Monday, November 8, 2010

Outside the job: multimedia for fun

My colleague Jaime Green has inspired and encouraged me in my pursuit of multimedia storytelling over the past several years.

Jaime does videos for work at the Eagle, but she also does them for fun, to document her life.

So when she suggested I do a video for the craziness that is Halloween on the street where I live, I took her up on it. Note: We have about 3,000 trick-or-treaters on our street every year. This year, neighbors counted 4,200. The entire block decorates. In Wichita, they call it Halloween Street. The tradition started long before we moved here, and when the house across the street sold to new owners last year, the purchase contract included a requirement that the Halloween decorations stay.

So far, the YouTube video has more views than most of the serious stuff I do for work. People have shared it to their Facebook friends and given great feedback.

What does this have to do with journalism? Well, one, it helps sharpens my skills. The more you do something, the better you get. And I found when I go back to work after something like this, I'm energized. When you can apply the skills you use at work into your personal life, work seems more fun.

Anyone remember when we used to write for fun?

Here's the Halloween video. I had fun doing it. Hope you enjoy it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Two news comment policies to enhance the dialogue

This past weekend, my old employer and hometown news source instituted a new policy on comments -- for its staff.

I thought it odd that in 2010, editors would have to encourage reporters to monitor the comments on their stories. We should be doing that already. But working in a newsroom in a city roughly twice the size of my hometown, I'm one of the few reporters who actively comment on their stories. So I guess it's necessary to encourage staff to do this.

Coincidentally, my personal philosophy mirrors the News-Leader's policy:

"Whenever possible, reporters are being encouraged to respond to direct reader questions or inquiries by providing additional facts that are readily available to the reporter. Likewise, reporters are encouraged to respond if a quick comment can clear up misunderstandings or confusion about the story -- and even to confess when the initial report fell short."

Reporters and editors are required to use their real names. Comments from the rest of the community are not. If you look at the comments section of the same item, you will find very few relevant to the original post. Mostly, it's the same old off-topic bickering you might find in any post in sites around the country.

But elevating the conversation is a mission worth pursuing and I salute the News-Leader, and its parent company Gannett, for their efforts.

It also reminded me with a conversation I had with Rob Curley during my recent visit to Las Vegas. Last month, the Las Vegas Sun has stopped anonymous comments on its stories.

As Curley said "being yourself online is the new black." He pointed to Facebook's terms, which require users to provide their real identities. And there's just about nothing bigger than Facebook.

The Sun still has a system for allowing anonymous comments. As Curley pointed out, there are times when people need to shield their identities, such as when they are talking about their employers. But those comments appear on a separate page, instead of below the story. Editors must decide when a comment is "trusted" and relevant to the discussion, before it's moved over to the story.

"We're even building a a feature into the system so that anonymous comments can be recommended to be moved over to the story pages, similar to how readers can now suggest that comments be removed," Curley said in the comments section, replying to readers.

I've always agreed that people sign their letters to the editor and put their names on comments. I have a byline. I put my name, my phone number and email on everything I do. I sometimes get anonymous letters and emails and I stopped taking those seriously long ago. I always figure if they want me to take them seriously, they'll sign them.

I will also add information, or correct erroneous statements about facts in a story, when I see them in the comments section. I hope by doing so, it might steer the conversation back to relevancy.

And as I've noted before, I get a higher level of discussion on both Twitter and Facebook than I usually see elsewhere. And those are two place where people say who they are.

That's why I favor the Sun's policy.

I think those who comment on our web sites will act exactly as we expect them to. If we let them prattle on anonymously, it will draw those who favor that forum. If we participate in the conversation, and require people to say who they really are, we will get -- and deserve -- a higher level of discussion.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The ultimate in mobile: Multimedia with an I-Phone

Andy Bull has set up a course on producing multimedia reports with an I-Phone.

It begins Oct. 15. Andy said it will cover both the tools and apps with the I-Phone as well as creating a platform to showcase your work.

(via Sonya Smith at Mojos Unite!)

Get a good head start on hardware and apps to turn your I-Phone into an essential multimedia tool, courtesy of Multimedia Shooter.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hot links: the journalism sessions I couldn't attend in Vegas

NO PLACE LIKE HOME, KS -- The SPJ Convention has been over for days but people are still talking and blogging about what they learned. And we can catch up on the sessions we missed.

Among them:

  • Deb Wenger reports on a talk by CNN International's Etan Horowitz: Used to be, broadcasters tried to put TV on the web. Now they put social media on the air.
  • Wenger also adds info on Victor Hernandez’s sessions on all-platform journalists, with a list for gearheads like me.
  • Libbi Gordon of the University of Missouri sums up her analysis of the convention: "To the youth and young adult market, using the Internet and social media is second nature. YAYAs will thrive in the online journalism."
  • No journalism convention would be complete without talk of layoffs of downsizing, and Tim Eigo, editor of Arizona Attorney magazine, reports on a conspicuously empty Gannett booth at the trade show: "Is that angst in your pocket, or are you just sorry to see me?"
  • Marnie Kunz writes: "Matt Villano offered helpful advice on diversifying for freelancers and not keeping your eggs in one basket ... . And it soothed my frazzled soul."
  • Amanda Maurer reviews Google 101 for Journalists: the session everyone who missed it wished they'd attended.
  • And Vince Duffy of Michigan NPR and the most dapper man in radio, blogs highlights of the convention for the RTNDA, which will team with SPJ for next year's convention in New Orleans.
Did you attend a session or blog about the convention?  Leave details or a link to your post in the comments.

    Wednesday, October 6, 2010

    This is also CNN: getting out of the way of innovation

    LAS VEGAS -- After blowing up their silos, CNN began hiring All-Platform Journalists, or APJs. They do about everything, but don't call them one-man bands. That'll just rile up Victor Hernandez, who thinks it makes them sound like a carnival act, instead of the innovative, hard-working reporters they really are.

    Hernandez talked a lot about being "platform agnostic" at the SPJ National Convention, and it's something we all need to start taking much more seriously -- finding the best way to tell stories, instead of digging ourselves in where we're most comfortable. If video is the best way to tell the story, use it, instead of falling back on text, because there's a news hole somewhere that needs to be filled. If text provides context and explanation, then tell it that way, even though someone still thinks there has to be a video over a talking voice.

    Or use both. Text with video.

    Journalists are listening. I hear a lot less whining that "I'm a newspaper reporter, so I shouldn't have to learn this video." The multimedia presentations this week were packed. People were eager to learn to work on all platforms.

    Hernandez said the skills are developing, but there's still one piece that needs work:

    Some examples:

    Or look what APJ Sarah Hoye did on a multimedia project on natural gas fracking with CNN Money's Steve Hargreaves. It included this video, which follows more of a documentary style than the typical TV formula:

    Of course, inspiration for following a different path remains print icon Jimmy Breslin, who wandered off from press pack covering the funeral of John F. Kennedy to interview the man who dug the president's grave.

    So as we left the convention, we carried the question: Are we moving toward the future or living in the past?

    At least that's what Mark Briggs wondered, while leaving Las Vegas to the tune of John Mellancamp:

    "If you’re not part of the future then get out of the way."

    How CNN rethinks its newsroom

    LAS VEGAS -- The struggle is one felt in newsrooms across the nation. The demand to change is there. We hear it from our audience. They consume news differently than they did. They want more. They want different. But newsroom structures and old habits are difficult to overcome.

    “We’ve always done it this way,” becomes a mantra. Those who try to innovate may face hurdles from their own organizations. Rocking tradition can get you labeled a troublemaker, even if it succeeds.

    This is a culture in many newsrooms. I know this from conversations with reporters, producers and editors I talk to from around the country each year during the SPJ Convention. I hear the same frustrations repeated as often we as hear “We’ve always done it this way.”

    Such struggles came out in the session “Smashing the Silos” where some of CNN’s most innovative management talked about how they broke some conventional cultures to open the doors to innovation.

    Victor Hernandez, who I’ve gotten to know the past several years, and always seems to be a little bit a head of the curve, is director of domestic news for CNN. He talked about how continuing to do journalism the same way creates what he calls “Zombie Journalism.”

    Rich Barbieri, deputy managing editor at CNN Money, spoke of how to slay the dragons of tradition and encourage staffers to try something new.

    Mike Toppo, senior director of news operations and production at, discussed ratings, page views, but also other measures of success – like a story’s impact on its audience.

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    View their presentation:

    Monday, October 4, 2010

    Journalists' signal to noise ratio for Twitter

    LAS VEGAS -- Even as Twitter becomes more popular among journalists, a lot of people still have problems figuring out just how they should use it. Some insist on posting only links and pushing out information, not engaging in the conversation. Others have questions about including both professional and personal information. In his session this morning on social engagement for journalists at the SPJ National Convention, Jeff Cutler described his 70/30 ratio.

    Also get Jeff's complete notes on the session (pdf).

    Sunday, October 3, 2010

    What happens in Vegas gets blogged

    I'm headed to Las Vegas today for the Society of Professional Journalists National Convention.  I'll blog what I'm learning, and I always pick up some valuable tips. SPJ provides some cutting edge sessions.

    You can also follow the #spj10 hashtag on Twitter to see what everyone is talking about.

    If you're in Vegas, send me a message on Twitter or stop by the 60 Sites in 60 Minutes session I'm doing with Jeff Cutler at 3:30 p.m. Monday in Melrose A. We'll also be hosting a tweetup Monday night. Watch Twitter for the details.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010

    Make an editor happy: take a picture with your phone

    Today, I covered a drowning in the river that runs through our downtown.  I did the normal coverage of an event. I sent updates to the web and tweeted it.

    Our photographer had a good vantage point on the other side of the river, but I knew he had no way to post. I held up my Blackberry and took a picture, then sent it to our online team. It wasn't a great photo, and I couldn't crop it on my phone. But they used it.

    When I returned to the office, I was greeted with, "Thanks for the picture," from Eba Hamid, our web producer.

    For a while it was in the featured position of our home page. Until, of course, they got a real photo from our real photographer.

    "We need to remind more reporters to do that when they're at a scene," said Lori Buselt, our web content manager.

    Sometimes, it is the little things that make a difference.

    Sonya Smith and I recently had a conversation about smartphones for reporters at Mojos Unite, which has some good suggestions. It also reminded me to take that picture today.

    Friday, October 1, 2010

    Getting to the source documents

    It started out as the easiest "web extra."  That's what our bosses used to call it in the ol' days of the 1990s. What can you put on the news web site that increased the value of the print story?

    Links and source documents, of course. Links to relevant material and .pdfs of research documents to show people we just weren't making all this up. The links caught on. People made careers of compiling links.

    The docs?  Not so much. Just last year, our web team was saying no one clicked on the .pdfs. And who could blame them?  They're a good way to cut down on the paper on your desk (see previous post), but kind of clunky to share.

    That changed recently, when I started using Scribd. It's among the growing document sharing sites popping up. There's Docstoc and DocShare and the old standby, Google Docs. They're communities based around documents, and some like Scribd allow you to embed your documents in the story, as you would a video.

    When I signed up for Scribd, it allowed me to connect to my Facebook page. My Facebook friends who were already on Scribd immediately found me, and I ended up with a dozen or so followers before I'd uploaded anything to read.

    Frankly, following me on only Scribd may be a bit of a disappointment, unless you're a legal geek.  What I'm posting now are legal documents from stories I'm covering on the courts beat.

    But something happened when we started embedding those documents on the page with stories -- people started reading them. I've only been using this for about a month, so traffic isn't great, but it compares to some of our video views.

    This is important, because it allows people to connect with our sources. The reporting process becomes more accessible, and that's crucial in a time where public confidence in the news media is at an all-time low.

    My next step is contacting, Document Cloud, made especially for journalists. It boasts extra reporting tools, allowing you to make annotations, lists and time lines from dates in the documents. I'm still waiting for approval. Because it's restricted to journalists and researchers, they say they need a note from my editor that I'm really who I say I am.

    Kind of like being back at school, and the teacher aksing for a note for my mom.

    Monday, September 27, 2010

    Tangled up in multimedia blues

    I used to have to have only a notebook and pen.

    Now, I need a video camera, an audio recorder, Blackberry, and various headphones and battery chargers. My desk is a mess, and I sometimes find myself tripping over wires and tangled up amid the mess that is my desk.

    Shuffling papers is one thing. Untangling wires consumes my time.

    Anyone have ideas for controlling my tangled life?

    Friday, September 24, 2010

    Taking a chance: recording audio and video separately

    For the past year, I've been trying to find the best way to get decent audio from the courtroom for my video blog.

    I thought I'd get a free lesson earlier this year, when the murder trial of a local abortion doctor drew national attention. I asked the audio experts on the production crew for CNN/Court TV their secret. The answer: they wire the courtroom with a dozen microphones. So much for that.

    Even local broadcasters complain about the bad acoustics in our courtrooms, so I had been experimenting with various microphones. If you go back and listen to the episodes, you'll hear differences.

    Finally, I decided to try a variation on what the real pros do -- recording audio and video separately, then synch them up later.

    I'd been thinking about this for a while, but I'd been afraid the work flow would chew up all my time.

    Turns out, it's easier than I thought. All you need is a sound, or a cue, to capture both on the camera's mic and the audio recorder. Then you have a mark to synch. That's where the clapboard comes in that we've seen in movies. It's to synch the audio and video.

    You can use your hands to clap. But that doesn't work in the courtroom (although I know some judges who might like people to applaud when they enter). Too bad they don't use those gavels anymore.

    The first time I tried it, the judge walked in, sat down, grabbed some files and then stapled them together. That was the sound I needed. I put the audio in Audacity, the video in Final Cut Express and started each clip with the click of the stapler.

    I put them both in Final Cut as one clip, then export as a Quick Time Movie. That gives me a large file I can then bring back into Final Cut.  I edit the final clip from that file.

    I've used doors snapping shut and people popping their "p's" as cues, setting the scrubber to the exact moment.

    For video, I'm now using my Kodak Zi8, and Edirol R09 for sound. The stereo microphone on the Edirol is so clear, it picks up everything in the courtroom without the need for an external mic. I can pretty much set it anywhere in the room and let it go.

    Another advantage is I can massage the sound separately, using various filters to blend out hums and the annoying sounds of the heating and air that fill courtrooms. It's not perfect by any means, but it's better.

    And both the Zi8 and Edirol fit in my pockets. If I wanted, all I'd have to carry would be the tripod.

    I don't always need to always sync the sound, either. The Kodak has an external mic jack on it, if I want to use it, but the built-in mic works surprisingly well, as I found when I did clips of a recent political debate.

    Don't be afraid that something may be too difficult or complicated. Often, it's easier than you realize.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010

    The technology of storytelling

    I’m really not one to talk about staying with the basics. As this blog shows, I love new tools. I love the gadgets available to us as journalists.

    But one piece of this I haven’t lost is the love of reporting and telling a good story. That transcends technology, whether scrawling pictures on a cave wall or putting together a multimedia package.

    Marc Cooper makes the point again that, as this business changes at a whirlwind pace, we need to stop and reflect on how to use all the tools at our disposal to tell the best story.

    “New multimedia tools, now reproducing themselves exponentially, provide reporters and editors with sometimes awe-inspiring ways to tell our stories. Learning to master these tools and when to choose them, however, can be as important as which tool a surgeon requests for a certain procedure in the compressed atmosphere of an OR.”

    We have a tendency to want to stick with our old comfortable forms. As an old newspaper guy, I still like to craft a good narrative text. I know broadcasters who are more comfortable in front of a camera than behind a keyboard.

    But as Cooper points out, some stories are better in some formats than in others. We need to ask ourselves: is this piece better in video? Audio? Do we need to let people see and hear the experience themselves? Or is a descriptive story better?

    We also need to be prepared to do it all. That’s why I try to record everything. Get the phone interview on mp3. Carry the video camera with me, and use it.

    Then at the end of the process, I can choose which are the best pieces to use and how to use them.

    That happened recently with a story about sex crimes against children.

    A key element was getting a spreadsheet of addresses to show on a map how these crimes span neighborhoods in our community. But the map by itself had little context.

    I used my social networks to help find the girl and her mother quoted in the story. I recorded audio, and even shot video on an interview with the prosecutor. I was prepared.

    In the end, a text story and the map seemed to be the best way to go.

    Still, none of it matters if we haven’t done solid reporting along the way.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010

    Rolling out the investigative blog

    After using twitter to cover live events, such as trials, I’d been thinking about what it would be like to have an investigative report unfold online as it happened.

    Those kinds of reports take time, however, and you can go weeks and months with nothing happening. Sometimes, it takes months of pre-reporting in your spare time to find out if a story is even worth pursuing. Banging it out 140 characters at a time wouldn’t necessarily be effective, especially when mixed in with the regular routine of my courthouse beat.

    A blog, however, might be the right medium. Think of it as an investigative blog.

    That’s what we began last week on “What the Judge Ate for Breakfast,” my courts blog at the Eagle.

    The set-up piece describes how the idea came about – a project with some Kansas law students about the effectiveness of a 2001 law requiring DNA testing on old rape and murder cases. But it wasn’t until we started looking into a 29-year-old local murder case that a story began to take shape.

    Usually, reporters dwell out of sight, revealing only the end result. Katie Lohrenz, my best collaborator and most supportive colleague, said this was an opportunity to let people really see the actual chase of the story.

    There are risks involved, and we talked about them in the newsroom:

    Couldn’t someone follow the blog, and then steal our story? Well, that would be kind of difficult, since the time stamp on the first blog post gave us ownership early. Someone else stepping in, without at least linking back, would be so obvious.

    What if the story took a sudden turn, or didn’t pan out the way we thought it would? Investigative reporting is all about, well, investigation. So the readers would follow us through those turns.

    Katie saw it this way: “There’s a reason Superman was a newspaper reporter. Because it’s a cool job, and people are interested, even if you’re not Superman.”

    Definitely not Superman, here, I wanted to cheat. Get a few background posts in the can, and roll them out gradually. John Boogert, our deputy editor of interactive news, and Katie had a different idea. This is online news, they reminded me. No sense letting it get stale. I wrote sent the first one to our online team, expecting it to be published at some future date of their choosing. It published Friday, the same day.

    In the meantime, I’m continuing doing other features of the blog, such as the “Common Law” courtroom video series.

    “Presumed Guilty” won’t necessarily take over the blog. It will just be another feature, tied together with Word Press categories and tags.

    Just as most investigative pieces don’t stop the daily routine of working the beat and producing stories. You do what you can, when you can.

    The first post has already started a conversation. Maybe our readers will come up with ideas on how to proceed and it will become a crowd-sourced investigation.

    They can watch us work through the mundane of searching through musty newspaper clips, public records, maybe even prison visits with an inmate who has argued his conviction for 30 years. They will see our successes and our failures.

    At the end, we’ll have a story. As with all investigations, we don’t know what it will be yet. This much we know: it will tell us how our laws and justice system work for us, or even against us.

    Investigative reporting can be kind of like a mystery. I’ve done it for years. But now, I get to write about it as I go.

    However it turns out, it’ll be an exciting trip.

    Tuesday, June 29, 2010

    Quick lessons in newsroom geek speak

    Ever see Twitter posting minutes after you’ve tweeted? May be something with the API. Hear folks talking about cloud computing and not sure what they mean? Create a Google Doc, and you’re doing it.

    Wonder what the hell I’m talking about? Poynter has the answers with a “Digital Journalist Survival Guide: A Glossary of Tech Terms You Should Know.”

    It will help you understand what your web team. And it will help you understand your job. You need to know these terms as well as you do "ledes," "cutlines" or "b-roll."

    Saturday, June 26, 2010

    Ways to use Tumblr for journalism

    I signed up for Tumblr about the same time I signed up for Twitter three years ago. But basically I’ve just used the tumblelog for personal musings.

    It’s another great platform for microblogging, including photos, videos and short text posts, and people can comment quickly, “liking” your post, as on Facebook, or “reblogging” it to others.

    Now, Chris Cameron reports, larger news outlets are turning to Tumblr, too.

    I like what the New Yorker is doing.

    Life is posting what it does best, photographs, including updating the stories behind some of its classics. Elle is posting fashion shots off the runway and off the streets.

    Others have created tumblelogs but don’t have any content. Can't wait to see what Rolling Stone does.

    It’ll be interesting to follow these and see how Tumblr can fit into our personal role as reporters.

    For more details and links, check out Business Insider’s report.

    (Via Kevin O’Keefe on Twitter)

    Friday, June 11, 2010

    Of video blogging and emerging narratives

    I participated community session on blogging with colleague Carrie Rengers and Bobby Rozzell. Bobby has a great project, where he's indexed our city's blogs. I've posted the slides from my slice of the presentation, with links and videos to the multimedia approach I used with the development "Common Law" video series of our court system. The slides include various links and examples used in the presentation (my digital handout, so to speak)

    Now that I've been doing this for the past year, I'm seeing an interesting trend within the vlog. We're starting to follow some cases as they progress from preliminary hearings to trials. Some defendants in previous episodes are starting to make return appearances, as they continue break the law.

    These are emerging narratives within the series, reminding me of a theme in a recent post by Andrea Pitzer on the Nieman Storyboard.
    In discussing developing fluid forms of digital story-telling, Pitzer says:

    "It’s an interesting concept for journalists, which some storytellers have begun working on -- a kind of episodic, open-ended narrative made of individual stories that tie back into the issue at hand while providing outlets for viewers to engage on their own terms."

    It's what I feel like is starting to develop with the video series. But it's taken some time. While patience isn't something journalists are known for, it certainly paying off with this project.

    Monday, June 7, 2010

    'Link journalism' means remembering the links

    Reading Danny Sullivan’s “How the Mainstream Media Stole Our News Story Without Credit,” my first thought was:

    “Dude, I feel you pain: about 30 years of it.”

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve busted my butt to turn out an exclusive story, only to see a broadcast outlet swipe my hard-earned facts, with no new reporting, and use it as their own. Without credit.

    Then there’s the age-old strategy of The Associated Press – take a story from a member newspaper, write a new lead, and move it across the country.

    But I’m not only the victim in all this, I confess to being a conspirator. I think all of us have had an editor at one time or another run up to us waving a story from a competing news organization, saying, “We need this story. Go out and get it.” What they mean is, go out and get a story just like it and don’t tell anyone we got the idea from another organization.

    Not one to argue with the person who provides I paycheck, I comply, although I’ve always tried to add depth, context or new reporting.

    But Sullivan makes great points in tracking how his story about a woman suing Google over its walking directions.

    With link journalism, we need to be more cognizant of crediting sources by linking back.

    From when I first worked for a newspaper that decided it needed a web site – in 1998, and we thought that was behind then – grabbing links of research has been a practice. Editors would always ask for “web extras” and reporters would shrug and say, “What’s that.” A list of links found during research worked to give readers context and more information.

    Then came upload source documents, as Sullivan did, so people could see where we were getting our information.

    Now with delicious and Publish2, it’s easier than ever to save those links. Download the browser tool bars, click and save. Then share the list with your web team and they can run it, or embed it into the story.

    Old news, you may say? You know this already, don’t you?

    Well, read Sulllivan’s post and you’ll realize that while this may be basic online journalism, too few people are doing it.

    Tuesday, April 13, 2010

    A pocketful of software just for journalists

    Here’s a useful new tool that fits in your pocket: a USB loaded with software you may need while working on computers in other places.

    Josh Sprague, writing for Mediactive, has compiled an interesting list of applications for both consuming and producing media, that fits on a USB drive, and he shows you how to load up your own.

    An interesting workaround to problems you might encounter working with computers in the field.

    Sunday, April 11, 2010

    Multimedia workflow presentation for SPJ Regional

    Below is a copy of my presentation weekend at the Society of Professional Journalists Region 7 conference in Omaha, NE,

    One thing about PowerPoint: it’s easy to share them later, via SlideShare.

    All the links work. The videos don't, although I was able to upload the one about the lawyer searching for witnesses in Africa. It will play if you click past the slide to the next slide. Here is the related story.

    Here is the package, story and video series, on the 102-year-old federal judge, Wesley Brown.

    Thanks to all who attended. I appreciate the opportunity to share what I’ve learned, personally, as well as learn from the audience participation and what they do to help get their work done.

    Have anymore workflow tips on how to get everything done a reporter needs to do these days? Add tips and comments. We can all learn from each other.

    Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    Why I love my Twitter followers

    I’ve been drawing a paycheck as a journalist for 33 years now, and for all of the past three I never knew if anyone really read anything I’d reported unless they were angry.

    That changed the past three years, when I began reporting via Twitter.

    Until then, the only feedback journalists got were usually a letter to the editor or a short, terse phone call. Over the phone, you could hear them screaming. It usually took a special kind of anger to make someone sit down and write, in detail, why they hated me and my future spawn, because they disagreed with something I’d written.

    In those days, journalists rarely heard from anyone unless they were hacked off. Occasionally, a colleague, or someone you knew, might say they liked something you wrote. But mostly, it was readers and editors telling you what you did wrong.

    Twitter changed everything. I’ve gotten more encouragement and support on during the past three years on Twitter than in the past three decades before that.

    I’m not the only one. Tom Jolly, sports editor of the New York Times, has found a similar experience. We met at the New York Press Association Convention, where he spoke on how the Times uses social media.

    “The conversations on Twitter tend to be more civil,” Jolly said. “There’s a lot less of the ‘You’re an idiot’ type of posts. And that’s not always true of conversations elsewhere on the web.”

    Part of it, I think, is that people on Twitter choose to follow what I do, rather than just having it thrown on their doorstep. Online journalism gives people more choices, and they can pick where they want to receive their information as never before.

    Also, social networks like Twitter allows journalists to connect with their community as never before. This is one reason I advocate for keeping one Twitter account for both professional and personal use. I received some chiding by some folks who had followed me for the Roeder trial that they didn’t realize they’d also get such detail on weekends from Kansas-based basketball teams. Or when my kids wreck the car, or when I have knee surgery.

    But these details have helped people get to know me. They know I’m more than a byline on a page, and I think knowing me personally will help them determine whether they want to keep getting information from me. It’s helped bring me closer to crime victims who I cover. I’ve made friends on Twitter, some of whom have become close personal friends. Others make me laugh, and we talk, even though we may never have met.

    And the comments I get on Twitter are usually more thoughtful, and less confrontational, than the anonymous reader comments left on news web sites.

    That’s one reason that after a busy day in court, or the end of the big trial, I try to remember to thank everyone who follows me. It’s not something I do because I think I should. I really appreciate everyone who chooses to listen to the stories I tell. And I always ask for criticism, because I do want to know how to do my job better. Usually, responses come in the form of suggestions, and those have helped me pace my tweets better during a busy part of a trial, give background, and link to other sources.

    I do love my Twitter followers. And I take much more from them than what I may put out in the course of my daily news coverage. After 30 years of hearing little more than criticism and insults, the more congenial atmosphere of Twitter has helped given me a much brighter outlook on being a journalist. For that, I thank them.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    Photo galleries show cool way to display writing, too

    Photographers love photo galleries. It really shows off their work. Online editors love photo galleries, because it builds up page views with each click.

    Now writers can use galleries to great effect. See what MSNBC did with a gallery in telling the narrative of one of the richest, and most reclusive, women in the America.

    The photos themselves may not have been strong enough to stand lone themselves. But with strong words, they play off each other, like a picture book.

    The Times Herald-Record used a similar approach in the story of a man who spent decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

    I see all sorts of uses for this kind of story-telling, with evidence photos from court, or to spice up zoning and development stories. The photos help set up a sense of place and drive the words.

    Tuesday, March 9, 2010

    The new front pages, going viral and the myth of the nut graph

    The story of the 102-year-old judge was almost an after-thought. The goal was to get U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown on video. But what happened from that exploded on our web site.

    I’d first interviewed Brown when he was a spry 93. No one at my news organization had ever profiled the judge appointed for a life term by President John F. Kennedy. Judge Brown still worked full-time, took the stairs to the top floor of the federal courthouse every day and earned high respect and praise from his colleagues and the lawyers who faced him.

    I said I’d do another story on him, when he turned 100. But that was before I began getting serious about multimedia. I had not gotten the judge on video.

    It’s one thing to write about a man who has lived from the crank telephone to the Internet. People who’d heard about Brown, but didn’t know him, would ask: Is he really still sharp and qualified to be a judge. By hearing him talk and watching him, people would see what others did, and why most still had confidence in Judge Brown. They would also see why I no longer worry about birthdays.

    Brown was reluctant. “I don’t have to do interviews,” the judge told me. “That’s not a part of my job. But I’m doing this, because it’s you.” Working hard on your beat has its reward.

    I’d worked it out with our online crew to put do a series of videos on the “Common Law” video series on my courts blog. Although there’s nothing common about Judge Brown, I thought it fitting. Brown had always told me he wanted to be remembered as a good judge, not just one who lived a long time.

    But after the videos started appearing, editors on the print side asked if I could do a text story for the newspaper. I wrote a short story, taking bits from the interview that didn’t make the videos. I had recently read a story in the doctor’s office pointing to studies that showed people who lived to 100 often worked.

    The story didn’t have a news peg. Brown didn’t have any particularly notable cases that week. He wasn’t celebrating a birthday. And it didn’t have what anyone might recognize as a nut graph.

    But it was a story about an interesting person. Human interest.

    The story was the No. 1 one story on the first day it appeared.

    Then Yahoo! picked it up for its front page. Online editors watched the page views ring up like a slot machine that had just hit the jackpot. The videos of Judge Brown that week surpassed anything we’d done before.

    The American Bar Association Journal linked to it. So did the Wall Street Journal.

    The story didn’t make the front page of our newspaper. But more people read it than any other story, and it probably set a standard for the year, according to our online editors.

    Yahoo!, Google, MSN and Facebook are the new front pages and circulation that make our work go viral.

    And the reaction is proof that an interesting story, whether it has a news hook, a nut graph, or not, will gain attention.

    Monday, March 1, 2010

    Banned in Baltimore: Some thoughts on social media and a free press

    I’ve been getting phones calls lately asking what I think about the decision by a Baltimore judge to ban cell phones and social networking from the courtroom.

    As I recently told a reporter from the Baltimore Sun, Twitter and other social networks have broadened public access trials, and that’s a good thing.
    More people now are getting their news on their cell phones, and they’re getting it instantaneously.

    Earlier this month Facebook became the fourth largest distributor of online news content. Many people are getting their news directly from sites such as Twitter. I often receive replies from my Twitter followers telling me they're following trials I cover exclusively there.

    Courts and the press have been at odds in the past, and the U.S. Supreme Court has said the First Amendment should be weighed properly with the rights of a fair trial, but court proceedings are presumed open. During 10 years of covering courts, I've learned the press rarely gets in the way.

    Our lawyer tells me a criminal case has never been reversed in Kansas because of a press issue. Cases do, however, regularly get reversed because of mistakes by judges, jurors and lawyers.

    I’ve been asked several times what the Baltimore decision means for other courts across the U.S. My answer is: I hope not much.

    Just as some courts allow cameras, while others – such as Baltimore and New York – don’t, courts should be independent in deciding about social media. Reporters using laptops and their cell phones in court should do so without disrupting the proceedings. Judges should remember to order jurors to stay off the Internet when they remind them not to follow traditional press coverage or do independent research.

    More judges need to stay as plugged in as our judges in Kansas, including a federal judge here who is still hearing cases at age 102, and is an active online user.

    I was asked last summer to speak at the judicial conference of the ABA National Convention about the use of social media in covering courts. I think as more judges learn how prevalent social media has become, and its value in delivering news, they’ll understand that limiting its use is limiting a free press. And there’s really no justice in that

    Thursday, February 4, 2010

    Why I was the only reporter allowed to tweet from the courtroom during the Roeder trial

    From the World Series to murder trials, the bigger the event, the tougher it is to cover. I’ve done both a seven-game World Series and murder cases drawing national attention.

    You always have to find space to operate between all the reporters, and in both events, everyone is seeing the same thing and it’s tough to come up with a fresh angle. As the reporter pool grows, there are more restrictions.

    In the recent trial of Scott Roeder, the judge decided not to allow laptops in the courtroom. That meant no live tweeting from the courtroom, only a media room two floors away. Well, for most reporters that was the case.

    Cell phones were allowed as long as they made noise, and from the time I started covering cases on Twitter, all I’ve used is a phone. I call it the laptop in my pocket.

    My phone and Bluetooth keyboard always draws curiosity from the other reporters, which reminded me that I should probably explain it again, because the set-up comes in handy, when you want to travel light.

    The current edition combines a Blackberry Curve with a Freedom Universal Keyboard2. The keyboard saves your thumbs and is small enough to go unnoticed. It’s allowed me to tweet from federal courtrooms, and in trials where judges think a row of clacking laptops would distract jurors. But I can see this setup being used in other events. It still leaves room to take notes.

    The keyboard connects via Bluetooth, and is much more reliable than the old infrared devices I used to pair with a Palm phone. You can find a Bluetooth keyboard for just about every kind of phone, except for an I-Phone and Android. I really wanted a Droid, but I needed one that worked with a keyboard. I went with the Blackberry, because I liked the feel of the Freedom Keyboard and it was made for the Blackberry. Plus, Blackberry has a lot of apps available similar to the I-Phone and Droid.

    It proved quite the soldier during the Roeder trial. I tweeted with the keyboard for eight hours in court each day, including checking the Internet throughout he days for replies from Twitter followers. At least one day after the trial, I then went to the gym and worked out for an hour while playing Pandora. I still had battery left when I plugged in to recharge it at bedtime.

    Can your I-Phone do that?

    Monday, February 1, 2010

    Textual healing: The Roeder trial ends with a shot for out web site

    Covering a murder trial can be as invigorating as it is grueling. The pressure increases when that trial becomes a national story, as it did with Scott Roeder, convicted of murdering Wichita abortion provider George Tiller.

    As I said last week, I was assigned to report for web only. Another reporter took care of the print story. I did what I had been doing for the past two years of court reporting, using Twitter for my dispatches.

    I’ve received attention for tweeting trials before. But this time, more people than ever were watching my twitter feeds. And we learned even more how valuable it was to driving traffic to our web sites.

    Web producer Eba Hamid said early in the trial that every time I tweeted a link to a courtroom video, it got double the page views.

    At the end of every trial, I routinely ask people for feedback, and I got 11 pages of responses.

    Among them:

    • @lummox_ict: @rsylvester Thanks for the tweets! Could you do the same thing for Avatar.
    • @JenWPortraits: Thanks again to @rsylvester for lowering employee productivity all over Wichita this week. Great job!
    • And @ryansholin (who introduced me to Twitter): @rsylvester’s tweets from the Roeder Trial kept me engaged with a story I’d usually only read as a headline from a national news org.

    Back in the newsroom, Eba and content editor Lori O’Toole Buselt took my tweets and crafted them into text blocks for the daily trial updates. I would tweet links to those throughout the day, so people could catch up without having the read thought a bunch of tweets, scattered in the timelines with the rest of their Twitter friends.

    Without rewriting the day’s events for print, however, I found myself missing one important element of what I do: writing and storytelling.

    Sure, I always say Twitter helps you right tight. With a 140-character limit, there’s no room for wasted words. And people like you to filter their information. We are journalists, after all, and that’s what we do. But it’s just not the same as crafting a good story.

    I got to do that at the end of the trial. My tradeoff for doing web only was I agreed to work on a narrative that was supposed to run in Sunday’s newspaper. It was a magazine-length article, taken from the week’s testimony. But when the obits ran two long in Sunday’s paper, it was sent to the web site only.

    I'd been totally shut out of print for this trial.

    Did it matter? Well, it was the No. 1 read story today on It drew more readers, comments and reactions than the weekend’s basketball game between the University of Kansas and Kansas State, the local Wichita State basketball team, and an online database of traffic tickets that had dominated the top spot with readers for weeks.

    It also shows people will read a story, no matter where it's told.

    Sunday, January 24, 2010

    Reporting for web only during the Scott Roeder murder trial

    My first day as a web-only reporter ended promptly at 5 p.m. – a rarity in my three decades of journalism. That’s when court let out in the Scott Roeder murder trial in the shooting of a Wichita abortion doctor. It has been receiving national coverage.

    I had been accustomed to staying late after court to rewrite the day’s events on the web for print. But for this trial another reporter is handling the print story, which also appears online as the day-after report.

    Despite leaving early, I was exhausted. A courtroom deputy commented on how my fingers were flying across my Bluetooth keyboard with my Blackberry. One of my Twitter followers posted a picture of me taken from a screen grab of the television coverage, as I frantically filed updates. Note: I need to learn to sit up straight on those wooden court benches.

    I was actually writing two updates. In addition to the filing Twitter updates, which were coming anywhere from 1-5 minutes apart, I was filing longer dispatches for our web site, which they were posting time-stamped, blog style. Online wanted those every 10-15 minutes.

    All fed onto our trial page. We know some people watch the Twitter feed from our page, without ever having to go to Twitter. For people who don’t want to watch the up-to-the-minute tweets, they can come back to the page every so often and catch up with what’s going on, while having the Twitter stream available to see what’s happening at that minute.

    For additional multimedia, we have a still photographer in the courtroom, and a laptop in the pressroom downloading the video pool stream. Travis Heying, at one point, was shooting stills in the courtroom and running into another part of the courthouse on breaks to edit and upload video from his Mac. Later in the day, Mike Hutmacher took over as the still pool reporter in the courtroom and Travis took care of video.

    Also notice our links section on the trial page. We are linking to other local and national coverage, including blogs and commentary on the case.

    Inspiration for the links came from a session at the SPJ National Convention last year called “All the News That’s Fit to Link.” If you’re an SPJ member, you can hear an audio download of that session.

    Bill Adee, editor of digital media for the Chicago Tribune, spoke in that session about the success his staff saw when they started linking to other coverage within their own.

    “People aren’t going to stop reading when they finish your story,” he said. They’re going to get on Google and search out other information. Why not be the launching spot to guide them.

    After all, as Adee and panelist Scott Karp pointed out, knowledgeable humans ought to be able to put together a better list than a Google bot.

    With this trial, we’re trying to put together all the learning we’ve been doing about web reporting over the last several years and put it into practice.

    I’d love to hear what others think about our efforts: what you like, what you don’t like, what we’re doing right and what we could do better. After all, the news is always an evolutionary process.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    Don't wait until the end of the reporting to think multimedia

    When it comes to multimedia, journalists should think out a story in an inverted pyramid. But we don’t, especially in investigative or enterprise stories.

    We’re used to digging for the story over days, weeks, and months. Yes, some of have spent years on a story. We’ve got piles of documents, stacks of notebooks, and we’re ready to write. Then the online producer asks, “What else have you got?”

    Too many times, multimedia and the web packages become an after thought. Unlike the normal path ofinvestigative stories, when you’re ready to write, it’s often too late to be thinking multimedia.

    Mark S. Luckie, whose blog 10,000 Words provides a great resource for multimedia journalists, says investigative reporters need to think in terms of how the web can help them tell there stories.

    “The web serves as an all-encompassing platform for publishing interactive maps, multimedia stories built in Flash or other software, video, audio and other forms of media besides text,” Luckie wrote on The Muckraker Blog for the Center for Investigative Reporting.

    But we have to think of them as we report the story, not at the end.

    “The responsibility, however, requires the judgment to know which media is appropriate for a particular story. For example, interactive maps are great, but they aren't appropriate for every story,” Luckie writes.

    As we gather documents and notes on a story, we ought to be thinking in terms of video clips and recording audio during interviews that we could turn into multimedia later. Also, keep feeding your web producer bits that could make an interactive map or timeline.

    I’m in the middle of a long-term investigative project. As with these kinds of stories, I’m not certain where it will lead. The other day, one of our interns was helping with research. She had gathered a mountain of papers. Somewhere in all that paperwork, we expect to find the story. I pulled out a video camera and shot a minute of her working with all that paper.

    We may never use it, just like we don’t use a lot of the notes we take. But I’ve filed it away in a box where I will keep multimedia for the project, just in case.

    Update: ProPublica has a great example of how web tools can exaplain complex information with its map on the unemployment insurance drain.

    Monday, January 18, 2010

    Prying the print byline from the hands of an old newspaper reporter

    Last week began the trial of Scott Roeder, the accused killer of a Wichita abortion doctor.  It’s the latest story I’ve covered through my courts beat that has gained national attention (strange how many national crime stories have come out of Wichita). The trial is still in jury selection so the true onslaught of national media has not yet arrived, but we’ve already been making plans on how we’ll cover the story.

    But one suggestion kind of shook me.  My editors pulled me into the office and told me they wanted me to concentrate on producing for online: doing live updates on Twitter, as I had been doing for the past two years, filing behind-the-scenes notes on my blog and updating the main story each day that would go on our web site.

    True, this was kind of my dream when I first started throwing myself into online years ago.  This is the future of news.  It’s where the audience is growing. I would be the lead reporter on our web site with a story on the national stage.

    But I hesitated.  The old newspaper reporter of 33 years still takes pride in that print byline on the front page, above the fold.  After all, that’s when I can take the day’s 140-character dispatches from Twitter, the brief blog posts, the scratched from banging out the latest online update, and turn them into a well-written story at the end of the day.  Someone else would be doing that now with “my story.”

    I was the only one who felt this way.

    “Do you like working all day and all night?” my wife asked. “If they offer you help, take it.”

    “Who still reads print anyway?” said my friend Emanuella Grinberg of “Your biggest audience is online, anyway.”  She should know. She's a full-time online reporter.

    Of course, this is what I had been preaching on this blog, and to my colleagues for years.  I know online will eventually replace print.  But it also showed me that like others in this business. I was a little more hesitant to give up the print cycle than I would like to have admitted.

    And for just a moment, I felt my age.

    “Sure, no problem,” I told my editors. “I’ll do online only.”