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January 03 2011


Nonny de la Peña on “Gone Gitmo,” Stroome and the future of interactive storytelling

I recently talked about journalism and storytelling with Nonny de la Peña, who is a senior research fellow in immersive journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, where she explores 3-D environments for news, nonfiction and documentary. She is also co-founder of Stroome.com, a community that allows online collaborative remixing of visual journalism. A graduate of Harvard University with 20 years of news experience, de la Peña is a former correspondent for Newsweek Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine and many other publications. Her award-winning documentary films have screened on national television and at theaters in more than 50 cities around the world.

I met de la Peña in London last summer and was particularly curious to hear her thoughts on “Gone Gitmo,” an immersive storytelling installation built as a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, “Gone Gitmo” was constructed inside Second Life and appeared in prototype at the Bay Area Video Coalition. Users who enter the project experience a virtual detention inside the prison camp, with documentary footage embedded to create spatial narrative. De la Peña and I connected again last month via Skype to discuss her work. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

You have explained that the main idea of immersive journalism “is to allow the participant, typically represented as a digital avatar, to actually enter a virtually recreated scenario representing the news story.” Immersive systems give the participant “access to the sights and sounds, and possibly feelings and emotions, that accompany the news.” How would you explain your main motivation to explore immersive journalism?

Immersive journalism really comes from understanding that there is a growing use of virtual and gaming platforms in which individuals are extremely comfortable with a virtual body. Using that as a starting point, I began to consider what that might mean for nonfiction. In the same way documentary grew in parallel with fiction film, I believe immersive journalism (which can also be considered as immersive documentary or immersive nonfiction) has an appropriate potential using new technologies. My journalistic work has often considered human rights issues, which makes it more likely such issues will be reflected in my immersive journalism work.

However, there are some very interesting questions that arise. For example, does the fact that the stories are accessed through a virtual body mean that they are necessarily subjective experiences? How do we ensure “objectivity?”

Our director of the journalism school at Annenberg, Geneva Overholser, really feels that transparency is the key here. If we can point to our sources, provide excellent research and be open to comment and criticism, immersive journalism can live up to its potential. In a sense, it’s simply about applying traditional journalistic principles to the new technologies.

Your work, as you say, is interrogating the phenomenology of narrative journalism. It seems to me that 3-D animation still presents a barrier to verisimilar storytelling in a way that “live action” or photographic realism does not…

I am not sure that is true. I think that “experience” can have value, especially given stories that are inaccessible. For example, Gitmo is off limits to most citizens and press, so we’ve made it accessible. You can read all you want to about the carbon markets, but when you literally follow the money, does that make the story better understood? And yet, the video released in the Baha Mousa case is extraordinarily disturbing, but when we built our piece in Mel Slater’s lab, that video had not yet been released. I would suggest we did a pretty good job considering that the information came from International Red Cross data and interrogation logs.

Now, what is the role of realism?  If the graphics get better, will the experiences become more comparable to the realism of video now? Mel’s work has shown that the video graphics don’t have to be great to work. Still, the last piece I saw in his lab on understanding violence used extremely good audio and dialogue (as well as very good voice actors). In terms of current technology, one thing I can say: If the audio is bad, forget it.

Yet that exact same premise holds true in documentary filmmaking. If you have bad lighting but good audio, the drama can still be pronounced. Without good audio, even the best sequences can fail.

So orality and sound still play a major role in storytelling…


Are you concerned by the possible ethical implications? The proximity with video games, even serious games, the connotations of 3-D animation…

I am always concerned about ethical implications. I think the history of the use of propaganda makes it clear that we have to be ever vigilant.

I’m thinking of the widespread discourse of the first-person shooter for instance, in video games. Will people want to be in the place of the perpetrators? How would a journalist go about that, how to control the script?

I have gotten a lot of pushback on the Gitmo piece that we did not tell the story of the soldiers there. But as studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment make clear, giving people the role of the soldier can create some pretty intense scenarios. We decided it wasn’t appropriate for this project although we would be absolutely happy to have their experiences recounted in some way on the site. I would agree that the first-person shooter has to be considered carefully and ethically, but it would be a knee-jerk reaction to just shut down this avenue of storytelling based on that issue. For example, check out what happened with the Columbine game at Slamdance.

Would you say that in these exercises of immersive journalism or storytelling, the user, though he or she experiences situations physically, retains a level of passivity?

Very good question. The fact the user can move through the story raises a lot of issues. I have an earlier paper, when I was just starting to sort out the ideas about immersive journalism, which discusses such passive moments as the “embodied edit.” In “Gitmo,” that would be when we move the user along the “story” by teleporting them from place to place within the build. However, there are many moments when the user makes the decision where to go; still, they are within the context of the “news report” that is clearly consistent with reading about a story or watching it on TV.

A key aspect of your immersive journalism project is the blurring of boundaries between different fields, and one of the main elements in immersive experiences may be what you called the embodied edit. And Stroome allows users to remix, which is a form of editing…

Yes, considering how stories can be told differently in this new wave of technology. I consider immersive journalism still under development, but Stroome is about trying to give users a way to start telling stories today, collaboratively, journalistically and from different perspectives. For example, rather than write a letter to an editor or call up a TV station to dispute veracity, the audience member could just remix the story, telling it the way they see it.

Do you think that’s where journalism is headed, to giving users/readers the tools to re-tell the stories?

Once again, I quote Geneva (although I understand she borrowed it as well): The group formerly known as the audience, they are participants. Whether as sophisticated producers of content, or if they commit an “act of journalism” by capturing key footage on cell phones, Stroome supports both approaches.

How receptive do you think the major players in journalism are to this new form of storytelling, one open to empowering “the group formerly known as the audience”?

I think they are finding it very difficult. Even J-schools. I heard one major dean complain: “We are training professional journalists, not citizen journalists!” So they still aren’t recognizing how much this has all blurred. However, as Julian Assange explains in the “Wiki Rebels” documentary, at first he turned all of the data loose hoping that it would get vetted by the public, but ended up having to turn to journalists to analyze and distill and present to the public. However, what we are offering at Stroome offers really nice pillars of ways to collaborate and support. It is designed to consider how content is discoverable and not overwhelming.

And it is curated by a community and enabled by a specific platform…


So, what you are suggesting is an important redefinition of the role of the nonfiction storyteller and therefore of the press…

Yes. In some ways both ends of the spectrum achieving the same goal. In one, similar editorial control present with news orgs now comes with having to design and build a 3-D immersive space. In the other, Stroome opens the landscape to all. Yet both focus on user participation with journalism that is unique to our technological present.

Where do you see written journalism going in this landscape?

We will always need good analysis.

Perhaps as ancillary material for the immersive or audiovisual experiences?

Yes, I agree. And sometimes the immersive component will be ancillary to the text.


[Ernesto Priego is researching comics and narrative as a Ph.D. candidate in information studies in the U.K. at University College London. He has written previously for Nieman Storyboard on the death of Harvey Pekar, manga memoir and on comics as narrative journalism.]

October 06 2010


Linden Lab's Rosedale Considers 'Scrum' Method in Newsrooms

My software developer friends talk a lot these days about two words/concepts: Agile and Scrum. At first I thought it was typical dev talk with no relevance for newsrooms, but I eventually realized these notions are part of a major shift in the way all companies -- including media companies -- will have to adapt.


As Wikipedia explains it, agile software development is a group of methodologies based on iterative and incremental development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams.

Key points from the Agile Manifesto are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Even though these principles may seem rather vague, the agile philosophy has very concrete and precise implementations such as the Scrum methodology. The main roles in Scrum, according to Wikipedia, are:

  • The "ScrumMaster," who maintains the processes (typically in lieu of a project manager)
  • The "Product Owner," who represents the stakeholders (such as the customers or users) and the business
  • The "Team," a cross-functional group of about 7 people who do the actual analysis, design, implementation, testing, etc.

When combined with an open source approach, this can be an efficient way of doing things. For instance, the virtual world Second Life is reworking its "viewer" (user interface) using the Scrum methodology and it's publishing the documentation of the entire process.

The developers reach out to users in order to determine priorities, and users can monitor the progress being made in fast iterations.

The founder of Second Life, Philip Rosedale, recently started another company, LoveMachine, a crowdsourced review and bonus system (among other projects). Here's how the company's website describes the operation:

We are also a different kind of company. Instead of interviewing to work here, you just get to work. If you'd like to join our team, first sign up at the worklist, where you can see and bid on the jobs we need done, then enter our live workroom and talk to other team members!

LoveMachine attempts to be completely transparent, and to introduce market-based price discovery systems for jobs that are typically done by employees in a traditional bureaucratic structure.

I wondered whether we could imagine a newsroom being so transparent and open: Publishing worklists that are open for bidding, granting open access to a live workroom, allowing anyone to collaborate.

I met Philip Rosedale in Second Life and asked him what he thought about applying these principles to a media organization. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.


Philip, is LoveMachine an example of Scrum?


Philip Rosedale: That company started from scratch with not one line of code written. So we could do things completely differently in order to create software as efficiently, enjoyably and fast as possible.

Scrum is really becoming the mainstream way of looking at best practices. At LoveMachine we brought this to another level, for the whole company. We provide a tremendous amount of transparency. We ask people to bid for a small piece of work, or if you do a small piece of work, you set the price afterwards -- we trust you. Psychological research -- using brain scans -- demonstrated that this tends to be much more rewarding than being paid upfront. Because people set their own prices, it makes them very engaged.

Within the company, there are people with a budget and they accept work from other people. Because everything is transparent, there is a rapid setting and finding of the right price.

You recently returned as CEO at Linden Lab (the company behind Second Life). Do you apply the same principles there as at the LoveMachine?

Rosedale: We are not applying those same principles in Linden Lab. That is a relatively large company involved in complex projects. However, Linden Lab is the place where six years ago we started applying these ideas of recognizing the work of [colleagues] in a transparent way.

So does this mean that large companies cannot apply the methodology of LoveMachine?

Rosedale: Large companies will partially apply this because these techniques allow for such fast and efficient work. For instance, they'll do so for open source projects. But they will not adopt this en masse, because of the weight of tradition.

Could it be applied by newspapers or other mainstream media?

Rosedale: It's a promising way of organizing highly motivated contributors working in a decentralized way. Traditional, well-established companies will not [implement] this overnight, but they'll experiment.

99 designs is a bidding platform which can be used when you want a logo or web design. It is highly efficient and is also used by media companies.
More in general, one should take advantage of the fact that many different people are capable [of doing] a certain task. Instead of only relying on a very limited number of employees, one can appeal to a much larger distributed community of contributors. It makes much faster and cost-effective development possible.

Speaking from a European perspective, I cannot imagine the labor unions would applaud this.

Rosedale: Labor unions as collectives can only agree on increases in wages, while in some situations it's more rational to lower the wages. There is a trade-off between job security and efficiency. In times of technology-driven major change, unions are an interesting problem.

Could developing countries benefit from this, and who would profit most, the West or developing countries?

Rosedale: Developing countries have less institutional hurdles for adopting this way of working. I've been reading the book The Rational Optimist [by Matt Ridly], which explains how technologically driven change is beneficial for humanity, and actually the developing world profits even more from technological change than the industrialized countries -- which means that technology helps narrow the gap.

More trouble for established media companies

Rosedale's vision is optimistic on a macro level and seemingly well suited for young, small and nimble companies. But his points also made me understand that big, established media companies may be in more trouble than they realize.

Today's media companies are increasingly becoming technology companies. So while the big, established companies find it difficult to lower their cost structure and change their legacy organizational structure, newer start-ups are adopting transparent methods that enable them to develop technology much faster and cheaper.

Chances are that they will be the champions in an era of mobile, ubiquitous media.

Image of Agile process via Wikipedia

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife, Liesbeth.

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September 22 2010


The Challenge of Digital Media in the Classroom

This fall, over 70 million students headed back to school in America, of which 50 million are going to public elementary and secondary schools, and a record 19.1 million are enrolled in colleges and universities. These students are wired as never before -- in school, at home, and at every stop in between. It is now commonplace to see third-graders with their own cell phones, and even junior high schools expect students to work from a laptop with an Internet connection.

19cover-sfSpan.jpgBut at the same time digital technology is a hot topic in education, it's hotly debated in faculty lounges and parent-teacher conferences, and increasingly, in the broader culture. (The September 19 issue of the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to a dizzying array of articles on the subject.)

The educational benefits of the new technology are more than apparent. Today almost any school in America, however poor or remote, can possess the equivalent of the greatest library in the history of the world, simply by virtue of the Internet. Students can go online to pursue advanced study, and join collaborative communities to add to the world's store of knowledge. Creative platforms allow young artists and performers to publish and exchange their work.

But digital media also present some educational downsides, both in terms of personal behaviors and classroom dynamics. The formal research is still young, but anecdotes abound. Teachers and professors are in a quandary about student use of laptops in a wired classroom. Many students claim that their computers are necessary for note-taking, but they also sneak looks at Facebook updates and instant messages during the lesson. The problem can become even more acute at home, where students increasingly do their homework by computer. Students have the illusion of multi-tasking as they bounce from algebra to digital games to Facebook and back again.

Multi-Tasking Myth?

Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and aging at UCLA Medical School, is among many scientists who argue that digital multi-tasking is a myth, and holds particular dangers for the young. In one online interview, he explained, "Young people who multitask can complete the task more rapidly, but they make more errors, so we're becoming faster but sloppier when we multi-task."

In addition, he said, "There is another mental process related to multi-tasking that's often called partial continuous attention. Here we're not just doing two or three tasks at the same time, we're scanning the environment for new information at any point and this is a process that I think is becoming very popular now that we have all these new electronic communication gadgets, cell phones, PDAs, computers, the Internet."

Small believes that multi-tasking can contribute to a state of heightened mental stress, which may affect learning and recall.

The problem is by no means limited to America. Maria Mendel, an education professor and vice rector of Poland's University of Gdansk, believes that the misuse of computers may compromise the study of subjects that require prolonged concentration. Poland has a history of producing world-class mathematicians, but Mendel sees the impact particularly in math.

"Many students today have a harder time with complex mathematical formulae, because they're not used to linear thought patterns," she said. "They're used to one-click solutions, and want to intuit answers instead of working through the steps. That just doesn't work for higher mathematics."

Computers in the Classroom

3613743657_414a3ebfdf_m.jpgThe role of computers in the classroom is also under review. Many U.S. schools have invested heavily in technology for smart classrooms in recent years, and the devices are undeniably effective for many functions. But in too many cases, schools have installed the hardware without adequate consultation with the teachers. In some classrooms, the screen may cover the whiteboard, so the teacher can't project and write at the same time. In others, the orientation towards the screen may limit students' interaction with the teacher and each other.

Early generations of this technology approached the question from the perspective of "screen as instructor." But Web 2.0 culture is bending that perspective in the classroom as well, where online tools are promoting an increasingly collaborative environment. Fixed rows of seats facing a "Wizard of Oz" screen just aren't going to make it -- but instructors are going to need a lot more help from the classroom design side to adapt.

Even the most obvious advantage of online media, the retrieval of information, has its issues. It's no secret that readers of all ages prefer to read shorter material online. With longer texts, the reader tends to take in less of the sentences and paragraphs, with compromised retention, and attention that flags after the initial screen. This generalization is supported by various pockets of research, such as Jakob Nielsen's eye-tracking studies -- though far more research is needed.

Serious students who want to read a long online text carefully usually print it out for best comprehension. (This is more than borne out by my own informal experiments with three years of 75 graduate students, who report that they retain far more of long, complex articles on the page than online.) The readers themselves are uncertain why this is so. Is it:

a) Because type displayed on a backlit screen is less crisp than the printed page's? (This issue could be ameliorated in the next generation of e-readers.)
b) The distraction of hyperlinks and online advertising?

c) The practice of switching between screens and losing one's place more easily than in the linear experience of a print-out?

d) All of the above?

Some enthusiasts claim that learning will move away from the text and towards the moving image. They point to the iPad's emphasis on images as indicative of the path ahead. Nonetheless, linear text is bound to be with us far into the future, especially for intellectual and professional pursuits (such as the law) that require its mental discipline.
These questions must be seriously addressed if we want these cognitive abilities to contribute to our culture.

Distance Learning Coming of Age?

Modes of online learning are also under discussion, as explored by a Columbia student research team. There are bright spots on the horizon. One exciting new study from the Center for Global Development explores the ways mobile phone applications are advancing literacy in Niger. Voice recognition software, such as that used by the wildly popular Rosetta Stone language lessons products, has transformed the process of learning a language, and multiplied the number of languages commonly available for study. But education is also littered with computer-based learning programs that are little more than multiple-choice drills. These may be helpful for rote learning tasks such as typing and addition, but don't offer much in the way of critical thinking.

In recent years, online learning has been joined at the hip to a discussion of distance learning (once the purview of televised lectures and the "correspondence courses"). A number of for-profit institutions have sprung up that have made particular inroads in "teaching to the test." The courses hold a special attraction for students who need to pass qualifying examinations for licenses for anything from massage therapy to real estate, but they also enroll legions of students in more traditional academic fields.

The Federal government recently launched an investigation of America's largest online universities, including Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix, which enrolls 500,000 students on its "eCampus." These for-profit institutions have been accused of deceptive practices, including misleading applicants with inflated claims about their programs, their accreditation, and job placement rates for their graduates.

Brick-and-mortar universities have put new energy into online distance learning as an additional means to weather the recession, but many of the pedagogical techniques are still under experimentation. Some institutions may pause at the memory of a Columbia-led consortium that launched an online experiment called Fathom.com in 2000. It assembled an impressive roster of educators, but closed in 2003 after it failed to identify a workable business model.

On the other hand, Great Britain's Open University, established in 1969, has achieved a reputation for excellence, while Australia has led the way in primary and secondary-level distance learning in service of its far-flung students -- both emphasizing their online components in recent years.

In the U.S., MIT has led the way in presenting free online lectures by star faculty to enhance its brand, while a number of universities are building out campuses on Second Life. Britain's Open University has pioneered the integration of Second Life and other virtual reality platforms into its curriculum, and has launched special initiatives to serve housebound and disabled populations.

Educators are seeking criteria to discern which applications most benefit which kinds of learning. Tools for evaluation are scarce on the ground, and the literature is scattered. It's also clear that more research is urgently needed on the effects of digital media on cognition and the personal interactions that lie at the heart of education.

In January 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study reporting that American children aged 8 to 18 spent an average of seven-and-a-half hours a day on electronic devices -- virtually every waking hour outside of sleeping and school. As William Powers points out in his recent book, "Hamlet's Blackberry," this digital time comes at the expense of face time with family and friends, physical exercise, and the experience of the natural world.

Our society's all-encompassing digital wallpaper constitutes an education in itself. We need to know far more about how it shapes the mind and prompts the appetites if we hope to use it wisely.

Photo of students working at computers by vancouverfilmschool via Flickr

Anne Nelson teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and consults for a number of foundations on media issues. She's on Twitter as anelsona. She was a 2005 Guggenheim fellow for her recent book, ""Red Orchestra: the Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler."":http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/books/review/Herzog-t.html

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June 01 2010


TechSoup Webinar: Get Started with TechSoup's Product Donation Program

Does your nonprofit or public library need better technology? Wish you had the latest version of that pricey software? Or sturdier hardware?

Learn more about TechSoup's product donation program and how to get started with this free webinar. Join TechSoup, get registered, learn what it means to be qualified and eligible for different donation and discount programs, and start requesting donations.

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May 06 2010


TechSoup Webinar: Using Second Life to Collaborate and Connect

The virtual world of Second Life is a platform that is a 24/7 always-on online community where the world’s content is entirely user-generated. It’s a 3-D immersive space that is used by a global audience to build experiences, offer trainings, connect with friends and collaborate with colleagues. It’s an exciting medium that is becoming more ubiquitous and TechSoup’s Nonprofit Commons in Second Life is the community to teach Nonprofits and NGOs how to collaborate and get acquainted with working to raise funds, augment your communications and procure volunteers in this cutting-edge environment.

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March 30 2010


Milton Wolf Seminar: Parting thoughts on NGOs as newsmakers, fragmentation in the media field, and the politics of platforms

Times are changing rapidly for the fixtures of international diplomacy: NGOs, media outlets, and governments. As news organizations shrink and cut back on foreign reporting resources, more NGOs are finding themselves in the unusual position of producing news themselves to get their messages out. As the way we consume news fragments onto new platforms, NGOs and governments struggle to reach a mass audience. I spent time thinking about these challenges while attending the Milton Wolf Seminar in Vienna earlier this month, and since. Here are three thoughts I took away from the trip.

NGOs as newsmakers

In terms of the future of news, the biggest takeaway from the seminar for me is what felt like an inevitable shift in who will produce our international news. American television news has largely been reduced to parachute-in coverage of disasters. Newspaper foreign bureaus are mostly gone. Faced with the alternative (of nothing), NGOs with experts on the ground have an attractive potential to produce valuable news. And it’s already happening: Panelists pointed to Human Rights Watch’s work during the 2008 Georgia-Russian conflict as an example. Work by many NGOs in Haiti reached a broad audience through organization blogs and Twitter feeds.

That’s not to say there aren’t huge challenges. Thomas Seifert, a foreign correspondent for the Austrian daily Die Presse said he felt duped by an NGO with an agenda early in his career. A journalist arriving in a foreign country with little background knowledge of the political landscape could easily miss underlying motivations, Seifert said. NGOs need to be credible, and journalists need to be able to tell the difference between organizations.

Kimberly Abbott, a communications director at International Crisis Group, offered more hopeful examples of partnerships between NGOs and news organizations. Abbott described a story from 2006, in which ICG provided 60 Minutes with all of the component parts necessary to construct a heart-wrenching story about a young boy who fled his village to escape the violence in Darfur. The story went on to win an Emmy. Abbott pointed to another story, which she’s written about for the Lab, in which Ted Koppel explained how Nightline worked with ICG to produce a story about the Rwandan Genocide.

A fragmented field

Simon Cottle, a professor of media and communications at the Cardiff School — who has written for the Lab about how NGOs tailor their message to get media pickup — described the fragmented media field as one of the new challenges NGOs face. New media has become important, but it has joined a larger, still ongoing system of news; television and print media are still important. With all of these forms of media, it becomes important for NGOs to have a multi-faceted strategy of reaching an audience. For news outlets, it’s a reminder that consumers are getting their information across platforms, from many outlets and in an interactive way.

Transparency International’s Georg Neumann described taking on this change in the media landscape as an attempt at starting conversation. Joining the the entangled web of media (new and old) means no longer just using the top-down approach of handing off a report to a few key reporters. NGOs have to join in with the audience. He describes here how one of their efforts proved more successful using both new-media and traditional-media promotional strategies.

The politics of platforms

One idea that struck me during the seminar was brought up by by Silvia Lindtner, a graduate student at UC Irvine with a background in design. She described the need to be mindful of the politics and values embedded in the new tools and new platforms we use to consume news. Twitter and Facebook have their own values built into the platforms that seem to fit in with American democratic values — but what could they mean for audiences abroad? What values will come along with the next big media tool?

It’s an issue already under consideration by the State Department, Victoria Horton, a recent USC Annenberg School graduate noted. Horton, who studied virtual worlds while completing her master’s, said that in her research of Second Life, she learned that the State Department was actively engaging with the creators and backers of virtual worlds. When we’re talking about media consumption, it’s worth considering what messages the tools send themselves, rather than just the content.

March 12 2010


9 Tools to Help Live-Stream Your Newsroom

"We'd like to write blog posts, but don't have time."

That's the oft-heard lament in newsrooms. More and more traditional journalists recognize the benefits of blogging and social media, but many just can't figure out how to add them to their existing workload.

I have a solution that seems to work in our newsroom. When faced with this issue, I recommend colleagues do everything they usually do, such as have brainstorming sessions, take part in editorial meetings, do research and collect web links -- except now they should do it publicly.

So now, for example, brainstorming can be done with a wiki-like tool, and notes from a meeting or background research can become a blog post. Instead of saving bookmarks as private "favorites" in a web browser, you can publish them as social bookmarks. Ideas and discussions can be expressed as blog posts or as status updates on social networks.

I call this approach "live-streaming the newsroom." It was the subject of a three-day workshop I recently gave in Moscow. I was brought there by two Russian media NGOs: Eurasia-Media, the media training department of the New Eurasia Foundation, and the Foundation for Independent Radio Broadcasting (FNR).

Below is an overview of the tools we used and discussed during the workshop. We also put them into use to cover the "end of the line" of several Moscow subway lines (an approach that was inspired by a project by The New York Times).

Tools for (Almost) Instantaneous Blogging

  • Mindmaps In preparing the project, I published a MindMeister mindmap that charted out various social media tools. The map was published as an open wiki, and, as a result, people have added useful information. My colleague and co-organizer Charles Maynes at FNR also translated some key nodes into Russian. For the Moscow subway project, we made yet another mindmap.
  • Posterous/Tumblr Between classic blogging and micro-blogging services such as Twitter, there are new possibilities that allow for rapid blogging in short or long formats that also incorporate multimedia. We used "Posterous"http://www.Posterous.com, though we also could have used Tumblr. These platforms enable bloggers to post using email. Simply attach pictures, audio files or a link to YouTube, and Posterous integrates it all into a post. Here's how we used it on our workshop blog, newsroomru.
  • RSS Reader While preparing the workshop -- and during the workshop -- I used Google Reader as a feed reader and Diigo as social bookmark platform. I like the fact that Diigo enables you to create public or private groups. Have a look at the MixedRealities group.
  • Twitter During the event, I commented on the workshop using Twitter. I used the hashtags #newsroom and #newsroomru.
  • Photo/Video Sharing Flickr is extremely useful for various reasons: You can select the appropriate Creative Commons license for re-publishing pictures, and publishing pictures on Flickr can also attract new visitors to your site or blog. For video, we used YouTube. We shot using semi-professional videocameras as well as the Flip video camera, which enables fast and easy recording, editing and publishing.
  • Audio Sharing Are your colleagues still hesitant to write their own blog posts? Talk to them and record your conversation using AudioBoo (using either a laptop or an iPhone), and publish the result instantaneously via Posterous.
  • Chats Why not discuss coverage, or even the preparation of coverage, in a moderated chat session? We tried out CoverItLive on the workshop blog (on Posterous) and it worked perfectly. Within the CoverItLive interface, you can integrate streaming video (I showed Ustream), Twitter feeds and Twitter lists.
  • Twitter I think it's essential to recontextualize services like Twitter. For example, try curating with Twitter by using lists. Posterous can also be recontextualized by easily integrating into some of the major blogging platforms. Diigo, Twitter, Flickr etc can also be aggregated in a FriendFeed stream, which one can embed easily on a site or blog. No scripting knowledge required...
  • Community We also thought about how to keep in contact after the workshop ends and the participating journalists go home. Then there's the larger question of how to set up a platform for your media community. We used Ning to create the newsroomru group. Maybe we'll also use Second Life for synchronous immersive encounters in the future. (I also briefly demonstrated Second Life, which recently made it much easier to integrate web content.)


All the above mentioned tools only become game changers in the newsroom if journalists stop thinking that they should only publish a nearly perfect, finished product. Newsgathering is an ongoing process. It's great to publish perfectly crafted articles, videos and audio -- but this should not stop us from streaming the production process.

It will, of course, be difficult to do this for some investigative work; but I think many projects can benefit from bringing your community into the brainstorming phase. It hardly takes any time at all.

Most of the things a journalist does to cover his or her beat can be live-streamed using the above mentioned tools, among many others. The value is that the audience will give you helpful suggestions, and practicing transparency will lead to increased credibility.


How do you integrate social media into the workflow of the newsroom? Which other tools would you use? And don't forget that you can still add to our social media mindmap wiki!

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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March 08 2010


Zooming the news: Is Seadragon a new news interface?

Frédéric Filloux has an interesting piece in this week’s Monday Note (which, if you’re not already reading, you should be). It’s on Microsoft’s work on Seadragon, which is a piece of tech that allows “infinite zooming”:

This is what Seadragon is about: it lets you dive in an image down to the smallest detail. All done seamlessly using the internet. The Seadragon deep-zooming system achieves such fluidity by sending requests to a database of “tiles”, each one holding a fraction of the total image. The required tiles load as we zoom and pan. And because each request is of a modest size, it only needs to cover a fraction of our screen, the process works fine with a basic internet connection.

Filloux argues that something like Seadragon might be a new interface for news:

In a prototype, they used a set of 6400 pages of the final editions of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the local daily that folded few months ago. Let’s picture this: a one year of a daily newspaper entirely shown on one screen. 365 days x 50 pages of newspaper on average, that is about 17 800 pages to navigate. At first, this collection is represented using a series of thumbnails that are too small to be identified. One click breaks up the stack by month, another click organizes it in a much more manageable set of weeks. Now, I pick up an issue and dive in…Unlike the hyperlink system I use when going from one page to another, in the Seadragon-based interface I’m not leaving my “newspaper”. I’m staying inside the same zoomable set of elements. As I land on a page of interest, again, I can zoom in to a particular story (which, in passing, reconstructs itself in order to avoid the “old-style” jump to the article’s continuation on another page).

I absolutely agree that we’re nowhere near a stable endpoint for how we present news online — there’s a huge need for innovation. (One of the things I admire most about Gawker Media, for example, is that they are willing to rethink basic elements like comments, post styles, and ad placement. And the chance to try new presentation forms is one of the most exciting things about the iPad.)

But I’d push back against the idea of a Seadragon-like interface being the future. Two reasons:

People don’t like immersive environments online as much as some would like to think. Compare the amount of hype Second Life got to the actual amount of use it gets today. (How are all those Second Life “news bureaus” doing today?) I remember back when VRML was the future, and that we would all by 2002 be spending our time walking through news corridors and news caves. Aside from World of Warcraft and other games, users have consistently been less interested in immersive experiences than technologists have. When we’re seeking information, as opposed to play, we’ve defaulted to something closer to flat navigation. I don’t think that’s the endpoint of news, but I think it’s an indicator that “diving deep” into a geographic news landscape might not be the metaphor that wins out.

The main problem with contemporary news navigation is discovery, not depth. Most news consumers are looking for interesting content, stories they’ll enjoy, photos they’ll like to look at, videos they’ll think are worth watching. One reason time-on-site is so low for news sites is that, when a story grabs someone’s interest, news sites do a bad job of showing them other stories that will grab it again. News organizations produce a ton of content, but it’s difficult to present it all well to readers. That, to me, is the big challenge, not the need for the sort of depth that an infinite-zoom metaphor might provide.

But that’s just my quick take. What do you guys think: Is something like Seadragon doing to be a big influence on how we navigate news in the near future?

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