Friday, June 29, 2007

No comment, please, thank you, no comment, no...

There was no video or audio, because the judge in juvenile court decided it was better to sentence the 16-year-old girl who killed her father without pictures and sound. I covered the story as I had other court stories for years.

It was one of those stories, that after you were through, your stomach hurt. I should have taken time to ask myself: "Could that story turn into an interactive nightmare?"

Newspapers all over the country have been debating how they use reader comments, including at the New York Times, which edits them.

The tragic story of abuse inside a Wichita family that led to a teenage girl shooting her father to death pointed out why we should think about them.

We were busy working on the next day’s news cycle, when the girl’s lawyer, Laura Shaneyfelt, called and asked if we’d been reading the reader comments on the story. They started out with comments from what looked like regular readers. The story was shocking enough. But as the morning turned to afternoon, personal comments began to emerge. Although we had never named the juvenile girl, her name suddenly popped up.

Then someone blamed the slain father’s mother, by name. It was apparent that a family feud had fired up on-line at

We shut the comments down. I soon received a call from a woman who said she’d tried to find the comments, after someone told her about them, and couldn’t find them. I told her they’d gotten out of hand and we needed to eliminate them and stop the discussion.

“Thank you,” she said.

Other crime stories have drawn racist remarks on our pages.

We’ve been told that legally if you edit individual comments you can limit your defense should a bad one slip through.

We have issue similar to reporters at other paper I talk to: you can write a story about quilting and someone, somewhere will eventually leave a comment about how quilting promotes illegal immigration. What are you going to do?

Some problems, however, we can head off before they start. We now have the option of clicking a “no comments” box before sending our stories to the desk. I thought that was a box to signify we’d tried to talk to a cantankerous politician. I’ve been assured it removes the opportunity for controversial comments from readers.

We now have a list of stories we should consider in checking that box, including stories that name victims or defendants.

We also check the box on stories “likely to produce ribald comments,” although as I tell our editors, those are my personal favorites.

As we tackle the large learning curves of melding layers of our coverage with audio and video, we should also remember to read the comments on our stories each day.

I’d be interested in hearing what other papers are doing.

To do that, well, leave a comment.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Quest for maps

It’s easy to be seduced by video and audio slide shows. They are like magic to print reporters who, until now, have been confined to words and the dreaded “info” boxes to relay information.

But multimedia isn’t just about pictures that move or fade, zoom or pan. We now have all sorts of tools to convey a story. We don’t have to do this all by ourselves. Photographers will produce better visuals. Graphic artists and designers will make it look prettier. But it will be up to us to bring home the information, the details that give the artist’s canvas color and detail.

Just as we’ve learned how to make graphic requests and photo assignments, we need to understand the tools.

Rule No. 5 of Multimedia: Embrace Google Maps.

Go ahead. You can even make one.

Get started right away with Atlas or MapMaker.

Mindy McAdams has blogged about this in detail.

There's a great tutorial to learn the basics.

Look at what my colleague Hurst Laviana did last week on a story about unsolved homicides. Each point gives a thumbnail of the cold case. All he needed was an Excel spreadsheet with the location, and pretty much the map programs did the rest.

OK, nothing’s perfect. Our programming goddess Katie fixed all the random dots that turned up in another hemisphere, even though the spreadsheet specifically said Kansas. Doesn’t Google Maps know we have a street that runs right down the Sixth Principle Meridian? The street is even called Meridian. It’s not in Arizona somewhere.

So everything has bugs. But Katie is skillful in Google Maps, so if there’s a problem, she can fix it.

To learn more about Google maps, courtesy of the experts at NICAR, especially Matt Waite and Jeremy Milarsky:

Read this, or at least talk someone in your newsroom into reading it: "Beginning Google Maps Applications with Rails and Ajax: From Novice to Professional," by By Andre Lewis
Michael Purvis, Jeffrey Sambells, Cameron Turner
(Apress 2007)

Check out the Google Maps blog. If you want to go even deeper.

Google Maps Mania: The Beatlemania of Google Maps. Kind of.

While we don’t have to know how to program all this, we at least need a basic understanding of what we'll need to set up your spreadsheet, so someone else can map it easily.

We’re just training in Flash. Pretty soon, we may be able to do the kind of cool stuff they do in Oakland.

That's what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Meanwhile, back in video class

Whenever I hear about basic video shots, I think of the old television show “Dragnet.”

I brought this up in our video training class the other day, and Stacey, our instructor, and everyone else looked at me strange – except for our photo editor Brian Corn, who has been around as long as I have. Not that I remember the first-run “Dragnet.” I did grow up watching reruns and, yes, saw it the second-time around when it revived in the 1960s.

The show that made “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order” possible always started off the same: a wide shot of the Los Angeles skyline glistening in the sun, or in the ‘60s, smog hovering overhead.

“This is the city,” Jack Webb’s voice would intone, “Los Angeles, California.”

Cut to an exterior shot of the LAPD headquarters. Cut to inside the office.

"My name’s Friday,” the voice would say, as you would see Webb’s character walking through the office door. “I carry a badge.”

Those are the basics:

An establishing wide shot to set the sense of place, time and even weather conditions.

Gradually tighten the shots, bringing us to where the scene will be set.

Show the characters and their faces.

Catch action: people doing things, moving about. Otherwise, why are we shooting video?

You look for wide shots, medium shots and close-ups. That’s really all you need to get started, when someone hands you a point-and-shoot video camera to take on a story. If you do them in that order, you even spend less time editing them, because the scenes logically go together.

“You need a sense of location, and you need action of what the people are doing,” Stacey said.

Pick up the sounds of what’s going on, and a couple of interviews with people that you can roll behind your other shots, and you’re off to a good start to produce a video that will enhance your multimedia coverage.

It sounds simple but consider this the next time you want your favorite movie. You’ll be surprised how often you see this simple progression.

“Gone with The Wind” opens with a wide shot of the mansion of Tara. Cut to two men with their backs turned talking of war. They step aside to sit by the young lady they are talking to and the camera zooms in to reveal Scarlet O’Hara.

“Manhattan,” displays with the New York skyline and the roar of the clarinet opening Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The camera cuts to a sign flashing “Manhattan” followed by close-ups of a corner cafĂ©, people bustling about the streets, people milling about a street market, as Woody Allen describes his love for the city.

These are fictional, scripted and directed. Still, we learned how to write narrative journalism by reading the short stories of Hemmingway, Twain and Chekhov and applying their tools to our way of presenting the facts. It’s the same with visual narratives.

I also like the BBC’s “Five Shot Rule” - close-up of the hand, close-up of the face, over-the-shoulder and two shots from other angles.

Be careful, though. This can become addictive. You’ll be watching movies and documentaries, saying to yourself, “Establishing shot … close-up of the hand …”

Just don’t say it out loud. People will stare.

A wicked, cool, awesome, video

If you haven't checked out the "On Being" series at the Washington Post, it's a very cool project.

And this one in particular is one you should watch:

Of course, I'm biased. Jessica is my stepdaughter. I had nothing to do with any of this, except that I was smart enough to marry her mother. Still, we're all very proud.

Oh, and to make this a tiny bit instructive, Jessica said she spent about two hours in the interview for this piece. She's a Fulbright Scholar and is planning on taking video gear with her to Yemen and an eye on producing a documentary as part of her Fulbright project.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

We've got training

The problem is not that we aren’t eager. People are begging to learn about multimedia, especially video, as Angela Grant pointed out recently. What they're not receiving is training.

Although decision makers in newsrooms move more slowly, we're scrambling to learn as much as we can as quickly as we can.

My newsroom is providing training, and that seems to be a rarity. Especially print reporters in the unfamiliar area of video are going to need to know how to react when we're handed a camera and told to “bring back some video.”

So let's use this blog as a starting point. Come train with me.

Your teacher: Stacey Jenkins.

We were lucky to find Stacey in Wichita. Stacey trained as a documentary filmmaker, which is exactly what we needed. The web is opening up these great opportunities to tell stories in different ways. And when it comes to video, the trend is leaning toward more of a documentary model than the historic television model. Stacey has that kind of background. She’s from Canada and worked for public television there and Portland, Ore., before her husband took a job for Bombardier in Wichita.

The first session consisted of three photographers, our photo editor, and me as the only reporter.

Stacey began by asking how we decided what stories would use video each day.

“Uh,” we said. “We just kind of decide on our own.”

“It’s not discussed in the morning meeting by the editors?” she asked.

“Uh, no,” we said.

First, she said, we need to learn how to identify stories that could benefit from a video component.

If editors aren’t asking the question, the reporters should be. The photographers said they depend on communication from reporters, who despite being communicators, I admit, sometimes don't talk to anyone.. Yes, I can hear grumbling. What? We already have to assign still photos, now we have to figure out video, too. Can’t we just write a story?

Multimedia takes planning. You can’t just dial a phone number, jot down a few quotes, write an inverted pyramid story and phone it all in – that’s how newspapers have bored people to death, and maybe caused their own deaths, over the past half-century.

Stacey outlined a quick thought process, which should take about three minutes out of your day:

- “Think about a story in terms of media,” she said. Do you need audio? Would a gallery of stills be best? Or a slide show? Or video?

- Any story with action cries out for video. Covering a new dance class? The aftermath of a tornado (I am in Kansas, after all).

- Even someone with a compelling story might be worth sitting in front of a rolling video camera. “Let them tell their stories,” she said. “There will be parts that you want people to see and hear, because it will never be as powerful reading it.”

This is what filmmakers and broadcasters know well. It's called pre-production. It’s like outlining a story. It’s like deciding what interviews you want to do.

Not all stories may work with video. But ask yourself those questions. If the story fits, you might want to grab a video camera, or talk to a photog who shoots video – or another reporter you’ve seen learning it.

If nothing else, when – not if, but when – an editor hands you a video camera and tells you to add it to your tool box, you’ll at least be able to recognize when to whip it out.

Mark Bowden says he discovered this when he compiled for his paper what would become the outstanding narrative non-fiction book “Black Hawk Down.”

Before it was a book or a movie, back in the old days of 1997, it was a multimedia package.

Now, Bowden writes, such reporting crucial to our work:

“I think the print edition will probably endure to some extent, but, without any doubt, the future of daily journalism is digital, not because it is the latest thing, but because it is, quite simply, a far better medium than paper and ink.”

Bowden is one reporter who thinks video when he tackles an assignment for The Atlantic Monthly:

“Nearly every story I write today for the Atlantic, and every book I undertake, I do in conjunction with a documentary filmmaker.”

Tomorrow, we’ll review the basics of the shot.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Don't just look, see

One of the most debated aspects of the transition to multimedia is whether we reporters can handle it. Those who come from the visual background have mixed feelings over whether we can pull our heads out of our notebooks and survive.

Last week the conflict was apparent at the Baltimore Sun, where photographers went on strike over the idea of reporters carrying point-and-shoot cameras.

Storytelling has the same elements whether you’re writing a narrative or producing a documentary: interesting characters, conflict, resolution. With that, we do need to train ourselves.

Marcin Szczepanski made some great points in a discussion on Multimedia Shooter.

Marcin had said I oversimplified the problem confronting our newsrooms by saying that the conflict begins by people who want to cling to the old style of journalism rather than adapt to a changing business. Of course, I over-simplify. I’m a reporter. My job has been trying to oversimplify so people could understand complex ideas over their corn flakes in the morning.

Yet Marcin brings up some real problems that had me thinking all weekend, and that I hope spurs more discussion within our newsrooms. Marcin quoted Heather Hughes:

“I work at a sister paper for the Baltimore Sun, and our reporters got the cameras and video cameras last year, and all it has done is hurt the quality and look of our paper. Assignments are worse because the reporters don’t take the time to make it work for a photographer, and we get to spend time editing their crappy work to make it publishable.

“And yes, we still drive 45 min. for a building mug so that didn’t stop either. And yes, you can easily screw up a mug shot (most of them are out of focus, have trees growing out of their heads, under or over exposed, etc.) Even with their extensive 2hr long training class with our photo editor.”

Over the weekend, I spent some time with a book my wife, Gaye, had picked up years ago, “The Family of Man,” a mid-1950s photographic essay from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was then touted to exhibit the world’s best photos, from the pages of Life and Vogue, among others.

I will never shoot photographs like these. Nor will I approach the quality of the photographers at the Wichita Eagle. We need photographers and none of us wants to see a newsroom where there isn’t room for specialization. Collaboration of artistic skills still produces the best work.

But as we all venture into the world of multimedia, we as reporters have to refine our skills. That means learning how to handle a camera, even a point-and-shoot, professionally. That means taking care when we venture out of the office, whether it’s to be the first on the scene to capture a breaking news event or shoot a mug for our understaffed photo department.

Prepare yourself before you go out. Read the instruction booklet. If your photo department does give a training class, as ours did a year ago, by all means participate. You’ll need these skills. Talk to your photographer friends to get tips.

We have eyes. Use them. Appreciate the patterns freckles make on a face, or the way shadows and light dance across the landscape. Try to capture some emotion or a moment of truth. Don’t pose people. Snap lots of shots from many different angles, so maybe one won’t have a tree growing out of a head.

Even with a point-and-shoot, try to do something that at the very least won’t embarrass the real photographers in your newsroom.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Keep an ear for an ethical echo

I know I preach a lot about getting audio. I think it’s the easiest transition for print reporters to make, because they already are comfortable with recording interviews. We all just need to learn to keep our mouths shut and listen more, unless we want a nightmare on the editing end.

But as we all enter this, we all must remember that journalism ethics doesn’t go out the window when we hit “record.”

Melissa Worden offers these words of advice.

For most of us, they go without saying, but they’re always worth repeating and reading again.

Mindy McAdams offers more helpful guidance her eight rules of audio ethics

"The cardinal rule is the same as in written journalism, when you write quotes into a story: Never change the meaning of what the person said. Never misrepresent what the interview subject meant."

While these examples talk about photographers, as more reporters are asked to gather audio, video and pictures for slide shows, we need to keep this firmly in mind, too.

And of course, all of this is covered in the SPJ Code of Ethics.

Print it out and tape it to your terminal.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

It must be good if someone is trying to stop it

We’re barely into this new world of live reporting, via the Internet, and already the some anti-constitution authorities are trying to stop us.

I’m not talking about federal prosecutors in California – I’m talking about sports brass.

One of the most hit-on news briefs at this past Sunday and Monday was the item where the Eagle explained that fans couldn’t follow the usual live game blog of the Wichita State Shockers in the NCAA super regional baseball games.

Seems the NCAA had outlawed “live representation of the game.” They didn’t want some newspaper blog interfering with people watching the game on television. The NCAA doesn’t seem to realize that fans of the Shockers, and most teams, will watch the game on portable televisions while sitting in the stands and reading the blog on their smart phones. Fan is, after all, a short for fanatic.

Not everyone agreed with the NCAA

Brian Bennett of the Louisville Courier Journal blogged anyway during the Cardinals’ game against Oklahoma State, and was tossed out of the press box.

As our columnist, Bob Lutz pointed out:

“It's nonsense to ban blogs, especially since someone watching on television could produce a blog and the NCAA would not have any recourse.”

There was all sorts of talk a few months back on the Yahoo! Newspaper Video Group about how the Major League Baseball trying to ban newspaper video shooters from spring training.

I can, sort of, understand franchises and leagues can put a tight reign on video, just like they limit television rights.

But blogs? C’mon.

With so many people trying to stop us, we must be doing something right.

The Courier-Journal may take legal action, and I hope it does. I hope more papers out there will challenge this, and other kinds of new age censorship, the way they would open records and meetings. I would hope more reporters would take a stand and risk being tossed out of the press box.

As I write this, by the way, the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers are tied in the third quarter.

I know that, because I’m watching the game on TV, and I’m looking at the San Antonio Express-News (home of our friend Angela Grant) which has a live game blog going.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

You mean, people actually watch this stuff?

Starting out in multimedia, especially at a newspaper that is just beginning to dabble in it, can be a humbling experience.

Since I’ve been concentrating on learning how to add audio slide shows and video to my reporting, I’ve written shorter stories for the print newspaper, or helped other reporters produce segments for their stories. Others may be stand-alone projects that have only been passed along by word-of-mouth, or from small refers in the paper.

Reactions have gone something like this:

“So, still at the newspaper?”

“I haven’t seen anything by you in a while ... oh, you guys have a web site?.”

“I went looking for that project you said you were working on and couldn’t find it.”

Our readers aren’t used to looking for multimedia on our web site, and what we do have are simple links from the stories.

Then last night, I accompanied my wife to one of her professional/social outings, looking like appropriate arm candy, and reveling in how brilliant and well respected she is. Occasionally, someone my recognize me from covering the courthouse beat, or recognize my byline and comment on a story.

But this time, a guy who had just met me, who was not someone I had emailed a link to, or had looked at work through this blog, said: “Didn’t you do that thing on-line about the rescue.” He was talking about a slide show I did a couple of weeks ago of boy being rescued from a raging river while trying to show friends how well he could swim. He almost drowned.

I was shocked that a total stranger would be commenting to me at an unrelated function about something I’d done exclusively on-line.

“Yeah,” he continued. “I’ve been showing it to my kids, saying ‘Don’t ever do this.’ ”

The closest I’d come before was three requests for a video I shot and edited of a demonstration by our fire department trying to discourage people from smoking cigarettes while using medical oxygen. They came from health care clinics in Missouri and Great Britain wanting to help educate patients and from a man in Tennessee wanting it for his mom. I burned them some DVDs and we posted it on You Tube

Granted, they aren’t coming yet in the numbers that make my bosses do more than yawn. But I’ve gained some personal satisfaction that my work is having at least a small impact. And that’s really all I’ve ever needed.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

"The Pulitzers are history"

From Salon, that was our favorite acceptance speech from the 11th Annual Webby Awards this week. All speeches are limited to five words.

I’ve always thought that we should compare oursevles to the best. I’m always looking to see who's excelling in what I want to do, so I pass along inspiration from the Webbys.

Salon shared best magazine honors with the always inspirational MediaStorm (Speech: "Stories are Timeless").

For the first time, the Webbys included a video category.

Winning in the Video News/Documentary/Public Service division were:
Kevin Sites: In The Hot Zone from Yahoo News! (Acceptance speech: “War: What's It Good For”) and "Independence Day" (Acceptance speech: "Verizon, Save The Internet")

Other awards for top web sites included:

The Guardian Unlimited (Newspaper), and (Newspaper “People’s Choice” and best home/welcome page), BBC (News) and NPR (podcasts).

For more cool interactive presentations, see the Webby winners' gallery.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

They call me MISTER tripod

Hillman Curtis predicts in his book “On Creating Short Films for the Web” that video will take over from Flash as the main tool for driving on-line media.

Curtis was one of the developers of Flash and one of the top web designers, doing little sites like Yahoo!

I didn’t learn Flash. Maybe I should learn video. I am, after all, a storyteller, a reporter, so I should at least become familiar with something that just might take over my world as I know it.

I’m not a total stranger. My first job back in high school was working as an intern at a television station, where a very talented photographer named Ed Fillmer taught me the basics of film. Yes, it was film then: 16 mm with big cans like Hollywood. You had to set everything manually and didn’t know what you had until you developed it. You cut it with a razor blade and taped scenes together. Makes the drag-and-drop of video editing seem like a breeze.

Now, all these years later, I can recall what Ed told me when I was 16: shoot a wide establishing shot, then move in for details. Shoot plenty of “b-roll” for cutaways in editing, so you won’t get jerky ”jump cuts.”

It’s coming back to me, albeit slower with age..

There are arguments all over our industry about whether reporters should shoot video. I don’t think anything bad is going to happen because I pick up a video camera. And I am picking up the camera. I’m shooting video to augment stories: to hear the pain in the crime victim’s voice and to capture a scene that is much better seen than told.

Getting started was easy. I cover courts. In Wichita, the courtrooms allow video pools – one camera, everyone else hooks in. Dennis Decker, chief videographer, for KWCH-TV sat down one rainy afternoon and showed me what I needed to hook my “toy camera” – the Canon Elura 85 that is still our newspapers only video camera of the moment, into an XLR audio input and a BNC video input, so I could link up to the court pool. I didn’t even have to shoot it. Someone else did.

Now plenty of people will tell you that “talking heads” aren’t good video, but I direct them to Court TV’s web site, which survives on people clamoring to view talking-head testimony from trials. They even sell a premium service, where people pay to watch testimony from trials.

Rule No. 3 of multimedia reporting: If it’s compelling, people will click on it. Just make sure it's compelling

Plus, you can provide a minute of court testimony or excerpts from a compelling interview, while TV can only do a few seconds.

I started collecting video, then editing excerpts. Then I started trying to shoot and edit some stand-alone stories.

Then one day, Court TV called Katie, our content producer, asking for permission to air one of my videos. It was the first time our newspaper had been asked for video from a television network. By the way, that wasn’t one I’d gotten from a TV pool. That was a clip I’d shot myself.

This week, on the Yahoo! Newspaper Video group, links are flying with proof that reporter’s can do video.

To get started, get some tips on shooting video. Then go to BBC’s “Good Shooting Guide.”

Don’t have a camera? Cyndy Green will tell you what to look for in one under $500.

One final tip: use a tripod. The people in photo will make fun of you. Some at my newspaper even have called nicknamed me “Tripod.” Say what they want, my video doesn't have the shakes.

Don’t have a tripod? Make one from a tennis ball. I’m not kidding. Best link all week, I promise.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Bringing it into autofocus

Angela Grant alertly saw where I was heading with this thread, and as usual is a step or two ahead of me, aptly asking: “But what were you thinking of using that audio for?”

I have been harping on audio from the outset of this young blog, because I was most comfortable wading into multimedia by collecting source documents and audio. Reporters have been recording interviews for years, and with some attention to detail and extra equipment can begin doing that almost immediately.

But Angela is correct: we can’t live by audio alone. Sooner or later, everyone is going to have to pick up a camera – still, video, all of the above.

The Invisible Inkling, Ryan Sholin, explains why in “10 Obvious Things About The Future Of Newspapers You Need To Get Through Your Head.” As Mindy McAdams says, “I agree with Ryan that they are, in fact, "obvious," that doesn't mean that everyone in journalism knows these. Sad but true.”

Pay attention to No. 6:

· “Reporters need to do more than write. The new world calls for a new skillset, and you and Mr. Notebook need to make some new friends, like Mr. Microphone and Mr. Point & Shoot.”

In the accompanying link: the Inkling tells us what exactly we will need to keep working in the ever-shrinking newsrooms of the future:

“If I were in a position to hire a reporter, I’d be looking for a solid writer with Web skills.

  • “I would want someone who knows enough HTML to write their own Web update into a content management system without needing training.
  • “I would want someone who has no fear of a digital camera, a video camera, or an audio recorder.
  • “I would want someone interested in using databases, maps, and public records as source material.
  • “I would want someone who knows how to tell a story.”

I still think that whatever our future is our best work will be done in collaboration by people who can gather documents and interviews, artists who create graphics and visual artists, whether photography or videography.

But as Ryan points out, we're going to be asked to do more, and on the daily grind of a beat, we need to have a point-and-shoot camera in our bags. We need to learn how to use it. We need to learn how to compose a photo and set a white balance. And then take a bunch of pictures.

Ask your friends in the photo department for help. Be prepared. I’ve been accused of creating slide shows so bad they to drive traffic from our web site that would never return. But you learn from criticism.

My friend Jaime Oppenheimer has encouraged and given me courage to spread out and try new things that I would have been terrified of a year ago. Brian Corn, our editor of visuals, now happily hands me a point-and-shoot and tells me to go forth and multimedia..

I’ve started taking a point-and-shoot still camera and video camcorder on every assignment. I’ve even received a couple of photo credits in our paper from frame grabs off the video. Granted, they were static and ran just slightly larger than a postage stamp, but it's a satisfying baby step. I’m betting the overworked photographers in most newsrooms will go out of their way to help you, just because you’re a reporter who’s not afraid of a camera.

I know I’ll never shoot photos like Jaime. But I’m gaining confidence that I can, on a good day, give a feel of what it was like to be at an event. If you shoot enough, you can create some cool, stop-action effects in slide shows. And I’m learning that people are less likely to notice the crappy pictures if you don’t leave them on the screen very long.

I also have something to go along with the audio. And even in a changing world, I can still conduct a killer interview.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Talk dirty to me

Face it, some days you just can’t get out of the office.

These days of cell phones and BlackBerries make it easier to stay connected, but sometimes more difficult to set up that face-to-face interview. And if we’re out to get good audio for our multimedia reports, it helps to be able to set up your microphone in a quiet, almost studio-like environment and get a pristine voice from an expert source to drive your slideshow or video.

But really, how often does that happen? I’m a believer that even as we move into a multimedia world, we have to be able to get the job done on deadline. We can’t ignore being aggressive reporters or sacrifice the opportunities we’ve always seized in the newspaper business because we need “clean” audio.

Our friends at NPR don’t let that stop them. How often do you hear an NPR phone interview, which sounds crisp and clean? Just because we don’t have radio studios or cool recording consoles doesn’t mean we can’t come close.

We need what our broadcast friends have: post-production assistance. Need to record and down-and-dirty phone interview? Clean it up in Audacity, or some other audio editing software. The link asks the question and offers several explanations that will also teach the value of dynamic compression and other things you never thought you’d have to know.

Here’s the thumbnail version, ready for an info-box:

  • Phone conversations exist on the frequency curve between 300 and 3,100 Hz. Remember those numbers (I have them on a sticky note on the front of my computer screen at work). To minimize hum, static and other nasty signals coming across the phone line, just narrow your sound to that frequency, Kenneth.
  • Unless you like playing around with equalizers and other fun audio stuff, the easiest way I’ve found to do this is with the “pass” filters. Under the “effects” menu, you’ll find a “low pass” filter and a “high pass” filter. This is how is was explained to me, and I’ll see if I can relay it as a reporter with ink-stained fingernails. These filters do exactly what they say - the “low pass” lets the low sounds pass through and filters out the higher end (the larger number). Set that to 3100 to limit anything higher. The high pass lets the high pitches pass: set that to 300 to cut out all the lower ends.
  • Then you can do normalize or compress the audio (you should compress the final product so all the volumes sound the same) and your phone interview will sound better.
Really, it will. So get that interview anyway you can. Record it. Then clean it up in post-production.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Hard day's night

I wrote a 27-inch story and cut five related audio slide shows this week.

Then I gladly took some vacation days I’d scheduled to go out of town with my family. I needed it. I’ve spent some amount of time asking myself if it was worth it, as others in newsrooms across the country, sit happily, as they always have, writing print stories and not worrying about audio, video and other such geekdom.

The package revolves around a new book that’s of interest both to our readers and my editors: “Bind, Torture and Kill: the Inside Story of the Serial Killer Next Door (HC, 2007). I had to interview my own publisher and several of my colleagues who wrote the book. As a crime and courts reporter, I was one of the few people at my paper who had both covered the BTK story, one of the biggest of my career, and whose name doesn’t appear on the cover as an author.

Writing about a story you’re so close to is difficult enough. Then came the multimedia gallery.

But in my new role as a web reporter, and preparing my individual career for the massive changes forecast in our industry, it’s now something I’m always thinking about. Up until now, I’ve made that decision on my own. For months, I’d grabbed an audio recorder and a mic, a digital camera or camcorder, and took them on assignments, just to get in the habit. If I came up with multimedia components, fine, but it wasn’t expected.

This time, however, it was part of the assignment.

The BTK pages on our web site are going to be on the book’s dust cover, and it’s going to be used in a national publicity campaign. It’s liable to be flashed up when the authors appear on talk shows and linked to in web discussions. We needed new content besides our archives of past coverage – something specific to the book.

What came about was a package that in the old days would have included a main story and several sidebars. But today, my sidebars didn’t go into the paper. They became the slide shows: interviews with the authors, my colleagues, and the chief of police.

I matched it selections from hundreds of photos we’d collected from our archives while covering a story spanning 30 years. I asked them to talk about how this story reached them on a personal level. These slide shows each tell a story in both sound and pictures. They are as demanding, if not more so, than any story I’ve ever written. .

The project emphasized what I’d been learning for months. With the exception of a few people who work closely with me on our interactive department, most people in the newsroom continue to be oblivious of the hard work and the learning curves of the new multimedia world that may be calling louder in the not-too-distant future.

Right now, it’s can be a lonely pursuit, and the payoffs are slim. You’ll notice the links on the story is hard to find and the links on the accompanying page blend into the whole. It’s something we’re going to have a fix: a design made for stories but not for these kinds of packages.

Then I read Melissa Worden’s “The X Degree,” reminding me that both my individual feelings and the limits I face at work are universal:

"Working in an industry in transition means you're constantly feeling off-kilter. It's both exhilarating and nerve-racking to try new things:

"We get to try out new products and stretch our imaginations and notions of what storytelling is.
But at the same time we wonder: Should we spend the resources and time on a new venture that could end up being yesterday's fad?"

Melissa then led me to the conversation at Poynter and a post by Editor Douglas McLennan, wrote:

"Most newspaper websites are dull, confusing and difficult to read, violating long-established principles of reader usability. At a time when social networking sites are showing how to build massive loyal communities, news organizations' interactivity is rudimentary at best. Companies like Google have raised digital advertising to an art, making it easy for advertisers to find the customers they want. Where have newspapers been? Asleep, while Craigslist and a host of other competitors have eaten their lunch.”

I admit there are days when it’s easy to roll over and hit the “snooze” alarm, write another story and forget about the rest. But I like the way the industry is going and the new ways I can stretch myself as a reporter. I’m not going to win any awards with my multimedia – yet. But I’m going to keep plugging away at it, and I’m going to get better.

I am going to gain confidence that, some days at least, I can do a 27-inch story and cut five audio slide shows. Oh, and I forgot to mention: four audio excerpts from the book. Those roll out on Sunday.