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June 11, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Red Dog Group?

Well, no. It's the Republican Study Committee:

Who are rivals of the Blue Dogs, apparently, being at a serious disadvantage when it comes to fundraising right now. You can read the story here. When they found out that Alan was doing a story on them, they pretty much insisted on the same treatment. I like the design on this one--less animation, but also much less blatant white space while still remaining (hopefully) tasteful.

I hesitate to place the next link under "journalism," but I can't multi-category to "politics" in Blosxom, so here it goes: CQ's VP Madness, Democratic Edition. I wrote most of the code for this when we did it for McCain, and then added features this time for tracking your votes from round to round. I guess that makes it kind of the Family Feud of brackets, since the whole thing's a popularity contest. Great work was also done by the CQ Special Projects team on the graphic design and the database backend, which is obviously what really makes the thing tick.

May 19, 2008

Filed under: journalism»industry

I, For One, Welcome Our Tech Journalism Overlords

Ars Technica has been acquired by Conde Nast, who also own Wired Digital. They'll be expanding greatly but will remain independent. Sadly, they're not opening an office on the East Coast.

I'm not sure what this means for me--Ken's post seems to say that it will be basically business as usual, just for larger values of "as usual." At the very least, it looks like I picked a pretty good time to start contributing to them.

May 6, 2008

Filed under: journalism»industry

Heart Shaped Box

My problems with the Newseum are personal, I think. When I visited it with Belle and my parents last week, they had a good time. As did I, for the most part. But there are still a few things that bug me about it a little.

First of all, in a town stuffed to the gills with great free museums, it's hard to believe that they want $20 a head. I understand that it's a brand new building with state-of-the-art equipment, but I can't imagine many families choosing to visit it over the Air and Space, American History, or Natural History museums, which are also filled with some pretty neat--and probably more kid-friendly--materials. I'm not even sure I'd choose it over those museums, and I work in the news industry.

Second, several of the exhibits rub me the wrong way. Like the room on reporting history, sponsored by News Corp, which seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing journalistic errors, partisanship, or malevolence (and who benefits from that perception, I wonder?). More pervasively, there's a tone of self-congratulation to some of the rooms, like the section of the Berlin Wall that stands in the basement. Yes, journalism covered many groundbreaking events. But there's a fine line, for me, between acknowledging the role of journalism in spreading the truth, and crediting it with a crucial role in those milestones. The important story about the Berlin Wall wasn't the reporting of its fall, it was the activism that brought it down.

There's little modesty on display, is I guess my point, if that makes any sense. And part of the problem with modern journalism, in my opinion, is that it thinks it's a lot more important than it really is.

But for me the central irony of the Newseum--a last gasp by an industry rapidly being overtaken by the Internet--is that it probably would have worked just as well, or better, as a web site. Snarky, I know, and you can say the same about many museums. But take the Pulitzer photography exhibit: a few photos are blown up and hung with explanations on the wall, and that's genuinely interesting. But the majority of the exhibit is every prize-winning photo, printed at 5x8 scale and mounted in a mass around a central column with no particular organization or order. It's a bottleneck for foot traffic, and really a poor way to display what are supposed to be the best news photographs taken each year.

A Newseum Online wouldn't have to replace the current museum--there are always exhibits that work better in person, like the collection of newspaper front pages going back to the start of the United States. But there are many things, like the Pulitzer exhibit or the interactive features, that it could do with more depth and greater diversity. And as such, it'd serve the purpose of advocating for journalism far more widely than a $20 glass shrine behind the National Gallery of Art.

Bonus picture: While we're on the topic of the website, this is some fantastically poor subhead writing.

April 28, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media»video

No More Broadcast

Hey journalism: this is the Internet. Let's act like it.

Dumping video straight online is a flawed idea, I'm convinced. Not that it doesn't work, in the crudest sense of the phrase. But it's like using the Internet to sell rotary telephones. You're doing it wrong.

Whether we like it or not, the Web trains us to interact with content in new, non-linear ways. Take hyperlinking (please!): during the average blog post or news article at a relatively hip outlet, there will be lots of links inside the article, any of which basically derails the flow of the narrative onto a new, temporary track. That is a drastic change from the way journalists have thought about writing for years--so much so that I'm constantly being sent articles on "how to link" by coworkers who are trying to adjust.

Once you've spent enough time online, of course, this becomes second nature (making the forwarded articles more than a little tedious). In fact, it becomes addictive and even desirable--if nothing else, it lets you back up your assertions immediately, and synthesize it with other works. But the hyperlink does require you to understand that the medium is no longer a broadcast proposition, even for documents: you can't simply assume that people will read your piece start to finish. Instead, they're going to interact with it, drift away and come back as they follow their own path through the hyperlinked text.

Web video takes a step back from this. Sure, it's got a pause button, and when contained in a content-management system like YouTube it can be shared/linked/commented. But it's primarily a one-way street, especially as implemented by the majority of news organizations. I think this is part of the reason that media types are often particularly eager to leap onto the streaming video bandwagon: it feels familiar and controlled.

Here's my take: to do this right, we need to get past the broadcast mentality with web video, and move to something like smart videos, which incorporate some of the same non-linearity of web text. For example: while watching a video, you should be able to click for more information--the equivalent of an inline link. While someone explains something, you should be able to slide open a pane and explore the data behind their statements. When the video's over, you should be able to link to recent media on the same topic via an RSS feed. You should also be able to "skim" longer videos--jump through them by using an outline or overarching structure (B-SPAN had a primitive version of this, and the TED conference has a very nice interface for it).

This accomplishes a number of important goals. First, it appeals to viewers who, after years of surfing the Internet, really do have the attention span of a frightened mayfly. I've mentioned before that I doubt these people actually exist, but if they do, here's a way to keep them interested for a few more precious advertising-sellable seconds. Second, it turns the video into a dialog, and one that interacts with the rest of the site, where previously it was isolated from that content. Finally, it extends the lifespan of videos by making it possible for them to remain valuable as teaching and package resources even beyond when their intended topicality has passed.

The really good news is that this isn't hard to do. We've been working with BrightCove at work, and they provide a decent API for embedding their streaming video component into a custom Flash app that provides these services. Building it without BrightCove would be more frustrating from a service and bandwidth point of view, but isn't necessarily any more technically difficult. A few lines of code, a carefully thought-out index file written in XML, some attention to design, and you're all set.

There's really not an excuse any more, except that you don't have the time to do it. And that is, to some degree an acceptable excuse--we're all busy people, I know I am--but I don't think it will be acceptable for long.

April 8, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Blue Dog Group

The Blue Dogs have one of the most successful leadership PACs in the House at the moment, said the CQ story.

Great, I said. Who are the Blue Dogs?

One of the things I'm working on for CQ is "explainer" journalism. The publication goes out to a fairly rarified audience (or particularly unrarified, depending on your view of Congress), and so it often makes high assumptions about the legislative knowledge of its readers. But as my editor often points out, CQ's audience also includes the people who just started on the Hill 15 minutes ago--and even among the more experienced readers, nobody knows everything.

Unlike, say, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Blue Dogs are not self-explanatory. Yet they've become a swing vote on economic bills in the House, and we mention them a lot. So who are they? Who are the members, what do they care about, and why are they blue? To answer those questions, I put together this graphic:

The idea of "trading cards" came first, honestly. But as I thought more about how these lawmakers are a swing vote, I figured we could also use it metaphorically--we labeled it "Wild Cards: A CQ Guide to the Blue Dog Coalition."

Although it was posted Monday morning, I wasn't actually satisfied with the applet until the afternoon, when I added party unity information directly to the cards. That info had been delayed because I didn't have access to it in the database, so instead I was just linking to the relevant webpage. That works, but to me it defeats the purpose--if all I'm going to do is present CQ's existing member information, why not just link to those pages? The graphic supports the story much more clearly if the user can see the relevant stats directly, without having to open new browser windows. I had to write a screenscraper to pull it off our site--by this point, I'm getting pretty good at handling Flash, so I used Actionscript's RegEx support to translate the HTML into XML--and then integrating it into the cards was a relatively simple matter.

And yes, that's Wallace on the front card. We're hoping the fame won't go to his head.

April 6, 2008

Filed under: journalism»ethics»online

Swing or Spin

There are lies, damn lies, and press releases.

On April 1, Rochester University put out a press release about a researcher who has invented a new way to analyze a clarinet recording and turn it into a new kind of MIDI file for a physical modeling synth. The recording and the synth are not groundbreaking, but the analysis is mildly interesting if it can actually pull expression data from a recording.

Unfortunately, the PR flack didn't write that. Instead, he wrote "music file compressed 1,000 times smaller than MP3," and used provocative quotes from the researchers in question to imply that this technology could be the future of music. By the time Ars asked me to write about it, at least one news outlet had screwed up the story based on the release. Even after I interviewed the team leader and put something together, Wired had reproduced the faulty "1000x better than MP3 compression" headline on their Gadget Lab post.

I don't expect Wired to read Ars before posting to get the real story, of course. But the press release reads as instantly fishy to someone even with my limited digital audio education. It would be nice to have some confidence that a news outlet covering audio tech would be able to reach the same conclusions.

The real problem is twofold. One is that the flacks apparently felt comfortable writing a release about technology that they obviously didn't understand, and were willing to take liberties for a bit more controversy. But perhaps the more serious dilemma is that tech writers fell for it.

A couple of weeks ago, there was another article in Wired about the competition between Engadget and Gizmodo. These two gadget blogs are huge moneymakers online, and they're constantly racing to get the scoop on each other. This, it seems, is the lesson that some online news sources have absorbed: go faster, not deeper. But the opposite, I think, is a more valuable use of journalism online. It doesn't take any skill to do coverage fast--just a subscription to a press release service and a quick hand on the copy and paste. But expertise and a reputation for accuracy are what draw eyeballs. A couple of hours extra won't change that.

March 20, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

19lobby

This CQ story features an interactive Flash graphic by yours truly. The story is pretty cool journalism, in my opinion, and the graphic does several things that I think are noteworthy:

  • It's aware of the ID numbers that CQ uses to identify members of Congress, and uses them to dynamically load the member portraits and profile links from our database.
  • It uses XML for the profile descriptions and names. ActionScript 3 support for XML is fantastically powerful and easy to use. It would have taken much, much longer to do in AS2. And this way, other people can edit the data without having to recompile the code or know anything about Flash.
  • The graphic is also aware of FEC IDs for political candidates, and links those to the CQ Moneyline profiles. Between this and the member ID numbers, there's real potential to capitalize on CQ's best resource: its exhaustive database of information on lawmakers and the legislative process.
  • It uses Flash's "tween" system to fly things in and out and handle opacity changes on mouseover.
These are all pretty basic steps, but as a pretty basic Flash programmer, they were fun to put together.

The UI is almost all generated programmatically. This is partly because projects like this are very short-term, and so it's really just as fast for me to define everything in code as it would be to create something more maintainable. But it is also because, as I've learned in this and a previous project, Flash's UI elements can be frustratingly primitive. Items like textboxes and lists are not really fully-developed components, they're clever attempts at mimicking those components using Flash's vector graphics and event capabilities.

For example, the original idea was to make the lawmakers a simple listbox, and color gold those names with earmarks. Unfortunately, changing the color of a listbox in a selective fashion means subclassing the cellrenderer and creating new methods--you lost me at "subclassing," honestly. And Flash's datagrid is just a collection of listboxes, so it's much the same--no coloring or formatting individual cells without a lot of work.

Now in this case, the portraits turned out to be much better, even if it did mean writing my own mugButton object. But compared to other rapid development languages, this feels clumsy to me. I think if I were a full-time programmer, instead of someone who just has to dabble in it every now and then, it'd drive me nuts.

Not to mention how obtuse the Flash IDE continues to be--and since the Flex SDK doesn't include the tween class or some of the components I wanted to use, I was stuck with Flash. Dropping into Visual Studio (to confirm that it is possible to interact with datagrid cells at a lower level there) is a stark reminder of the difference between Flash and an environment with rich, responsive code hints and real editing windows.

March 10, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media»video

Final Cut Dog

Thanks, Final Cut! That's a really helpful error message!

It's good to know that the project file that was perfectly valid when I saved it on Friday is now corrupted back to the last auto-save. Luckily, I'm basically done with those clips, but my plan to go back and add snazzy lower-thirds is now shot.

Evidence online indicates that it may be a Leopard problem, but it is too early to tell, and may be completely unrelated. So I'm trying to resist the urge to point out that Vista may make me walk through six or seven extra networking dialogs, but it has so far resisted the urge to eat my media projects whole.

That would be hyperbole on both parts, actually. Vista may not have done it, but Pro Tools on either OS X or WinXP certainly had no compunctions about disappearing files when it wanted to, and I still get calls from the team at the Bank sometimes to help them fix problems. As far as I'm concerned, it just points out the real problem with any kind of platform advocacy: computers are not your friend, no matter who made the operating system or how cuddly the icons are. Forgetting this fact probably means a visit from the gaping maw of Final Cut Dog or his destructive, error-laden siblings.

March 4, 2008

Filed under: journalism»articles

Sounding the Depths

My review of Sonar is now up at Ars Technica. Technically, it's a review of the Studio edition, because I'm a cheapskate. But it's pretty comprehensive (7 pages) and includes lots of pictures, if that kind of thing is important to you.

March 3, 2008

Filed under: journalism»communication

Record Time

Here's one of the things they don't tell you when you go to buy a cell phone: how easy it is to record calls. But for a journalist, that's really important. Not in a sinister sense, obviously. For interviews, you want a record for your notes, or sometimes to transcribe at least partially. I've been able to do a pretty good job in the past with just a pencil and paper in the past, but it requires a lot of concentration. Recording frees an interviewer up to pay more attention and work on followup.

A few weeks ago I bought a RAZR on eBay. I wanted a phone with a camera and Bluetooth, in case I saw something while I was out and didn't have my real digital camera. The phone has some good points, and some annoying features--its frustratingly terrible battery meter comes to mind. Still, I didn't think--until the other day, when I scheduled an interview for Ars--about how I was going to hook it into a recorder.

The RAZR doesn't have any kind of physical connection for a headset. It's all meant to be over Bluetooth, which is great for wearing one of those little earpieces that makes you look like a schizophrenic, but doesn't do me much good. In fact, it turns out, it's a total disaster.

Now the way I normally record phone calls is by using a $20 gadget that I bought from Radio Shack, which goes between the handset and the main unit. I always thought this was one of those things where I was just playing it by ear until I got to CQ and saw that everyone had exactly the same Radio Shack phone tap on their desks--if we're doing it wrong, we're all doing it wrong together. You can get something similar for cell phones, but they've got to have an earphone jack, which again, the RAZR doesn't.

So the interim solution was going to be to pair the laptop with the phone as a Bluetooth headset, then talk through the laptop using one of those cheap voicechat headsets, piggybacking on the soundcard to get my recording. Messy, laggy, and not incredibly confidence-inducing the way a hunk of wire would be, but I tested it at home and eventually got it to work.

Went to do the interview tonight, got everything paired, and: the sound would not go from my headset to the phone. I could hear everything, and the Windows mixer was seeing input. But it wasn't making it across the Bluetooth connection. Luckily, I was testing it with my voicemail instead of during the call, but since I really want to write this piece up as a transcript (or at least use extensive quotes), I had to call the interviewee and reschedule for a Skype session tomorrow night. I've recorded those in the past, and know that I can get it to work properly. Still, it's embarrassing and unprofessional to have to go there in the first place--not a high mark for my interview technique.

I don't know what you can learn from this, except A) Bluetooth continues to drive me crazy, B) always test your interviewing setup relentlessly, and C) sometimes there's just no replacement for a landline. But it is an educational experience: when I work on setting up multimedia opportunities for other reporters at CQ, I guarantee I'll be keeping this in mind. Is my solution reliable? Does it require a lot of setup or know-how? If not, I'll find some other way. It's easy to complain about luddite journalists, forgetting that they need to be able to capture moments with only a moment's thought in order to do their job.

Future - Present - Past