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.

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