Teaching Online Journalism

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).

More from the Online News Association conference

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.

JD Lasica linked to a bunch of digital tools discussed in the session “Running a Digi-Newsroom on the Cheap.”

I’m working on a post about the multimedia storytelling panel, for Monday.

Elitists, citizens, young folks, journalism

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.”

ONA Conference, Day 1.5

I’ve been in sessions all day at the Online News Association gathering in Toronto. Danny Sanchez just posted a good roundup of who is blogging what from Queen Street West.

The morning started with a keynote speech by Hilary Schneider, a Yahoo marketing VP and former high-level executive at Knight Ridder Digital. While her talk was a little too obviously a pitch for newspaper companies to partner with Yahoo, it held my attention and even made me stop and think a few times.

I had never seen Yahoo’s MapMixer before, for example. “Upload an image of your map, use our layering tool to align it with Yahoo! Maps and we’ll do the rest! Your map will have all the features of Yahoo! Maps (zooming, panning). You can also syndicate it on your own site or blog.”

Schneider also showed off Yahoo’s Democratic Candidate Mashup, in which users were invited to create video mashups from segments of the TV debates. The package got 4.4 million pageviews, and visitors spent an average of 7 minutes on the page.

She did urge news organizations to embrace rapid prototyping and “rapid failure,” which far too few editors and managers in this field understand. (I wrote about rapid prototyping here in May.)

News organizations should be working to increase the reach for ALL the content they create, Schneider said. Yeah, no kidding! Her shtick is that by partnering, the organization increases its reach tenfold. You link to them, they link to you, they carry your content, you carry theirs, and everybody wins! Woot!

Here’s the ONA student journalist’s coverage of Schneider’s speech.

Ideas, smart and stupid, about blogs and journalism

A Los Angeles Times article by Alana Semuels (Oct. 9) discusses the widening intersection of blogging and journalism:

The blurred lines make many uneasy. “There’s a lot of uninformed opinion on the Internet and not a lot of solid reporting,” said Fred Brown, vice chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee and a columnist at the Denver Post. A professional journalist “respects the truth and lives up to standards of ethics. Certainly that isn’t the case in the blogosphere.”

That kind of attitude is killing the newspaper business, Mr. Brown. Maybe it’s time for you to learn how to use an RSS reader. And read something online other than the Drudge Report.

Newspapers should make a clear distinction between staff-written and blogger-generated material as a service to their readers, said David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

I agree with that in principle, but I would not use it as an excuse to “ghetto-ize” your community bloggers. Sticking them off in an ugly little ad-cluttered space of their own broadcasts, loud and clear, what you REALLY think about them.

But what if a blogger gets a fact wrong or makes a defamatory comment about someone?

Newspapers have to be careful, but federal law generally protects a website owner from postings by its users. As long as employees of a newspaper site have nothing to do with a blogger’s work, Ardia said, the newspaper is probably protected, because it is simply posting content produced by an outsider.

Translation: You do NOT have to moderate comments before posting them.

At the same time, the law allows newspapers to act as good Samaritans to protect their readers, and Kinsey Wilson, executive editor of USA Today, said his paper had been doing just that.

It removes from its website “anything brought to our attention that violates our terms of use, including personal attacks, hate speech, obscenities, plagiarism, as well as potentially libelous or defamatory material,” Wilson wrote in an e-mail.

Translation: You own the Web site. You’re allowed to delete stuff that is offensive or illegal.

But — be cool. Don’t delete stuff just because it’s edgy, or “may offend some viewers.” Threats about, say, hanging up nooses would be worthy of deletion, in my opinion. But someone saying the president is an idiot? Last time I checked, we were still allowed to say that in the United States.

The USA Today site has run excerpts from such blogs as College Football Resource and A Socialite’s Life, the latter a gossip site that discusses and mocks fashion, celebrities and the media.

Wilson said in an interview that the industry wasn’t adopting blogs in place of traditional reporting but in addition to it. In any event, he said, newspapers can’t afford to think about distributing information the way they used to.

“The walled garden is dead. We’re living in an era of distributed content,” he said. One important role of a newspaper nowadays is to sift through rafts of information online, he said, and help readers use it.

It’s nice to give credit where credit is due. For many years, business reporters at publications as lofty as The Wall Street Journal have “borrowed” liberally (some would say shamelessly) from the trade papers. If a journalist is tipped by a blogger, it’s only decent to refer to the source. Let’s not go down a dark road where journalists act like blogs are inferior while at the same time stealing from them.

One possibility is to welcome the best and the brightest into your own journalistic fold:

Some popular blogs have been “absorbed,” to use the New York Times’ term, into mainstream media sites. Freakonomics, a blog about economic thinking in everyday situations, runs on the New York Times site, and its authors share the ad revenue.

Stephen J. Dubner, a Freakonomics coauthor, said the partnership provided an opportunity to be featured on one of the most prominent newspaper sites in the world “with all the readership and support that comes along with it.”

Everybody wins! Not mentioned in the LA Times story was The New York Times “acquisition” in June 2007 of young Brian Stelter, the TVNewser blogger, almost immediately after his graduation from Towson University with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication.

So if you’ve heard anyone recently disparaging bloggers’ credibility or usefulness or integrity, why not ask them to name specifically which bloggers they are reading?

And if they’re reading such unreliable and unethical bloggers — I have to ask — why? Why aren’t they reading the good bloggers?

More of the same: I gave a 90-minute talk about similar ideas at a workshop for journalists last weekend.