Updating Flash Journalism

This post is for anyone who teaches Adobe Flash to journalism students. It might also be useful for journalists (especially graphics reporters) who are learning Flash right now, or who might be intending to learn Flash over the holidays or sometime soon.

In 2004 I wrote a book titled Flash Journalism: How to Create Multimedia News Packages. It was published in early 2005 by Focal Press/Elsevier. It sold pretty well. It was well received among working journalists.

The book is now outdated. If you’re using Flash CS4, you cannot use the book. At all. It’s okay to use it with CS3, but only if you do everything in ActionScript 2.0. But I do not recommend that. You should be using CS4 and ActionScript 3.0.

I’m not going to update the book. There are a bunch of reasons, but to make a long explanation quite short, it takes far too many hours to write such a book, which includes creating and testing all the example files to be used in Flash. It’s a matter of time. I just don’t have that kind of time available.

Losing my book puts me in a tough spot as a journalism educator. I teach an advanced Web course each spring, and 10 of the 15 weeks are spent on Flash. When people compliment me on the clarity of my Flash book, I tell them that every lesson in the book was battle-tested on real, live journalism students. That’s a fact.

So now I’m left without a book. Well, I gave that a lot of thought last spring, when I knew I was teaching with my own book for the last time. Our computer labs did not get CS4 until summer 2009, so I was able to use my book last spring. And yes, I taught those students ActionScript 2.0 (with a wee bit of AS3 thrown in here and there). Quite frankly, I was  still learning AS3 last spring (you never really stop learning ActionScript). And I had no access at all to CS4 until late in the spring semester.

A New Book and a New Syllabus

What to do? Well, first I had to find a book. The good news is, I’m pretty happy with the book I’m requiring my students to use this spring: Adobe Flash CS4 Professional Classroom in a Book. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than the Flash books that were out there in 2003.

Second, I have to reconfigure two-thirds of my syllabus, because I can’t teach the 10 weeks of Flash the same way I used to — not only am I using a different book, but Flash has changed so much in CS4, I have to adjust the way I teach it. So that’s what I’m in the middle of right now. Getting ready for spring and my Flash class.

And why should you care? Because I’m going to share, that’s why.

The syllabus is not finished yet, but I can tell you about the first four weeks of the 10. And I’ve been busy making some supplemental materials for my students, so I’ll link to those here.

One really good thing about the CS4 Adobe Classroom in a Book (hereafter ACiaB) is that lessons 1 and 2 provide a very solid foundation in both the Flash CS4 interface and tools and also how to draw, import image files, and create text. So I’m off the hook for that stuff (hoorah!). There is nothing more boring than pointing at the projection screen in front of the room and saying, “Click this little widget here.” But if you don’t have a good book, that’s what you have to do.

Those two lessons in the book should take the students about two hours to complete (maybe three hours for some students). We will do them both in the first lab.

In the lecture before that first lab, I’ll show them some recent examples of how journalists use Flash — mostly from The New York Times — so they will know what Flash is good for.

After Drawing, Animation

Here’s where I hit a snag in ACiaB: Lesson 3 was tedious and unnecessarily long and complicated. It teaches some essential stuff, but this is where my Flash experience comes into play — it’s stuff we need to get past quickly at this stage so that we can get on to animation, and the students can feel successful and competent. They need to be animating and making stuff move in the second week. But the book’s lesson 3 does not let them animate anything.

Fine, you might say — skip to lesson 4 in the book. Yes, that is the first animation lesson. But even there, the author has loaded up too much complexity for the average journalism student (typically not an artist, and not trained in complex visual compositions).

So what I need to do is give the students a more cut-to-the-chase lesson in symbols and animation. I need to make the basic animation techniques clear and simple before I let them loose on lesson 4 in the book (which they will spend their second lab working on).

So I had to make some tutorials. I made three (all short), and there will be one more (maybe next week). They are all linked here, under the heading Animation Basics.

And yes, we will skip lesson 3 in the book altogether. We’re not even looking at it.

As for lesson 4, it’s a pretty long one. I’m not sure how far most students will be able to get in two hours during our lab, but I’ll be finding out sometime in February. A good thing about this text is that it includes an extensive section (in lesson 4) about how to use the new Motion Editor, which is one of the really huge changes in Flash CS4 (different from all previous versions).

We’re also going to skip lesson 5, which goes into deep detail about the new Bone tool in CS4. This is no doubt great for professional animators, but it’s just cognitive overload for most journalism students.

Buttons and ActionScript 3.0

The chapter of ACiaB that totally sold me was lesson 6, which not only provides one of the most practical Flash lessons I have ever seen anywhere (with files on the included CD, I might add) but also supplies a clear and practical guide to using ActionScript 3.0.

The scripting in Flash drives a lot of people away (some of them probably screaming as they run). If you ever learned to write any kind of programming language in a class in school, you would not find ActionScript difficult, I’m sure. But most journalism students have never learned even one single line of computer programming. What’s more, a fair percentage of them have math phobia. (I can empathize with them.)

Buttons in Flash must be scripted, though, and buttons are the heart of what makes an interactive journalism package work. No scripting? No buttons. No buttons? No interactivity.

So lesson 6 (which is likely to take two to three hours to finish, but luckily we do have a three-hour lab period) is worth the price of the book, for me. It’s a really good introduction to the most useful way to work with buttons in Flash CS4. I built a small supplement to the book for basics of button scripting. It’s not likely to make sense on its own, but combined with the book, I think it will make the material very clear.

Is this all the ActionScript 3.0 a Flash-savvy journalist needs to know? Hardly. And in fact there’s some stuff coming later (I’ll save that for another blog post) where ACiaB falls woefully short (in particular when it comes to audio control).

So by the start of week 4, the students will have animation and button scripting under their belts. Then they will be ready to begin building interactive Flash packages.

What’s Next?

This is what remains to be covered:

  1. Movie Clip Symbols
  2. Video in Flash
  3. Packages with Loaded SWFs
  4. Sound Controls (ActionScript and external files)
  5. Loaded Data (XML and ActionScript)

The ACiaB text is pretty good for video (including use of the Flash Encoder) and for loading external SWFs, which allow us to make our packages very modular and light. The book doesn’t include anything about XML, but I’m working on a tutorial for that now, and I’m going to adapt the book’s lesson 8 to an XML version — which is how any news organization would handle a project similar to the one used in lesson 8. Nowadays I think journalism students really need some exposure to XML, and this should be a pretty neat way to get that done.

So stay tuned, and I’ll let you know how the remainder of the Flash instruction will be divided up.

14 Comments on “Updating Flash Journalism

  1. I find it hard to teach with a lot of traditional books, specially book that are essentially software manuals. Let me know if I can do anything to help out. My book wasn’t getting updated, so I released the series of screencasts on my site http://planetoftheweb.com/screencasts as a way to update all of the technical elements on the DVD that came with the book to ActionScript 3. Maybe a guest post or guest screencast about one of your topics. =)

  2. It’s great that you are offering a way to keep journalism faculty and students current on Flash, Mindy — thanks!

  3. Ray, I might take you up on that when I finish the XML tutorial. What kills me is that the guy who wrote ACiaB does teach Flash — and he has even taught it in a j-school — but why anyone would want to slog through 30 pages about symbols (with no animation) is beyond me.

    I have always found the traditional books very unsuitable for classroom use. This one is surprisingly good in many ways.

    The ActionScript ACiaB companion book is also good.

  4. What’s your take on Flash Catalyst? Do you think J&MC programs will switch to it? How will its release and adoption affect your plans for teaching interactive design?

  5. I have heard some positive things about Adobe Catalyst, but as of now, I’m just going to wait and see what happens with it. One reason is, Catalyst is in beta now. That’s not a finished product.

    Another reason is, for many journalism students it’s just about the same learning curve to learn to use any new software. The perpetual promise that the next new software is “truly drag and drop” and requires no programming, etc., has usually turned out to be bogus, in my experience.

    Perhaps the strongest reason is, you’re not going to walk into a newsroom where great interactive graphics are made and find them using Catalyst. They’re going to be using Flash CS4 Professional. (Maybe Flex, in some places.)

  6. Thank you so much, Mindy – not only for the text suggestion, but for updating and sharing where it needs supplementing.
    I spent this past semester teaching Flash on CS4, and I had the students use ActionScript 2.0 for two reasons: It seemed more intuitive (most journalism students understand what onRelease and gotoAndStop do), and I understood it (thanks in part to your book). Still, I knew that even though it was usable, the knowledge was verging on the obsolete.
    Next fall I’m trying a print/interactive graphics course. In preparation, I expect I’ll be spending the summer with ACiaB and your supplementation. Thanks again for the valuable resource!

  7. I wish my school offered a course in Flash. I know that I NEED to learn Flash, but I don’t know if I can do it on my own. As the graphics editor for my school paper, I feel like this is something I should be able to do. I know my class mates want to learn it too.
    I appreciate this post so much because I feel like I have been given a push start in teaching myself how to use Flash. I just need the resources and links to the right information.

  8. Mindy, Thanks for sharing this information. I’m eager to see the tools and exercises you’ll be using to teach XML.

  9. @Sharon: I am going to use Lesson 8 in the ACiaB text as a departure point for XML. I took all the data from the exercise and put it into an MS Word document. After the students complete Lesson 8 (pretty simple), I will give them the Word doc and walk them through how to convert it to CSV via Excel, then to XML. Then we will re-do the same exercise, but we will load the new XML file instead of all the steps in the book. No special tools required — we will use this free site to convert the CSV to XML:


    I will be posting the MS Word doc and the instructions, but right now the instructions are in a rough draft form.

  10. Thanks Mindy, Perfect timing. I bought the book after reading your post, just completed chapter 7. I’ll try follow your instructions, but if I get stuck, will wait to see your Word doc.

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