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April 01 2011

10:45

Communities of practice: teaching students to learn in networks

One of the problems in teaching online journalism is that what you teach today may be out of date by the time the student graduates.

This is not just a technological problem (current services stop running; new ones emerge that you haven’t taught; new versions of languages and software are released) but also a problem of medium: genres such as audio slideshows, mapping, mashups, infographics and liveblogging have yet to settle down into an established ‘formula’.

In short, I don’t believe it’s wise to simply ‘teach online journalism’. You have to combine basic principles as they are now with an understanding of how to continue to learn the medium as it develops.

This year I set MA Online Journalism students at Birmingham City University an assignment which attempts to do this.

It’s called ‘Communities of Practice’ (the brief is here). The results are in, and they are very encouraging. Here’s what emerged:

‘Communities of Practice’

The ‘Communities of Practice’ assignment asks students to focus not just on developing technical skills around a particular medium of their choice, but on exploring the communities of practice that exist around it. In fact, at this stage the development of technical skills was one of the ways of making contact with those communities.

If, for example, you are developing skills in data journalism, it makes sense that you should be joining relevant mailing lists, following particular blogs, attending meetups, and having conversations (in person, or via email, Facebook or Twitter) around your area.

In addition, as a Masters level student, I’d say you should really be actively contributing to the development of the medium, by publishing your own experiences and reflections on those platforms, and on your own blog.

Two side benefits of this: you build your social capital within those communities (because you are contributing to them, not just taking away), and you build your professional status and reputation.

Hedy Korbee’s blogging on data journalism, for example, led to contacts with Microsoft Canada’s Open Source Strategy Lead, and raised awareness of her soon-to-be-launched hyperlocal website. Other students attended events and made other useful contacts in their fields.

A small aside here: the assignment constitutes a minor part of the Multimedia Journalism module on the course, accounting for 25% of the final marks, and it is assessed on 3 criteria: research, reflection, and creativity. The design of the assessment is geared to ensure that students focus more on learning than execution, and are therefore prepared to take more risks in their work (the second assignment, for which this builds the foundations, focuses more on execution).

The importance of a community’s culture

The culture of the communities of practice was important. Desi Velikova found a warm welcome on this Flash forum, and found that she was able to contribute without being an expert as one of the members needed to put himself in beginners’ shoes to write some tutorials.

Hedy Korbee, meanwhile, identified the divide between journalists and data experts and the problems for people joining those groups who, like her, don’t possess the expertise to actively contribute:

“I’ve learned that the culture of these groups requires asking practical, answerable questions based on specific problems that users face and I don’t think my skills are at a level yet where I can make a useful contribution.

“In light of this, I’ve also joined groups with meetups, such as Toronto OpenStreetMap, where I can interact with and hopefully get inspired by others who share an interest in data and mapping.  I am particularly looking forward to attending my first Hacks and Hackers Toronto meetup.”

Finding workarounds was key. In one instance, Hedy contacted a particularly approachable member of the community directly. Andy Watt, meanwhile, struggled to find communities around audio and video, so he created his own on LinkedIn, and two Twitter lists. Interestingly, he rejected the option of using his own website to host discussions “as it may have been perceived as a ploy to drive traffic to my own site.” Samuel Negredo identified communities around a blog, forums around particular software, and events.

Identifying best practice and reflecting on your own

Identifying best practice was a key process for students. Hedy Korbee’s ‘Five great audio slideshows‘ is a good example, and clearly influenced her own work. Desi Velikova compiled a list of resources for starting Flash 8.

Andy Watt’s blog focused more on documenting his own processes, posting various stages of particular experiments as he continued to edit them. Samuel blogged about the process of filming architecture. And Desi blogged about using one dataset as the basis for exploring 4 visualisation tools.

Being required to talk about process publicly in this way does two things: firstly, it engenders a reflexive approach to production, identifying what works and what doesn’t so that further work is of higher quality. Secondly, it provides material around which other members of the production community can talk: those who are not as proficient will learn from it, and be inclined to help in return in future; those who are more proficient may chip in with their own suggestions now. In short, it’s an investment.

Breadth versus depth

In terms of the structure of the MA, this assignment marks the point at which students move from breadth to depth. To my mind an online journalist needs an awareness of the wide range of storytelling possibilities in the medium, and the variety of newsgathering and distribution tools and techniques. But they also need to stand out in a particular field.

Communities of practice are key to both. One student commented that “Although I will never be a Flash expert, I will feel much more confident if I am in a situation to work on such a project”. Another said “Maybe I won’t be able to keep up with every development, every day, but the work I have done around communities of practice is helping me to identify and organize better the resources which are available”.

This is the nature of working in networks: our connections are key assets we need to work to build, and the ability to access expertise and advice a key skill. You do not achieve either by learning in isolation, producing in seclusion – the traditional mode of education. As these students go forward to specialise in online audio or video, slideshows, infographics and data, they do so within networks.

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February 27 2011

08:19

Producing Audio Slideshows with Final Cut Pro

One of a Kind in the World Museum

In 2005, Joe Weiss released Soundslides, a killer audio slideshow production program that helped transition many newspaper photojournalists into the world of online multimedia. Audio slideshows soon flooded newspaper websites. Its simple interface and even simpler learning curve proved a perfect match for anyone wanting to add an audio narrative to their online picture stories.

But times have changed. Many of those same photojournalists moved on to add video to their storytelling toolboxes. As they began to master video editing programs like Apple’s Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro, it seemed like no brainer to use them to produce audioslide shows.  I cannot say building an audio slide show is easier with a video editing program, but it does afford you some added features that are hard, if not impossible, to replicate in Soundslides.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned when making an audio slideshow using Apple’s Final Cut Pro:

  • Soundslides is great at taking all the tedious production out of the process. It grabs all your photos in a file and automatically sizes them for the web. When producing in a video editor, you have to do all this image prep yourself. But it’s not too bad if you create a Photoshop action to automate the process.  I create a one-click action to reduce the image dpi to 72 and size to each photo to a width of 2500 pixels. This size makes the images large enough to use motion on later if needed.
  • Before you start to edit, it is important to set up your timeline as an HD project. It makes the photos look so much better, even after you compress the hell out of them later for the web. I generally pick Apple Intermediate Codec 720p30 from the “Easy Setup” menu. I think progressive timelines without the interlacing work best for photos. I’ve even used the XDCAM 1080p30 setting with great results.
  • As I assemble my story, I tend to build as I go. I start editing at the beginning with audio, then layer on my photos. I use the voiceover tool in Final Cut Pro to record my script narrative direct to the timeline. This is just how I do it. There are many ways to edit. You may like to have the whole project storyboarded out before you start your edit. Do whatever works best for you.
  • I really try to scale up each photo to fill my Canvas viewer. This looks so much better than having black bars showing above and below the image.
  • One of the nice things about producing audio slideshows in a video editor is the ability to display multiple photos at once in the Canvas viewer. This solves the vertical photo issue of trying fill a horizontal space with a vertical rectangle. I like to fade in my vertical photos on the far left or right of my frame then fade in another image to fill the rest of the frame. Click image below to see and example of using multiple photos in one window.

 

Mount St. Helens comes to town

  • In Soundslides the default is to add a cross-fade to every image. I see a trend away from this as more people edit in video programs.  Most of the time I just use quick cut between photos. It took me awhile to break the cross fade habit, but now I see how much better a show flows without all that cross fading. It also makes it easier to edit to a beat in the audio.
  • I tend to edit an audio slide show like I edit a video story. I try to use sequences of images that help move the story through time and place. I try to mix up the photo selection by using a mix of wide, medium and tight shots just like I do with video.
  • Use motion on photos with caution. Most of the time, slower is better. You don’t want to make the viewer seasick. Try not to zigzag all over the place. Use motion on a photo to reveal or isolate something that pertains to the story. I like to put a very slow pull or push on a photo that is almost not noticeable. It adds just a little kick to a static photo. One last suggestion on using motion with photos; If you are pulling out on a photo and your next image has motion too, make that one zoom in; otherwise it makes the viewer feel like they are heading through a tunnel.
  • Finally, the other added benefit of producing audio slide shows in a video editor is that it brings all your multimedia under one player for your website. If your video player has embed ability, it makes it easier for viewers to share your story and make it go viral.

May 15 2010

07:23

When Mount St. Helens came to (my) town

Thirty years ago on May 18, 1980, I was a senior in high school in Spokane, Washington. It was Sunday afternoon and I was still feeling the pain from a beer-induced hangover, you know, the only kind you can get when your best friend Russ throws an  “End of High School” party for most of the senior class.

I grabbed a cup of coffee and went out on Russ’s front porch.  Glancing up at the sky I was perplexed at what I saw. Instead of blue sky, it was brown with a pillow texture to it. “ Must be a dust storm coming,” said my friend’s father who also had no answer for weird brown sky. Suddenly, a robin came fluttering in front of us. It dove hard, landing dead on impact at my feet. I gingerly picked the bird up and when I shook it, a small cloud of dust came off its wings.  What the…

I would soon find out that Mount St. Helens, 290 miles away, had literally exploded in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. The best part? A dark cloud of ash would soon turn  daylight into darkness. It rained ash overnight and part of the next day. For the next week communities in Central and Eastern Washington banded together to clean up the mess. Ask anyone who experienced the ash fall and I’ll guarantee they’ll have a story to tell.

A week ago, it was politely suggested to me that I should do a multimedia piece for the Mount St. Helens 30th anniversary coming up.

“Sure I can do that, I said. “I’m sure we have tons of photos in the digital archive.”

A quick look showed only a few pictures from that time, many of which had been used over and over. A trip in the print photo archive left me nowhere. It was as if Mount St. Helens ash never came to Spokane. “ Where the hell were all the photos”?

Searching the negative archive I found the whole weeks worth of negatives missing from the box. About to give up, I walked to the far dark corner of the neg room on a hunch. I found a shelf of orphan negative boxes labeled with old projects I was hard pressed to remember.  Running my finger down the labels I stopped on the three words: “Mount St. Helens. “

Bingo!

I think over the years and many volcano anniversaries later, long gone photo editors found that putting all the prints and negs in one box was a good idea. If I hadn’t made that turn into a dark corner, this audio slideshow would have been pretty lame.

My next chore was to find someone willing to write and voice a narrative that would reflect the content of the photos I had edited together.  My go-to guy for historical narratives is staff writer Jim Kershner.

“You wanna do a Looking Back piece for St. Helen 30th”? I asked Kershner.

I could tell Kershner was swamped, but he said he could probably crank something out by the next afternoon.  I told Kershner just to write the story of the first week in Spokane and I would match the photos up with whatever he  wrote.  The next day as I was pawing through old unlabeled negative sheets, Kershner arrived with a killer script in hand. Only two takes later, I was ready to start assembling our St Helens story.  I like to use Final Cut Pro as I find it gives me the most flexibility with photos. I can color correct, put motion on the photo, create multi-photo windows where I can time the show to the beat of the music.

The fun part of this story for me was really the detective part, where I had to find a photo that would match the narrative. When Kershner said “Soon taverns and golf courses began to reopen,” I was lucky enough to find a photo from that week  showing rednecks covered in ash drinking tavern beer and a group of lady golfers walking an ash-laden course.

For music, our company has an extensive Digital Juice music library I can use for multimedia projects such as this. I also used a couple of Garage Band stingers– short mood building clips–that helped set the ominous tone of the ash cloud coming our way.

All in all, it was a fun project to do in such a short amount of time.


May 03 2010

07:16

Feedback website “Finding the Frame” launches

Finding the Frame, a website dedicated to giving feedback to newspaper multimedia producers and video journalists has launched.

My post in Mastering Multimedia last month,  “Video at newspapers needs to improve,” resonated with many people. I received lots emails from producers who vented their frustration at not being able to get feedback on their multimedia stories.

After a brainstorming session over a few beers, Brian Immel, a former multimedia producer and programmer at The Spokesman-Review, graciously agreed to build a website for the sole purpose of connecting those who need feedback on their multimedia, to professionals willing to share some time and knowledge.

Here’s how it works

The plan is to have onboard as many “expert” volunteers as possible that have solid foundations in video storytelling, audio slide shows or Flash projects. This pool of reviewers will peruse the submitted links of multimedia in the “Story Pool”. If they decide to comment on a story, it will then become public on the Finding the Frame home page where anyone else is free to give added feedback.

So why do this?

While most publications have driven head first into the online world, multimedia storytelling is still in its infancy at many newspapers. Unfortunately, not all people tasked with producing multimedia received adequate training or had the financial ability to attend a multimedia storytelling workshop. Many multimedia producers are self-taught, having picked up bit and pieces of knowledge along the way.

When I judge a multimedia contest, I often get frustrated at seeing the same problems in the execution of basic video and audio production fundamentals. Many photojournalists are struggling with how to tell an effective video or audio slideshow story that is different from the traditional still picture story.

Our hope is that Finding the Frame will begin to address the need for feedback and in turn, help multimedia producers improve their storytelling. Just read some of the comments by reviewers so far–you’ll be impressed. The professionals that have signed on as reviewers are the some of the top in the industry. If they critique your story, please thank them for giving up some of their precious time to help out a fellow visual journalist.

What we need

What we need is for enough producers, multimedia editors and photojournalists who have a solid experience with multimedia storytelling to step forward and share some of their knowledge with those that are looking for constructive, honest feedback.

So if you feel you have something to offer, we would really like you to join the pool of reviewers on Finding the Frame.

So go check it out and give Brian and me some feedback. Create an account. Upload a link to a video, audio slide show or Flash project. Be patient, as it might take some time for your story to get reviewed

I am not sure how many people will upload stories, so let’s take this slow at first. It would also be helpful if non-reviewers could give some feedback to others by commenting on their work.

If you would like to be added to the reviewer pool, register your account, making sure you create a profile and upload a photo of yourself or avatar, then email me at cmulvany@findingtheframe.com with the request.

This website is for you. We would really appreciate your support and feedback.


February 05 2010

10:28

Online journalism lesson #9: Audio slideshows, community and wikis

The penultimate session in my 10-class module in Online Journalism from last year covered a range of areas. There’s a little bit on audio slideshows, a lot on community, and related to that, I covered wikis too. I’ve split them into 3 presentations for ease of use. This year (the module starts again on Monday) I’ll probably take an axe to all of this…

January 21 2010

18:14

Mastering Multimedia useful tips roundup


Many of may old posts that deal with tips about how to do video storytelling and audio slideshows get linked on a lot of blogs used by college professors who teach digital media classes. Most of these posts are buried amongst my pontifications about the changes facing the newspaper industry. So for anyone interested,  here is a roundup of my best multimedia suggestions and useful tip posts in one place…

How to make your audio slideshows better

Great audio starts in the field

How best to approach a video story

Sequencing: The foundation of video storytelling

How to make your video editing easier

Get creative with your video camera

Opening your video: How not to lose viewers

Random Final Cut tip: Lower thirds titles

What we can learn from TV new shooters

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