Producing audio slide shows

Photojournalist Joe Mahoney has been telling stories with pictures for decades, but it’s only been fairly recently that he’s begun producing audio slide shows for the Richmond Times Dispatch. During a training session for graduate students in Virginia Commonwealth University’s multimedia journalism program, Mahoney shared some of what he’s learned about taking good photos, gathering sound and telling powerful visual stories.

When he first arrives at a shoot, Mahoney says he usually begins by assessing his location before he starts taking pictures.

“Walk around; look through your camera lens to see what the scene looks like from as many different angles as you can,” Mahoney says.

According to Mahoney, it’s not unusual for him to take 200-300 photos when he’s on a shoot. He looks through them all in a kind of rough edit and then selects 15-20 that he thinks might be good enough for a slide show.

“A picture story is like any other, it needs a beginning, middle and end. Your first photo has to be something that grabs you,” Mahoney says.

For audio, Mahoney tends to rely on the people he’s shooting and the natural sounds at the scene rather than scripted narration. He says he usually spends a couple of minutes simply recording the ambient sound on location while he’s looking for the people he will interview for his story.

For example, when Mahoney was covering a wedding involving a bride and groom of Indian heritage, he knew he wanted to get a couple minutes worth of the wedding music to use as a second track on his story. Mahoney says he arrived before the ceremony to interview the groom, but he had to make adjustments to get his second interview.

“Once the ceremony was over, the party got pretty noisy with kids running all over the place and loud music playing. I ended up pulling the priest aside and interviewing him in the men’s room,” Mahoney said with a laugh.

Mahoney says you can’t underestimate the importance of good audio, so you have to be aware of background noise and anything else that might interfere with the quality of your sound.

“It doesn’t matter how good your pictures are, if your sound is lousy, your story will be lousy,” Mahoney says.

Check out one of Mahoney’s most recent slide shows to see what he’s been working on.

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A fun writing tool

You know the old saying: A picture is worth a thousand words.  How about a picture of a thousand words (or more)?  That’s basically what you get from a “word cloud”–a visual representation of text, with the most frequently used terms getting the most real estate.  Here’s what Advancing the Story looks like in “word cloud” form:

At first glance, it looks like we’ve written more about newspapers than TV.  But the size of the word “watch” suggests that may not be the case.  One thing’s for sure: we’ve taken on a lot of different topics since we launched a year ago.

Creating a word cloud like this is a snap, thanks to a new free Web service called Wordle.  (Thanks to Angela Grant for the inspiration.)  It’s a fun toy, but it strikes me that it could also be a useful tool. How about plugging in a block of text–a news story, for example?  The resulting cloud could tell you something about your writing.  For example:

That’s a word cloud of my latest AJR column.  I think you can tell at a glance what it was about.  Try it with something you’ve written. What does the cloud say about your focus?  How about your choice of words?

Network-local collaboration

CBS News has broken new ground both behind the scenes and on the air in collaborating with local TV journalists.  For the first time, the network enlisted the help of reporters at local affiliates in reporting an investigative story and featured those reporters on the CBS Evening News.

The story about gas pump rip-offs that aired on Friday included contributions from Mark Greenblatt of KHOU in Houston, Frank Vascellaro from WCCO-TV in Minneapolis and Anna Werner at KPIX in San Francisco.

Werner says CBS came up with the idea of doing the story in cooperation with the stations’ investigative units.

It was a great experience; I worked with senior producer Keith Summa, producer Pia Malbran, and of course Armen Keteyian, to put everything together.  They were extremely thorough in checking facts and figures and coming up with angles that worked in each particular market.

One key to the success of the project was that each station got a local package out of it, Werner says, “so that our time in the field and doing research was well spent at the local level as well.”

A cynic might say that CBS turned to its affiliates only because the network no longer has the staff to do this kind of investigation on its own.  But the networks have always used affiliate material; what’s different this time is that the local journalists actually got credit for their work and national exposure.  And the CBS package didn’t reduce the local reporters to sound bites–they played a major role in telling the story.

How to handle online comments

Whether it’s a blog, reader reaction link or online forum, news organizations have been struggling with the issue of user comments.  To moderate or not to moderate, that is generally the question.

Recently, Editor & Publisher’s Ernest Wiggins surveyed the 10 largest circulation newspapers in the country to find out how they handle online feedback.

All of the papers reviewed — USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Denver Post and Houston Chronicle — have some mechanisms to monitor user-generated content, ranging from comment screening by staffers to encouraging users to report offensive postings themselves.

USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Denver Post and the Houston Chronicle require registration before users are permitted to post. (The others do not.)

The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, New York Daily News and Denver Post preview comments before they’re posted.

We’ve come a long way from the days when nothing went online at a traditional news site without someone within the organization giving it the OK.  So, what’s the result?  A free-for-all or a free flow of ideas?  Or somewhere in between?

Online video experiment

What kind of video will online users actually watch? To find out, Cyndy Green tried a small experiment this summer at the Lodi News Sentinel.  The results are interesting, if not terribly surprising.

Her working assumption was that viewers will watch “stupid and sports.”  Turns out they do gravitate to offbeat stuff–the most-viewed video in July was a classic “egg frying on car.”  What else worked?

Very local stories, event stories, unusual stories. Looking at the numbers, a paper the size of the Sentinel doesn’t need to flood the market with videos. Just carefully choose the ones you feel your audience will view. Lesson learned.

Maybe there’s one more lesson if you want to increase online video viewership: make your videos easy to find.  I wanted to check out some of the videos Cyndy mentioned, but after searching all over the Lodi site for any video, I came up empty.

Rating news by credibility

The latest entry in the online news aggregator market offers a new twist on story rankings. Unlike other social media sites, NewsCred doesn’t rank stories by popularity.  Instead, it asks users to judge whether stories, authors and publications are credible, and sorts them accordingly.

Anyone can customize a news feed by selecting sources to monitor. The available news sources range from Al Jazeera to the Washington Times, and the site also monitors popular blogs like Daily Kos and O’Reilly.  But if you want to weigh in on their credibility, you have to register.

The rankings don’t seem very useful at this point, since almost every source is getting top marks.  The average credibility score for all sources, including blogs, stands at 99.6% today.  But it’s a neat concept and worth keeping an eye on.

The written word still matters

Yes, it’s a multimedia world.  But the most important skill any journalist brings to the job is the ability to write, says Geoff Dankert, assistant news director at the Fox station in Chicago, WFLD-TV. At this week’s NLGJA conference in Washington, I asked him what advice he has for young journalists looking for jobs:

The blog Dankert mentioned is online here.  See, even managers wear more than one hat these days.