All I’m doing is one session about blogging. I would have done anything they asked me to do, but blogging is all they wanted from me. (Yeah, go figure — a prophet is often without honor in her own land, they say.)
The exceptionally talented Lee Glynn, of The St. Pete Times, will be teaching multimedia graphics! Woot!
There will also be video training!
When: Saturday, Oct. 13, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. We will start up in the Gannett Auditorium, first floor of Weimer Hall (see map).
Workshop slots will be limited due to the technology required for several of the sessions. Participation will be first-come, first-served, with no limit on the number from any newsroom.
Update: Wow, I had a packed room for my talk about blogging! People carried in chairs and stood in every spare chunk of floor space. I had no idea so many people wanted to hear about journalist blogs. The PowerPoint is online, and you can download it.
Today in class I told the students: You don’t really have a story if you simply tell me about an issue, a trend, or even an event. If you want me to relate to the issue, you’re going to have to personalize it.
The best way to do that: Use a character.
I don’t mean a fictional character — this is journalism! I recommend that you find a person whose connection to the story focus (poverty, crime, health, wealth, education, etc.) will give the reader/viewer a way to connect — through that individual.
After class one of my students, Curt Franklin, told me about an article in the latest CJR that seemed to back up my assertion about finding a good character as the pivot point for your story. What’s more, it indicates that ONE character is better than a whole bunch.
A research study showed that people were more likely to donate money to a cause illustrated by ONE starving child than to the same cause illustrated by TWO starving children. If the findings are correct:
[T]hen the challenge for journalism is to cover genocide and other “psychically numbing” catastrophes in ways that move beyond the big picture to the wallet-sized photo that attaches a single human face to the tragedy. With Darfur in mind, Slovic praises the persistent and intimate reporting of the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and suggests that bringing people from Darfur to our communities and our homes to tell their stories could rouse people in a way the occasional news story from afar does not.
Food for thought, yes?
According to an article in EurekAlert! (also sent to me by Curt), researcher Paul Slovic is “trying to determine how people can utilize both the moral intuition that genocide is wrong and moral reasoning to reach not only an outcry but also demand intervention.” Well, in other words, he’s not directly trying to help journalists — but indirectly, there’s something in it for us.
We were also talking in class about some very effective photo stories that led to action being taken to change a terrible situation (example: substandard care for people in nursing homes). Not all stories call for change, of course. But one way or another, if you’ve decided a story is important enough to tell, then you will want the readers or viewers to recognize that importance.
If you’re not using a dominant character in your story, maybe most people in the audience can’t connect with it. If they don’t connect, probably you’ve failed to communicate why the story is important.
Roanoke.com is quitting its TimesCast, a daily online video program (some people call these “Webcasts”). While I have never been a big fan of the TimesCast, I did admire the effort the talented folks up there in Virginia lavished on it. I’m hoping that we’ll see some cool new stuff from them, now that all those resources have been freed up.
A year ago, they were averaging only about 500 pageviews per weekday. I think I’ve heard that the numbers stayed about the same, but I can’t find backup for that, so I may be wrong.
Having started the TimesCast two years ago, Roanoke was very cutting-edge. Maybe this move is a (good) sign of things to come — maybe a lot of other news organizations will realize that the television people have already failed at this, and there’s no earthly reason for newspapers to make the same mistakes. Leapfrog over things that do not work well! Try something new instead!
The News Journal’s Web site, Delaware Online, has produced a package about an unusual topic: dwarfism and people who have that condition. Little People concerns the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, where study and treatment of dwarfism is a specialty.
Angela Grant has written a good critique of the package, and I was glad to read it because she answered a question I had about the numerous videos in the package: Why didn’t they hold my attention? The production quality is good, and the people speaking are not droning on and on (the way some public officials do). I kept wondering why I can watch three or four onBeing videos from beginning to end, but the videos in Little People made me impatient.
Angela says it’s because the people speaking are mostly giving us facts.
When we teach journalism students to report and write, what do we tell them about use of quotes from their sources? We tell them not to use a quote to deliver mere factual information. Quotes should be reserved for something unique, something with emotion, something with attitude or color.
Video and audio follow the same rules. At least, talking-head video does.
I was reminded of another example of talking-head video that I consider a very good use of video: The Dragon and the G-Man, from the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record (analysis). Even though the videos in the package mainly show two old men just talking, while seated in their separate homes, I found them very compelling. They held my attention.
I admire what Delaware Online has accomplished in its Little People package, but I also think we can learn a lot about how to do the interviews if we compare these three very different examples of talking-head videos. After all, it’s the interviewer’s questions that lead the person in the video to speak about their feelings, their deeper personal reactions — or to recount events in a dry manner.
Journalists find local examples of a widespread problem, then personalize the issue. This is a time-honored method of sharing information, of course. Even the classic stories of ancient Greece taught the listeners something — but people listen because the story is good, and not because they are eager to be taught.
The Roanoke Times took this approach to the issue of childhood obesity in an online package, now a finalist for the 2007 Online Journalism Awards. The package, Off the Scales, features three print stories prominently in the center of the graphic.
(You’ll notice the graphic is too wide and runs off the right edge of the screen. It’s also too tall for most viewers to appreciate the animated weight scale that disappears off the bottom edge. I’ve discussed this size problem before.)
I like the graphic treatment, and anyone who attended primary school in North America will recognize the decorated bulletin-board theme — it reminds us of our earliest schoolrooms. I’m not enamored of the sound effects and the sliding scale, but what bugs me most about the initial arrival experience is that the video begins playing automatically, including the audio. This of course becomes very annoying as one returns to the package front again and again — the same audio repeats and repeats. (Aiiieeeee!)
The usability of this package could be improved — in ways that MOST such packages could be improved. I’m a little surprised that so many people in journalism are still designing packages that have the same old flaws we saw in 1999: “mystery meat” rollovers, frustrating redundancy, and emphasis on text stories that are not even part of the package.
“Mystery Meat” Rollovers
Making new stuff appear, or pop up, when the mouse rolls over something is one of those cool Flash tricks that can be used for good or for evil. “Mystery meat” refers to the familiar school-lunch staple, a slice of something meat-like that contains who-knows-what.
In this graphic, we see five photographs pinned to the bulletin board. When we roll over one of those, we see the label “Photo Gallery” pop up. Okay. Another photo is that annoying video that keeps playing over and over. We can see that it has a Pause button, so at least we can stop it every time. Okay. But what about the other three photos? What do they do? It’s a mystery, unless we click them. Do you think people really want to just click randomly on any old thing you give them?
Part of the problem is inconsistency within the package. There’s a business card pinned at top left. Roll over that, and it opens up to show a bunch of new information. But the business card pinned at top right does not behave the same way. Roll over that, and it does nothing. You would have to take the risk of clicking on it to find out what it does.
Redundancy in Navigation Choices
Near the top, under the title, we are given seven navigation choices. These choices are relatively clear, but all of them are duplicated elsewhere on the graphic. In other words, you can get to the same thing in at least one other way on the same screen.
This redundancy is so common, I guess a lot of people think it’s good. As a user, I am driven crazy by it. Why? Because I keep opening a thing that I had already opened. In combination with the mystery meat, this just kills your story — the visitor to your package starts to feel like she’s traveling in a circle and arriving again at the same place.
If your mystery meat is so unclear that you have to add a navigation bar, you have a problem with the usability of the whole package — and you ought to fix it. In other words, redundancy is a sign of bad design choices. It’s a tiny bandage on a big injury.
Prominence of (External) Text Stories
If you only wanted to show off the text stories that ran in the printed newspaper, why would you spend the time and effort to create an interactive package for the Web site?
First, the people who already saw it in the newspaper will immediately be disappointed when they view the package online. They will have to seek out the “extra” bits. Second, people who never saw the printed version will open the text stories online — because these are given such great pride of place in the graphic layout — and might well lose interest before they ever try any of the interactive elements.
I want your package to draw me in and capture my attention, just like a Greek storyteller of old, who began with brave Ulysses and then held the people in thrall with nothing but his voice.
The way to draw me in online is not to show me a long text story, with no line spaces between paragraphs, serif type and ragged indents. That was good for the print medium, where the writer’s expertise with words served as the hook to catch me. It does not work the same way on the computer screen.
The attractive graphic package front is a good hook, but it’s not sufficient to reel me in if the first thing I happen to click takes me to a holdover from another medium, print.
I’m not saying you have to leave out the text stories altogether — but they must be de-emphasized in this kind of package, so that the visitor to the page will not only bite the hook, but also swallow it.
I have already written about nine of the 11 ONA finalists in the “Outstanding Use of Digital Media” category:
In an interview, Derek Willis, a database editor at washingtonpost.com, recommended this for journalism students:
There are plenty of academic disciplines that use data all the time. So if a student knows a professor who does survey research, that’s usually database-oriented. Or political scientists who study election results or voter participation — they usually deal with datasets.
But the easiest and probably best way is to just start. Start keeping some information in a spreadsheet. Pretty soon you’ll learn how to deal with issues and problems. Then you’ll outgrow the spreadsheet and start looking around for a more robust solution.
Free or cheap database software and hosting is abundantly available, too, especially on university campuses. It’s a matter of asking for it.
Why should you care about databases if you are a journalist? Think of it first as keeping track of bits of information. Well, heck — that’s essential for every journalist! How do you do it? With a messy stack of old reporter’s notebooks, perhaps. Uh-huh. How’s that working for you?
So . . .
Step 1: Get into Google Docs and start using some spreadsheets. Manage your beat, your sources, your stories. Need help? You’ll do just fine. Anyone can learn to use a spreadsheet, and doing so will make you feel comfortable with the same structure that a database requires.
Step 2: Take a stats course. I wish I had. Sadly, I was one of those math-phobic journalism students. Luckily, I did learn the basics of programming while still an undergrad. (I guess I didn’t think programming was too much like math.) I would stridently urge you to learn a bit about statistics BEFORE you follow Derek’s advice about offering your services to some professor who’s using data. Professors do not have time to teach you one-on-one if you are starting from zero — that’s why we have courses, credits and tuition!
Step 4: If Timeline scared you, don’t give up. Try this instead. You can generate custom Google Maps with those pop-up balloons supplying added info. All you need to know that you might not know already is how to get the correct latitude and longitude for the map, in the correct format. Matt told me this is the easiest way (it could not possibly be any easier!):
Go to Google Maps and type in an address, as you normally would.
Click Search Maps to get the location and map.
Instant latitude and longitude! Sweet!
Step 5: Now you’re ready to make friends with some computer science students, or go and seek out that professor who needs your cheap student labor to get some data beaten into submission. Or — if you’re a working full-time journalist — find some public records for your state or city, and get started!
Step 6: Join IRE. It might be the smartest career move you’ll ever make. Journalism students pay $25 per year for membership. You know those TV commercials where people using a particular cell phone service are accompanied by a giant crowd of people — their “network”? That’s what IRE is like for people who “interrogate data,” as they like to say. You’ll find lots of information, tutorials and support there. Even better, if you can manage to attend one of IRE’s reasonably priced regional training sessions, you will get face-to-face instruction. (Don’t be put off by the outdated term “computer-assisted reporting.”)
And finally, there’s a book I can recommend: Database Design for Mere Mortals (2nd edition). It’s not a how-to for any specific software or type of database. Instead, it explains the principles of database structure in a very clear way. I only read about half of the book, but it helped me a lot. It’s surprisingly readable.
And why, you ask — why would I do this? So that you could produce an awesome work of journalism such as this D.C. schools package, from washingtonpost.com. That’s why!