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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.

February 7, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

If We're Lucky, You'll Get Through This Sentence

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.

January 31, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Super Tuesday

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.

December 27, 2007

Filed under: journalism»new_media

The Iowa Caucuses, Explained

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.

December 21, 2007

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Wild Style '75

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.

December 5, 2007

Filed under: journalism»new_media

The Multimedia State of Mind

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.

November 21, 2007

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Electric Slide

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.

November 5, 2007

Filed under: journalism»new_media

9500 Liberty

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.

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Revenue Streaming

While the Writer's Guild is on strike over Internet residuals, this is a good time to talk about the role of video over the Internet for most content organizations. Now that CQ Politics has launched, multimedia will soon be on the way, so it's been on my mind quite a bit. Here is what I think content producers--and here I mean journalism, but it probably also applies to the entertainment industry as well--need to keep in mind:

You're not going to make any money off Internet video.

In the traditional sense of "making money," at least.

This doesn't make the writers strike any less reasonable--John Rogers explains that they're just trying to avoid the mistake they made when DVD emerged--but probably should be foremost in the mind of print or old-media types who are trying to adapt to Internet trends. Stick with me.

Recently the Escapist's Russ Pitts told Ars what most online video services probably already know, which is that people are going to steal your stuff. Best case scenario is that they steal it because they love it, and they put it on YouTube and hawk your web site for you. Worst case is that they steal it and rebrand it and find ways to make money off it. The reason that this is the worst case is because online video (at least as we currently understand it) only acts as a loss-leader, getting people to watch the ads you're running or look at your other content (which, in all likelihood, pays for itself with ad revenue in turn).

As an almost unrelated note, let's make the point that you can't stop people from stealing your content. You can make it a bit more difficult for them, but this will probably require annoying your legitimate users. And since your video is, as I just said, a loss-leader, you can't afford to annoy your users. The Bank always tried to protect itself with B-SPAN by choosing to only stream RealMedia, which drove lots of people (including the production team) crazy. We could get away with it to some extent, because A) making money was not our goal, when all was said and done, and B) we usually gave the files to anyone who asked nicely. But that's not an excuse, and it doesn't excuse the attempt.

In any case, for those organizations who do have an actual profit motive, this whole chain of reasoning seems to only gradually become clear. In all the discussion about YouTube and web distribution, those who do not understand that video is a loss-leader for other projects are destined to be shocked by the practical implications of the technology (i.e., that running video online can be both expensive and logistically complicated). This leads to complaints about the Internet and the dire state of online publishing, all because they're asking the wrong question.

The real question of online video is not "how do we get this to make money?" It is "how do we produce video that will get people to come see our other products, which do make money?" or possibly "how can we use video to build brands that we can later leverage for actual money?" The answer to this, as with most online content, is to make really great, captivating content (which is easy to say but not so simple to do) and then give it away--and make it easy for other people to give it away. If you can add embed codes, do it. If you can make it available for download, do it. By all means, use standard delivery mechanisms. The easier it is for people to include your video (with credit and linkage) in a blog post or a web page, the more likely they'll do that instead of stealing it, and the more likely that you'll see those eyeballs eventually make their way to the pages that actually pay the bills.

Future - Present - Past