One of the newest Internet memes and, I have to admit, one of my top favorites:
Also somewhat new, this video proves that light sabers can make anyone look like a bad ass… including old men:
The Super Bowl has been the home of freakin’ awesome commercials, and last year Volkswagen came out with one of the best… ever:
Robot Chicken, to me, is one of the best shows with pop culture, tech and geek references made just for my generation. They were one of the first to come out with a Star Wars parody and it’s full of great moments. One of the quickest ones makes me giggle at their cleverness:
The Family Guy series, like Robot Chicken, is another my generation source of hilarity. They also did a Star Wars parody called Blue Harvest, filled with great moments. I don’t know why, but for some reason, this is my favorite:
This makes no logical sense whatsoever … but it’s catchy and hilarious:
This one is more than Star Wars, this video is an incredible ‘cappella tribute medley‘ to Star Wars (and other movie composer) John Williams.
This to me sums up the love the Internet has for this little Sci-Fi movie. Star Wars Uncut is a completely crowdsourced labor of fan love:
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, thank you for taking the time to “meet” for a quick chat about the project you are working on.
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.
Robert Hernandez: Well Pekka, we are just a few days away from the SXSW / SXSWi 2010 conference … aka Geek Spring Break. We’ve both been to the festival before and, for this post, are going to interview each other to share tips, experiences, goals, etc. as we do final preparations for the week. Let’s start with sharing our experiences. What number is this one for you? How many times have you attended?
Pekka Pekkala: This is my number three, did first one back in ’96! I was a starving student, so no Interactive tickets for me, just free music… You?
RH: For me, this is going to be my second. I was a n00b last year, a rookie. And, boy, did I learn a lot … and think I’m ready for the coming week.
How would you describe the conference to people? Mainly SXSWi.
PP: Best place to meet people like you who are not journalists. It’s really a good way to mingle with programmers and business-savvy people who understand content. And a total 5-day hurricane of seminars, meetups and parties.
RH: A ‘hurricane’ is a great way to describe it … tech, smarts, hipster glasses and more. I was really overwhelmed last year, attending so many different, random sessions and meeting great people. I have really started to prepare for this year.
For me, I think it’s an international meetup of innovative minds that mashup technology, business, art, culture, news and information. The Future of Journalism has been officially added as a track this year. I got inspired last year and hope that happens again.
PP: What did you pick from the Future of Journalism track? Is it all the same people that you’ve seen in journalism seminars before?
RH: Yes, I noticed that too. Did you notice the number of advertising panels that suggested storytelling and journalism as the answer? Brand Journalism: The Rise of Non-Fiction Advertising is the session that surprised me. Journalism to save advertising? I might have to check it out.
Can you talk about your goals and strategy for SXSW? What do you hope to learn and get from going to this conference? What is your strategy behind what sessions you try to attend?
PP: I always try to get away from the journalist mindset: I’m really scared of the journo hive mentality in every aspect. Mix it up! Trying to find some interesting cases to be interviewed for my Sustainable Business Models for Journalism study. Bootstrappers and small sites mainly. What about you?
RH: Yes, agreed. The session I pick tend to be more techie… I like to go to ones where I learn something new and, ideally, I can find ways to incorporate it into journalism… long before someone else even thinks about that angle. Right now I’m obsessing about Augmented Reality, and there are several sessions on that… mainly on biz/dev side. My goal is to learn more and more coding, building… and that tech constantly evolves. Last year I attended a great HTML5 vs. Flash panel … this year I hope to attend a few of those. Anything that experiments and pushes me to grow and think about the mashup of technology, design and information. Lots to choose from… and, sadly, some are at the same time!
PP: Sounds like a cool plan and something SXSW is really good for! Last year I went to Jaron Lanier speech and right after it (the cyncical journo in me) was saying “blah, another hippie from the Bay area saying you guys spoiled our Internet.” But the stuff he said really haunted me somehow and now I’m turning into a hippie myself. :D Ted Nelson FTW!
RH: He’s an extremely interesting guy. He recommended reading The Machine Stops … a must read for tech people.
Let’s get to some tips … what apps/tools do you use when at the conference? Now and while attending? What tips do you have while there?
PP: Just mark down everything that looks interesting via the SXSW schedule page, download the mobile app and off you go. Having a plan doesn’t mean you have to go according to it but it helps to visualize what is going on. It’s a shame sxsw.lanyrd.com doesn’t sync with SXSW schedule, would be great. Any cool apps you’ve found?
RH: Exactly right, I’ve signed up for a ton of things … who knows if I’ll attend them. But at least I know what’s, generally, out there. Last year’s app was, well, less than satisfying. That said, I’ve download this year’s version and it looks much better. I’ve used the official session selector. But I have to also pass along a great recommendation from SXSW veterans that recommended sched.org because it includes *all* events, even the many unofficial ones. I also used SitBy.Us last year and thought that was very cool. I’ll be tweeting and checking in on FourSquare, of course. Mashable has a SXSWi great guide, which has a good collection of apps/tools.
PP: Sched.org looks cool, have to try that one. Being from Finland, I have to plug @dittoapp! Any tips how to survive the physical aspect of SXSW, meaning the walking, not sleeping and forgetting your gear in the cab at 1am? (I’m still pissed I lost my FAIL book with Ben Huh‘s autograph last year!)
RH: Oh yeah… I learned you have to ditch the laptop! I have a shoulder that is about one inch lower than the other because I’ve carried a messenger bag with my laptop for years. Skip that! This year I’m rolling with just my iPad and iPhone. I also bought an external battery to charge them both :) I’m still traveling with my laptop, in case my plan backfires. Also, wear comfortable shoes, ’cause these will be looooong, fun days. I just downloaded Ditto (but it keeps crashing).
PP: iPad 2 I hope, it’s SXSWi! I find it hilarious when people take iPhone, iPad and MacBook out in a seminar: tech is supposed to make your life easier, not _literally_ harder :D I’m taking my Droid 2 Global (physical keyboard is still WINNING) + charger. Travel light.
RH: Let’s end with this question… how will you know you’ve had a successful SXSW 2010 experience?
PP: I fall asleep in the plane before it takes off from Austin. And when I’m home, I notice my brain is a mess of weird ideas and my pockets are full of business cards with hastily written notes on them. You?
RH: Ha! Well said. For me, if I feel like I’ve learned some new things and expanded my network of smart innovators, it’s been a success. I want to walk away energized and ready to go try some new tech experiments.
Well, sir, it was great chatting with you and I’ll see you in Austin!
PP: Same here, can’t wait! Let’s keep in touch via Twitter! @pekkapekkala
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.
For 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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.
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.
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 (email@example.com) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.
Think about it, two or three years ago most people had never heard of Facebook. Tweets were still mainly owned by birds, not limited to 140 characters. FourSquare was some vague game from elementary school.
In general, most people had written social media off as some sort of high school fad.
If you still doubt this, temporarily remove your head from the sand and go talk to one of the more than half a billion people that spend hours and hours sharing news, photos or running a virtual farm. (For the record, I am not a fan of FarmVille.)
In its constant evolution, though, technology routinely leapfrogs past itself as it innovates and disrupts the status quo.
Those creating these new tools typically don’t have journalism as a possible application in mind. But I, an admitted tech/journo/mad scientist geek, can’t help but apply the journalism prism to some of the latest tools and technology.
So, in that vein, here are two emerging tools I’ve came across that I think are worth keeping an eye on. They may not be perfect now, but I encourage you to experiment with these and see if there is a journalistic application here.
This new social media site may sound similar to its forefathers, but it has one clear difference (that I think they underplay). It’s not about you, it’s about community… and it’s about moments.
On Twitter or FourSquare, you are telling the world where you are… in Whrrl, you are “creating a story.” Your posted photos and notes from your check-in are auto-grouped with others and, potentially, are telling the story of a moment collectively.
Example: We’re celebrating your birthday at a bar. We capture the moment by sharing pictures, videos, comments, etc. Those not attending could virtually experience the moment and add to the conversation.
Neat… but where’s the journalism?
Change the previous example from “birthday” to, say, “election.” Reporters and citizens are posting their experiences — comments, photos, videos, etc. — at polling sites, leaving a virtual marker filled with content for others to add or re-live. This would also work for a sporting event, a protest/rally or any news event where people gather in one location.
Collectively, we can capture the moment in real-time with rich multimedia. This doesn’t replace the article or video piece, but can really enhance them.
This tool launched earlier this year at SXSW and is referred to as digital graffiti. Now, how to explain this… um, think of a digital bulletin board or wall where anyone could post anything.
Like a Facebook wall? Sort of.
Instead of the wall living in your computer, it is at an actual, physical space… because the information is embedded onto a sticker with a barcode. Scan it with your smart phone and read or leave messages in multiple media.
While finding these stickers is a cute game, they’ve recently graduated to using standard barcodes, which are on millions of products.
You can get barcodes for free and even order them in sticker form if you want.
Where’s the journalism here? Well, my brain is still thinking of different applications, but what immediately stands out here is the distribution.
Imagine going to a polling place where people can scan a sticker to read or leave messages. The only way to get that unique experience from that polling place is to be at that location.
From news to reviews, we could possibly embed our stories on anything and anywhere. And, more importantly, we can get user engagement. We’re not talking about from behind a computer, we’re talking about out in real life.
Take some time and play, er experiment, with these new emerging types of technology. Get in the habit of exploring this stuff… and share your experiences.
While the 105 million+ people on Twitter know their tweets are default set to public, they are still a fraction of Facebook’s 400 million+ users that post T.M.I. they’d only share with their closest 300 friends.
Facebook gives you a false sense of private… but by now you should know better.
And while as a user you should be freaked out and proactive about your personal settings (and more conscious of what you are posting!), as a journalist this is presents an incredible, unfiltered opportunity to access your community on a diversity of topics.
Hold your nose and thank youropenbook.org for making it easier to access your the community on Facebook – for better or worse.
You can now quickly query what’s on the mind of the millions of users that are sharing their raw opinions about any topic… sadly, they usually think it’s “private,” often sharing their opinions with their social guard down.
Go to the site and do a search on something related to your beat or community. Who knows how long this tool will actually last (Facebook has sued before).
But while this is still around, look passed the initial shallowness of the tool and look at the possibilities that help you improve your journalism.
Oh, and do yourself a favor and check your privacy settings on Facebook… come to think of it, just check your privacy at the door before you log onto the Web. It’s all public… whether you like it or not.
I don’t know if this post will make sense, but let’s just call this a rough draft of a rant… or prediction… or I don’t know what. I just wanted to put some thoughts down, no matter how raw, because we’re on the verge of some significant changes.
I was asked recently by the Online News Association to lead a session on Social Network Reporting (SNR). That’s when we as journalists harness the power of Social Media throughout our process – looking for sources, crowd sourcing, distributing content, engaging with our community, etc.
I’ve done several presentations for classes and a couple of workshops, but the request was to be more “advanced” … not SNR101, but the next level.
In other words, there’s not really an “advanced” to SNR except maybe experimenting with the latest tools and apps.
But the idea got me thinking… While SNR is an incredibly valuable tool, one that is still being under utilized… it’s really still just a tool… and it’s a tool inside a toolbox that I am labeling Real-Time Reporting (RTR).
For me, that is the “advanced” level. That’s the next logical step for us.
The Real-Time Web is a concept that has solidified because of Social Media. What are you doing now? What do you think now? And this applies to us in journalism because it’s the same behavior as breaking news.
Social Media is key. But there are other aspects to explore in this real-time reality.
As journalists, RTR takes the latest from technology (hardware, software and infrastructure) and mashes it up with our core journalistic values (news judgment, ethics, law, spelling/grammar, etc.).
It’s journalism without a safety net… it’s hyperlocal AND global journalism… it’s working under the deadline of now, in 15 minutes and 15 minutes ago… it’s MacGyvering technology to do journalism by any means necessary.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s say there is a breaking news story. Let’s imagine that there is a shooting at a local mall. We hear the news breaking on the police scanner.
Typically, the Metro/Assignment desk immediately dispatches a reporter or crew to go to the scene. Meanwhile, someone calls the authorities to get the latest information on the record.
Eventually the reporter arrives at the scene and begins to hunt for witnesses and sources. As they get information, they file it or call it in… well, they should. Or, if they are broadcast, they do a live report when they have gathered enough information.
With SNR, in addition to calling the authorities for official information, someone is also searching Twitter, Flickr, and other social media looking for people at the scene… looking for potential sources. They should also be asking for any tips and contacts through their social networks… and ask the community to spread the call for help.
When the reporter eventually makes the scene, they should announce their arrival, location and availability on their own social networks… this allows potential sources to reach out.
The news organization should make sure to take the time to thank those in the community who helped with the coverage. It should also promote the pieces, which essentially distributes the work.
In addition to the real-time of social media, there are new tools we should employ when appropriate… which takes this to RTR.
A reporter can be sending out images or live video (UStream, Qik, Twitcasting, etc.) from their cell phones. A photographer or reporter could be automatically uploading images from their camera using technology like the Eye-Fi.
If they had a laptop, camera and stronger Internet access, they could do a more complex live shot that includes participation from the audience… a live chat from the scene.
I can’t wait for the day when a low-end camcorder is going to have an external mic jack for better audio and the ability to upload immediately… we’re almost there. Kodak’s Zi8 and the Eye-Fi would be powerful together… but they currently don’t work together.
People chuckle when I pitched this, but I foresee the day when a device becomes THE reporter’s super notebook. A laptop is too heavy, Internet connections are unpredictable and it needs a power source. Meanwhile, a smart phone is too small, horrible to type on and needs to be recharged often.
In the meantime, technology is giving us patchwork solutions. The MiFi from Verizon and Sprint gives you broadband anywhere. There are external batteries that keep your iPhone and laptops charged for longer periods of time. You can buy accessories to like an external keyboard for you phone or an app to sync your iPhone camera to your cameraless iPad.
But it is only a matter of time when text, photos, audio and video are available in an appropriate sized device that easily takes journalists to the next level… real-time reporting.
And when this technology arrives, it will really begin to separate those who can produce quality journalism on deadline from those who can’t. It will test our core values. There are a lot of challenges when you go live… lots of opportunities to fail… to get wrong. So we need to be at the top of our game to build and maintain our credibility.
Professional journalists – with or without formal training – will emerge as they are no longer worried about technology they routinely use. We’re not going to be wow’ed or scared by the latest device. We’ll just embrace it and return the focus on the content… because it’s always been about the content.
I don’t know if this made any sense… or if this future scares you… or if you are as excited about it as I am… but I believe this is where we are headed.
Journalism continues to evolve… are you ready for the next level?
I’m on the eve of attending my first CES in Vegas. This is the city’s biggest annual convention and it’s the mecca for techno geeks. I’m heading in — wearing comfortable shoes — with the image of the wonderland filled with shiny chrome gadgets with blinky lights.
I’m going in with a Web Journalist filter looking for devices and technology that will help advance storytelling. It’s going to be a big year for mobile devices for a lot cheaper, hopefully given journalists (paid or unpaid) the ability to cover and interact with their community better than before.
But, I have to admit, there is another image that has popped into my head has I begun to drift to techgeek dreamland. The one device, the one word that will forever live in infamy: CueCut.
For those of you who missed it, be thankful. Basically it was a cat-shaped, scanning device that was a gateway to more information. Rumor had it this little piece of technology was going to revolutionize the print revenue model.