A reporter who interviewed author Iain Banks is trying a journalism experiment: he's posted the source material from the interview online, along with the resulting article, and encouraged students to try writing their own version. Of course, I've always thought the hard part was the actual interview, not the writing, particularly if the person on the other side has done a lot of PR lately and has their answers all lined up. But maybe someone will find it helpful.
Speaking of Banks, the interview was prompted by his new Culture novel, Matter, which I just finished. It's not quite as good as Consider Phlebas or Player of Games, but it's a pretty good adventure yarn and Banks' writing is as sharp as ever.
News organizations don't think you have any attention span at all.
Allow me to disclaim: I'm not griping about my job. CQ's been very good about letting me edit things the way I think they should go, and offering great feedback on them.
But the conventional wisdom from most of the old-media types that I talk to or read says that any kind of video or animation or audio placed online should be less than three minutes long. Anything longer, apparently, and the potential audience for your video/animation/audio/cool new thing will all go off and watch Youtube clips of exploding hamsters instead.
This is simply wrong. But people stick to it, for two reasons. Faulty Reason Number One is the impression that visitors are probably browsing your site at work, and so they don't want to watch (to guess a number) six minutes of video for fear of the manager catching them.
It's easy to fall for this, because hey: people probably are browsing at work. Anyone who's got access to an hourly traffic report can tell you that. But the false dichotomy is to tie viewership at work to running time. I suspect that the real binary is far simpler: either you're comfortable spending a short break goofing off, or you're not. In the former case, in my experience, no-one looks at the time remaining before they start watching something. In the latter, they're not going to play with your multimedia no matter how short it is, so why base editorial decisions on them?
Besides: doesn't that player have a pause button? Has no-one ever hidden one window behind another one before? Unlike broadcast, Internet media is interactive and time-shifted: nothing says you've got to watch it all in one sitting.
Faulty Reason Number Two is that the Internet is somehow intrinsically only good for short bursts of reading/watching/interactivity. When you actually think about this, it doesn't make any sense. While web video may offer a lot of opportunities (such as social networking) that traditional video doesn't have, I don't particularly see how watching something passively on a computer screen is really any different from watching it passively between commercial breaks. Likewise, while the stereotype of bloggers is that they all write Instapundit-like haikus, there are plenty of successful writers online making long and thoughtful posts on a variety of subjects.
And people will watch or read or interact with long-running web media. Look at the Story of Stuff, everyone's favorite 20-minute long example. Why do people watch it? Because it's good. Because it doesn't feel like twenty long minutes of environmental hectoring. The deciding factor is, as it has always been, the quality of the material. The same goes, for example, for the TED lectures online. Sure they're long, but they're also really interesting talks from smart people. So who cares?
The myth of the ADD Internet has taken hold for a couple of reasons, but I think the primary one is that print and old media producers have traditionally looked down on the Internet. They see online media--blogs, podcasts, the whole lot--as a place where the uncultured masses seethe in an unruly mob, creating clumsy outbursts instead of leaving that to accredited cultural elites. And there's a lot of bitterness towards the Internet, not just because it puts all speakers on a near-equal footing, but also because it's destroyed the old sources of revenue. Classified ad space, to trot out another well-worn example, is hard to sell when Craigslist is free. And classified ads used to be a major revenue source for papers.
Simply put: that's not a problem with Craigslist. It's a problem with a business model that relied on classifieds to keep newspapers afloat. Bemoaning Craig Newmark's dirty hippie ways doesn't change the fact that publishers put too many eggs in that basket, and now they're paying for it.
Anyway, as I said, the deciding factor is still the quality of the material. The Internet just makes it easier to change the channel if you don't like what you're seeing. The shock to a lot of op-ed writers was that when confronted by a world-wide web filled with competing would-be columnists was that their material didn't measure up. The rejection got filtered through the perception of the Internet as a collection of miniature vulgarities, and so it was translated into the idea that "our carefully written opinions were simply too sophisticated for a 'web audience.'" Hence, everything on the Internet must be shorter and fluffier.
I've been lucky in that CQ has accomodated slightly longer running times on the work I've done so far, as long as I can demonstrate that the quality is there (which, editorially, is how it should be). I'm hoping to show that you can put something out there longer than seven paragraphs or three minutes, and it will still find an audience. Might even find a great audience of thoughtful people. You get the viewers you deserve on the Internet, I think. Underestimate your audience, and maybe it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
CQPolitics is doing a Super Tuesday special. The page isn't completely ready yet, but I've finished my primary (pardon the pun) contribution: an animation starring staff writer Bob Benenson:
It works on the same basic ideas as the Iowa Caucus slideshow, being kind of a mix between Zero Punctuation (without the profanity or speed) and Stephen Colbert's The Word (without being outright snarky), using a stream of visual frames to complement and interact with the spoken interview. There's also a Constitutional Convention joke, and you certainly don't see THAT every day.
In other work-related news, we've posted what I think is our first major multimedia special report at CQ, a layman's guide to the Iowa caucuses. I produced the slideshow (featuring caucus expert David Yepsen) and the sound clips for the Flash game. The graphics for the report container are also mine--obviously, the tabs at the top aren't anything to get excited about, but I'm very pleased with the campaign button on the initial page, which I created from scratch.
I've got this theory that the most important part of multimedia production is the ability to improvise--to make it up as you go along.
Now, granted, that's important for any creative job. Improvisation signals an ability to think critically about a problem, look at the tools at hand, and adapt them to the situation. Any problem-solver should be able to do that.
But those kinds of problems come up an awful lot in a multimedia context, especially on a budget and a tight schedule. Inevitably, you're going to find that someone's cell phone disrupted important footage, or you don't have the photos you need, or (in the worst case scenario) the tools won't actually do what you need them to do.
I think a lot of people come out of school unprepared for that kind of flexibility. I'm not entirely sure how you teach it. There have been advocates for "backpack journalism" for more than half a decade now, but I don't really see much evidence that it's showing results, or that journalistic institutions are taking the right lessons from it. Nor am I necessarily sure that improvisation is something that someone can learn, so much as they have to open themselves up to it.
Because in the end, at least for the process I have in mind, improvisation requires an atmosphere conducive to mistakes, and as a result, open to experimentation. It's not that mistakes should be encouraged, leading to sloppy behavior, but more that they can't be seen as the end of the world. They're a learning experience, and often an opportunity.
We are not very good at this as a culture, I think. We tend to think in terms of absolutes and perfection. And to some extent we've built a society that way--removing the safety nets that protect citizens from the risks inherent in change. When people discuss innovation in the public forum, perhaps in the context of regulation, remember that a lot of real innovation also comes from people who aren't afraid to mess up because they're comfortable with the risks.
Or as someone once said, remember that an economy (and a workplace) is made up of actual people.
Ever since I wrote those first couple of articles for Ars about UX Week, and especially after I covered the Future of Music Conference sessions, I've been getting e-mails from PR reps about music, UI, and tech news. I try to turn them down politely, since I don't have any intention about writing about a press release. It seems lazy to me, and I've done my time writing for the Man.
What is interesting is seeing who picks it up out in the more mainstream publications--they're clearly spamming these letters out to everyone who's ever written about a similar topic online. Someone at Wired can usually be expected to pick them up, for example. Ever wonder why Gizmodo and Engadget seem to share 90% of the same items, even if they're in competition? This is why. I don't really know how I feel about that. On the one hand, what's the harm? It's not like these are (usually) topics that lend themselves to investigative reporting ("My god! Deep Throat has led us to... A NEW CHEAP HD-DVD PLAYER!"). But on the other hand, I don't look at these sites quite the same way again.
The Long Tail author Chris Anderson had enough with PR spam one day, and published the 100 addresses he was adding to his block list. He noted in a followup post that a lot of this kind of thing is done automatically, via huge marketing databases available for hire. The PR reps that take the time to get to know people, or build their own lists, were much less likely to get indignant responses. But do they have as much success? Or, as in regular spam, do the hits outnumber the outrage by sufficient amounts to make the enterprise profitable?
The time and energy I would usually spend time writing here has recently been consumed by work--namely, writing new media strategies, proposals, and workflow plans for people to ignore. It's all terribly exciting. In any case, here is a post due to go up on the internal innovation blog any day now, in which I'm trying to address one of the typical problems of a newsroom moving online: the isolation of new media producers from the rest of the operation.
As Paul wrote a few entries back, the web boasts a lot of new opportunities for CQ to engage its audiences in new and powerful ways, and as he and Ken have noted, we've got a lot of new sources of data available to us. But I'd like to point out that it's not just about hiring creative technologists to hash these things out. In order to really move our journalism to a new level--to become, as was so elegantly put, "of the web"--it's also about creating a holistic approach to multimedia on an institutional level.
Which, I know, sounds terrifying. But perhaps it's easier than it sounds, because it doesn't mean revamping our methodologies here. It just means that we should incorporate a multimedia "state of mind." As I'm new to CQ, I hope you'll indulge me while I think out loud on the topic.
What do we mean by "multimedia?" At the World Bank Institute, my coworkers and I used the term to describe a wide variety of communication and learning tools, including (but not limited to): radio, podcasts, online video, DVDs and traditional video, interactive applications and displays, so-called "serious" games, self-running slideshows, and remote learning by chat or videoconferencing. Which is a lot to keep in mind, right?
Maybe the important thing to keep in mind is not that everyone here needs to go home and learn how to run all of this multimedia nonsense, or come up with the next big CQ.com features all on their own. There are people like me who exist to do that. At the same time, an institutional awareness of multimedia, and how you can contribute solely through the process of the job you already do, could make the quality of our new media output that much higher.
Let's say a CQ reporter, in the course of covering a story, tapes an interview for his or her own reference. Not everything there is going to make it into the story, of course. But could that recording be used for something else? Could it contribute to a podcast, or be incorporated into a slideshow? Or the story as a whole: would any of its material be easier to explain through an animation, or if it were tied to an interactive diagram? What about a web video? Is it possible for the reporter to snap a quick picture of an event, or dictate a few remarks that could come in handy later? That last link (to a Washington Post report on farm aid) is, I think, a great example of multimedia integration: it links audio from the reporters to a collection of Post stories on this topic, then even adds a feed of new stories that may be related to farm aid.
We are already taking a few steps toward this state of mind. The other day at a meeting, Paul presented a web applet being created here at CQ that displays congressional earmarks in a sortable, easy-to-interpret way. It was possible for the team to create that because the reporters come to them while they were developing the story, not just once it was finished. They were able to incorporate feedback between the print journalism and the web-based illustration that makes both sides stronger.
Obviously, there are limitations to this approach--a recording that includes remarks on background probably shouldn't be handed over to multimedia staff for security reasons, and not every story we do needs to be punched up with flashy animations and pointless AV materials. We should always remember that CQ has gotten its reputation based on solid, accurate, and timely reporting, and that will not change--'new media' or not.
Still, it's been my experience that organizations with an awareness--not an obsession, but an awareness--of multimedia are capable of using these communication tools with much greater effectiveness and coordination.
If you can't get enough of the luxurious sound of my voice (and honestly: who can't?), feel free to browse to CQ Politics today and see "The Tinseltown Sleaze Treatment," located in tab 3 of the home page (you can also click here for a direct link). This is the first multimedia slideshow ever made for CQ, on either the paid site or the free version, so while it is not terribly impressive on its own, it is a small step toward more elaborate productions.
Also: My review of the Blue Snowball USB Microphone has been posted to the hardware journal at Ars. I also shipped them an optional MP3 review, because I think it's helpful to actually hear the sound of the microphone, but at this time it looks like they opted not to use it. Since I suffer no such compunctions, you can listen to my review by clicking here.
The last article in the AudioFile series, Analog-to-Digital Conversion, is now up at Ars Technica. I'm starting work now on a Sonar review for Ars, but will otherwise probably only contribute journal entries or random articles.
Most of my contributions to Ars, including the AudioFiles, are also now available on my portfolio site, found in the sidebar.
If I'm right, and I think I am, online video isn't profitable in and of itself. But this also makes it an amazing medium for activism, which cares less about making money and more about inciting change. For example, see 9500 Liberty, a documentary on the immigration debate in Manassas, VA. The filmmakers are uploading clips as fast as they can shoot and edit them--eventually, I'm sure, they'll put it together in a completed form. But taking the video to the web, where a large audience is available and accustomed to short chunks of information, makes it possible to both document and influence the situation. That's pretty heady stuff.