Monday, August 27, 2007

It's all about content

One of the ways I’ve continued to learn about multimedia is through the comments people leave on this blog about their own experiences.

Robert Cronkleton of the Kansas City Star is the latest to share his early ventures into multimedia reporting.

Robert collected audio of candidates for fire chief in Kansas City, Ks. Listen to the audio: I think it sounds pretty clean.

His critiques of how it ended up looking, however, really rang with my own experiences. Robert pointed to how the web player works and having the audio tracks matched up with the mug shots.

I have spent a lot of time planning multimedia, centered around how it might look. I spent too much time thinking about it. Then one day Katie, my on-line news spiritual adviser, shook me back to reality.

“Dude, you’re not a designer,” said our on-line content producer. “You’re a content guy. Worry about content.”

I needed that.

As a reporter in the print era, I never worried too much how the story would look on the page. I loved having a front-page display and a great looking package, but that was someone else’s job. I knew if didn’t produce a good story, and made sure to assign a photo or have art available, then no one could make the package better.

It’s the same with the on-line products. We can collect audio, video, documents and notes. We can put together stories using all those platforms to enhance our news gathering to help people better understand the world around them.

We shouldn’t have to worry about designing the web pages, too. We're all going to love it when the web designers begin arriving.

For now, we’re going to have to be satisfied with bringing back the content. Someone else should worry that the mug shots don't match up. After all, many of us are still getting used to shooting those mug shots.

Meanwhile, I hope other reporters starting out on this trek will send links to their work, so we can all continue to learn together.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Deciding what to show and what to tell

When I’m taking a new path, it’s helpful for me to find one that's comfortable.

The first computer-assisted reporting project I tried 10 years ago analyzed restaurant health inspections – along with about every other CAR newbie in the country.

I’d written about the so-called “CSI Effect” from a courtroom perspective. But I’d always wanted to shadow a crime scene investigator and show, not tell, what they did.

When the Wichita Police gave me permission to follow Cory Rodivich around on a shift, my goal was to produce a mini-documentary and experiment with simple non-linear storytelling.

The result was published today.

Through video, I tried to produce a story capable of standing on its own, while still adding some depth to the print story. I wanted to break the video story into chapters, so viewers could pick their order. After years of driving the narrative through print, I’m still trying to wrap myself around the idea of non-linear storytelling.

I decided the print story would deal with the differences between television and reality, while the videos would show what the crime scene investigator really does.

While I don’t consider this my best work, it’s my best in this new area of multimedia reporting.

Above all, completing the project and getting it published improved my comfort zone. The minute I finished, I started planning the next project.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Staring down the deadline

Today, I filed.

Not that my project is completely finished. There’s still the usual work, such as answering editors’ endless questions and endlessly debating whether the nut graph really exists or is just a figment of their imaginations.

This was an attempt at putting together a multimedia package. I took a simple idea off the crime beat, one that I knew would lend itself well to video, got editors to buy into it and took off. It breaks no ground, and survived my stupid mistakes. But I pulled it off and learned a few lessons about my own workflow along the way.

After weeks of planning and a few days of reporting, I followed a three-day deadline to complete the Sunday project by Wednesday. I’d hoped that would give everyone time to look over the video clips and edit the story.

During reporting, I found myself making notes to myself, not so much on what the sources were saying, but rather organizing my material as I went, reminding myself what worked with video, and what would lend itself better to the written word. I’m starting to recognize that. I see a time when my notes could resemble a flow sheet, with video clips on one side and good quotes and story details on the other. Thinking this way, helped when it came time to put it all together.

Monday: I logged nearly four hours of audio and video. As I explained earlier, I collected audio both through the camera and on a separate audio recorder. It took me time to learn this, and our video teacher Stacey Jenkins hammered it into my thick head. Whatever else you may not do, always log your clips. Write down a summary of each clip and how long it is. It will make the edits much easier. I even graded some for quality. This is hard for me. I’m not a well-organized person. I also met with my editor and did a quick outline of what the print story would include and what the videos would add. I stuck the notes away and saved them for Wednesday.

Tuesday: My editor asked me if I could write the story now, before I do the videos. No, I said, I can’t. I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I’ve just learned that, for me, I have to get the multimedia end – audio, video – out of the way first. Writing is the easy part. Video is the fun part. I love doing it. I love having this story-telling tool available. I produced four short clips which, when put together, make a short documentary. That’s what I’m aiming for, at least. I went home, read one of Angela Grant’s video critiques, and realized I had to get rid of some text blocks. I even considered - yikes - doing the dreaded voice-over.

Today: Katie critiqued a video and as usual offered some great suggestions. I spent the morning fixing the clips, compressing them and getting them ready for Katie to post. And yes, Angela, I listened to you and recorded a voice-over. I needed the transition. The afternoon went to writing. Despite the new tools, the new toys, and all the time I’ve been spending of late learning how to do basic video and audio, writing the story comforts me. Over the past three decades, I’ve occasionally written some sentences that sing. I hope I continue to do that. I left thinking I’d accomplished something.

There’s still more to do. I want to write a refer for the newspaper explaining the videos available on-line. I have to write cutlines, because at this point the stills from my little point-and-shoot will illustrate the story. It's satisfying producing a self-contained package.

Then there are the arguments over the existence of nut graphs.

Everything could be better. That’s what I always say about every story, no matter what the medium. I just try to meet my deadlines and hope no one will notice.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Failure is just a state of mind

I didn’t want to listen to the nearly four hours of audio and video I’d recorded for my most ambitious multimedia project yet.

After all, I hadn’t even listened to myself.

I had learned the rules dutifully, and I had passed them through this blog and to colleagues. I’d just finished a brownbag session for my fellow reporters on how to record audio. I’d called it “Get your Mojo Working,” for mobile journalists. Use headphones. Use an external, cardioid, directional microphone. I had those tools in the bag when I went out to work on my law enforcement story. Then, we got mobile, and my mojo wasn’t up to it.

I’d planned on using a wireless lavaliere for my main source, so I could follow him around with ease. But after I’d reserved it, reminded people I needed it, well, the only wireless lav our newsroom owned had disappeared. Never mind, though, because I’m not a gear head, and I have always found a way to get the story.

I did have a new Edirol recorder, which I packed away, along with my low-end, but reliable Canon video camera to catch some documentary footage off my crime beat. I had the cardioid mic I’d carried around for months and a set of headphones.

But once we started moving, I decided I didn’t want to be plugging headphones and microphones in and out. I had to move when my subject moved, get in and out of conversations about homicides and witnesses. Plus, I was getting audio two ways: with the Edirol recorder and through the camera. I had a backup.

When I returned after a late-night and early-morning round that I was too tired to contemplate repeating, I downloaded my mp3s. I heard the air conditioner in the damned vehicle. I also heard static creeping like a crackling campfire into the voices.

I did like the video. But audio, as I’ve always said, is most important.

I tried to relax over the weekend, which was great with my wife and family, except for the occasional moping about my presumed failure. Then I remembered: this business never was perfect. I remembered all the great quotes that didn’t make my stories, because in the haste to scribble them down, I’d made them illegible. My stories would have benefited from those extra phone calls I planned to make until deadlines got in the way. I resolved to learn some post-production tricks to make poor audio usable. I also knew what to use as the topic my next blog.

But then, another surprise. As I began logging video clips this morning, I heard the camera’s audio. Not crystal, but not drowned in static, either. The video camera had picked up the voices without the distracting air conditioner. I had some passable sound.

More good news: our photo staff had processed the images out of my point-and-shoot and proclaimed a few actually publishable, and a couple of nods of approval.

“So you learned this is not a science,” Katie, our web guru and my biggest cheerleader, said, seeing me ecstatic over audio that was not perfect, but not too bad to use.

What I learned is what I keep learning. This isn’t as difficult as you think it is. You can make it work.

Still, next time I’m wearing headphones and dragging along that mic – wires and all.

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.”