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July 06 2011

21:02

How Important Are Writing Skills for Modern Journalists?

When I ask my university journalism students why exactly they want to be journalists, a majority tell me it's because they "like to write."

Considering most of them are in their 20s and grew up with the Internet, this response always surprises me. With a seemingly endless supply of emerging technology and digital storytelling tools at their fingertips, why pursue journalism exclusively for love of the written word?

A love of writing is one of many reasons I chose to pursue journalism, so I understand where they're coming from. But after working as a newspaper reporter from 2000 to 2004, I took a job as assistant editor at an online magazine in San Francisco, where my priorities shifted from words to podcasts and audio blogs. During a fellowship that followed at a national magazine, I took on all sorts of web duties: blogging, content management systems, video, digital audio, and visualized data projects. I continued to write, but it was only one of many daily newsroom tasks. The web was opening the floodgates in terms of how journalists tell stories, and I've been embracing it ever since.

I relocated from San Francisco to London nearly three years ago when my wife took a job here, and I've been lucky enough to take these web experiences and apply them to teaching postgraduate and undergraduate journalism classes at City University London and the London School of Journalism. Because students come to me for classes in online journalism -- in which writing takes a backseat to widgets, HTML, audio, video, live-blogging, tweeting, and data visualizations -- I often feel like telling my students who really love to write: "Sorry, you've come to the wrong place. The creative writing lecture is down the hall."

Writing is low on the priority list in our online journalism classes, not because I want it to be, but because we've got limited time to focus on other things. During two-hour classes, students create individual or group websites and learn how to operate online content management systems. They produce audio slideshows, podcasts and videos. They join online communities or create their own. They gather raw data and use it to create online visualizations. They tinker with HTML and CSS, and dissect their website's analytics, among many other tasks.

By the end of term, students will produce a body of multimedia journalism work and become active participants in an online network throughout which they can disseminate their work. Students complete many of our projects without writing a piece of text longer than an average tweet, which can be a major letdown for budding wordsmiths.

Wait, this is what I signed up for?

writing_handwriting_flickr_jjpacres.jpg

The student journalists my colleagues and I teach are not being trained to be writers; they're being encouraged to become multimedia producers, mobile reporters, hackers, graphic designers, website scrapers, and web entrepreneurs. With these goals in mind, we give them tools to help them get started. But how happy are they about it? Sometimes, not very. This past term, student uneasiness and confusion over the online journalism curriculum became so heated that one large hall lecture was interrupted by a large group complaining that the assignments were confusing and did not benefit their journalism career ambitions. At least one special discussion session with an instructor had to be scheduled outside of lectures to soothe the tension, and I spent several subsequent classes explaining the purpose of the assignments, rather than teaching actual skills.

This incident made me wonder if we, the lecturers, are more excited about the possibilities of web journalism than the students are. Their dream to write is easily deferred by a curriculum that leaves little room for discussion about writing style and technique. We're constantly telling them to write snappier, say what they need to with as few words as possible, and link to the rest, so how can they truly develop a unique writing voice in our classes? They need to do that on their own time or in another class, which inevitably causes some of them to then draw a line between "real" journalism and "web" journalism.

Maybe half of my students are from the U.K., and the others come from Europe, Africa, Asia, and the United States. Their online journalism perspectives vary greatly. Some have already created websites, utilize multiple social networks, can produce digital audio, and know Final Cut Pro. Some do not know what a memory stick is, what acronyms like "CSS," "HTML" or "CMS" stand for or how to connect to WiFi. Some are eager to learn tech skills, but many spend a lot of time asking what all of these digital tools have to do with journalism in the first place, and are eager to get back to writing.

The strange thing is, when I do set aside time to discuss or critique their online writing, I'm surprised at how lackluster some of it really is. Many lack a firm grasp of the Who, What, Why, Where and How. They have a difficult time explaining seemingly simple but important details such as "what has happened?" and "why does it matter?" or "how did it happen?" and "who is affected?" When they do write, it often lacks specificity. For some, this is partly attributed to the fact that English is not their native language. But the majority of them are anxious to throw content up on the web quickly without properly explaining what the content actually is.

Techie or journalist?

Some students, consciously or not, separate "online" journalism from "print" journalism because the former doesn't involve the traditional type of writing they're used to. If my students are a legitimate qualitative litmus test, it's safe to say there's a gap between student ideas of what journalism is, and how we actually train them to do journalism in 2011. Since we, as online journalism instructors, focus on instruments of technology rather than artful prose, there's an element of confusion among students as to what online journalism really is. Is it journalism, or is it technology? For many, the combination of both is jarring, and bridging the gap between the two is a struggle, especially for aspiring writers.

Because of this gap, many students confuse online journalism with information technology or tech support, which makes me think that we need to do more to help close that gap. For example, one of my students, in a recent email request to join their LinkedIn network, included a message that sums up this confusion in one brief sentence: "Hi Gary, I was in one of your IT classes last year. Hope all's well!"

I don't teach IT classes. Or do I?

Written word photo by Jeffrey James Pacres on Flickr.

Gary Moskowitz is a freelance journalist based in London. He blogs for the New York Times and Intelligent Life and has written for TIME Magazine. He teaches at City University London and London School of Journalism.

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December 17 2010

16:50

A Guide to Delivering Audio Content to Mobile Audiences

Prabhas Pokharel contributed research and writing to this article.



For this post, we'd like to detail the different ways people and organizations are delivering audio content to mobile phones. Distributing audio content in this manner can help you reach new and increasingly mobile audiences. It can also be a great way to reach illiterate populations or others for whom written content is not suitable. 



There are many eays to deliver audio content to mobiles: Calling listeners, providing numbers for them to call, having mobile web- or app-accessible radio, or leveraging the radios that are included in many mobiles. This post will focus primarily on projects and tools that use phone calls, or the "voice channel," to share content.



Projects

There are quite a few projects that disseminate audio content using the voice channel:

  • Freedom Fone, a Knight News Challenge winner, was deployed at two farm radio stations in Africa.
  • Gaon ki Awaaz provides listeners in rural India with audio content twice a day in their native language.
  • Avaaj Otalo lets farmers call in and listen to archived radio broadcasts in rural India.
  • Geocell and Radio Greenwave in the country of Georgia make short broadcasts available to listeners if they dial a specified number.
  • Listeners can call in to hear podcasts in the United States.
  • In India, Bubbly allows content providers to upload messages that can be broadcast to a list of followers. Listeners can follow audio content from Bollywood celebrities.

mobileaudio.jpg

How It's Being Done

Here's a basic overview of how voice-based technology is used to deliver audio content to a mobile audience. There are many other ways to share audio via data channels such as podcasts, audioblogging, mobile web radio, and apps. We'll revisit data channels in a later post.

There are many voice channel options available, including standard phone calls, call-in podcasts, IVR systems, self-hosted systems, and voice-based content management systems.

Humans answering phone calls
The simplest voice-based services can be provided by a team of operators who answer phone calls and provide information to callers. There is no need for users to go through complicated menus, or for automated voice processing. This makes these systems easy to use and install. Question Box is one example.

Call-in Podcasts
Podcasts are a very simple way to upload audio, and some services let listeners call in to listen to podcasts in select countries. The service Podlinez provides publishers a U.S. phone number that listeners can call. Bubbly is another example of a call-in podcast.

Simple IVR systems
Interactive Voice Response systems are commonly used to access audio information. Callers are prompted with menus, which they can navigate by pressing buttons on their phone keypad or by uttering short commands. Simple IVR menus can be built fairly easily:

  • VoiceXML is a specification that is widely used to develop IVR menus. VoiceXML is a simple specification language like HTML or XML. In the same way HTML code is interpreted by a web browser to produce a webpage, a "VoiceXML browser" can interpret VoiceXML code to produce an interactive voice response system.
  • In the U.S., hosted solutions like Bevocal cafe offer ways to get started with VoiceXML.
  • VoxPilot VoxBuilder offers local numbers in many other countries. More providers are available at Developer.com.
  • For diving into VoiceXML development, a great resource is World of VoiceXML.

Self-hosted systems
Another way of delivering voice-based audio content to a mobile audience is a self-hosted telephony system. There are a number of open-source platforms that provide code for many self-hosted telephony systems: Asterisk, Trixbox, and FreeSwitch. There are also many resources available for working with these tools:

  • Asterisk has a dedicated documentation project. There are also sites that offer video tutorials, and many books have been written on the topic. There are also third party companies that will provide you with support services.
  • Freeswitch has an extensive wiki for documentation. There are forums outside the main site and third-party support services are also available.
  • Trixbox documentation is listed on the Trixbox wiki. Trixbox has a professional version that comes with support services.

Voice-based Content Management Systems
Finally, there are some voice-based content management systems in development, which aim to make voice-based telephony as easy to install as standard content management systems. One example is the aforementioned Freedom Fone.

What other resources would you add to this guide? Share them in the comments and we will update this post.

More Reading

How to Capture High Quality Video on Your Mobile Phone

Image by Andrew Michaels via Flickr

April 24 2010

21:49

So, who listens to podcasts?

A paper presented at ISOJ by Monica Chadha, Alex Avila, Homero Gil de Zuñiga, University of Texas at Austin sought to answer: Who listens to podcasts?And are they engaged with politics?

Quite rightly, they defined a podcast as an audio programme that you subscribe to, rather than audio downloaded from the net.

The study found that podcasts were most popular among people in their thirties and in their fifties.

In a lightning fast presentation, Chadha said podcast users tended to be highly educated and enjoy high incomes. But the study also found that minorities were more likely to use this technology.

In terms of genres, entertainment shows were far more popular then news

The research also looked at political engagement, as internet use for news have been shown to increase political engagement.

Chadha said they found that people who used podcasts were more likely to be engaged politically.

The study is a first step towards understanding who uses podcasts. Clearly one avenue for further research is why?

April 14 2010

10:14

Is there a professional camera in the House?

Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, with Canon EF 50m...

Image via Wikipedia

News reached me (via the excellent Newspaper video group) that the season end for House was shot on a Canon 5D Mark II. According to the petapixel blog Greg Yaitanes, the director of the show answered questions on twitter about the show. Most surprising for me was the suggestion that he didn’t use any special lenses or rigging.

When I posted a link to twitter, video whirlwind David Dynkley Gyimah commented:

Arun Marsh commented:

My reply.

It’s not the only show that has used the video side of DLSR’s as part of their shooting kit. Sci-fi series Caprica sneaked in a few shots taken using a DLSR.  Notes on video waded through a number of the shows podcasts to confirm the process and highlighted a nice exchange between the shows exec-producer David Eick and director Jonas Pate:

Pate: This opening sequence was not shot in [the] three camera style, it was actually shot with a [SLR]. And we put a funky little lens on the front of it called a Lensbaby and we shot the whole thing incredibly quickly in probably…I dunno, 30 minutes. Increasingly the digital technologies are allowing camera guys to work quicker.

Eick: Well yeah, what it does is it strips any of the mystique of the so-called art of film making, which is to say that anyone listening to this could probably make their own episode of Caprica if you study these podcasts long enough. The technology really has simplified and shrunk.

I heard a little of Dave’s response in that “…strips any of the mystique of the so-called art of film making”. And it’s a familiar refrain.

The idea that low-pro/pro-sumer equipment can push out pro-quality content is an argument we are more than used to in the world of videojournalism. Give anyone a camera and they are a film maker right?

Maybe not. It still takes a story and people passionate about telling that story to make great video whether it’s House or Video journalism. Kit like the Canon makes it easier for the ‘pros’ to do their job for less and (if you delve in to the caprica podcasts) what they feel is a more liberating and creative way.

In terms of video journalism, the canon may not be the piece of kit that opens the floodgates to the amateurs. But it does show that the walls are coming down.

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February 15 2010

00:40

Jerrold Levinson on Music and Eros

Jerrold Levinson examines analogies between music an eros in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.

Tags: podcasts

January 06 2010

11:45

What I expect at news:rewired — and what I hope will happen

Screen shot 2010-01-06 at 11.23.20Next Thursday is the news:rewired event at City University London, which is being put on by the good people at journalism.co.uk. I’ll be on hand as a delegate.

All of the bases will be covered, it seems: Multimedia, social media, hyperlocal, crowdsourcing, datamashups, and news business models.

What I’m expecting

It’s always good to chat about different business models. However I don’t expect to come out of that with any greater insight into the silver bullet to fund journalism. Often people approach this topic like there even is one single revenue stream that hasn’t been discovered. The days of the two-channel revenue stream (ads and subs) are over.

Multimedia chat should be interesting. Personally I’m conflicted about the overall importance of multimedia. It’s an additional storytelling tool, however I’m of the opinion that multimedia isn’t the go-to tool that many like to make it out to be. If your readers won’t watch a 3 minute video, then you might want to be more selective in how you allocate those resources.

The topic of the social media session is “How to efficiently use Twitter, Facebook and other social networking tools for productive journalism”. We know it’s not very successful as a one-way communication tool. However many publications are nervous about the idea of engaging so directly with readers. Since journalists are major users of social media, news organisations are needing to determine how to police the way their journalists interact with readers off the clock. It’s a tough question, so I look forward to that debate.

There’s a panel that I’m confused about. It’s called “Troubleshooting panel on online journalism”. Sounds like a Q&A session about problems faced by online journalists. However the panelists make me think it will be about a variety of things:

What happens when it all goes wrong? What tools are particularly troublesome? How to get yourself out of a digital ditch? With presentations, practical guidance and words of wisdom from a digitally seasoned panel: Robin Hamman, head of social media, Headshift; Jon Bernstein, deputy editor, New Statesman (former Channel 4 multimedia editor); Robin Goad, research director, Hitwise; and Malcolm Coles, internet consultant and media blogger.

It will be a valuable discussion, because of all the talent in the room. I just have no idea what they’ll be talking about.

The rest of the day is tied up in talks about hyperlocalism, datamashing and crowd-sourcing. Of those, the one I’m most interested in is the datamashing talk. Here’s an explanation:

How can data be used to tell a story and hold authorities accountable? What data should journalists be using? How can journalists learn new computer assisted reporting skills? What other sectors can journalists learn from? With presentations, examples and practical advice from Tony Hirst, data expert and lecturer, Open University. Francis Irving, senior developer, MySociety.org.

This is the stuff that drives innovation. Taking raw data and turning it into something that is easily understood, digested and redistributed. It takes a certain skill to be able to do it well. And when it is done well, the results are often exciting and explosive.

This will be an exciting and informative event. I do, however, have some concerns.

What I hope will happen

First, it’s somewhat disappointing that the role of community management in online journalism does not have a more prominent place in the discussions.

While it’s good to know how to use social media to further your journalistic endeavours, it’s equally important to know how to use it to engage with the community that you’re writing for. It’s a skill that many journalists simply don’t have. There’s still a mentality that once the content has been edited and posted, journalists don’t have any further responsibility towards it. Your article is your product. You’ve got to promote it.

I’d also like to see a discussion on how emerging technologies will impact journalism. Two emerging technologies in particular are eReaders/tablets and smart phones. They’re already changing the way people consume media, so it would make sense then that the way media is developed and presented would need to change, too. Yesterday Google announced the release of its new phone, Nexus One. Not to mention the newest arrival to the eReader game, called Skiff Reader. How will media need to change to fit that new technology?

I’m hoping that the topic of personal branding comes up. Journalists it seems have a love-hate for this term. Some journalists already have personal brands, while others shun the very idea of it. Regardless of your position, it’s something that needs to be talked about, especially in an open forum like this.

I’d also like to see a debate about journalism entrepreneurism. And some discussion about career paths that utilise journalism skills, but aren’t exactly journalism.

But since this is a *journalism* conference, I suspect that won’t happen.

I’ll write a post-event blog post to discuss all that did happen. I’m going to attempt to bring up some of the points I mentioned above, so I’ll also try to write about that. Throughout the day I’ll be tweeting about the from my personal account, @BenLaMothe, so feel free to follow along there, too.

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