Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

10 free and totally legal programs every multimedia journalist should have

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on February 9, 2011

Image credit: BinaryApe on Flickr

The multimedia journalist’s toolbox is ever growing – and getting ever cheaper.

While some of the top flight bits of kit: Adobe After Effects, Final Cut Studio and the like are still priced at hundreds of dollars, there are a growing number of cheaper or even free alternatives.

As much as I am big on net neutrality, I personally don’t agree with pirating software – it is very costly to develop and as a professional journalist, I think you should always work professionally. So that’s why free programs are awesome – here’s a list of 10 you can download right away. All of these I use personally – and very regularly: they’re good.

10 free and totally legal programs for multimedia journalists

.01 MPEG Streamclip 

What it does: Put simply,  MPEG Streamclip is a video transcoder and compressor. It takes a video file and converts it into a smaller, bigger, different video file to suit your needs. I use it to compress the HD footage from my DSLR camera into a smaller high quality file so Final Cut Pro can handle it for editing.

Why you should have it: If you’re involved with the shooting or editing of video, MPEG Streamclip is a big problem solver. If you’ve got a film shot in .mov files, but one .avi file from another source, MPEG Streamclip will convert it. It’s also vital for making sure all your video uses the same codecs. You can also use it to resize footage.

How to get it: MPEG Streamclip is produced and published for free by Squared5. To download it for Mac or Windows, click here.

.02 GIMP 

What it does: The comedy name stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program: it’s basically a powerful alternative to Adobe Photoshop, released under the GNU philosophy of free software ownership. It does practically everything Photoshop does.

Why you should have it: While, if I were a professional photojournalist, I would still get something all powerful, like Photoshop with Lightroom, GIMP is perfect for editing photos for the web, or for creating graphics. I use it to resize, manipulate and layer photographs for this blog, videos and the web; I also use it to design logos and layers for my Motion Graphics work.

How to get it: I don’t recommend Googling GIMP (who knows what you’ll find!); Instead click here to download GIMP 2.6, the latest release.

.03 Audacity 

What it does: Audacity edits audio in lots of ways and is particularly effective for editing speech. It’s used in plenty of radio newsrooms around the world as an alternative to Adobe Audition. It allows for multilayered editing and lets you add plenty of professional filters to your audio.

Why you should have it: It’s useful as a simple converter (to turn a big .WAV file into a nice .mp3) but you’ll get more value from it if you’re editing podcasts or audio slideshows or using audio regularly in your work. It’s a bit tricky to get used to though, so give it time.

How to get it: It’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux and is also released – for free – under the GNU licence. Click here to get a copy.

.04 FrameCounter 

What it does: How many frames in a second? Well 24 usually (which is actually 23.98); or maybe it’s 30 (which is actually 29.97); unless of course you’re shooting at 60 frames per second. So how many frames in 15 seconds? Ummm… FrameCounter is a neat program from the Apple App Store which does the unpleasant maths for you.

Why you should have it: I’m crap at maths. That’s unfortunate when you shoot and edit video because there’s a fair bit of adding and subtraction to be done adding up frames. The Frame Counter’s a useful go-to tool for getting your sums right.

How to get it: Unfortunately this is only (as far as I know) available through Apple’s new App Store for computers.

.05 AudioHijackPro 

What it does: Audio Hijack Pro solves that tricky problem of recording audio straight from your computer’s soundcard. For example, trying to record an interview on Skype usually requires feeding a cable from your headphone socket to a separate recorder. Audio Hijack Pro records whatever noise your computer makes and saves it as a file for editing. It does of course mean you could record licenced material (like music) straight from your computer, a flaky legal area.

Why you should have it: It’s useful for recording interviews or the audio from videos/live-streams.

How to get it: Audio Hijack Pro is produced and published by the hilariously named Rogue Amoeba. Click here to download a copy. The free version gives you 10 minutes of HQ recording, after which the sound quality starts to downgrade.

.06 Firebug 

What it does: Firebug is a browser plugin for Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and others. Installing it lets you view and edit the HTML and CSS of any web page and get a live preview of how that edit might look. Fancy seeing how your favourite news website would look like in Comic Sans? Firebug shows you.

Why you should have it: Japes aside, Firebug is a fantastic tool for web designing. Say you’re creating a new online magazine: you’ve installed a WordPress theme and want to mess around with the look. You can use Firebug to test out different colours/fonts etc without affecting the stylesheet itself. You can also see how the code of a web page has been laid out.

How to get it: You’ll need a compatible browser, like Firefox or Chrome, but with that installed, just look for the relevant plugin directory and go from there!

.07 Wisestamp 

What it does: Like Firebug, Wisestamp is a popular, free, plugin for advanced browsers. It creates a customisable email signature which you can attach at the bottom of your emails.

Why you should have it: Branding is increasingly important for many Next Generation Journalists, but how do you make your ‘brand’ standout among a sea of emails? Wisestamp lets you customise the colour, fonts and style of your signature and include a logo image. You can easily create social media buttons which link directly to your Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn and WordPress feeds.

How to get it: You’ll need a compatible browser, like Firefox or Chrome, but with that installed, just look for the relevant plugin directory and go from there!

.08 Instapaper 

What it does: Instapaper is an online storage for those websites you just don’t have time to read. A button in your browser lets you save the page in one-click and read them later.

Why you should have it: As a journalist working primarily online I surf through dozens and dozens of websites a day. Serendipity occasionally brings me to something unexpected and interesting, but not something I have time to read straight away. One click and I can save it til later. Instapaper lets you archive webpages in folders too, so you can store links relevant to specific stories you’re covering. I usually save an hour or so on a Sunday morning to have a look at my saved websites.

How to get it: Instapaper is accessible as a plugin to most browsers. Alternatively you can save a javascript link as a tab in your browser. Head to the Instapaper website for more.

.09 JDarkRoom 

What it does: This is one of my favourite discoveries from the past year. It works to make your high powered computer, with all its buttons, dashboards, start menus look like one of those computers from the 1980s – you know, with the black screen and green text. Whatever you write is saved as a non-formatted text file.

Why you should have it: When I’m writing, I need to concentrate. That’s hard when you’re writing into a blog post, where the email tab is just a click away; or inside a word processor with countless distractions, like font size and colours. If you need to concentrate on the words alone, JDarkRoom clears everything else from your screen. The chunky green text is actually a very pleasant writing experience too. If you’re a writer your productivity will go up I promise!

How to get it: There’s a slightly better version called WriteRoom, which is available on a free trial and $24.99 afterwards; JDarkRoom however is completely free. It’s produced by the CodeAlchemists and you can click here to download.

.10 Quicktime 

What it does: Why have I added Quicktime to this list? We all have it anyway right and it just plays .mov videos right? Wrong. Turns out Quicktime (on a Mac at least) is a bit more interesting than that. Did you know it can also record audio, video and even screencasts?

Why you should have it: You can use it to record footage from your webcam and Skype interviews. If you want to demo something on your computer, a screencast video is great.

How to get it: If you’ve got a Mac you should already have it. Again, a quick scout around the internet suggests this isn’t available for Windows users with quicktime. Sorry guys!

Of course, there are plenty of others too – including screen capture software, graphics software and writing programs. What ones have I missed off the list? Let me know in the comments!