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Teaching Online Journalism

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.


Vital maps: California fires, breaking

CBS News 8 is Web publishing TV graphics of the huge fires in southern California.

They replaced the whole home page with fire coverage. Nice breaking news work online — from a TV operation!

Tip via Lost Remote (other sites doing same; see detailed Google Map from LATimes.com).


Multimedia storytelling starts to grow up

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.

De Groot talked a bit about tracking. Any intelligently run organization will collect stats from its multimedia graphics — even though it requires extra work. De Groot said right now their ActionScript talks to some JavaScript, which talks to an external tracking system. As for future improvements — “We’ve got a change order in for that.”

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).