Flash for journalists: Why?

My one-day Flash workshop on Friday for the Nieman Journalism Fellows went well, judging from the feedback I heard from the participants. I had two fantastic assistants, Chad Capellman and Jared Novack, both of whom are experienced journalists with skills in various Web technologies (check out their sites; they are available for hire).

To set realistic expectations at the beginning, I started by asking how many of those in the room had any background or training in design (print or online). With 22 participants in the room, only one hand went up. That’s what I anticipated — the Fellows are mostly reporters. Then I explained that probably no more than three of them would ever use Flash after the class. Unless they intend to go out and acquire a whole new skill set in graphic design, knowing Flash will not open any new doors for them.

“So why are we having this workshop?” someone asked. A fair question!

The simple answer: Reporters do not know what they need to learn. This goes across the board. They have an idea that they need “online skills.” They are not sure what that means, exactly. No disrespect to the Nieman Foundation or the Fellows — spending six hours learning about Flash (if I’m teaching you!) does give you an appreciation for techniques and workflow and a mode of thinking that you were likely unfamiliar with.

Six hours with Flash is akin to taking a six-hour cooking class about an exotic foreign cuisine that you have hardly ever tasted before, much less tried to re-create in your own kitchen. You are NOT going to know enough after six hours to go home and whip up a feast in the style of that cuisine. But you will be MUCH more savvy and smart the next time you look at a menu in a restaurant of that style.

With the help of a very good cookbook or two, and active trial-and-error in your kitchen (and some spectacular failures — like the time I used about 10 times too much fish sauce in my pad Thai noodles!), you could become pretty good at cooking in that style. It will not happen unless you put in the time actually cooking the stuff. If you invest sufficient time, you will likely become pretty good at it. But there are no shortcuts, no way to leap over the trial-and-error stage, no way to speed it up.

If the cooking analogy doesn’t resonate with you, think of learning to play the guitar, or becoming a high school varsity basketball player. I’m not talking about reaching the level of a Jimi Hendrix or a Michael Jordan. Just basic competence, the level where you would play a few songs at a party. That takes a lot of hours of practice.

Flash is like that. And if you do not have any background in graphic design (or alternatively, data-driven journalism — but that’s a different avenue), it’s not really the right thing for you.

I’m going to write a post, or maybe a series of posts, about what the right things for you — a reporter, especially a mid-career reporter — actually are. Stay tuned.

Update (Sept. 13, 2009): That series is complete — Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency.

8 Comments on “Flash for journalists: Why?

  1. are design skills really essential for learning flash…surely the important skill set is coding related?

  2. Probably more important is the simple understanding of everything that goes into a Flash project, and being able to help shape it in a way that tells the story while avoiding unnecessary development time. There’s just too many times when the phrase “wouldn’t it be cool if …” comes out to doom an initially simple project.

    Knowing your tools helps you manage the process, get things done more efficiently, and create more successful results.

  3. @Peter – If someone knows Flash, and has no design training, and there are no designers assisting on the project, then that project is likely to be ugly (poor choices in color, typography, layout) and might also be difficult to use. Design is communication, as much as writing is.

    @Tim – Understanding the story is key. Understanding what the tool can do well and what it should not be used for (because another tool is superior) is a huge plus.

  4. I’m a senior journalism student at a Pennsylvania college and am lucky enough to have played around with Flash years ago.

    These posts keep reminding me I need to go back and refresh my memories of that ever-useful program.

    Thanks for the assistance. I need all the help I can get!

  5. Hey Mindy,

    I’ve put together my Advice for Journalists at http://www.nicolosi.org/advice.htm, if that helps at all with your next project. Also, as you know, the Seattle PI is likely closing if it doesn’t find a buyer, so I’ve been helping get some of our print staff trained up with some online skills. We’ve been teaching a couple of classes a week on Powerpoint, Excel, Blogging, photography and etc. I’m tracking some of our teachings and putting other advice and etc on a blog at http://www.printtoonline.blogspot.com

    (Assistant managing editor, Seattlepi.com)

  6. I am just a layperson who likes to blog. However, I have been feeling more and more that I really need to learn some tech skills since I started to blog. I totally understand the importance to learn and use Flash for professional repoters.

    Can’t wait to read the post of “what is the right thing for a reporter”.

  7. Pingback: Will Sommer - Learn Flash journalism with a game

  8. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » Flash and data, made for each other

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.