Teaching Online Journalism

‘We who rule content must start making decisions’

The news is not all bad:

The research we did in cities in the U.S. and abroad this past summer provided compelling evidence that the news is as valuable as ever — even in an age where screen-based headlines overwhelm the senses and the next update is never more than a mouse-click away.

Young people the world over are hungry for news. They just don’t prefer our traditional platforms and packaging.

Source: Tom Curley, president and CEO of the Associated Press, speaking at a dinner in New York, Nov. 1, 2007.

It’s a realistic and inspiring speech. Well done, Mr. Curley.

Highlights picked out by Squared. My own highlights rendered here.

Tape vs. hard drive vs. card, and AVCHD

Planning to buy some video cameras for online journalism students to use, I’m doing buyer’s research.

I had been feeling confident about the Canon HV20 — under $1,000, with both microphone and headphone inputs. But some new information has interceded. If any of you have some advice to offer, please do.

First, a lot of people (and Web sites) have been talking about the move away from tape (goin’ tapeless!). I learned to shoot on Mini DV tapes, and I’m used to capturing from tape, but I do appreciate the convenience of copying a file (from a hard drive or memory card). It’s faster.

Second, I had a chat with Chet Rhodes, assistant managing editor for news video at washingtonpost.com, and he showed me a new camera he’s testing, the Sony CX7. It records to the Sony Memory Stick PRO Duo format memory card. Chet likes the idea that a reporter can drop the card into an envelope and overnight-mail it back to Washington. Can’t do that with a hard drive. He also likes the cool Bluetooth microphone from Sony. Unlike the typical “wireless” lavalier mic, this one really has NO wires.

Third, I started reading reviews of the Canon HG10, which records to a built-in hard drive. The price is a bit higher than the HV20, but if the hard drive is going to make life easier for the students, it would be worth it.

However, there’s a fourth point: A new video format, AVCHD.

From a review of the HG10:

Editing AVCHD footage is not impossible anymore, but it’s certainly no joy. Two programs have emerged that offer a decent array of editing tools for unconverted AVCHD files (.m2t extension for PCs): Ulead Video Studio 11 Plus and Sony Vegas Movie Studio 8. There are lots of other tools out there that allow you to convert AVCHD files to MPEG2 or whatever you need, and probably a few programs we don’t even know about, but these are the big two. Unfortunately, Vegas is only available with Sony AVCHD camcorders, not Panasonic or Canon. So we’re left with Ulead.

There are further constraints. Software engineers were tearing their hair out for awhile trying to create efficient ways to deal with the tightly woven algorithms. Working with AVCHD is taxing on your computer, and you’re going to need a powerhouse processor and memory to do it with any expediency.

Well, as you might imagine, it’s not as if I can guarantee that each student will have access to “a powerhouse processor” and giant stacks of memory.

Now, back to Chet, who was kind enough to answer a couple of questions about AVCHD (which the Sony CX7 also uses). Currently his people are using the CX7 in SD mode — so they are recording in an MPEG format, not AVCHD. “Once more editing software supports AVCHD, then we might move that way,” he wrote in an e-mail.

From what I can tell at the Canon site, the HG10 records in ACVHD (MPEG-4 AVCH/H.264: 5/7/9/15 Mbps) only. So unless I’m mistaken, we don’t have the ability to edit the footage in our computer labs, because of the limitations of our hardware and software.

A PC World article from 2006 explains the AVCHD format and its limitations pretty well.

In the meantime, iMovie ’08 reportedly does support the HG10′s flavor of AVCHD. Final Cut Pro 6.0.1 offers support for AVCHD, with some limitations (such as no Firewire). I can’t find any evidence that Windows Movie Maker supports AVCHD at this time.

So I was getting all excited about tapeless video, but now it seems that with the limitations of university computer labs to contend with, I might be buying those Canon HV20 cameras after all.

Update (Feb. 23, 2008): We did buy four of the HV20 cameras, and so far, they are working out very well. One of the benefits to using tape with students is that I can make them hand in the tapes so I can grade (or at least critique) their raw footage. You’ll want to figure out how many tapes each student will need in the semester and charge a lab fee to cover the costs; buying tape in boxes of 50 or 100 is much cheaper than buying a three-pack at Best Buy.

How video should be used on the Web by newspapers

Cyndy Green on the benefits of using a small video camera:

I am no longer an invader, infecting the story with my mere presence. I am invisible. An old(er) lady with a camera. Ignored. I can now see the real story … not necessarily the story being acted out for the benefit of the camera.

More in a short, sweet post about exploring video storytelling for journalism.

Green worked in TV news for 28 years, carrying a very, very big camera. Now, as a high school teacher, she’s experimenting with smaller, cheaper cameras.

First lesson in audio for journalists

I am getting a little weary of hearing journalists and educators say they don’t know how to do audio.

Let’s see whether I can translate my less-than-50-minute* lesson into plain text.

Gathering Audio

It helps if you are holding the recorder, mic and cable — and demonstrating while you teach this. (Sorry, I don’t have video of me teaching it!)

  1. Always use an external microphone.
  2. Make sure the recorder is recording before you start.
  3. Let the subject do the talking.
  4. Don’t say “Uh huh” or “Mm hm.” Learn to nod silently and make great eye contact so they know you are listening closely.
  5. Ask questions that lead the subject to tell a story.
  6. Collect relevant natural sound, e.g., hammers, crowds, water, traffic, street musicians.
  7. Never let the subject hold the mic, and don’t move your hand on the mic.
  8. Don’t swing or bump the mic cable.
  9. Carry spare batteries.
  10. Ask the subject to say his or her full name, job title, home town, etc. — at the end. If they say it too fast, ask them to say it again, more slowly.

Practice Gathering Audio

If you have gear, or if the students have gear:

  1. Put students in teams of two, with one recorder and one mic for each pair.
  2. Send them outdoors, and tell them to interview each other (one at a time, please) for five minutes.
  3. Tell them to be careful about background noise in the spot they choose.
  4. Require them to WEAR HEADPHONES while they conduct the interview. What they hear in the headphones is what the recorder is recording. (If the interview subject’s P’s and S’s are too pronounced, the mic is too close to the subject’s mouth. Move it.)

Editing Audio

Editing audio in Audacity, a free program

  1. Open Audacity (more about that below).
  2. Open this file (or one like it) in Audacity. This file is a good one to use because: (a) it is very short; and (b) it has clear pauses between statements, which make it easy to demonstrate selecting bites.
  3. Show the students how to delete the preliminary stuff at the beginning: Select and delete (press the Delete key).
  4. Show the students how to undo (Edit menu, or Ctrl-Z, or Cmd-Z).
  5. Show the students how to MOVE a piece of audio from the end of the clip to another place in the clip: Select, cut, click on the new place, and paste (use the Edit menu, or use Ctrl-X and Ctrl-V; on a Mac, it’s Cmd-X and Cmd-V).

You’re done. Those are the basics of editing digital audio.

I always tell students: It’s like using Microsoft Word, which every reporter already knows how to do. Cut, copy, paste. You already know how to do this.

Practice Editing Audio

If you have computers, or if the students have computers, with Audacity installed:

  1. Copy the file onto the hard drive.
  2. Convert from WMA to WAV (if necessary).
  3. Open the file in Audacity.
  4. Edit the interview you just completed to a length of 45 to 60 seconds.
  5. Cut out all the “ums” and “ahs.”
  6. Move the subject’s introduction from the end to the beginning.
  7. Save and export as an MP3 file.

If you are a journalism educator, I can promise you — these take less time to grade than a 300-word (written) news story. You can complete this entire training — including gathering AND editing — in less than three hours. I have done it lots of times! The students can turn in their first edited audio project at the end of the class.

* If it’s all hands-on, you’ll need about 2.5 to 3 hours. If it’s only show-and-tell, with no hands-on, you can do it in less than one hour.

Grading Criteria for First Audio Exercise

(I am assuming your students already know how to conduct a journalistic interview.)

Use this handout (PDF, 236 KB) for instructions. It explains not only how to do all of the editing, but also, how to download and install Audacity – which is free and works on Windows, Mac and Linux.

In most cases, I’m using a sub-$100 Olympus digital recorder. I have mics that cost abut $100 each and others that cost about $15 each. The cable costs about $10. So you can put together a usable audio kit for about $100 altogether.

When you are ready for more, look here.

Headline writing for online audiences (and search engines)

Somehow I missed this excellent post about SEO for online headlines, by Patrick Beeson, online for two weeks already! Read it and learn how to write headlines that will bring a bigger audience to your stories.

Lucky for me, one of my forward-thinking colleagues here at the university asked if I knew any good resources about search engine optimization that he could use in his lecture on headline writing. I knew I had seen some in the past, so I went into Google to see if I could find them again. Up jumped Patrick’s post. It’s suitable for reading in any journalism class — and any newsroom, for that matter.

One resource Patrick did not link to in his post is a New York Times article from last year, which claims that search engines are eroding the fine art of headline writing:

Some news sites offer two headlines. One headline, often on the first Web page, is clever, meant to attract human readers. Then, one click to a second Web page, a more quotidian, factual headline appears with the article itself. The popular BBC News Web site does this routinely on longer articles.

Nic Newman, head of product development and technology at BBC News Interactive, pointed to a few examples from last Wednesday. The first headline a human reader sees: “Unsafe sex: Has Jacob Zuma’s rape trial hit South Africa’s war on AIDS?” One click down: “Zuma testimony sparks HIV fear.” Another headline meant to lure the human reader: “Tulsa star: The life and career of much-loved 1960′s singer.” One click down: “Obituary: Gene Pitney.”

I think this is not true anymore — a quick look at the BBC News front today shows that the headline on the story is exactly the same as the link you clicked on the referring page. BBC headlines must be between 31 and 33 characters, including spaces, to accommodate all platforms — including videotex and mobile phones. Even with that strict limit, the BBC writes some of the best online heds in the world — the right keywords are there, and you can see at a glance what the story is about.

This not only gives the BBC great “Google juice”; it also helps you, the reader, make that split-second decision: Do I want to click on that?

Managing all the stuff contributed by the public

In a widespread breaking-news situation such as the recent fires in California, a lot of news organizations would like the public to send in photos, video and reports from the ground. A post at the Veeker blog describes how the Veeker platform made it easy for KNSD-TV (NBC San Diego) to manage 1,704 viewer-contributed pictures and videos (as of midday Oct. 24):

What’s more interesting is an analysis of six factors that made it all possible. Two of these are essentially “Veeker is great,” but I found it an interesting read nevertheless. And remember, we’re talking about a TV news Web site here!

KNSD has put 37 of the photos into a slideshow. Each one includes the photographer’s name (upper right corner). The captions leave a lot to be desired, and they’re not geo-tagged.

I sort of prefer a search-generated Flickr slideshow, myself. I find it irresistible to search Flickr for every large-scale breaking news event.

(Link via Read/Write Web.)

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.