Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Almost live from Wichita

Inspired by Ryan Sholin’s running commentary, I thought trying to cover something live looked fun. So I gave it a shot.

Armed with my new smart phone, I figured I do what I could to cover a news conference this morning as live as possible. My foldable bluetooth keyboard was still on order, so I typed out a few paragraphs with my thumbs and emailed it to Jeff, our trusty producer.

I then recorded an interview with one of the sources on my phone. I had signed up for a Twitter account, as Ryan had suggested. But I decided instead to just attach it in an email to Jeff.

Nothing fancy, like Ryan’s widgets that put it on the site immediately. I get nervous when I don’t have a copy editor or someone to listen to the audio file. I think we all need someone looking over our shoulders. This blog is about as adventurous as I get on posting without an editor, and my wife offers to read over these posts.

It was almost live, as immediate as we get on Kansas.com

Like Ryan’s running experiment, it wasn’t necessary to cover this press conference on road paving live, or even close to it. Still, I gained was some valuable experience and a little learning to make it easier to do this when a breaking news event demands it.

What I learned:

  • We need to label such coverage, or at least write in this happened “minutes ago,” so our readers know we’re giving them information as immediate as possible, as opposed to when our broadcast colleagues are “reporting live from the newsroom.” (I mean, aren’t we all?). Along these lines were the readers’ comments that said "This story was barely started. Nice reporting.". I wanted to add my own: “I’m typing with my *%$# thumbs!”
  • My phone doesn’t record great audio, and Katie had to add some gain before posting it. But it will work in a pinch. I also recorded audio on a digital recorder with a mic, just in case. It turned out, this worked just as well on this occasion, although I wouldn’t want to use it to do a serious slideshow, or for video.
  • Next time, I’ll take some photos on my phone and email those, too.
  • I am indeed getting my mojo working, and gaining more confidence in going immediate with the news. After all, even if I file a few paragraphs and an audio file, I can always update it later/ Note: we update on the same files throughout the day, so what you’re looking at is the later version.
Meanwhile, our online boss, Nick, is becoming convinced that we ought to equip all reporters with smart phones.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Briggs and strategy: an introduction to multimedia

I just finished my first read-through of Mark Briggs’ outstanding introduction to multimedia reporting, “Journalism 2.0: How to Survive and Thrive”

Katie Lohrenz, my often-quoted online producer, told me to read it (from a link via Mindy McAdams). Pretty much, whatever Mindy recommends and Katie tells me to do, I do.

Briggs, assistant managing editor at The News Tribune in Tacoma, WA, has written a good primer to journalism in the 21st Century. It’s a beginners guide in a world where, except for a rare handful of us, we’re all beginners. Briggs’ engaging style makes the leap to multimedia journalism a little less intimidating.

Can you cut a word in your copy and paste it into a different location to help the sentence flow? Then you have what it takes to edit audio and video.

Can you send an attachment with an e-mail? Then you have what it takes to publish a blog with pictures.

Briggs goes on to write:

Go find someone who works on the Web site for a news company. Ask them how they learned to do what they do. In almost all cases I would wager that they are self-taught. It’s simply the result of wanting to learn something new.

That’s the secret: If you truly want to learn how to do digital journalism, you will. Remember, this is about people, not technology.

Briggs covers the basics, from how the web works to how to make your computer-assisted reporting sing on the web and adopting that wire-service mentality to effectively be a breaking on-line newsperson.

Mindy recommended this for students, and it would be a great classroom resource. I’m going to recommend it next month, when I start doing some newsroom training for those who aren’t jumping into the multimedia waters – which is just about everyone.

The guys out there pushing 50, like me, really can benefit from this.

Friday, July 20, 2007

If you get audio and no one hears it, does it make any sound?

The chemical plant explosion shook buildings. The call from our desk told me to go directly to the emergency command center, which was under the big cloud of black smoke the officials weren’t so sure we should be breathing.

I was glad that I had been packing my briefcase over the past several months with microphones and at least a cheap digital recorder. The big gear we’ve ordered hadn’t arrived yet, but I’d been playing around with my Olympus recorder and $10 Nady microphone.

In the trunk of my car, a tool I hadn't used. The first time I’d tried to get audio in a pack journalism setting, my arm was wedged between two TV lenses, trying to hold a microphone close enough while losing feeling in my forearm. I longed for the days when I could stay back with my pen and little notebook, within earshot, jotting down quotes and pertinent information.

Screw this, I thought. This must be one reason for boom mics. Ever priced a boom? About $1,000, and I knew my boss wasn’t convinced getting audio is quite that important yet. I do, but I didn’t have that kind of cash.

When I was researching shooting video for the web, I’d read on Make Internet TV about fashioning a boom pole out of a broom. I didn’t want to tote a broom around to news scenes, but I liked the idea. I found a telescoping stage boom with a stand on sale for $22 from Musician’s Friend. I unscrewed the base and threw the pole in my car. I tried it out for the first time that day, going over the crowd, sticking the boom arm through the crowd. It worked. I even got a few nods and compliments from the TV folks, and they’ve been doing this much longer than I have.

I recorded everything. I ended up with some good emotional audio for a slide show on deadline.

I also ended up with audio that we could’ve used to better effect but didn’t.

Photographer Travis Heying shot some great video of the fire from a helicopter, but didn’t have sound to go with it. I had some compelling audio of fire chiefs talking about the difficulties of these kinds of fires and the reasons for evacuating residents because of the health risks from the smoke. I could have edited a minute of audio to put down as a track for Travis’ video. But he was up in the helicopter. I was on the ground. There was no way to get it back to the newsroom.

Despite all of our work, as a newsroom, we’ve still got a long way to go on a breaking story.

The good news: the community flocked to our web site to find out what was happening.

Oh, and despite having no audio, we were the first ones to put up video of the fire – even before television.

We’ll celebrate small victories. For now, that’s all we can do.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Breaking news without video, and still drawing hits

I returned from vacation to one of those two-week periods where the news broke at such a hectic pace that the days ran together, prompting calls from the copy desk late on a Monday night asking “Ron, did you really mean to say Friday, or did you mean Monday?”

Two local stories kept me on Page 1 and too damned tired at the end of each day to write another word—even in my blog. Now, however, I think of stories first in on-line terms, and each of these had different challenges in an interactive, or multimedia, world.

The Biz reporters broke the first one: the new amusement park, highly touted in these parts for more than a year as rare tourist draw, closed after only two months, owing money to nearly everyone within 100 miles. When one attraction is the world’s biggest ball of twine, which on some days is really smaller than one in Minnesota, touts of tourism growth get people all riled up. When the promise crashes, the tumble is all the tougher.

Once the second bankruptcy pleading rolled in, however, an editor ran to me and said “You cover courts: can you figure this out?” Bankruptcy is a specialized area, which we don’t usually cover it in this much detail. Those details included the Yellow Pages scrambling to take the failed business off its cover and the auction of corn dogs and frozen foods to raise some quick cash.

Multimedia? Our photographer Travis Heying had put together a cool panorama before the park opened which spoke now of emptiness rather than potential. But other than that, this was a document-heavy story. We put the source documents on-line – very 1999.

Interactive? You bet. The readers filled pages of comments. Everyone had an opinion and needed a place to express it. People were visiting our web site to post and read comments as much as to read the stories. The content of those comments showed they were reading.

And we owned the story. With no opportunity for fresh video, TV wasn’t following the bankruptcy proceedings and our numbers were growing daily.

Maybe there’s still room for good old-fashioned newspapering, no matter how it’s delivered.

Then the chemical plant north of town exploded.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The way it ought to work

I'm on vacation this week, kicking back at a lake in the beautiful hills of Arkansas, with my wife and the five children in our extended family. But I didn't want the blog to go neglected too long ...

On my last assignment before vacation, I covered a celebration U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown, who is still active at age 100. Judge Brown is quite a character and still well respected withing the judiciary. But our coverage, when it extended to the web, worked like we'd all been hoping it would, and maybe, that the multimedia bug is starting to spread around the newsroom.

I've received some e-mails since I started this blog about work flow, and it's something everyone has been struggling over trying to conquer. One reason, I believe, is because some of us jumped right on multimedia and embraced it. Others still aren't quite so sure. That left a few people doing much of the work. But the slide show on Judge Brown shows that all we really need is a little communication and encouragement.

That morning, I got with Bo Rader of our photo department and began talking about options for the web component of this story. We agreed that a crowd of invited guests talking about the celebrated judge might not make exciting video. But we decided I'd pick up some audio, and we'd see what kind of pictures we were able to get with an eye on a slide show.

Jeff Tuttle, our photographer, was wary the quality of photos once he arrived in a courtroom, where more than 150 people sat listening to people talk. But by the end of the afternoon, he was more excited, because Judge Brown had been so animated throughout the event. The federal court system had taken care of the audio problems, providing a plug-in box for my recorder. I was just glad I'd brought an XLR connection.

Jeff processed the pictures, I edited a minute of audio, and Bo put everything together, coming over to show it to me on his laptop as I finished up the story. I did the audio first, so I knew what was going to be in the slide show. That way, I knew I didn't need to put that in the story. I also selected audio that I thought showed the judge's personality and sense of humor it a way that wouldn't come through the printed page.

We worked as a team, saved time and it came together pretty well on deadline, I thought. At least, most of us made it home in time for dinner.

I'm still of the mind that reporters ought to be the ones collecting and editing audio. I was willing to ditch it if we didn't end up with enough pictures for a slide show. But that should be the decision of the photo department. Edit the audio, drop an MP3 into a shared folder, and see if they can pull together photos to fit. Bo said after he got the audio clip and photos, it took him about "five seconds" to put it all together.

That's the way it ought to work.

Now, there's a lake and a boat waiting ...