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Teaching Online Journalism

Breaking news graphics: A comparison of fire maps

Xaquin Gonzalez Veira compared online news organizations’ maps of the California fires last week. Gonzalez, the assistant art director at Newsweek who is responsible for the magazine’s online interactive graphics, writes his blog in Spanish, so I have taken the liberty of translating and paraphrasing his post: California en llamas (California in flames).

Gonzalez had experience with massive fires like these from last year, when he was still at El Mundo, the Spanish newspaper known as one of the great powerhouses of news graphics. “Almost a million people evacuated and about 1,000 square kilometers burned,” he wrote, with a link to Galicia en llamas from elmundo.es.

On Monday [Oct. 22], all the online mapping tools relative to the fires were either down or functioning horribly badly. I waited to download some data at night …

With the 2006 Galicia graphic in mind, Gonzalez knew the sources to go to and had a clear idea, more or less from the beginning, of how to structure the graphic.

Newsweek map of October 2007 fires

The resulting online graphic uses satellite photos, population density, photos of the fires on the ground, and an interactive calculator to show the distance from one fire to another, or the distance from Los Angeles (this is very cool — look for it in the upper right corner of the map).

Indeed, unprecedented for a weekly — Newsweek, we posted it a few hours before the NYT: those who truly appreciate the work of Steve Duenes’s team know that feeling.

Gonzalez praised The New York Times’s fire graphic — “as always, excellent” — which shows the extent of the fires and their evolution over seven days, with the ability to zoom in on individual fires.

As I found out at the ONA conference in Toronto, I am not the only one who says, “I hate them,” when they publish some jewel.

MSNBC.com used a map from Microsoft Virtual Earth. Rollover boxes provide a lot of detail about each fire, some with photos.

The Los Angeles Times used Google Maps for one of its many maps (some are static; others use the slideshow template).

USA Today points to the USDA Forest Service map, Gonazalez wrote — I liked their own map very much, and I think it might be the most complete coverage of the story, if not the most detailed (perhaps).

Ay! The APIs: “However good and bad, they still had to be done,” or, “How easy it is to use Google Maps …”

I appreciate Gonzalez lifting the curtain and giving us a glimpse inside his world.


There is no shelf. (There is no Page One.)

Think about it.

I love this video.


5 things to tell the students

How much time did you spend online yesterday and today? (Pause.) Compare that with how much time you spent reading a newspaper or a magazine.

Last night I spoke to about 40 journalism students at a meeting of the student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. My mission: To alert them to the role of online in their future career. (Your answer to the two questions might differ from theirs, but it was obvious from their facial expressions that the question makes sense to them.)

Why would you think you will have a career writing — only writing — for a newspaper, when you know what the habits of your peers are?

I’m not saying you won’t work for a newspaper, but the current students are telling us that they hear this at the campus journalism job fairs: What are your online skills? What is your URL? Where are your links?

The magazine people are in the same boat — the students just don’t realize it yet!

So here’s what I told them:

  1. You don’t have to be a programmer. But you need to have more than one skill. Another way to say that is, You need to have more than only print skills.
  2. If you have not taken any online skills courses at all, and spring is your final semester, and the intro online course conflicts with one of your required courses that you waited until now to take — sign up for the online course, and delay your graduation. Do you want to graduate? Or do you want a job?
  3. You can go home tonight and learn to make a Web page. For heaven’s sake, there are only 10 tags to learn. Learn HTML and CSS here. Free.
  4. You should not even be thinking about Flash if you never made a Soundslides. Download Soundslides here. Free demo version. See what kind of story you can tell.
  5. Every journalist can learn to gather and edit audio for online. Start here. You probably already have a digital recorder. Buy an external microphone. Download Audacity. Get busy.

This collection of tools, tutorials and tips will also come in handy: Journalists’ Toolkit.

Look at great online journalism work — here and here. Look often. Recognize the growing importance of video (like this one) in the newspaper newsrooms. Do you know how to shoot video? Do you know how to edit video? Realize that one person does NOT need to possess EVERY skill — look at the credits (top right) on this package from the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.

Update (11:25 p.m.): See what a bunch of newspaper editors say about journalism jobs and what new hires need to know.


Video on the cheap

I’ve seen a couple of references recently to the Flip video camera ($119 – $149) from Pure Digital. Mark Hamilton (Notes from a Teacher) has written a couple of posts about this — he owns a Flip camera: (1) Point-and-shoot video: A review; (2) A Little Flip.

Flip video camera, $119

But if you see good-sounding video (Burma rally, for example) on his site — that was not shot with the Flip. Mark now has a Canon HV20, and in response to an e-mail from me, he e-mailed me this about the Burma rally video:

I used the external mic on the HV20 and did a bit of audio boosting on a couple of the clips. I always cover myself at events by keeping my digital voice recorder (Zoom H4) running as a back-up, but I’m fairly impressed by the built-in mic on the HV20.

Mark sent this example (video shot by his students) as a demonstration of Flip video quality. Or lack thereof.


More about the fires …

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!


Covering a murder trial in Kansas

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.


Straight outta Wisconsin

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:

The WSJ has a daily circulation of about 90,000 and is the second-largest newspaper in the state.