Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Review: “The Digital Journalist’s Handbook” by Mark S. Luckie

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 29, 2010
Digital Journalist Handbook by Mark S Luckie

The Digital Journalist’s Handbook on Amazon 

It’s no secret we all need to tool up. And it’s no secret the thought of doing video or podcasts or data visualisations is pretty terrifying for anyone who’s just had a single discipline for much of their journalism career.

Enter The Digital Journalist Handbook, written by multimedia journalist and prominent digital journalist and blogger Mark S Luckie.

Mark’s the sort of guy with the right attitude: laid off from his staff job in the US last year, (which he says “devasted” him) he set about making the most of the opportunities presented by the digital revolution. He turned his blog (10000words.net) into a must read for any journalist – and then wrote this book.

“I was hungry and flat broke, but the book gave me something else to focus on and channel my energy into.”

Beats sitting at home watching Rikki Lake in your pants, right?

The very basics

The Digital Journalist’s Handbook is, I think, aimed at the complete novice in a range of disciplines. It gently introduces you into video, audio, flash, data visualisation, writing for the web, blogging and audio slideshows, assuming you had never heard of the terms before you picked up the book.

If you’re familiar with any of these disciplines you might find The Digital Journalist’s Handbook a tad frustrating.  But for the nervous novice, it’s a God send. For example, I didn’t get much from the chapters on blogging, video or audio, but as soon as I reached the dedicated chapters on Flash and Data Visualisation the learning began in earnest.

Mark introduces you to each medium, telling you how it’s used and what for and then offers practical advice on using the actual equipment involved. You’ll get introduced to Final Cut Pro, Audacity, Soundslides and Flash; just enough to get you started, but I think you’ll need the kit on your computer to really get the most out of it.

Support

The Digital Journalist’s Handbook is backed by a healthy dose of supporting materials. Clear diagrams and photographs adorn the pages, from a valuable visualisation of a video editing interface, to arguably over the top diagrams of a USB lead. But, then not everyone know’s what a USB lead is right?

And not content with a book alone, Mark has also created an excellent supporting website, referred to regularly within the pages, packed with extra goodies for readers, including extra tutorials and recommended software.

The ever changing  industry…

There’s a danger with publishing a physical tome for such a rapidly changing industry could put this book out of date too quickly, but after a thorough read through I think Mark S Luckie’s work will stand the test of time. Sure the industry will change around us, but for the forseeable future video, audio, slideshows, flash and data visualisation are permanent parts of the multimedia journalists tool kit.

The Digital Journalist’s Handbook is all about the practical skills, and doesn’t really touch on the all important mindset for the next generation journalist. It is a book written for journalists who want to make money the old way, on news desks or as a freelancer.

For more and more graduating students that isn’t a practical option any more.

However, even what I call Next Generation Journalists, looking for new work opportunities, would be foolish to pass over the skills contained in the Digital Journalist’s Handbook. Whatever path you choose, you’ll need the same skills.

Self-publishing

In true new journalist style, Mark has also shared how he made the book, a guide perfect for anyone thinking of self publishing:

“I decided to self-publish The Handbook to prove to myself and to others that it was no longer necessary to go through traditional channels to successfully publish and distribute a book.”

It wasn’t long before Mark was offered a staff job again, but he still keeps his hand in the blogging scene, and his posts are always worth checking out. Reflecting, Mark says he feels lucky to have lost his job when he did.

I think we should feel grateful too – without Mark losing his job, we’d probably be without this valuable (and currently unique) training handbook.

Have you read it? What do you think? Stick ’em in the comments below.

Click here to read The Digital Journalist’s Handbook

Fresh eyes: what can journalists learn from a web coder?

Posted in Fresh eyes series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 2, 2010

What happens when you ask a film maker or a musician about the future of journalism? What skills can the next generation journalist learn from a branding expert? As part of Fresh Eyes experts in non-journalism fields cast their eye over the digital revolution and offer their wisdom.

Michelle Minkoff, journalist and web coder

Studying at Northwestern University’s School of Journalism, Michelle is on a mission to see how data and technology can come together to help the public. She has recently programmed her first app on Django; on her blog she unravels the mysteries of Computer Assisted Reporting and Data Visualisation, two of the most under valued parts of next-generation journalism. You can check out her portfolio here. Michelle’s ‘data-driven philosophy’ spells out what she’s all about.

Data & journalism: reporting, presenting and collaborating

Photo: Stewf on Flickr

As journalists, we spend our lives pursuing “the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media,” how Merriam-Webster defines journalism.

Another way to put that is “the collection of information that matters.” While there are many concerns about the changing nature of journalism, the Web helps us spread these collections faster than ever, and in more robust and interesting ways.
I’m about to complete my graduate work from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and I consider all the information we collect a form of data. I call myself a data journalist.

That’s not because I work with numbers a lot (although I do), but because I see the field as the craft of telling stories by organizing information in interesting ways.

Three facets to data journalism

I propose that there are three facets to more thoroughly integrating data journalism: via reporting, presentation and collaboration. Here are some tips on how we might be able to head in the right direction.

Reporting

  • When working our beats, just as we are taught to end each interview asking “Is there anyone else you know of that I should speak with? we should be asking the same of interesting data sources we should “interview.” Who knows if a city clerk will tell you about some report everyone else has overlooked, or a secretary can point you to a section of a Web site you haven’t yet seen?
  • Once you get a set of numbers, even from a press release, question whether you should take them at face value. We corroborate people’s quotes, we should corroborate numbers. That means double check their accuracy when possible, but also juxtapose data with per capita values, when appropriate. Sure, one college may graduate the most people, but it may actually be a much lower percentage than a smaller school graduating half as many, but 98 percent of their total class. I would argue omitting such information is tantamount to a fact error.
  • Compare past to present. Finding information across multiple years can often help you find a whole new story angle. Numbers usually go up or down, have some peaks and valleys. That trend probably isn’t your story in itself, but it can give you avenues for exploration.
  • Integrate data into your workflow. Don’t think of a certain group of reporters, or a certain beat, as being good for data. The New York Times’ Derek Willis put it this way on Twitter:”All news could benefit from knowing/considering CAR [computer-assisted reporting], but not all stories demand it be part of the end product.”
  • Use visualizations to help you understand information. Looking at millions of spreadsheet cells can be tiring. Using pictures of the data for analysis uses a different part of your brain, and can help you “get” the information. If you’re comfortable making the data public, try uploading the data and examining it with Many Eyes in your browser. Or, if you prefer, keep the data on your computer, and try out the newly-released Tableau Public.

Presenting

Now you have your story that incorporates data — whether it’s a statistic you’ve integrated into a breaking news brief or a year-long investigation with millions of records. Either way, you can make that information comprehensible to the public in a variety of pretty simple ways.

  • Remember that ManyEyes visualization you made in the last step? Embed it on your news site, and now users can play with it.
  • Use the Google Visualization API to make quick interactive graphs of all sorts. This uses Javascript, just put the appropriate code in the <head> and <body> sections of your HTML file. Not a coder? It can be as simple as copying and pasting the code Google provides (here’s one for a bar chart), and adjusting the data points. With this technology, tooltips that display the exact values of each node are generated automatically. If it works with your content management system, this is a technology that makes Web 2.0 almost simpler than generating an Excel graph.
  • If you have Web developers working at your newsroom, try to include them early on in the project planning process. Programming and journalism have a lot in common in that they require creativity, and attract people drawn to the pursuit of knowledge. Bringing both perspectives to brainstorming sessions will result in better projects. Web applications don’t have ledes or nut grafs, literally, but they give the user a starting point and the flexibility to pursue the story that matters most to him or her.
  • Encourage your audience to connect with your news organization. Present information in a visualization or a table, and make yourself available for users to present questions they have. Then, we serve the democratic function of a free press, improve community relations, and you’ve got some new story ideas! Involve your community and those with different backgrounds may see patterns you hadn’t considered.

Collaborating

  • Every fact you take in is a piece of data. But after your story, where does it go? What happens after you leave your news organization? How does the community maintain its connection to that information? It’s a valuable source, and cries out to be maintained.
  • If you’re willing to go public with your info, try creating a wiki at wikispot.org to collaborate with your colleagues. Also, community members can benefit from your information, and contribute to it, thus enhancing your repository of sources and information.
  • Prefer to keep the facts internal? Create a series of folders on your local network with folders for different beats.
  • Use a table or spreadsheet structure to label all the people you talk to, with information in separate cells: first name, last name, sure, but also cities lived in, occupations held, as much divisible information as you can find. Then, when anyone in the newsroom needs to talk to someone at x company, that source you used for a different story might be able to help you, or find someone who can.

How are you using data in your newsroom now? What obstacles are there to making it a more central concern? I’d love to hear your questions, thoughts, comments and suggestions — let’s chat in the comments, or you can find me at michelleminkoff.com.

Tomorrow: what can journalists learn from marketing and branding gurus?

Roundup: UK Future of News Meetup 2

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 25, 2010

Filming has kept me from putting together a write up of the first proper Future of News Meetup in London, which we held last week…but better late than never!

Since I opened the group in November, numbers have swelled to more than 200, and around 50 made it to the London School of Economics on Wednesday where we were kindly put up by the politics and society thinktank POLIS.

We were lucky to have two excellent speakers, both of whom are leading the way on the ground; two people who you won’t see at any conference.

From Data Visualisation…

First up, Cynthia O’Murchu from the Financial Times opened many peoples’ eyes to the power and potential of data visualisation. In the FT’s business of making complicated city statistics digestible, interactive graphics have played a big role.

She explained how they work with reporters across the FT, and how some took a while to understand the potential of data-viz. It’s an awesome branch of multimedia…but how many young journalists today are learning the design or coding skills needed to produce it?

Do they even need design and coding skills, or can it all be outsourced?

…to Berlin

Cynthia was followed by Alex Wood, a City University graduate who, along with four colleagues, is paving the way – simply by actually making stuff happen. He’s one of the names behind the superb Berlin Projectfeatured here in an earlier Ideas For the Future of News post. Although, that might be simplifying it a bit – Alex’s presentation revealed the technical, logistical and journalistic achievement of the  Project, and he revealed plans for a conference – which made the news right here.

We wrapped the evening up with some brainstorming to get everyone thinking of practical ideas for new news businesses – which is what the group is all about. I’m hoping we’ll fit in more of that in future meetups.

Future of News gets local…

And some fantastic news in the last few days, is the creation of not one, but three local off shoots to the London Future of News group. Judith Townend from Journalism.co.uk is working on a Brighton based group – check out the details from Sarah Booker here. Meanwhile in the West Midlands the venerable Philip John is planning a group, with others l0oking to take up the challenge in South Wales.

With four Future of News Groups now in action, the future is looking brighter indeed.

The power of data visualisation…

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 14, 2009

…even when the data is made up!

I posted a couple of weeks back some videos which make fantastic use of text on screen.

Well here’s another. Watch it, and you’ll learn about the power and possibilities of infographics…and a little bit about life itself:

Hattip: ISO50

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