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.

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