Thursday, August 9, 2007

Quit fretting and just push 'record' already

“What do we do now?”

That was the question after I gave my first audio training to reporters at The Eagle today. We started with audio, because I continue to read and believe, it's the first and most important skill we can develop. People may forgive bad video, some dangling participles, average photos. But hurt their ears and they will turn you off.

Editors lured them there by offering free food over the lunch hour and telling them learning this would be required. I went over the basics: getting started, recorders, microphones and a quick run-through of how to edit in Audacity. Afterwards, my colleagues were complimentary and said it was useful. I was just glad no one fell asleep.

Still, that’s the question sticking with me tonight: “What do we do now?”

Actually, she had more than one question: “Who do we talk to when we want to do this? Which editor do we go to?”

I thought I’d made this clear. But just in case, let's review. This new era simply provides new tools. We’re not reinventing journalism, although it may seem like it at times. We’re just putting new tools in our pocket to use in telling compelling stories and doing our reporting.

What you do is record everything. Most of it will end up like scribbles that never make the page on a notebook. But when you think you have something interesting, put it out there. Talk to photo about getting pictures to illustrate the audio. Talk to the photog assigned to the story. Work together. Make a team. Put a summary of the audio you hope to get in your story budget line.

Which editor do you talk to about the story? Make getting audio a part of what you do. Plan for it as you would questions for an interview, a lead, a nut graph (note to any editors reading this: for the record, this does not mean that I do now, or ever recognize the existence of what you call a “nut graph,” though all my stories seem to have them).

If there’s not a photog assigned to the story, take a point-and-shoot. Shoot some video and have someone help you put your audio under it.

The point:

Photographers and visual journalists across the country are embracing on-line, multimedia story-telling. It's what our audiences want.. In a way, it’s becoming their world. And bless them for it. For years, they’ve made people want to read my stories, because of their powerful shots, so the more tools they get to do what they do is fabulous.

But I want to also believe there will always be room for good reporters who can ask great question, elicit thought-provoking quotes and get people who otherwise wouldn’t talk to pull their heart out and put it in your pocket. There should always be room for people who can sift through mundane libraries of documents to mine the gems that reveal corruption and malfeasance or merely inform us a little more about the human condition.

Only now, we’ve got more tools. Instead of just scribbling notes, we can pull out a microphone and digital recorder and hear the inflection and emotions that we’ve been trying to describe. We can capture the sounds of the experience. And we can edit them into stories that can accompany photos, videos, interactive graphics – everything we’ve been relegated to doing with words.

Some of the best examples I’ve seen of slide shows, video and interactive journalism have been when reporters take over the audio, work as a team with the visuals department (formerly photo) and produced some really wonderful work. As I said in my brownbag, you’re going to have to change the way you work. No more going out, doing interviews, then telling photo about it two days later. You’ve got to plan. You’ve got to work as a team.

What do we do now?

Go out and record. Document. Throw away the damned notebook and use the full dimensions now at your disposal to report like you never have before.

Then go back to your editor, if you can find one not in a meeting – I always say editors are like cops: there’s never one around when you need one. But when they get out of their meetings, just say, “You ought to hear what I’ve got.”


  1. Ron!! Throw away the notebook? It's far to inefficient to rely on the recorder for everything ... imho.

  2. Well, I'm glad I got someone's attention with that line. I still take notes, too. But I think too many newspaper folks are willing to hide behind the pen and not pick up the microphone. Multimedia offers such a thrilling ride, and pretty soon people are going to expect it. So I'm just hoping to get people more excited about it all. Menwhile, recorders are so much more reliable than they used to be - if you member to hit "record," which I sometimes forget to do.

  3. Ron:
    Nice blog. I've been lurking a while and have recently decided to take the plunge, or rather dip my toe on the audio side. I had a few of questions to ask for now:
    1) I feel I can't toss that notebook, so what recommendations do you have regarding how to handle the mic and gather notes without getting the scribbling noise on auido? This pertains mainly to breaking news items where you are at a scene and don't necessarily have cooperative subjects who are willing to repeat themselves twice.
    2) How likely are people willing to listen to audio excerpts that are connected to a story if there are no video or slideshow to go with the clip?
    3) If you do run audio alone, is there a cardinal rule on how long is too long?

  4. Robert: Thanks for the kinds comments.

    Since you ask, here are my suggestions ...

    On the notebook: Go with a cardioid (or highly directional) mic that picks up what it's pointed at but doesn't get a lot of surrounding noise, and stand back a little. You shouldn't get scribble noise. Wear headphones, no matter how geeky it makes you look, and you'll hear exactly what you're picking up and know if that includes scribble noise, or other sounds.

    For interviews where people are sitting down, I have a desk stand: a little tripod for a microphone that you should be able to pick up at any music shop for about $12. For stand-ups, you might try a lavalier microphone. You can clip the lav on the source's collar, stick the recorder in your pocket and leave your hands free to take notes. Just make sure you get a long enough cable.

    Audio/visuals: My personal opinion is people like something to look at while they're listening. If there's a photographer working with you, talk to the person taking the pictures. Make sure the photographer knows you're trying to get audio, and maybe they'll be able to take pictures for a slide show. If not, I always try to have a point-and-shoot thrown in my car somewhere, so I can snap a few. Or maybe there are archive photos that will illustrate what your source is talking about, or some video. On the other hand, we have run audio without any visuals, and people will click on it to give it a listen. If you get some other sounds of an event (think NPR reports), there are some cool things you can do with audio. Talk to your web people and see what they suggest, especially in breaking news situations.

    The fun part of this is there are really no rules ... yet. I'm of the opinion that less than two minues is plenty of time. I try to keep mine to a minute or a minute and a-half. That's good enough for something that might be interesting, but too long to use as a single quote in a story. I try to use information that I don't put in my story, to give the report more layers. It helps to identify a good audio clip, or even edit the audio, before writing, to keep from repeating information.

    Send a link at what you end up doing, so we can follow along.

  5. My second attempt (first with a mic) at including audio clips with a story made the web this week. It's a short item about 7 finalists for a fire chief job.
    We ran a longish brief in the daily announcing the finalists. Because the candidates were given 5 minutes (most were around 2 minutes or longer) to address local commissioners, we followed up with another short item with mug shots in our local community section and invited readers to hear excerpts of the candidate's comments on the web.
    Here's the link:
    My thoughts:
    Edit the files down even more, maybe to one minute each at the longest, because of the number of candidates.
    Have the mug shots match up with the audio files.
    Have the web player identify who is speaking.
    Learn to take better pictures with the company's point and shoot.
    Pack tape (electrical or some other type) to secure tripod mic stand to podium. County staff provided tape this time.
    Equipment used: Olympus DS-2, Sennheiser MD42 omnidirectional, 25 feet of cable, earbud headphones.