Posted on December 7, 2007
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?