonderful interface — clean and clear, all good); the campaign finance section of Election Guide 2008 (make sure you play with the sliders on the bar chart at the bottom, and roll over the big bubbles on the map too).
I’ve been digging around in search of posts that summarize panels at the 2007 ONA convention in Toronto.
Howard Owens wrote about the so-called superpanel, moderated by NPR Digital’s Maria Thomas, with panelists Meredith Artley (executive editor, LATimes.com); Josh Cohen (Google News); Ian Clarke (Thoof); and Anil Dash (Six Apart). Bill Densmore posted some insights into how Google News is generated.
Danny Sanchez wrote about Adrian Holovaty’s one-man panel on “Making Data Webby,” which I might also write something about next week; Danny’s got a good summary.
Barb Iverson live-blogged several sessions on her blog, CurrentBuzz, including “Advertising 2.0″ and “Finding Your Voice Online.”
Joe Grimm, of the Detroit Free Press, wrote about the first gang of Knight News Challenge winners in an article at the Poynter site. On Wednesday, they gave reports about their progress so far. Joe provides a summary.
Andrew Keen (author of Cult of the Amateur) makes a good talk show guest, and a good panelist too. He’s patient. Smart. Calm. Doesn’t shout. Doesn’t get angry. Makes some rather weird facial expressions sometimes, but on the whole, he’s very civil.
Keen has adopted a position that social networking is basically bad for society. He’s concerned that all this user-generated content, blogs, etc., are going to “ruin media.”
Keen was one of three panelists in a discussion hosted by CBC News (you can watch it online) on Wednesday evening in Toronto. Leonard Brody, of NowPublic.com, and Rahaf Harfoush, a 20-something research analyst, completed the panel.
The purpose of media, Keen said, is to inform and entertain. He doesn’t mention communication.
Brody, on the other hand, proclaimed: “Your children will not read newspapers” — because they can’t communicate there.
As you might imagine, it was a fairly interesting discussion. I’ve seen Keen a few times on TV, pimping his book, and he wasn’t all that much different here — except that the addition of co-panelists tempered his authoritative manner somewhat. Keen’s idea of an “independent source” of information is the Guardian (he likes to call it “the London Guardian”; maybe he’s afraid we will think it’s still in Manchester). He made sneering and incredulous faces in response to a questioner from the audience who suggested that we need more diverse sources such as Al Jazeera. It’s the only time I’ve seen him being bluntly rude (it wasn’t pretty).
Tell Me a Story
“The basis of news, to me, is stories about people,” Harfoush said.
Brody emphasized stories and also analysis as important products of journalism. We need good quality analysis and good quality content packages, he said — and we need journalists to produce them. Breaking news will likely leave the purview of journalists, replaced by “a network of eyes and ears that traditional journalists can use,” Brody said.
Keen agreed that critical analysis — performed by trained journalists — is vital. However, he remained certain of his righteous cause: “We have nothing to learn from children,” he said, provoking a growl or gasp from many in the audience of some 300 people. His reference, if I’m not mistaken, was to Facebook users, and to the repeated examples offered by Harfoush and Brody of how younger people interact with media today.
“It’s a return to the medieval,” Keen said. Today we have an elite of super media-literate individuals, while everyone else is swimming in garbage.
Friday’s keynote speaker expressed some of the same ideas, although in a less arrogant manner.
“Our audiences are literally drowning in information,” said Mike Oreskes, executive editor of The International Herald Tribune and author of a new book about the U.S. Constitution. (You’d think a guy who’s spent 30 years in journalism would have learned to use the word literally correctly.)
“The solution to information overload is journalism,” Oreskes said. People want orientation and direction to lead them through the thicket of information. This sounded a lot like Keen, to me, and not like what I had heard from Brody and Harfoush. (Read more from Oreskes’s speech.)
How Do You Decide What to Believe?
Brody said people don’t trust — and don’t want to trust — only one news source. The days of the authoritative source have ended. “They want to triangulate truth on their own,” he said.
“If you care, you’re going to pursue the information,” Harfoush said. There are topics that a given person does not consider interesting, but the same person will invest time and effort in finding out more about other topics. This is true whether that person is clicking on the Internet or standing in front of a rack of magazines at the newsstand. (Mathew Ingram live-blogged this panel discussion.)
I was wondering whether journalists can make people care. I think if you tell a story really well, you can.
Oreskes worries that “the solar system of YOU” (referred to by Brody on Wednesday night) is in mortal conflict with “the actual solar system” of reality, the world outside your personal life. The victim of that mortal conflict might be democracy itself, because democracy requires consensus and compromise — and you can’t achieve those if you don’t understand other people.
I’ll be the first to stand up and agree with Oreskes that a key role of journalism is to help people understand the world — both the world outside their own home and the world on the other side of an ocean. But I question his assertion that there exists “an actual solar system” that any one journalist can accurately portray. The world represented by one person, or one news organization, is never going to be the same as the world seen by every other person. Everyone lives in the center of “the solar system of YOU.”
Call Up Merleau-Ponty
Oreskes believes you can “set aside your own views and lay out a set of facts, a sequence of events,” in a way that is accurate. I would argue that the best you can do is call it the way you saw it. And the way you saw it … well, there’s bound to be at least one other viewing angle, isn’t there?
The reason we need Al Jazeera, Mr. Keen — and a whole lot of other voices besides that, and besides the Guardian (which is, without question, a shining beacon in the journalistic world) — is because every voice comes from a source, a person with two feet on the ground in the world, and no two of us are ever standing in the same spot.
Democracy is messy, noisy, disorganized. Democracy means you have to shut up and listen. You’ll get a chance to speak too. But this one-way authority thing isn’t working very well, at least not in my country, that big aging empire sandwiched between Canada and Mexico. Stories are great because — unlike a shouting match, an argument, or a debate — stories invite people to listen. Stories are entertaining and informative. But stories are also communication. A storyteller has to listen to other stories, the same way musicians listen to other people’s music. The people in a democratic society need to listen to one another — not just to a mediated, filtered version of the truth.
“In this new world,” Oreskes said, “we [journalists] are no longer gatekeepers.”