Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Be patient: The future isn't coming so fast you can't catch up

There are some days I yearn for the days of a notebook and a pen.

Those days were relatively easy: jot down notes, write a story. Well, writing is never easy. “Just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,” said Red Smith.

Producing multimedia projects some days, I would say, would be like plugging that vein into a USB port and downloading all your energy into a work folder on the C drive. Learning audio and video from scratch, when you’re used to only carrying around that notebook and pen, takes time. It can be frustrating, especially in our business when the world doesn’t stop for you to go through training and catch up to it.

Still, the future isn’t coming so fast you can’t catch up. You can only get better in this area by doing. Even the best training in the world won’t make you good. The more you practice, the easier it gets. I still struggle on days, when I’m trying to figure out a multimedia hurdle, such as finding one interview room in my newspaper where the lights don’t hum excessively or my microphone doesn’t pick up ringing phones and police scanner traffic.

One of the first times I tried to edit a significant video project, I got lost in a time warp that started at around 3 p.m. Somewhere in the middle of a haze, my wife called at 9 p.m. and said, “Are you ever coming home?”

And the web doesn’t have press runs. You can actually finish at 2 a.m., as I have some days, and it will still get on-line.

All you can hope for is a boss who will help nurture through the rough parts – when your chest aches because you can’t get one edit in an interview to sound as if you edited it digitally, and not off an old cassette tape with a pair of scissors and Scotch tape, or you’re trying to cover up that camera shake when you brushed up against your tripod at a key moment.

There are even days when I get out in the field and I have remembered everything: video camera, tripod, microphone, proper patch cords, extra batteries...

What I usually forget is to bring a notebook and a pen. Occasionally, I still need them.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Our first multimedia project

I learn by example and improve through feedback.

I’m getting much of the former but too little of the latter, since I ventured into an emphasis on multimedia journalism. When writing stories for 1A, I could get feedback by going out for breakfast. People would be talking about the story at the diner. Readers would e-mail me.

Multimedia is new enough to local audiences that readers are searching to find it – or more accurately not looking for it at all. Few people are going to newspaper sites looking for video or anything that moves. I know this, because Howard Owens quoted another Kansas guy - Rob Curley’s research saying it takes about 18 months for people to find a new feature. We’ve been providing videos in earnest, if not in consistency, since January. About this time next year, maybe people will notice.

There's no shortage of examples. I scour the web looking for learning opportunities, not to copy them, but to try to learn style and form and I can go out and incorporate what I like into what I do. Same way I’ve always covered a beat or written stories.

But there’s not much feedback.

That’s why I love Angela Grant’s critiques of my video. It helps me grow. Angela, thank you!

It’s also why I offer this: our first multimedia project.

It just launched on Katie and I compiled this as the first project for our newspaper that is web-centered – not a part of a story for the print version. We’re going to continue to add galleries and hope people discover it, while providing some evergreen content to our site.

How we did it: Friday nights are always a strain on staff: busy sports night, too few people. Ever suggest to a newspaper person, reporter or photog, who has to already work weekends and holidays to give up a Friday night? If we were going to do this, it was up to us to shoot it.

Rule No. 2 of Multimedia Reporting: Don't let them hear you whine. Don't complain about not having the right gear, the right talent, anything.You might end up getting buzzed. Do whatever it takes to get the job done. For print stories, I've taken notes on the back of napkins.

We did these first slide shows with a Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot digital camera. We picked up sound with our Canon Elura 85 video camcorder - which turns out to be the best audio recorder we have - using our inexpensive Nady external mic, discussed in a previous post. We extracted the sound in I-Movie and edited it in Audacity. Brian Corn, our director of visuals, was pleased with the outcome. "Awesome," I believe was his word.

I provide examples of my work, not because I think they’re particularly noteworthy, but to document where I am at this stage of the learning curve.

And to get feedback. That’s the only way we will improve.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Slide shows: they're not just for photographers

Fellow multimedia reporter Stan Finger was already grinning, when I walked into work this morning. He’d just found a slide show waiting in his in-box.

A teenager had fallen into a river outside Wichita, and emergency crews staged a daring rescue amid a raging undertow, worsened by the high waters from this spring’s notorious Kansas storms. An alert member of the emergency crew documented the rescue and sent the photos to us.

Stan grabbed a digital recorder and sat at my desk, which has a $17 phone recorder I’d picked up last year sometime. Stan called the director of pubic safety in Augusta, KS. He then passed me the recorder, like a baton in the multimedia relay, and headed out the door for the morning police briefing. Stan files more on-line stories before noon than most people in a day.

I used Audacity to edit the interview, trying to match up the descriptions with the pictures we had, and loaded it into Soundslides.

We had the slide show posted with Stan’s story by afternoon. Stan watched the show before he wrote, so he produce a story with minimal repeats that complemented the slide show. Once again, multimedia became the layers for the news.

Before we became what my editor Nick Jungman calls “multimedia operatives,” Soundslides had been loaded on the photographers’ individual Mac laptops and on a desktop over in Photo, which we now call Visuals. Since it only costs $40, our managing editor didn’t blink at buying another copy for a reporters’ projects computer.

Soundslides takes about 10 seconds to learn. I fiddled with it for a couple of months, before January rolled around before Richard Koci Hernandez provided this outstanding tutorial. After watching this, I had photographers asking me “How’d you get side captions?”

Writer’s tip: Launch side captions, bump up the point size to 18 and you can use it as a text block to provide additional details. Just don’t overuse it. Let the audio and pictures tell the story. Make title slides on a blank canvas in Photoshop. Soundslides recognizes “jpg” and “mp3” files.

Of course, as with traditional print, it’s best to team a photographer’s artistic eye and reporter’s interview skills. But when photographers are pressed for time, or numbers, be creative.

If there’s good audio, dig for visuals as vigorously as you would the mayor’s emails. I’ve experimented with slideshows by taking matieral from our photo archives and sources’ scrap books. I’ve even used computer screen shots - once, for a story I did on prisoners looking for dates on the Internet. I've used maps. I thought I was stretching on the screen shots, but I felt better, when our market’s leading television station picked up the story the next night and used similar visuals. You never know what will work.

Maybe there’s a gem waiting in your in-box.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Way-cool tool

Here’s something that fits everything multimedia into your back pocket with all the convenience of a notebook.
It’s the Nokia 93I: the latest generation of smartphone. I don’t have one, yet, but it looks impressive

The N93i has a screen that flips 160 degrees and gives you a viewfinder for a video camera with a Carl Zeiss lens, which is what comes with the Sony camcorders.

Pair it with a bluetooth wireless keyboard, and it looks like quite a powerful little phone. It even comes with mini-versions of Adobe’s PhotoShop and Premiere Elements video editing software.

Check out this demonstration.

Think of it: you’re first on the scene at a breaking news event. You take a short video clip, unfold the keyboard, bang out a brief description of what’s going on and you have it sent back to the newsroom and posted on the web, right out of your pocket.

Speaking of emptying your pocket, it retails for between $800 to $1,200. Now, when you think about it, that’s about what you’d pay for a new laptop, which doesn’t shoot video, take stills, or fit in your pocket.

And you really need a phone. This way you have only one thing to lose.

Not that most reporters can rush out and buy one. But the phones will get better, the prices might come down. You could save up and be the first one to have the cool new multimedia toy. Or it might even be worth pitching to the bosses, when they’re shopping for ways to equip reporters for multimedia.


LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES: Angela Grant at News Videographer today posted critiques of three of my videos. This is a great site to get feedback to improve. Next time, I will shoot more close-ups.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Put down the notebook, step away slowly and no one will get hurt

A reporter frantically runs up to the on-line news desk.

“My editor just asked me: What’s the online component for my story?” the reporter gasps. As the reporter shakes, eyes shut, clicking heels together and muttering “There’s no place like home...” we say, take a deep breath; this is going to be easy. Or so we think.

“First,” we say, “record your interview.”

“I already did the interview,” the reporter says. And of course, the reporter didn’t record it.

Rule No. 1 of multimedia reporting: Audio is everything – so record everything.

This should have a comfort zone built in for print reporters. Every reporter, at one time or another, has taken a tape recorder to an interview since the invention of the mini-cassette, around the time the Talking Heads were burning down the house. Remember that first interview, where you got back to the office to strain to hear above the roar of an air-conditioner to transcribe that quote? You vowed to rely on your notebook and memory from then on.

Well, those days coming to an end. If you don’t have a decent digital recorder – and one that can download files to a computer – get one. If you shop around you can buy a good one for about $72. Don’t wait for someone to buy one for you. This is a necessary tool.

Mindy McAdams, during her talk at the National Writer’s Workshop this past weekend, talked about which models were good to buy in several price ranges. Mindy’s handout also will tell you how to download and use Audacity, a free program, which you will need later to edit your audio. On Mindy’s post, be sure and read the BBC radio tutorial. If you want to learn sound, talk to someone in radio or a musician.

The first time I used Audacity, it took me two hours to download Audacity, read the instructions, learn how to use it and then cut a one-minute clip – and I didn’t have Mindy’s instructions. After that, it’s a breeze.

One important feature: make sure your recorder has a jack for an external microphone. Don’t try to use the built-in condenser mic on the recorder: remember that air-conditioner hum? Buy a microphone.

I use a Nady SP-5, which you can buy three for $25. (Thanks, Multimedia Shooter). It’s inexpensive, not cheap. It’s durable and picks up clean sound, especially for interviews.

A bit on microphones:

Microphones have different ways they pick up sound, called polar patterns. Newspaper reporters need to learn a little about these when shopping for one. Here’s a good explanation for those geeks, like me, who want to understand the technical aspects. But what you need to know is this: a cardioid, or unidirectional mic, only picks up sound from one direction. It takes sound from where you point it. You want to hear the person talking, not the air conditioner. Get a cardioid mic. That’s what my SP-5 is.

I’ve dropped it, and it still works. Broadcast people have nicknamed this kind of mic a “tent stake,” because you can use it for that in a pinch and it will still work on an interview. This is a joke. Don’t try it.

Next you’ll have to buy a cord that connects the three-prong outlet (called an XLR plug) at the mic to the connection on your recorder (most likely a mini plug; aka a 3.5 mm or 1.8-inch plug). Go into your nearest electronics store and tell them what you need. Or take the microphone and recorder and tell them you need to connect the two. Get about a six-foot cord. Expect to pay $10 to $19.

I also spent $12 on a mic desk stand, which resembles and tripod and folds up. It fits in your pocket or purse. You won’t find it at a big box store. Go to a music store, and they’ll either have one or order one for you. Screw the mic clip that comes with the microphone into the stand. Slip the mic into the clip. The stand will prevent that rattling noise you’ll get from rolling the microphone around in your hand.

You’re ready to go. Now record everything you do in your job. Interviews. Anything that relates to your story. If it’s about a barking dog, recording the dog barking. Maybe you won’t need it. But for those times have you said: “There was this great quote that didn’t fit in my story,” now you have a use for those quotes in audio. And some government wonks can't claim to misquoted them when you didn't. People will hear them.

Download the audio files into Audacity and edit them down to little gems.

Just don’t go to your web team and tell them you didn’t record anything. Audio is the first step to multimedia reporting.

Docs to go

Wear a flash drive around your neck.

That's the great advice of Mike McGraw, a Pulitzer-winning special projects reporter with the Kansas City Star. He stopped by Wichita for the National Writers Workshop here this past weekend, then gave another ses-sion Monday for staffers here at The Eagle.

The reporting veteran of 35 years said he often finds himself talking to a source who says, “Well, I have that document, but it’s in my e-mail ... or on my hard drive.”

McGraw whips out the plug around his neck

“Here,” McGraw said he tells the source. “There’s plenty of room on this. And then we don’t have to deal with a FOIA request or any of the paperwork.”

One part of multimedia reporting that doesn’t take much effort is providing source documents for the web. Readers love to see where we got our information and documents are the backbone of great stories. Flash drives run between $15 and $25 per gigabyte.

Yet putting source documents on-line is something I still see a lot of reporters not doing.

And the web content people love you when you can bring them a PDF or an electronic copy, instead of a mound of papers they have to scan. Plus, you can load it onto your hard drive and cut down on that stack of papers that has been piling up on your desk for the past three years.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Is "text" a verb?

My wife and I use text messages all the time. She’s a lawyer. I cover courts. One of us is usually in a courtroom. We coordinate schedules, pick up kids, make plans. Did I mention we use them all the time? Then we got our monthly bill. I had 500 text messages. Gaye had 500. Garrett, the high school senior, had 3,500 - more than 100 a day. Thankfully, we have unlimited use of text messages.

Despite the allure of video, audio, slide shows and Flash animations in this exciting new era of story telling, we still live in a text world. There’s email, IM, blogs. The kids, as they say, “text” each other. They say that if only hear me yell; “Text isn’t a verb.” Then they laugh and text some more.

In the on-line world, we are the instant messengers of what is happening in the world around us. Yet I still see so many reporters who don’t think of the immediacy of the web. They act like we still have day to file a story. But look at the numbers, and breaking news is the heart of our web sites.

We have to stop thinking like newspaper reporters and start thinking like a wire service correspondents. File a bulletin: a nut graph. Follow with a first lede write-thru – a brief. Update as we gain information. Write an alternate lede, an anecdotal, or even a narrative story, to go in the print edition. Use our video and audio to supplement our stories with layers of additional information. Narrative journalism is romantic and great to wake up to. But the web has kept the inverted pyramid the workhorse of our daily lives.

When we start looking then for the tools we need to progress on-line, there’s many opinions on “what kind of gear do I need?” If you look to my favorite blogs you’ll find a wealth of information about all price ranges of cameras, microphones, recorders. I’ve found some cool stuff, too, that I’ll pass along in future posts.

But the first really useful tool I purchased as a web reporter was a "Smartphone." Personally, I have a Treo. At the time, it was the only one that had a full-size foldable keyboard. Don’t try typing a story with all thumbs. Now, there are similar keyboards for a BlackBerry. It all fits into your pocket, less bulky than a laptop.

I still get asked how we had so much detail from the courtroom in our live blog two yeas ago during Dennis Rader’s hearings as the BTK serial killer. I was doing that from the courtroom, emailing to our blogger back in the newsroom (note: before doing this, get permission from the judge and don’t forget to keep the ringer silenced).

I’ve used it at election night watch parties and from crime scenes. With newer versions, you can take that quick video clip of a fire or snap a photo to email back if you have to get a shot before a photographer gets there. Your visuals won’t make 1A or win any video awards, but our job is to first get the news posted.

Yes, the phones can be pricey, but you can get good deals on used ones on E-Bay. Think of it as an investment that will let you break news all day long, from your pocket without hauling a laptop. Buy one. Then text away.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Having the time of my life

The edict came down at The Wichita Eagle, as it did , or will, in newsrooms across the country: you will be concentrating more on-line the coming year. As the announcement was made this past November, I saw my colleagues around me, their eyes either glazing over or their faces turning ashen.

No one really knew what it meant. Would everyone be required to learn to shoot and edit video? Sound? What would happen to our narratives that we worked so hard on for print?

I come from a broadcast family. My dad was a news director for a Midwestern network affiliate in the 1960s. He probably faced some of the same questions as he decided to buy the station's first sound film camera. My brother spent several years in radio. I had grown up around people with microphones, recording and trying to patch together records and mics that had different plugs. I spent six years as a music journalist, which took me inside recording studios and watching people mix and mic live sound. None of this was very intimidating.

I'd been looking for ways to use to web to expand my reporting since about 1999. As a reporter for The News-Leader in Springfield, Mo. I created an investigative piece on water quality, using statewide databases, and helped build a component, where residents could enter their zip code and find out what was in their water. That led to me being contacted by The Eagle and offered a job as the courts reporter on the crime team. I started collecting source documents and court exhibits in PDFs so people could see the material I was using to write my stories.

Multimedia was the next logical step. I 'm on the national board of the Society of Professional Journalists as a regional director and read an excellent article by Emily Sweeney of the Boston Globe on how to get started.

From there, I searched out others who could teach me: Mindy McAdams at the University of Florida and Richard Koci Hernandez's Multimedia Shooter and blogs by people such as Angela Grant helped launch me in the right direction. I just met Mindy this weekend at our National Writers Conference in Wichita and we talked for hours.

Katie Lohrenz, our on-line content developer at, has been encouraging, inspiring, taught me to use I-Movie and final cut and critiqued videos I have started producing for our web site. She suggested I try a personal blog to document my learning. We're not a huge newspaper, or a tiny one, but a medium market Midwest paper smack in the center of the country. We're learning as we go, as most newsrooms are. Plus, I've found a lot of blogs come from the perspective of those experienced in visuals, or experienced videographers. I've always written and reported through text, and I think moving to multimedia has unique challenges for those moving from the written word.

Whether our careers have involved words or pictures to this point, I believe we are all reporters and storytellers. We all seem to be moving in the same direction with multimedia, using different tools to tell our stories..

So I'm jumping into all of this now. I hope people will pick this up and ask questions. I'm learning something new every day.

And I'm having the time of my life. Multimedia has rejuvenated my enthusiasm and excitement in a career I love.