Focusing tool

Here’s yet another use for Twitter: as a tool to help focus your stories. The suggestion comes from former Washington Post editor Craig Stoltz, who says the discipline of writing substantive Tweets helps to reinforce the key journalism skill of making every word count.

Fact is, it’s tough to convey any substance in 140 characters. You have to carefully weigh every word, letter and space. Even punctuation.

Now, if you’ve practiced the five-word focus exercise we recommend in the book, 140 characters is generous. But it’s definitely worth a try.

See? That last paragraph is exactly 140 characters. Thanks, Craig, for the challenge and the inspiration.

So many ways to tell a story

What do you get when you move a 50-something magazine editor to the Web side? In the case of John Byrne, executive editor of BusinessWeek and editor in chief of BusinessWeek.com, you get a full-fledged convert. Byrne told the UNC-SABEW site Talking Biz News what he finds so appealing about online news:

I believe in journalism’s most basic values—to inform and enlighten with integrity, to bring intelligent analysis to a complex world, to capture the great drama that business truly is, to teach, help and inspire people, and—let’s face it—to attempt to reform what’s not right with the world. I don’t believe there is a more creative place or a place more suited to accomplish all those goals than digital. You have so many ways to be a storyteller online. That’s why I think of the web as not just another medium, but rather a new utility, like electricity. It’s print, radio, and television all in one, except better and much more than all of them together.

Byrne is convinced that journalism organizations have to move from being “product-centric” to being “audience-centric,” but he admits that’s a hard sell in most newsrooms–even his own.

The other day I suggested to my senior team that every Saturday we turn our entire home page over to user-generated content. People looked at me as if I was the devil.

Despite the internal resistance, Byrne and his staff are finding ways of reaching out to readers. Last month, he launched a “What’s Your Story Idea” blog to solicit input from users.  In a recent post, he tells how senior writer Stephen Baker used Twitter to report the recent cover story on, you guessed it, Twitter.

Steve then began to write the topic sentences for each paragraph of his story, asking the Twitter community to weigh in. To get people engaged, Steve asked readers to Twitter back additional sentences to follow his own. Scores of people responded, sending in hundreds of comments that Steve used to construct his story.

Baker also blogged about the story and the process of writing it. None of this may seem like a big deal, but remember that we’re talking about Business Week–a stodgy publication if there ever was one. Its online transformation is still a work in progress but it’s making strides: last week BusinessWeek.com took home the EPpy for the best business site, beating The Wall Street Journal.

Print edition online

Let me say this right up front. I don’t get it. The San Jose Mercury News has just launched a new e-Edition, offering “every story, picture, and ad exactly as it appears on every page.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this feels like the ultimate in shovelware. Would you want to go online to get the print edition–even if it offers different ways of navigating, sharing and saving stories? Seems to me this approach sort of misses the whole point of online news–the interactive, multimedia part.

And one more thing: If this video “quick tour” is supposed to make me want to sign up for the new “e-Edition,” it’s having the opposite effect.

Video shooter’s advice

At the NPPA-sponsored Multimedia Immersion workshop this week, 50 participants are getting their first crack at shooting video. Most are newspaper photographers who want to learn how to shoot for their publication’s Web site. One of the instructors again this year is Colin Mulvaney, multimedia editor at the The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, who offered this advance advice on how to approach the workshop assignment:

Remember, you are not shooting an epic. Keep it simple and focused. Define your story in one sentence and then shoot that story. Don’t go off on tangents…
Storyboard your video story in your head, Think about what shots you will need. Write them down in a notebook. Remind yourself to shoot establishing wide shots. They are easily forgotten.

That’s good counsel for all beginning videographers. And so is this: Don’t zoom. Don’t pan. Do use a tripod. And don’t forget to have fun. Sounds like the folks who get to work with Colin are in for a great experience.

Compelling newspaper video

The talented team at the Raleigh News & Observer has done it again. Their online multimedia companion to a five-part print series on mental health reform gives users multiple ways to explore the story. Photojournalist Travis Long’s video is compelling, Judson Drennan’s interactive map breaks down spending county-by-county and Valerie Aguirre’s flash graphics bring the data to life.

The splash screen does a pretty good job of letting users know what they’ll get when they click a selection (“play the movie,” for example, is clearer than the standard “video” link). My only quibbles: I’d like to know how long the video is before I commit to watching it. And I’d like to know what “tour state hospitals” gets you–turns out to be slide shows. I love the fact that they’ve integrated both the photos and graphics from the print series into the online presentation so you can browse through them as well.

The video is one of those stories that transcends a lack of “great video” by making excellent use of sound bites, full screen graphics in lieu of narration and original documents. The audio is excellent–something that’s often a weak point in online video. The opening montage is just the right length and uses music effectively, but the interviews are the heart of the 6-and-a-half minute piece. Best decision: letting the Q-and-A with the head of the state hospital system run for a full 50 seconds. Well worth watching.

In the “knewsroom”

The best news isn’t up to the minute, it’s up to you. That’s the slogan at the new Knewsroom, an online experiment from Kluster.com, that calls itself “a community-directed news publication where not only do you have a voice—you get paid to use it.”

How does it differ from other sites that pay for content?  By sharing advertising revenue not only with contributors but with participants.  Active members accumulate “watts,” which they can invest in what they think the Knewsroom should cover the following day.

Just like on Wall Street, your return on investment is determined by the risk you take. You can invest in Topics—which are kind of like mutual funds (lower risk/lower return), or you can bet on Stories—which you can think of as individual stocks (higher risk/higher return). Of course, you can diversify and do both.

A site algorithm determines the top five topics and top five stories of the day.  If you’ve “invested” in a winner, you get a cut of the ad revenue generated that day.  I haven’t tracked it long enough to see what kinds of stories regularly make news on the site, but today’s big lead story is about a new MP3 format; there’s a tech heavy list of submissions for tomorrow’s edition; and the topic area with the most watts invested is–surprise–technology.

Most of the general news stories appear to be from mainstream news sites, and many are from non-US sources.  The top three stories under politics, for example, are from the Chinese news agency Xinhua, datelined Beirut, Brussels and Beijing.  Not sure what all of this adds up to, but it’s an experiment worth watching.

Getting good audio

As more and more journalists begin to carry their own video cameras on stories, the need for more video training is growing.  The Society of Professional Journalists offers a Newsroom Training Progam that includes a module on video newsgathering.  Recently, some of the trainers involved have discovered many print newsrooms seem to be buying gear that’s designed without an earphone jack.  That makes it tremendously difficult to monitor the audio to be sure a) the sound quality is acceptable or b) the sound is there at all.

So, what do you do if you already have the camera and there’s no earphone jack in sight?  Check out this workaround posted on YouTube earlier this year.

Mobile video doohicky

That’s what photographer Don Himsel of the Nashua Telegraph is using to stream live video to the paper’s breaking news blog.

After some experimentation, the rig now combines a Nokia N95 mobile phone with a Sennheiser shotgun mic and a C-clamp.

How’s it working out? Not bad. It’s a completely different animal as to other video projects we’ve worked on. It’s live — no editing. It’s a real challenge to handle this little thing and the still gear….Bottom line? It’s not fabulous. Yet. But it’s new. It’s fun. It’s different. It’s a lot less expensive and easier to handle than a live truck.

You have to love it: the mic’s bigger than the “camera.” Read more at NewsVideographer (and thanks to Angela Grant for naming the rig).

Hidden cameras make a comeback

Did they ever really go away? SPJ’s Jon Marshall contends that hidden cameras fell out of favor in TV newsrooms after the ABC News-Food Lion case in 1992. On his NewsGems blog, Marshall writes, “Fortunately, it looks like they’ve made a strong comeback as part of some great stories.” His post highlights three recent stories that made extensive use of hidden cameras: D.C. Metal Detectors (Fox5, Washington); Juiced in the Valley (ABC15, Phoenix); and Aged Tires (ABC News). See if you think their use of undercover video follows these guidelines:

  • The story involves matters of vital public concern, prevention of profound harm, or system failure
  • Any harm caused by deception is outweighed by the harm prevented by the story
  • The undercover video is essential and brings real value

For more guidance on using hidden cameras, check these legal protocols and ethics standards from RTNDA and Poynter.

The best of the Web

If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then you might want to consider complimenting the winners of the 2008 EPpy Awards by imitating them.  At the very least, you’ll want to check out what some of these folks are doing online.

The EPpys are awarded by Editor & Publisher to honor superior online content.  Feel free to view them all, but we suggest that you pay particular attention to some of the top local TV winners.  The following were finalists for Best Overall Local TV Web Site:

And take a look at some of the terrific enterprise reporting at some of the smaller news organizations honored.  (These are folks that probably don’t have a tremendous amount of resources, yet they manage to do award-winning work.) 

Take a look at how the winners listed above leverage the power of multimedia to make their stories more complete and more compelling than they could have been in a single medium.