Learning Flash is not the answer

In many different situations, I hear journalists asking for Flash training. I love Flash, and I will confidently proclaim that Flash is hands-down the best tool for building a full-fledged multimedia package for digital, online journalism.

Huh? Is my headline inconsistent with my lede?

As is so often the case, the answer depends on the question.

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association invited me up to Harrisburg to do a day’s training — general multimedia skills, plus planning the larger package. There were 15 evaluation forms at the end of the day; 12 people were really happy and three were not. One of them had wanted a video editing workshop (sorry, this was not that). The other two apparently expected more advanced material.

The question raised was in the side comments — what else did you want, what do you want next? Flash, Flash, and more Flash. Everybody wants to learn Flash.

First, let’s take an inventory in your newsroom. Who’s on your online team? Do you have a real online team, or do you have a couple of “night producers” who clean up after the messes your CMS makes? If it’s the latter, those guys probably have no free time for developing Flash packages. What’s your job title? Graphic artist or designer? Okay, you’re in. Reporter, editor, photojournalist? Keep reading.

Second, let’s look around your Web site. Has anyone been producing any audio slideshows or videos that have … um (trying to be tactful) … substance? Value to the audience? Or are people just throwing random spaghetti at the wall? Because if that’s what your newsroom is doing, maybe you’re not ready to produce packages yet. Maybe you don’t have a strategy for your Web site — and if you don’t, then what are you going to use Flash for?

Flash is not a magic elixir. Flash will not make your Web site better if it’s generally bad, and it won’t make your stories better if you’re not already telling stories well with sound and pictures.

What Do You Know About Packages?

One comment on the Pennsylvania evaluation forms was that I should have done more straight “how-to” during the packages session. It was nice to see and discuss examples of multimedia packages, the person wrote, but that’s no use if you don’t know how to make them.

I’m going to try to convince you that the commenter is mistaken.

How can you plan a package if you don’t evaluate other newsrooms’ packages?

If you look at my list of examples, you should notice pretty quickly that each of the packages is quite different from all the others. Planning the package — and the labor that will go into making it — depends on your familiarity with what does and does not work well in packaging multimedia journalism. A lot of people who try to learn Flash do not have a very clear idea of what they are going to do with it. So seek out others’ packages and spend time with them, the way a person in the audience would. Figure out what is confusing. Notice what annoys you. Make notes about what is delightful, or smooth, or especially interesting. Make notes too about anything that is hard to use, or doesn’t work the way you thought it would.

That will be your apprenticeship, little Flash grasshopper.

If you try to learn Flash before you study and evaluate the packages made by others, you won’t know what to do with Flash even if you do successfully learn it.

On a Different Tangent

Does your newsroom own a recent copy of Flash? Flash CS3 costs about $700 per license. One workshop participant told us his newspaper’s management has explicitly refused to buy even one copy of Flash. Another participant told us that his management finally saw the light after some staffers specifically described a really cool interactive feature they wanted to build to enhance an ongoing local news story. Management said great, let’s do it. The staffers admitted they couldn’t build it unless they had Flash. Guess what? Management signed the check. Woot!

How about this argument, folks? Photoshop CS3 costs about $650 per license. Every photojournalist in your news organization has a licensed copy of Photoshop. Count the photojournalists. Okay, your Web site — is it not the future of our entire field? Does your very business not depend on the Web site? And your management cannot buy even one licensed copy of Flash for your newsroom?

Maybe it’s time to just shutter the whole enterprise, in that case. Roll up the sidewalks and turn out the lights.

What Is the Question?

Maybe you want to create an integrated package of video, animated graphics and other online assets. Flash is the best tool for that. But do you understand typography and design? Do you know enough to make a package that looks good — looks professional?

Maybe you want to build an awesome interactive database application. Are you the database reporter? Are you the right person to build the Flash portion of the package?

Maybe you want to animate graphics you are already producing for the printed newspaper.

It’s possible that the best thing for your newsroom would be to hire a Flash designer. I know your budget is tight and there’s a hiring freeze. But let’s look at this logically: It’s going to take lots and lots of hours, weeks, months, for you or your friend at the next desk to learn Flash from scratch. Those are hours you will be taken away from other work, depriving the newsroom of your skills.

Flash is not simple.

Maybe you’re not the best person to learn Flash from scratch in your newsroom. Maybe your friend at the next desk is a much better prospect, because she is already a skilled designer, or graphic artist, or programmer, or database reporter.

Or maybe you are the best prospect, for any number of reasons. But right now you don’t really know what kind of packages you would make, or your idea of a package is — admit it — rather fuzzy and indefinite.

Figure out what your question is — what challenge you are trying to address. Figure out what makes a package succeed or fail. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of your Web site — and the current staffing levels for the Web site. Finally, look at the multimedia your newsroom is producing today — who is producing it, with what equipment, with what kind of frequency or consistency?

One of the more important questions is, How can we improve what we’re doing online?

22 Comments on “Learning Flash is not the answer

  1. Yes, nice post Mindy, far too many people mistake the medium for the message. And so, my fellow journalists, ask not what your technology can do for you; ask what you can do for your technology…

  2. I totally agree with Matt, that mistake is common. And both management and staff got to keep it real when it comes to investing in software. Things get cheaper each time you use them, so you can’t buy on a whim. Good post.

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  4. As above, Flash is something that tends to be misused rather than used appropriately. Its not an essential skill and definitely not necessary to have a multimedia website. Its a bonus.

  5. I’m a web developer moving into new media journalism, so I really appreciate your emphasis on doing it right. Typography, motion design, a clear purpose and goal: all these details are essentials. If it’s going to work, you either have to dive in completely, or hire someone who has. Or, if you can’t do it right do less; in the words of 37signals, half, not half-assed

  6. That’s brilliant, Gordon: “Take whatever you think your product should be and cut it in half. Pare features down until you’re left with only the most essential ones. Then do it again.” Thanks for the link!

  7. Mindy, I think a lot of people don’t realize that Flash isn’t exactly the easiest program to learn. It’s not like jumping into some blogging software or learning a CMS. It’s a pretty powerful program, and it is expensive. Not every journalist will need to be a Flash expert, nor will they be able to learn it well.

    Most journalists would be better served learning to edit photos, record audio and then put that together in Soundslides. Soundslides is no Flash, but Flash is a very powerful program that does a lot more than just multimedia presentations.

    I do not recommend buying Flash or Photoshop alone. They are very expensive per program. Instead, I’d go with a suite. Adobe has several and most Web sites could go with the Web premium bundle for their workers. I have the master collection at work because I need graphic design, Web production and audio and video editing for my job. Web premium, however, has all the essentials: Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks and more. You can get it for about $1,500, but many companies will be able to get it for less with discounts. My work got me Master Suite for sub-$2,000, which is a good price when you consider all it can do.

    I disagree with your statement that “I will confidently proclaim that Flash is hands-down the best tool for building a full-fledged multimedia package for digital, online journalism.”

    I’m from the school that believes most big Web packages should have an (X)HTML and CSS base, while using Flash for applicable portions of that package. In fact, I like using Ajax over Flash for a lot instances, because it tends to be a bit faster and less resource intensive. The next feature I am building (a pretty big project that won’t be done for awhile) will combine (X)HTML, CSS, Ajax, MySQL, php or Python and Flash. I don’t think it would be the same with Flash as the base of it.

    But, a good online journalism package is a good online journalism package. And newspapers need more of them.

  8. A little more on topic than my last post: I totally agree that people need to know what is possible before they start trying to build their own packages. I have seen a lot of spaghetti-on-the-wall attempts recently. A lot of people just want to try something new without actually thinking about whether or not they are telling a good story.

    I get this from my work too. I get content from employees that I feel does not meet our standards, but I am told to put it in our site because people A) don’t want to discourage employees from trying new things (I understand this) and B) we don’t know what works or what our readers want (this I disagree with). No matter the format or medium, we need compelling content.

    We’re journalists. We need to tell good stories, and that doesn’t always means Flash or video or anything fancy. This is why I advocate that journalists wishing to make the digital jump learn a myriad of skills, and then they should hone in on a few once they figure out which they understand well and want to learn more about.

    Not every journalist will be a good videographer or a good Flash designer or Web designer or database programmer or photographer or… But most journalists could do some of those areas pretty well. And I think before everyone rushes out trying to learn a particular technology, they might want to figure out how their brain work and what makes sense to them.

  9. I think part of what you are also touching on is that too many newsrooms feel that they have to be doing everything — all types of multimedia reporting, all types of social network building, all types of database reporting. And with this approach, fail to truly master any one skill before moving to another. I think they would find that readers would be more receptive to less diverse content of a higher overall quality to a lot of mediocre work.

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  13. I know Flash … I wish I didn’t. I much prefer shooting and editing videos than sitting at the computer all day writing Flash applications. It’s really not worth all that time.

    Flash applications really aren’t as user friendly as other ways of presenting information. I’m not convinced Flash is the best way to present large multimedia packages.

    Usually when I hear a coworker saying they want to learn Flash I try to dissuade them.

  14. Angela, that is such a good comment ( “I wish I didn’t”)! Recently a photojournalism student asked me if he should learn Flash. I asked him how he feels about shooting. “I love to shoot,” he said.

    “Then don’t learn Flash,” I said. “But definitely — learn audio and Soundslides!”

    However, a person who loves Flash (Dave Braunger, Nelson Hsu, Ashley Wells, Xaquin G.V., to name a few) can make awesomely usable and coherent journalism packages.

    That’s why I keep urging the news graphics people to learn Flash — the graphics department is the most effective place in the newsroom to manage design and production of Flash packages. Some newspapers such as The New York Times and the Miami Herald already understand this.

  15. Vuvox is going to do for Flash what WordPress did for Dreamweaver. Am very excited about how it will free up my Flash teaching time this semester…

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  17. Once, me too wanted to learn flash. Sometimes I still do. But it is not effective at all. You do not want to program when a story is there.

    So program and design before a story is there. Ask for templates!

    It is far more effective to learn to talk with a programmer and a designer than doing it yourself.

    Make dummy’s of what you would like to have. You will be shocked to see that they really look awfull! Design is a craft.

    So show your ugly dummy’s to a designer, and explain them to a programmer. Tell what you would like to do. Maybe he recommends Flash, but maybe he tells he can make it in AJAX. Let it up to him or her.

    Make sure the dummy’s are not about a particular story, but that they are about a *type of stories* . For example:
    – dummy for obituaries (combination of a several texts with headers for a crude timeline of the deceased life, room for video’s and audio’s , and a large photo with a header and sub header for the opening of the package)
    – one for disasters (A Google Map as the core, a timeline on the side, room for a live videostream and room for video’s and audio’s from victims and rescue workers. Leave room for a big infographic that might be added later and for press releases from the authorities)
    – one for events, like the opening of a theatre show or a holiday (open with a big photo where more photo’s can be added during the day, room for interviews of the artists or organisers, room for reviews from the public, photo’s from the public and room for a map of the route in case of a parade)

    Then learn how to use the templates. How to fill in photo’s, how to make an audioslide.

    And think of more options you would like to have in your templates so the next time you talk to the designer and programmer, you can add wishes.

    Don’t learn flash. Learn to think ahead.

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  22. Mindy,
    Once again, you are providing fabulous teaching materials and helping all of us learn. This is a wonderful blog, and we’ll be using it.

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