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02 Sep

NiemanLab’s Journo Ipsum generator: I love it and cringe at the same time

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Inspired by the Lorum ipsum, which is a random collection of Latin words often used by designers as placeholder text, Nieman Lab created the Journo Ipsum generator.

In a few paragraphs, you get randomly selected journo-buzzwords mashed up with every refresh/page load. Thanks to the randomizer, you get things like:

hyperhyperlocal plagiarism trolls TBD 5%”

Patch stupid commenters”

Jeff Jarvis prostate do what you do best”

election-night hologram media bias”

the medium is the message if the news is that important”

Aron Pilhofer Android”

if the news is that important, it’ll find me dead trees”

layoffs put the paper to bed”


It’s useful for dummy text, but also as a good lesson on how taking words out of context and randomly mashing them together is unintentionally hilarious.

While I love it, is a generator potentially a bad idea?

My gut tells me, this was a good idea on paper… but not such a good idea in practice… especially because it’s connected to journalism.

These are real people, companies and brands that are being randomly paired with words they most likely want to avoid.

I guess I’m sounding like a wet blanket… I know. But there’s a reason why we use Lorum ipsum: It’s to avoid awkward phrasing and taking random words out of context!

If it were me, I’d unplug the word generator/randomizer portion and just display a dozen or so paragraphs of Journo Ipsum text … I’d even edit some awkward ones out. You’ll still offer the awesomeness of the concept, without having the, for the lack of a better word, liability.

But hey… that’s just me. What do you think?

Also, join the unintentional hilarity of the randomizer by tweeting out your finds, using the #JournoIpsum hashtag!

Well, what I can say for sure is that I’m glad I’m not a big enough name to be in that randomly mashed up mix!

24 Jul

How to live broadcast your Google+ Hangout

The moment I played with the Google+ Hangout function I, like many others, immediately had a ton of ideas: communal movie-watching experience, a new form of Web chat, a vodcast and more.

The first question, though, was how do you record a hangout to make a simple, informal vodcast? That was answered right away. (While not ideal, the answer is screen capture software, like Camtasia or screencast-o-matic.com.)

The next immediate question was, why stop there… while there is a ten-person limit in a Hangout, how can I broadcast this and make it a live talk show?

Today, I found the answer!

Some background: I’ve been experimenting with livestreaming at locations for a few years. At Seattletimes.com we experimented with a few setups that led to live shots from bars, outside Safeco Field and an MST3k-style commentary of a governor’s debate.

Oh the challenges we faced… but the setup has been pretty much perfected by the crew since I’ve left, but I recall the hacker tools like the “Wok-Fi.”

Justin.tv, Qik, UStream and Livestream have been the key players exploring the live streaming space, each one releasing something new and advancing the technology.

I flipped when UStream released their mobile app that allowed streaming directly from your phone over the 3G network. There are more apps that offer this now, including Twitcasting.

But today’s tech development goes to Livestream.com (formerly Mogulus) that has been owning the desktop/laptop broadcasting space. They have a downloadable application called Procaster.

The piece of software has a simple interface and is loaded with a ton of features, including the ability to broadcast your desktop. What’s also great is that you can zoom in/out to frame your shot, which makes it the ideal Google+ Hangout broadcasting tool.

Here is the video of my test with Kate Gardiner earlier today:

The first minutes of the video are of me setting everything up, but jump 7:30 minutes in to see the start of the finished product. The main need to tweak is to amplify your Hangout colleagues’ audio, but that’s an easy fix.

All you need is a free livestream account, a Web cam, strong audio speakers and people to join you in a Hangout.

Let me know how your experiments go!

12 Jul

Google+ Clip Club

Well, here’s an idea… let’s have a ‘hangout’ on G+ and watch films together that are on YouTube.

There are plenty to choose from… In the past I wrote about seeing the classic journalism film Deadline, U.S.A., which sadly has been removed. But there are many others to watch.

Maybe it’s a clip showcase… maybe it’s reviewing our work… maybe it’s a meme off, in the but-have-you-seen-this style? Maybe it’s a version of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Anyone interested? Send me a note!

And, if you have an idea for a film/clip, submit it here!

Thanks for trying this out with me!

Robert

30 Apr

Q&A with Evan Ratliff, aka The Atavist

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NOTE: Originally published on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201104/1968/

There are those that blame the digital age and the Internet as the cause of our short attention spans and disinterest in longform storytelling. Then there are those that embrace the technology and develop tools or a platform that harnesses the tech to not only coexist with longform narrative, but also advance it.

For this week’s post, I spoke with Evan Ratliff, freelancer for publications like Wired, The New Yorker, and others, turned digital entrepreneur and – if you believe some of the press – possible savior of the longform narrative with his new project, The Atavist.

NOTE: We met on a collaborative document and you can playback our unedited conversation here.

Evan RatliffEvan, thank you for taking the time to “meet” for a quick chat about the project you are working on.

My pleasure!

So, let’s start there… can you describe what The Atavist is?

Sure, so The Atavist is a kind of hybrid publication: We sit right in between magazines and books. From the magazine angle, what we do is called “longform nonfiction” or “longform journalism:” We produce stories that are 6-7,000 words and up, all the way to maybe 30-35,000. All nonfiction, all written by people who have spent weeks or months reporting them. They are published digitally, through our app for iPad/iPhone, through Kindle (Kindle Singles, which we can talk about), and Nook. From the book perspective, they are almost like short ebooks.

We also license our software, but that’s our more non-journalism side of things so maybe less of interest here.

How did this idea come about? You have a background in longform storytelling… but how did the idea of an app and this “concept” of a custom storytelling platform come about?

It started with a pretty basic, and unformed, idea: Was there some way to do longform writing/journalism online. It was an idea I’d been thinking about for a while, but not doing much if anything about — I applied for a Knight foundation grant but didn’t get it, in maybe 2008 (2007? Can’t remember). Anyway, originally Nick Thompson, my editor at Wired, and I were just saying that there must be some way to do longform that was more designed for the digital world. Instead of just translated straight from a magazine. The real conceptual ideas of how it might work didn’t come about until we sat down with our other partner, Jefferson Rabb, who has both the design sensibility and coding chops to actually conceive what something like that might look like. It was in talking to him that we stopped talking about the Web and started talking about an app.

Technically speaking, you could do these custom, interactive stories on the Web… what made it appealing on the iPad, Kindle, etc.?

I think that first, we just wanted to kind of get away from the idea of people reading it at their desktop, where they are skipping from one bit of information to the next all day. The emergence of phones—and actually we first were looking just at smart phones, noticing how much we and other people were reading on them—and then tablets, ereaders, etc, pointed a way to a different kind of digital reading experience. Marketing types now call it the “lean back” experience, which I don’t cotton to that much but the point is the same one we were going for: this is a different kind of reading than you do on the Web.

Full disclosure, I think the concept and platform is a fantastic idea… and it’s an ideal mashup of interactive/digital and traditional storytelling. I’ll embed the video from the site, but can you briefly list the features/media/interactivity/etc. a user would find in a “typical” Altavist story?

So, I should probably first offer the caveat that of course you get different versions of Atavist stories in different environments. On Kindle—for the moment—you’ll get just the full text of the story, and photos, maybe some footnotes. In our app, the standard features are a bit different, just because we are able to control the whole environment and use multimedia however seems to suit. The standard features on every story in the app are: the text and full page photos (of course), an audiobook version of the story (you can flip back and forth between reading and listening), usually some elements of other media (music, video, woven into the narrative), and then what we call inline extras: Parts of the story that serve as a kind of substrate. These are links to characters, photo galleries, maps, timelines, audio clips that you can turn on and off. If they are on, you tap a word or phrase and the feature pops up.

I purchased and read your piece, Lifted, and thought it was a natural experience… I did find myself torn between reading or listening to the audio version of the story (I am a podcast junkie, though). Granted, you’ve just launched, and this is a brand new form of storytelling… custom-crafted, interactive pieces for each story. What new things do you have to factor in that you never had to think about in the past… like when you wrote a Wired piece?

It’s true, all these new questions arise pretty quickly, and we’re still trying to figure out how to answer them. Take the video, for instance. That piece Lifted had a critical piece of video, the surveillance tapes from the heist that was portrayed in the story. I wanted that to form the lede of the piece. Which instantly created two problems; no, three: 1. How do you write a kind of secondary lede, to follow a piece of video? Do you assume that, with a written lede, someone will have read everything up to that point? Or might they have skipped part of the video? 2. What to do on other platforms, where the story would not have the video? The text itself had to work as an intact narrative, without the video. And 3. What to do about sound? The video had no sound, so it can’t really be “included” in the audiobook version.

Those are all questions that obviously wouldn’t come up when writing a magazine place, not to mention: where to put it, how much to use, how to edit it, whether and how to score it, etc. etc.

What’s also exciting, is that those questions were tied to that one story… they may not be asked again or exactly the same in another Atavist story, right? Or the answers would be different, depending on the story. With what you’ve produced so far, can you say what makes for a good Atavist story?

Right, some of them may be moot in other stories. We had another piece with a lot of music in it, and it had a whole set of other questions around the soundtrack that haven’t come up elsewhere.

I think we’re still feeling it out when it comes to what works well. There’s no question that the story—as in the real plot and characters portrayed—is always going to make the biggest difference.

Well, let me ask a basic yet complex question… how is this whole thing going?! Are you a zillionaire? Is this a new revolution you are a part of? Have you ever thought you’d an entrepreneur? How’s the experience of launching The Atavist been?

Let’s just say this: If things keep going like they are, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be able to get a new chain for my bicycle. Which I think we both know that only a hundredaire could do.

HA! I love that journalism pays the same in all platforms. But it’s a passion project with endless possibilities, no?

Indeed. But there is a financial element that is not as bleak (I hope) as I tend to joke. So, there’s a few levels I could talk about how it’s going.

Without a doubt, you have a business model that makes sense… in fact you have two. Individual stories and licensing.

Yes, so let’s take the stories first. We knew going in, and nothing has yet proven us wrong, that it’s very difficult to build up a readership from scratch. If you recall the heyday of big magazine launches, they would do things like buy up subscriber lists and just send them the magazine, and lose millions of dollars trying to gain a substantial readership. Our marketing budget so far topped out at right around $0. So we’re pretty pleased with the number of readers we’ve had (everybody asks; we always say “tens of thousands total, for all the stories,” but not much more than that). We’ve used the first few stories to get enough revenue to fund some more, which was our first milestone we were aiming at. Next up is proving that this sort of small-scale, small-team version of longform journalism can consistently make the money to be sustaining. That means getting more readers, and getting them to come back.

On the licensing side we haven’t announced anything yet, but we’ve found a huge, frankly kind of shocking to us in size—we can’t deal with the influx of interest at the moment—interest in utilizing the app platform and CMS for different types of publishing. Some of them you’d only loosely think of as “publishing:” in the financial field, the medical field. So we are really hoping that that side can help support the journalism side while we are starting out, to give us time to grow the readership.

And maybe even pay ourselves something some day!

It will be a new, gold chain on that bike! Seriously, it’s no easy task what you’ve done. Congratulations, by the way. Do you have any lessons you’ve learned that you can share with those thinking about experimenting, developing an idea?

Solid gold. Thanks! It’s been a bit harrowing at times.

Well, a couple things I learned quickly: In the digital world, if that’s where your experiment is going to exist (and most do these days, I suppose), you have to find a designer/developer who understands what you are trying to do. In our case, we got incredibly lucky with Jefferson Rabb, who not only understood, he actually was able to create it in ways we hadn’t thought of. Now, if you are one of those new-style journalists that can do it all: write and report and code and design, well, that’s amazing. But if not, befriend great coders! Find ones who like to read!

The second big thing is—and I think I probably used to scoff a little at “entreprenurial journalism” courses, or that sort of thing (I didn’t go to j-school, so it’s all a little foreign to me)—knowing how to do really mundane things to make a business work is actually incredibly useful. I’ve lost hours, nay, weeks, months, and lots of sleep, and probably hair, trying to puzzle out issues that were easily solved by someone who knows the first thing about running a business. So if you can get that somewhere, through experience or coursework or whatever, it’s going to save a lot of time that you could be spending on the thing you love, which is the writing and editing and publishing.

Great advice… you mentioned find developers who “like to read” … you spoke at SXSWi about longform storytelling and a lot of articles about The Atavist focus on the “death of longform” and how this may “save it” (no pressure, by the way). What do you think of the tltr (too long to read) culture. Is there a real threat here? Is this hype? Or is it all true and you found the silver bullet to save the world (no pressure).

Yeah, I love those stories…

To be really honest, I have no idea. I’m always asked, in panels like that, what I think of it, and I hate being the guy who just makes shit up because they happen to be connected to a field. My answer is: I don’t think anybody knows, and mostly the folks who pontificate about attention spans and reading and news are substituting what they do and want for what “readers” do and want. At some basic level, obviously we are ingesting a lot of information in shorter chunks, more constantly, and all of that, which is written about ad nauseum. At another basic level, people still buy a lot of books. People still buy a lot of nonfiction books. People are buying more and more ebooks, in huge numbers. So for us, I don’t really care if at some broad level, some people are saying “nobody reads long stuff anymore.” It’s just not true. The only question for us is: Can we get the people who do read long stuff to read our long stuff. And I think there are plenty of those people out there, and (as Byliner, newly launched, is also proving), maybe even untapped folks who are ready for / looking for great stories of this style and length.

I completely agree with you. People are consuming more media in more ways. But, a good story is still a good story. Make sure you are using all the new — and old — storytelling techniques to engage your reader/listener/viewer/user.

Right, and it’s the same with multimedia. People say: “Readers don’t really want videos and audio in their story.” By which they mean, they don’t. But some people do. And if the story is better told with it, why not try to find that balance that makes for the most gripping possible narrative?

So, I just “tweeted” (I feel awkward typing that word rather than saying it) out that I was chatting with you and am crowdsourcing any questions. I got one from @mattvree, who asks, “Any plans to move beyond just longform written journalism, and expand to multimedia and documentary?”

Not at the moment. We’ve got our hands full with our current efforts. Of course we think about the possibility of expanding into different areas down the road. But we feel like we’re barely getting started with our current approach, and it would be madness to try and take on new types of efforts before we feel we have the old one nailed. One thing we may be doing is a piece or two that are more visual than they are textual. So the current balance of text-to-image is almost reversed, and the story is told primarily through visuals. But that’s still in the works.

Let me ask you some questions that I, some type of Web journo nerd, routinely like to ask other journos.

First, I’m always fascinated with names/branding, so where did the name The Atavist come from? I assume it wasn’t inspired by the metal band Otep, which put out an album with the same name (thank you Wikipedia).

It’s out today!! We’ve really been anticipating the release date, because our Twitter stream is filled with absolutely insane OTEP fans who have been counting down the days for almost two months.

HAHAHA! Okay, so, what’s the backstory to your use of The Atavist?

But no, not inspired by. I started using it as my personal domain years ago, it’s a tiny sideways allusion to Hunter S. Thompson‘s work; atavist and atavistic are words that, if you read a lot of HST (as I once did), he drops in quite often. And then when we wanted to start something, we went through literally hundreds of possible names. Actually Jefferson once made an app that just randomly generated names for us. But then we came back to it, and decided that the actual meaning, a biological feature that’s disappeared and then suddenly reappears, had some salience. Storytelling reappearing in the digital realm, or whatnot. And it’s fairly unique, which means people can find it in the app store — more important than you’d think. Some people seem to hate it, but overall it seems like people are ok with it.

Second, this has become one of my standard questions…. in these “tough times,” why are you a journalist? What drives you and keeps you going in this field?

For me, it’s probably not as noble as it is for some journalists. On the writing end, I just really like digging into things, getting obsessed with topics, meeting fascinating people, and getting to go interesting places. On the publishing side of things, now I want to give other writers the chance to do all of those things. Of course sometimes the more noble aspects are part of it: shedding light on an important topic, investigating some malfeasance. And sometimes the least noble parts: seeing ones name as a byline. But mostly it’s just fun to go out into the world, find a story, and then figure out how to tell it.

And as someone who has freelanced for 10 years, it’s always seemed like tough times. It’s always full of rejection, and failure, and dry periods, and occasionally empty bank accounts. So I don’t see much difference now from when I started (although of course I realize other folks do).

Well, Evan… thank you for taking the time to chat with me. I hope this format wasn’t too awkward. I really enjoyed out conversation and wish you luck on your current and new adventures.

Thanks, I enjoyed it!

09 Mar

Q&A with Al Jazeera Online Producer Bilal Randeree

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NOTE: Originally published on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201103/1949/

Without a doubt, the leading news organization covering the historic Middle East unrest is Al Jazeera. Available in limited markets here, their Web site has been the home for its impressive coverage.

“We had figures that indicated that we had 2,500 percent increase in traffic; 60 percent of that traffic was from the United States of America,” said Satnam Matharu, the director of communications, in a recent interview with NPR.

From my point of view, the lack of distribution for the English broadcast, the use of technology in the unrest and the quickness of the evolving news has been a prefect combination that has enabled Al Jazeera to be a leader in coverage and use of tech.

Bilal Randeree, Online producer for Al Jazeera EnglishFor this week’s post, I ‘interviewed’ Online producer for Al Jazeera English, Bilal Randeree. Because of the time difference and the constant news developments, Randeree and I ‘met’ on a collaborative document to have this conversation over several weeks.

First, Bilal, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I know you and the entire Al Jazeera crew have been extremely busy. Why don’t we start with you introducing yourself, your role at AJE, and how you started in journalism? Also, while it’s clearly been a newsy few weeks… how does it compared to your usual daily routine?

Hey Robert, sounds good. Really busy with Libya at the moment – I’m sure you’ve seen all my tweets (@bilalr) – our live blog is hugely popular once again!

I’m going to give a few very brief answers now cos I’m taking a quick break from the shocking news, so here goes:

I’m from South Africa – worked in banking for a few years, based out of Johannesburg – I then moved to London, but the timing was bad cos the financial crises hit as I was settling in!

As a freelance writer at the time, I was constantly asked to cover the crises from the ‘inside’ – what I learned then made me realize that working in corporate was not for me. I went back to school and did a post-grad in journalism. It was that degree together with my experience in corporate that landed me the job at Al Jazeera as a Business Journalist.

However, after moving to Doha I soon changed over to a general Online Journalist. I write for the Al Jazeera website, and update and maintain our various social media and online platforms. The past few weeks have been incredibly busy, with most of my colleagues and I working long shifts, day after day.

Can you describe the online operation at Al Jazeera? How incorporated is the Web staff? Do the different ‘sister stations’ with different languages have different Web staffs?

The English and Arabic channels are largely editorially independent – and so are the two websites. However, there is always the necessary collaboration and exchange of information, sources and resources.

The English website actually started before the English channel, but I’m not sure how things operated back then. These days, the website news desk is in the AJE newsroom, so we interact with broadcast quite a bit.

Typically, broadcast has reporters around the world covering the news for us – they are limited in terms of time on air, so the website is where our audience comes to for in-depth coverage and analysis of international news. Together with news from our reporters, we use the main news wires as sources, together with good old fashioned telephone journalism – the internet is a major source obviously, and we are constantly finding and using new online tools for news gathering and contacting sources on the ground.

Bilal Randeree, lower right hand corner, works a only few feet from the set.

Bilal Randeree, lower right hand corner, works a only few feet from the set.

So, when it comes to AJE, the Web site came first … that’s a quite different experience from most newsrooms. And it sounds like it has had some interesting effects. How would you describe the culture of the ‘converged’ newsroom?

Well, to be honest I’m not in the ideal position to answer this question, seeing that I’ve been here for a year now, and the English channel has been running for a good few years already. In terms of convergence, its a constantly changing relationship – broadcast and web are continually finding new and better ways to work together and support each other, over and above the obvious. The most recent development, starting with our Tunisia and then Egypt coverage, has been the ‘Web Desk’ that TV hosts – they prop a presenter in front of the camera, that discusses what is going on online, how readers are interacting with us on different platforms, and also what is being shared, discussed and debated on the internet.

Can you talk about, and perhaps list, all the different Web platforms and tools AJE employs (Twitter, Tumblr, iPhone Apps, etc.)

I have only recently started the Al Jazeera Tumblr account, but we’ve been active on Twitter and Facebook for a while now. The New Media team has traditionally been very strong and innovative, but the link between the tools they develop and experiment with, and how they are used on the News Desks was not at its best about a year ago. In that time however, Network wide training courses in Social Media were held, and the change is quite noticeable – besides the Web team, lots of other AJ people are active on different platforms.

Our live blog has been the latest hot development and we are seeing an incredible following, mainly for the hot news events that are constantly developing – first with Egypt, and now with Libya.

I tweeted that I was interviewing you and got this question from @Abdulla_AlAthba. He asks ‘Did twitter make it easier for [journos] @ AJA to track the news?’ Can you talk about how technology has changed the way Al Jazeera does its reporting.

Well, while Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic both form part of the Al Jazeera Network, the two stations operate relatively independent of each other. There is collaboration between journalists on both sides, but not all stories are covered by both, or in the same way.

In my personal experience, from the beginning, when things started in Tunisia and English broadcast was not covering the story in depth, due to a lack of sources on the ground, I was able to build up a good network of trusted sources through Twitter. While Twitter does alert us to events that are unfolding, its rare that Twitter itself will be a source – rather, a journalist can find sources and make contacts on Twitter, and then follow up with phone calls or emails, etc.

What stands out for me, when I look at Al Jazeera, is how technology is so embraced and employed in all different types of coverage. What do you think is the reason why it seems to be more open and willing to embrace technology, while other news orgs may be… a little… more reluctant. Or, is it my imagination, and Al Jazeera is facing with the same tech cultural issues other newsrooms are?

Well, I can’t speak for how other media organizations work – and for us at Al Jazeera, it’s not just the way we embrace technology, etc that makes us stand out from the rest, but rather almost every aspect of our coverage.

I would assume that compared to most other big media organizations, the fact that we are still not able to be broadcast extensively around the world, we know and value the importance of the internet more, and hence make more/better use of it.

Can you talk about the equipment/gear Al Jazeera reporters, those that cover breaking news and file for the Web, carry with them? I hear Flipcams and phones instead of laptops.

We have been using Flipcams for a while now, and have some cool campaigns running where we give citizens Flipcams and they produce content that feeds back to us.

For reporters and producers that cover live events, there are a few different tools they use – mobile phones for tweeting, sending through Audioboos and Twitpics, from places where there is no internet or the internet gets blocked, we issue Thuraya IP modems.

Our New Media team also has iPhones and BB‘s that they issue out to anyone going out into the field, that has all apps and software, customized and tested for ease of use.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I know you’ve been quite busy!

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail (r.hernandez@usc.edu) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

11 Feb

How did you experience Egyptian news and history?

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I asked the ‘Twitterverse’ to share what sources they were using to experience the historic news of events from Egypt. Here is a Wordle showing the response.

Al Jazeera was the clear winner.

06 Dec

Debate over journalism required skills gets heated

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NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201012/1915/

Thanksgiving is traditionally the time distant family members come together over a delicious meal… and, well, fight. Last week a fight (okay, more like a heated debate) broke out over what skills a modern day journalist needs to have.

It began with a post from Mark S. Luckie, The Washington Post‘s National Innovations Editor, founder of 10000words.net and author of The Digital Journalist’s Handbook.

His 5 Myths about digital journalism sparked a flurry of reactions, most notably from Andy Boyle, digital developer with The New York Times Regional Media Group, Anthony DeBarros, senior database editor at USA TODAY and Aron Pilhofer, editor of Interactive News at The New York Times and co-founder of DocumentCloud.org.

If you don’t know these names, you should. They are some of the most innovative minds in the industry … and I happen to respectfully disagree with all of them.

Well, sort of.

To be honest, I think there is more of a misunderstanding rather than a disagreement here.

Before I go on, let’s address a question that may have popped into someone’s mind: Who the hell am I to weigh in on this debate?

I’ve been a Web journalist for more than a decade and, prior to coming to USC Annenberg, I was the director of development for seattletimes.com where I led a team of engineers and designers. We developed and innovated projects for the site ranging from a taxonomy to geolocation to a custom commenting system to hijacking/hacking the print publishing system to data-driven special projects.

So, allow me to set up the framework from my point of view.

The skills that make up a successful, modern newsroom are as diverse as the communities it tries to cover and serve.

There are some traditional, fundamental skills that are still the unifying foundation, but there is also a new (really, not that new but not yet standard) set of skills each journo needs to have.

And let’s just say it: because our industry has been evolving/changing/etc., there are a lot of unknowns (and fears) about what that set of skills is to be a successful, modern journo.

Of course there is no shortage of opinions, including my own, trying to address those unknowns. But also among them are, well, some opinions spreading hype and bad information.

To be clear, the guys I mentioned above are not the problem.

Not even close.

Who I am referring to (and who I believe Mark was too) are the folks that are telling reporters – all reporters – that they need to stop the craft of writing an engaging story and replace it with the craft of writing innovative code.

They have also said things like photography is dead and copyediting is expendable, but that’s for another post… let’s focus on programming.

Their message essentially is if you don’t master programming skills to create an app or database, you don’t have a future in journalism.

And again, to be clear, the guys I mentioned above do not agree with that statement, at least based on what I’ve seen of their writings and work.

But that hype and bad information I described does exist. It has for years.

I can’t tell you how many times a panicked mid-career journalist or an aspiring student has freaked out asking me for advice on whether or not they need to be a developer/programmer or database engineer or Flash developer (three different jobs that share some similarities).

So cut to the chase Hernandez… what’s your take on the required skills to be a journalist today?

I do not believe you need to master programming to succeed in journalism.

I do believe you need to respect and understand the power of each and every craft, not just programming, but photography, design, texts, etc. that make up journalism. They are not as simple as hitting a button.

I also believe, at the most minimum, EVERY JOURNALIST (whether be it reporter, editor, photographer, etc.) of EVERY BEAT needs to be proactive in spotting opportunities to best use the diverse crafts.

I believe that, in terms of the data-journalism, EVERY REPORTER needs to know the basics of Excel and be able to function inside a database to find the story. But they do not need to build one from scratch.

But the reality is, depending on the size of your shop, you may be required to wear multiple hats that can touch on programming, photography, social media, etc. The good news is that there are tools and communities out there to help you.

NOTE TO PUBLISHER/EDITOR: Please realize that you need engineers/developers in your shop. You probably need twice as many as you current have. Don’t take this post as buzz or get it twisted thinking you shouldn’t hire more. You should. And you should also invest in training your newsroom in a variety of skills ranging from programming to photography to social media.

I agree with DeBarros and do not believe programming replaces the story. Never has, never will. When was the last time you had a driveway moment with a database?

But when was the last time you were able to understand the weight of 251,287 cable dispatches without a database?

Those are made possible because of different, yet equally important, skills. And thankfully, regardless of your answer, we don’t have to choose.

We need these diverse set of skills, of every level, populating our newsrooms. We need them to influence each other. We need them to work together. We need them… to survive and evolve.

We also need to acknowledge that not everyone will be able to do these skills. Some will be better than others. But, guess what, that’s okay.

Because if we are to attempt to serve our communities that are consuming and expecting our news and information in a variety of ways, we need a newsroom full of diverse people bring different experiences, skills, perspectives and ideas to the table.

We can’t afford to get distracted by feuding over something like this. We’ve got too much work to do.

13 Nov

SyFy’s The Lost Room demos Augmented Reality

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Imagine you go to the World Trade Center’s Ground Zero in New York, pull out your mobile device, turn on its camera and through it you see how the area looked days after the 9/11 attacks. You pan to the left and see the surrounds. Hit a button and see how it was before the attacks. You can immerse yourself in these different scenes from the past as they come alive while standing on the actual street corner of the scene.

This technology already exists and it’s called Augmented Reality – which is created through the merger of your mobile device’s GPS and camera. And while some of us have been thinking about it and trying to come up with journalistic ways of using it, it occurred to me that this experience was demo’ed in a cool way.

In a pivotal scene in SyFy‘s mini series The Lost Room, the main character pulls out an “object” and has this virtual, immersive experience inside a mysterious hotel room:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxFF-IFZ4WQ

SPOILER ALERT-ish: This is a key scene, but this video clip is in Spanish… so at least you can see what I’m talking about.

Swap the Polaroid for today’s smartphone and imagine having these experiences now. Let’s say a street perform digital embeds a show in the subway location he typically performs at. When not there, someone waiting for a train can pull out their phone and experience a show.

Um, so what is stopping us from experimenting with this stuff?

NOTE: If you have not seen the AMAZING series, you need to. My mind was blown!

25 Oct

Tips and tools to innovate with during election night coverage

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NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201010/1900/

In our world, there is no better story that reflects the power and value of good journalism like an election.

Regardless of the medium, the stories from an election can include investigative pieces, people profiles, contextual stories, and, because politicians are so colorful, stories of the weird.

Put these under an umbrella of breaking news and see us do our thing.

The midterm elections are just around the corner and they have proven to live up to a newsy season. By now many of us have established a general plan for election night coverage.

But to help foster innovation and advancement in journalism, last’s week #wjchat, a weekly chat about Web journalism held through Twitter, had its first Elex Exchange where we shared ideas and tools to help with this year’s coverage.

Inspired by the chat, here’s a list taking advantage of the latest technology to help election.

TWITTER // reporting + distribution
It’s a basic tool that should be part of your daily journalism routine, but Twitter is still best tool for covering a real-time news event, especially when covering breaking news or election.

As written before, Twitter is the tool to help you find sources and trends in real-time. Either by zip code or by topics/keywords, make sure you are using and monitoring Twitter throughout the election. Use a Twitter-client like TweetDeck with predetermine searches that you occasionally check on.


The next basic minimum is to have a Twitter feed on your homepage specifically for the election coverage. No programming is required to create this widget, you just need to decide whether you want public tweets with a hashtag or you want to create a list of the accounts that will appear in the feed.

Either way, Twitter has got you covered with their ‘goodies.’ Make sure you take the time to customize the colors to have it match your site design.

If you haven’t yet, check to see if a hashtag or hashtags relating to your local races have been created by the community. If no one has, create them right away. If someone beat you to it, don’t worry and embrace them… but either way start using them NOW!

This simple act gives you a head start in becoming the lead authority on these races, in social media and beyond.

Take a page from the Pulitzer Prize winners for Breaking News, seattletimes.com, and get in the habit of creating and using hashtags when covering all types of news.

FOURSQUARE // geolocation + distribution
This election season, news outlets should create ‘check-in’ places for polling locations in their town. The geolocation community is small but growing and will be checking in as they go to vote. Like a hashtag, if you don’t create a location, they will.

Become the leader in coverage by not only creating the locations but add a tip (Ex. Tip links to LAT story about Venice Beach fight) that links back to your site’s live, active, up-to-date election coverage.

Remember, by having these locations, you can also find potential sources as they check in to the venues.

USTREAM // live streaming
Who says TV broadcast gets to have all the fun with their live coverage. Okay, it may not be your idea of fun, but live streaming is a tool more newsrooms need to embrace. No expensive satellites required, services like Ustream allow you to do a live shot from your newsroom with a laptop and camera or from your smart phone.

Stream the candidates’ celebratory or concession speech election night live straight onto your homepage. It’s easy and it should be another standard tool in your journalistic toolbox.

CROWDMAP // crowdsource reporting + mapping
This tool comes from Sarah Day Owen, #wjchat colleague and Augusta Chronicle‘s Social Media Editor, who heard about it from the new hyperlocal site TDB in Washington D.C. She is hoping to experiment with this tool that takes crowdsourced information from cell phones, news and the web and maps them.

This application, originally built to crowdsource crisis information, begs to be used by news outlets, especially for something like election coverage. It’s free and pretty simple to setup… so you still have time to pull this off. Even if you don’t get participation from the community, get your reporters to file dispatches.

STICKYBITS // social media + user-generated content
I recently wrote about this tool and want news organizations to experiment with it, so here’s a second pitch.

Like Twitter’s hashtag or FourSquares’s digital makers, create your own barcode and literally post it at as many polling places in your town, asking a question (Ex.: What do you hope comes out of this election?) and a note encouraging them to download the stickybits app and upload their responses. See if you get people in your community adding election related “bits” – video, text, photos, audio, etc. – to your barcode.

IMAPFLICKR // user-generated photos + geolocation
Okay, so getting the community to download an app to scan a barcode then post a message is a sizable hurdle (I know, but try it anyway!), so here is a simpler tool that takes a Flickr feed and maps it.

In other words, you can open up a Flickr account and have people submit photos from polling places and get them mapped. Like the Twitter feed, no programming is required and the biggest decision you have to make is whether or not you make this a public or staff driven feed.

PHOTOSYNTH // photo + crowdsourcing + magic
This tool, originally created by the University of Washington before it was purchased by Microsoft, is something I’ve been trying to push into newsrooms’ toolboxes for years. It finally made its mainstream debut with CNN’s “The Moment” in 2008, but hasn’t been used much in news since.

It may not work perfectly in this scenario, but I would remiss if I didn’t mention it. PhotoSynth takes a collection of photos – from different contributors – of one location and “stitches” them together to create a virtual experiment.

So, let’s say we’re at a candidate’s headquaters for the party… take a ton if photos of the scene, throw them into this program and post an experience like no other. It’s more powerful if you crowdsourced the images.

STORIFY // social media + curating (Invitation required)
The great thing about Twitter and other social media networks is the real-time stream of content that flows out of them, often like a fire hose of information. The bad thing about these tools is the content can get drowned out rather quickly. Storify, who’s creator we profiled recently, is a tool that let’s you build a story through social media elements, adding context and comments around elements from Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and more.

You create an article on their site, but you embed the created piece on yours. It’s in beta and there are a few limitations with it, but if you want to tell the story of how the election night was covered through social media, this is the tool to use.

Do you have a tool you plan to use? Have you experimented with these? What examples of great election coverage have you seen? Make sure you add your thoughts and experiences in the comments, before and after the election.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail (r.hernandez@usc.edu) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

11 Oct

Q&A with Storify and Hacks/Hackers founder Burt Herman

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NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201010/1894/

For this week’s post, I “sat down” with Burt Herman (@burtherman), entrepreneurial journalist who is the CEO of Storify and founder of Hacks/Hackers.

NOTE: We did the Q&A-style interview over a collaborative document and one of my favorite tools: typewith.me. You can see the raw interview and play it back here: http://typewith.me/ep/pad/view/ojrqa01-bherman/latest

Burt HermanBurt, you have an incredible journalistic background and really, in my opinion, you truly represent the new type of tech/entrepreneur journalist we’ve all heard about. Tell me a little bit about your background at the Associated Press and how you evolved from reporter to entrepreneur.

Thanks, you’re too kind :)

Yes, I started off in a fairly typical journalism role — I went to work for the AP because I wanted to work overseas as a foreign correspondent, and they had the most opportunities to do that. So after graduating, my first journalism job was as a temp hire at AP and things went from there — a couple years in Detroit and then a post as an editor on the International Desk in New York before I was sent overseas to Berlin. From there, I went to Moscow and then to Uzbekistan to start a new bureau for AP covering the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. My last AP job was a bureau chief in Korea. In between, I covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Asian tsunami, Pakistan and many other stories.

I returned to the US in late 2008 for a Knight fellowship at Stanford, where I had gone as an undergrad. With all the changes in journalism, I wanted to explore the secret sauce of innovation in Silicon Valley and see how that could be applied to journalism. I took classes at the Graduate School of Business, Design School, computer science department and explored how this could be applied to journalism. In the end, I wound up deciding to extend my sabbatical from the AP to have a go at doing a startup on my own, building a company around the future of storytelling and digital publishing from a clean slate.

From being a foreign correspondent to being an innovator, you must have seen a lot of changes along the way. What stands out for you when you look back at that decision to make the transition?

It’s still very much in progress, and I’m learning more about it all the time. The first big difference is that being a journalist gives you a daily sense of accomplishing something by writing a story and having it be published. You then move on to the next story and get constant feedback. Trying to create a business and develop Internet applications is a much longer process, filled with many ups and downs along the way. It’s exciting to be your own boss but also can be terrifying at the same time. I suppose dropping into crisis zones and new countries was a decent preparation for this, and also just being open to always leaning new things.

That was going to be one of my questions. Which is harder: being a CEO of a startup or a foreign correspondent?

I worked for 12 years at AP and nearly 10 of those overseas, and along the way I had a lot of great mentors and advice. I’m still new at the startup thing, so that’s definitely more challenging right now. Also it’s having to do much more with less when you’re not part of a larger organization. Everyone has to contribute in many ways. Both come with a lot of freedom and lack of oversight, again which is wonderful but also requires a lot of drive and passion to keep going.

Your startup is called Storify… can you describe it and tell me how the idea came about?
Storify
The idea comes from thinking about the future of journalism and the fact that everyone now is creating so much content. We’re flooded with Tweets, YouTube videos, Flickr photos and everything else. Everyone can be a “reporter” when an event happens. But not everyone is a “journalist” — making sense of an issue and giving the context. So we built a system to help people do this, take the best of social media and make it into a story — to “storify” it. The word itself is actually in the dictionary, and also comes from my AP days when editors would send messages to bureaus asking them to “storify” something.

Talk about the process of going from an idea… or even a word… to a startup. Where are you in the process now? What is your current challenge since you already have a working product.

The first thing I needed was to find a cofounder who had the technical ability to work with me, and also was passionate about the topic. The idea I began with was actually something different relating to news and social media, this evolved over time.

So to find a cofounder, I basically started going to any tech events that I could around here and was talking about what I was doing to find people interested, and there were several false starts with people who didn’t work out. I eventually found my now-co-founder Xavier [Damman] when he was presenting at a Twitter application meetup.

Part of that was also the reason for starting Hacks/Hackers — indeed.

So, Hacks/Hackers was a means to this end? Or was it a resulting side project from your process?
Hacks/Hackers
Hacks/Hackers was part of this, trying to find people passionate about media and technology. But it also was born from my experience at the fellowship at Stanford, seeing all the amazing work that computer scientists were doing and wanting to bring that energy to journalism for the sake of helping quality journalism survive. I do believe strongly that democracies need information to function and journalists have fulfilled that role. Meanwhile, media and technology are converging, and the way that we get this information is changing. We need to make sure that we bring together journalism and technology at the start of this storytelling process to build the future of media, not as an afterthought as has often been the case. And we should work together to make that happen, rather than the somewhat contentious relationship we have seen at times between media and technology companies.

As I reflect on my career, I see that I have been working under the H/H “framework” … working with engineers and designers to advance journalism. Seeing — and attending — a couple of H/H meetups, I have to say I’m really l glad this is going on… are you surprised by its success? It’s international, right?

Yeah, we already have a couple chapters in the UK and starting now in Toronto. I was a bit surprised that it spread so much. Really, it just began with me starting a meetup group and getting some 30 people to come to a bar last November, less than a year ago. Now we have more than 2,400 members on various Meetup sites and more people coming to our blogs and on an email list. I think it’s clear that there’s a hunger for this thinking, and we want to also empower journalists in newsrooms to be part of the changes that are happening. We will only figure this out by working together and experimenting, another key thing that Hacks/Hackers is about. We’ve been doing some hackathon events and want to expand that, so people have the freedom to try things away from the usual daily newsroom rush.

You wear many hats… of these — journalist, innovator, businessman — is there one role that is larger than the others?

I guess I’m not really writing so much lately, although I’ve been calling myself an “entrepreneurial journalist.” I was talking to David Cohn of spot.us and he also is in a similar space. The definition of “journalist” has changed so much, and really is about bringing together a community around a topic to enlighten and inform. So in that sense, I suppose it’s quite a bit of that, while also building a successful business and do the whole Silicon Valley startup route of getting investors, building partnerships and making things happen. It’s definitely a lot to do, I’m busier than ever nowadays! I guess that’s also the brave, future.

Like I said, you (and David) to me represent this modern journalist reflecting the needs of our times… but, in my opinion, I think you guys are a rarity. We’re not all going to be able to do this… or can we? Or should we, even? What do you think?

Well, yes, it’s quite hard to do many things and do them all well. Hacks/Hackers is about bringing together journalism and technology, but that doesn’t mean every journalist is going to be a rockstar coder or should even try. That takes years of work, just like being a great writer. But I think it’s important for everyone to understand the other side and the complete picture. That also goes for journalists now having to understand more about the business side of things, why traffic matters and how to drive it, all those other parts of media. With everything so interconnected, we all need to have a wider awareness.

Sadly, we are constantly hearing the complaints from veteran journalists lamenting <eyeroll>the end of the golden era</eyeroll> … what do you say to those people who think technology killed journalism… or to those who are feeling low about the state of things now?

It’s interesting because even though I’m quite young, my career has basically been right during this amazing shift. I think the golden era is ahead of us. We are not really still at the birth of the Internet, the Web, social media and all these amazing technologies that change the way we communicate. I became a reporter in some ways because I’m a nosy person :) — now with Twitter I can eavesdrop on the world and see what people are talking about. That’s a golden opportunity for storytelling. And reporters can now interact with their audiences more easily as well, [getting] the feedback that all writers crave — sometimes for better or worse.

We need to take the best parts of the past, like the credibility and fact-checking, context and the like and blend that with technology. It’s a rough time for sure as old models are collapsing, but I’m confident that many more exciting things will result. One quite interesting little recent development was Howard Kurtz leaving the Washington Post for The Daily Beast — the new models are taking off, so that should be encouraging.

What tip or lesson would you share/give to someone who is thinking about taking that leap and trying a startup or new experiment? And, quite honestly, dude, what drives you? What keeps you going?

Definitely experiment in whatever way you can, we need more people trying new things to figure out what works. In Silicon Valley, failure is embraced unlike anywhere else. You’re not trying hard enough if you’re not failing once in a while, we need to take chances and learn from our mistakes to move forward.

Ha — yes, good question as to motivation, it’s sometimes quite tiring! I guess I’m the type who always keeps thinking there is a better way to do something, maybe it’s the latent engineer in me. Also it’s been great to see all the feedback from people with Hacks/Hackers and realizing that this is actually bringing people together, that’s been wonderful and I’m now also getting a lot of help from local organizers in all these different cities.

With the startup, also seeing people get excited about what we’re doing and having some amazing experiences like launching our product at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference.

I couldn’t agree with you more… personally, these are extremely exciting times and it is great to see organic movements like H/Hs help facilitate that. So, my last question is one I have been asking people recently… it’s a simple one, but I always love the answers, and you touched on it earlier. In these times, with the ups and downs and the unknowns ahead… why are you a journalist? (You are clearly a journalist, sir.)

I want to say thanks for saying that, although I suppose being labeled a “journalist” these days might not always be a favorable thing. :) I guess this goes back to what I wrote when I applied to the Knight fellowship. My parents come from Romania and grew up under communism, and I spent a lot of time traveling in Eastern Europe as a student and studying the area. I do feel strongly about the importance of freedom of information as essential to democracy, and that we are incredibly lucky to have that in the United States. After reporting from many countries where that wasn’t the case and people are struggling under authoritarian regimes, I feel even more strongly about the power of open information.

Awesome. At the recent H/Hs meetup a young guy — who dabbled with journalism, but became a developer – asked, “why would a developer want to be involved in journalism when they could make more money doing something else?” I had been somewhat quiet at the time, but could not help blurt out a response…

Because we give a damn… because we care… because we’re suckers… money, decent money, would be great… but we do it for a higher calling or something that drives us. Both Hacks and Hackers related.

Yeah, I do think some developers do feel a sense of a bigger mission and giving back to the world, like with open-source code. In that way, there are a lot of things hacks and hackers have in common.

Thank you so much for taking the time and “chatting” with me in this experimental Q&A… I had a blast.

Sure, thanks again for the kind words and interviewing me. That’s another thing I’m also getting used to in the brave, new entrepreneurial world — having people interview me! It gives me much more sympathy for all the people I’ve interviewed over the years :).

HA! Thank you.

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