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Archives: May 2010

How I created an award-winning, multi-platform, multimedia project

It was recently announced that my project, Guide to the U.S. Senate Floor Procedures, was one of the winners of Sunlight Labs’ Design for America contest. In the spirit of openness and transparency that this blog is founded on, I’ll tell you a little bit about how and why I did it.

Aside from the $5,000 prize, I created the project because I really wanted to challenge myself to produce a multimedia story on a highly complex topic. As journalists, we are often tasked with translating very technical subjects into stories the audience can understand. I picked what I thought was one of the more difficult categories, “Visualization of Congressional Rules/Floor Procedures,” and after reading through the source material I knew I had a very complex task ahead of me. The subject matter was so unreadable that I initially had second thoughts and didn’t want to do it, but I thought it would be great if someone like a junior Senator or even school child had a clear resource that explained how the Senate works.

 


 

I started by aggregating all the source material and text and editing out any necessary verbiage, any big words or convoluted phrases, and simplifying overly complicated ideas. In order for the reader to understand Senate procedures, I also had to understand them so I whittled down the text into a readable narrative and divided it into navigable sections.

I then decided to create a horizontally-scrolling website based on similarly styled websites I’d seen previously and enjoyed. These horizontal websites are sometimes criticized for bad user experience because they go against the way a visitor naturally scrolls, which is vertically. In this case, the negative was a positive… the unorthodox layout would force the reader to pay closer attention to the site rather than passively scroll. I also wanted to include visual stimuli that would keep their attention and encourage them to read the entire thing.

 


 

I approached the design as sort of a children’s book, partly after seeing the Alice for the iPad app. If a kid were reading this, would they understand what was going? If a child could understand it than a government newbie would find the project easy to follow as well. I sketched the entire project on strips of paper and brought the design to life in Photoshop.

To add the icing onto the proverbial cake, I created both a PDF version and a mobile version of the site, based on the text and original illustrations. The main site is visually interesting, per the contest requirements, but I also wanted something that was portable, printable, and easily shareable. These versions are also more SEO-friendly than the image-based main project.

 


 
The entire project took roughly about a week’s work, outside of my regular 9 to 5, and was both fun to create and a chance for me to hone my skills in a non-work environment. The best way to learn new skills, especially digital media skills, is to experiment often, to try new tools and means of storytelling. In the end, it is the reader/viewer is better served and informed.

 
Also on 10,000 Words:

Online and multimedia storytelling from the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners
The multimedia tools I actually use (and you should too)

Mediabistro Course

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3 Underrated but essential skills for journalists

In various posts on the web, this blog, and in the many journalism and technology conferences all over the world, journalists are told they need technical skills to be able ford the new world of online journalism. While new tools and technology do enhance the potential for storytelling and reporting, there are some non-technical skills that both digital and traditional journalists should have.

Math

There is a long-standing, unspoken rule that journalists are not known for their stellar math skills, something some journalists are proud of. (At my undergrad alma mater, journalism students were purposely required to take as few math and science classes as possible because they historically tested low in these areas.) This aversion to math is a shame, really, considering how much math is necessary to produce a news story. Many news stories are themselves based on numbers and statistics. A lot of web, database, and interactive design is based on math, including ratios, formulas and basic addition.

If your math skills aren’t up to par and you can’t add more than two numbers without reaching for a calculator, consider revisiting the math skills you learned in grade school which will in turn help you churn out quick addition and multiplication problems on the fly. Trying playing math games like those available online or video games like Brain Age for the Nintendo DS. Also check out the book “Numbers in the Newsroom,” a valuable resource for any journalist.

Design

Design is often overlooked as a necessary part of an online journalist’s skill set and yet design permeates almost every facet of online journalism. From online page design to multimedia design to various art elements like graphics and photos, journalists should be familiar with not just good design, but how readers and viewers interact with it. Most news websites are poorly structured with a hodgepodge of links haphazardly arranged in columns which ultimately lessens the potential traffic the site can receive. The reason many journalism projects built in Flash suffer is because a lack of knowledge about the tenets of design.

An eye for design is, in the author’s opinion, not something you can teach. Unlike computer programming which is based on repeating established steps and processes, design is based on instinct. Journalists, especially those involved in the visual aspects of the industry, have the seed of design deep within and just need cultivation and practice to bring it out. Journalists should be educated in what makes a good website, infographic, or multimedia project and study what makes well-designed projects great. Digital journalists should also be trained in user experience design because even if an online project looks good, it is all for naught if the audience doesn’t know how to interact with it.

Interpersonal skills

A big part of being a journalist is talking with other people and gaining their trust which in turn gets you insight and information. The ability to communicate with a perfect stranger is not something they teach in J-School or on the job, but any good journalist will tell you they need to be a bit of a psychologist to effectively do their jobs. Some journalists revel in their grizzled exteriors or penchant for sarcasm (because after all what is a journalist without sarcasm?) but it is incredibly necessary to be a people-person to have a career in the industry and to elicit the information and news tips that can make or break a story.

 
Also on 10,000 Words:
Journalism Grads: 30 Things You Should Do This Summer
Why journalists should learn to code (and why some shouldn’t bother)
Top 10 Reasons Not to Learn Multimedia Skills

5 Ways to broadcast live on the web (and why you should do it)

1. UStream

UStream is one of the web’s most popular tools for broadcasting live video directly to the web. You can use your computer’s webcam or hook up a digital video camera to your computer for more professional quality video. UStream also includes a live chat feature so viewers can discuss the broadcast as it as happens.

California Watch recently used the tool to conduct a live chat with director Robert Rosenthal, the results of which are embedded below (unintentionally hilarious hijinks precede the actual chat).

 

2. Qik

Qik makes it pretty easy to broadcast live from internet-enabled phone. A quick sign-up process gives you your own unique web address where viewers can watch your streaming video. The previously mentioned UStream also has mobile applications for the iPhone and Android for broadcasting live from your handheld device.

 

3. Tinychat

If you just want to set up something quickly and less formal between a few people, check out Tinychat, a tool for creating simple video chat rooms. The tool can access your computer’s webcam and can also create a chat synced with your Twitter account.

Other options for broadcasting live video include Livestream and Justin.tv.

 

4. CoverItLive

CoverItLive is the tool of choice for many news media and livebloggers who want to share updates in Can also post images, audio, and video to the chat. One of CoverItLive’s most significant features is the ability of the moderator to regulate which comments from participants appear in the live chat or to allow all comments to appear as they are posted. The free tool has a bunch of features that you can read about here.

Below is a screenshot of Entertainment Weekly’s liveblog of the 2010 Grammy Awards.

 

5. Blog Talk Radio

Are you constantly told you have a great radio voice? Are you the next great NPR host but can’t get your foot in the door? Blog Talk Radio may be the site for you. The free online tool allows anyone to set up their own call-in radio show that is broadcast live on the web and can be archived like a podcast. BTR is used by both upstart radio hosts and mainstream media.

 
Now that you know about the tools, why should you invest time in live broadcasts? For one online broadcasts allow the web audience into an event or proceeding that may not otherwise be able to see in person. Instead of having a journalist or blogger recount the detail of the event after it has happened, the audience can experience it for themselves.

The aforementioned tools also allow content producers to have a conversation around the broadcast. The various chat tools bundled with the broadcasting tools allow observers to discuss the events as they are happening and possibly provide feedback to the subjects of the broadcasts.

There are many different reasons to conduct a live online broadcast, so use your imagination to formulate a way to incorporate them into your work. For more on liveblogging or how to post text updates during a live event, check out Hongkiat.com’s “Complete Guide to Liveblogging.”

 
Also on 10,000 Words:

Beyond Twitterfeed: Innovative uses of Twitter in the newsroom
3 Ways journalism classes are making education more interactive

Online Tools

Easy solutions to web production's most common problems

In my role as multimedia producer for California Watch and in other newsrooms where I’ve worked, I am frequently approached by reporters to help them with web-related issues. Often it’s how to post content on the web, how to edit something, or how to do something I’ve never heard of (which I later google).

Here are some of the most common question I’m asked — and if you are a web producer, you are too — and the answers to those questions.

 
How do I post a document online?

Usually reporters want to embed a document within their article, blog post, etc. I usually direct them to Scribd which allows anyone to upload Word docs, PDFs, Excel spreadsheets and more and embed them in a site like a YouTube video. The entire process is really easy.

 
How do I embed audio?

Usually I’d refer people Odeo to upload and embed their audio for free, but since the site has been down the last few weeks, the option no longer exists. Now I refer people to eSnips.com which lets users upload various file types, including audio, and the site outputs an embeddable audio player.

 
How do I resize this photo?

I assume the person is not familiar with Photoshop and redirect them to the free online tool Resizr. To use it, just upload a photo, enter the image size/dimensions and the tool spits out a newly-sized image. FotoFlexer is a great tool for more detailed photo editing like cropping, resizing, etc. Also, check out this list of free online photo editing tools.

 
How do I quickly turn this data/spreadsheet into a graphic?

Upload the spreadsheet to Google Docs and follow these instructions to create a simple graphic.

 
How do I create a quick embeddable map?

Check out any of the simple mapping tools like UMapper and Atlas that allow the user to place a point on a map and create an embeddable map within minutes.

 
Should I use Flash?

No.

 
Can you teach me how to use Flash?

No.

 
How do I include special characters like the ñ in piñata or the ö in Motörhead?

Bookmark this handy reference guide to HTML “entities” or special characters. Just copy and paste the bit of code you need to create the character and place it in your post.

 
Have you seen my cell phone?

No, but you may want to check out this site.

 
Are there are common questions or simple tasks that are missing here? Please share or feel free to ask questions in the comments.

 
Also on 10,000 Words:

7 Essential multimedia tools and their free alternatives
10 Reasons why online news sites suck
The multimedia tools I actually use (and you should too)

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