Taking radio journalism online in a multimedia world

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Let me just say at the outset that I think the ABC’s response to the new digital media environment has been innovative and outstanding. Not only is their website full of fascinating content from their TV and radio networks but they have also started to produce innovative community projects like Pool, and their mix of commentary at Unleashed is terrific.

But it struck me when I clicked on a story at their website this morning that there is still a way to go. The story “Modern Mag,” from Radio Australia, about the launch of a new fashion magazine for Islamic women is on the news home page under “The best of the ABC” banner. It has a short description: “Aquila Asia is a fashion magazine aimed at Muslim women in South East Asia,” and a picture of a veiled woman (see pic above). When you click on it you get an audio player of the five minute interview with the magazine’s editor. It’s a good listen and challenges some misconceptions about contemporary Islamic women.

However it is – or should have been a visual story – a women’s fashion magazine is a visual medium and one of the main topics of discussion is the use of varied models which reflect the differences in the lives of Islamic women. It would have been a simple matter for the producer in prepping the story to ask for the editor to email a couple of sample spreads and images which could have been loaded onto the program’s website with a brief two para introduction. Or with permission these images could have been taken directly from the magazine’s website.

This would have had two effects: on air, the presenter could say, “If you want to know more about Aquila Asia take a look at our website,” and in the post-live online environment, the presentation of the audio with the addition of simple visuals provides a much stronger representation of the story. The presenter even refers to the magazine’s website during the interview without providing viewers with a web address. Again if the small story had been preloaded, this information would also have been available to readers.

I don’t deny that there are resource implications in this type of approach, but if the workflow is handled well they can be minimal. I have written before about how a multimedia approach demands a simple checklist that associates sourcing of multimedia elements with the traditional checklists already a part of all editorial pre-publication  workflows. As a transitional approach I am not even saying that all radio stories demand this type of treatment but radio producers do need to ask themselves: is this a story which needs additional visual material provided through our website. If the answer is “Yes,” then contemporary listeners will expect nothing less.

American public radio NPR are ahead of the curve in making this transition and show what a contemporary online radio environment should be like. They also have one of the only decent news apps for the iPad.

“The best of the ABC” can no longer be produced in simple one medium format – the best now demands a multimedia approach.

The story can be heard here.

And the Aquila Asia website, which is fascinating, can be found here. They even have a facebook page.

Make convergence part of all your editorial workflows

BAM premiers new film on Alexander Shuglin…The “father of ecstasy” is still a serious scientist hard at work in his home lab despite failing health.

Making the transition from print or simple broadcast to fully convergent, multimedia journalism is not easy and does involve a range of labour and other costs. But I am constantly amazed at how media organisations – from big well resourced mainstream orgs to new and innovative blogs – ignore simple steps because they haven’t come up with a convergent workflow checklist for their stories, which would enable them to quickly add multimedia reader value.

For example, given that many companies now post their film trailers on YouTube there is no reason not to include an embedded trailer with every film review. This is even more important when you are reviewing festival and independent films which may not get wide mainstream release. Cinematical is a great site that covers film culture from mainstream Hollywood to independent arthouse releases. They are a blog product of the new media age, yet even these new comers have failed to take simple – more or less cost free/time free – steps to integrate multimedia clips into their site which is about MOVING PICTURES!

I clicked on this fascinating review this morning of a new documentary about Alexander Shuglin the mavrick chemist behind the development of ecstasy. It’s just premiered at the New York’s BAMcinemaFEST and is unlikely to get to Australia anytime soon, so I immediately went to YouTube to see if the trailer or any excerpts had been posted. Sure enough the production company behind the film had posted the trailer a week ago, so Cinematical could have legally and quickly embedded the trailer in their review. This would have given me instant access to a taste of the film and would have kept me on the Cinematical site and encouraged me to explore it further.

All this requires is a different mindset and a new easy step in the final editorial workflow…. Byline. Check. Picture caption. Check. Embedded YouTube trailer. Check. etc. It certainly requires more than adding an embedded film trailer to a review to complete the move to a fully convergent media experience but unless media organisations begin to integrate these first, easy, cost free steps they will never be able to make the bigger moves.

So let me give you a taste of the film:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FA8ddx_iC_g&w=640&h=385]

The problem with iPad news apps

A turtle took a video camera for a swim and ended up on YouTube

I have been loving my iPad. Many of its features make reading the web a much more intimate, easy and pleasurable experience. However none of the mainstream news organisations – except perhaps NPR, which comes close – have managed to produce a fully functional app which matches the breadth and versatility of their respective websites. The real problem however is with sharing via blogging or social media sites.

Earlier today I came across a cute little story on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s new app about a Turtle activating a waterproof camera and taking it for a swim. The camera was found washed up on a beach in Florida and its contents were posted on YouTube. It’s hardly a breaking news story but it is a perfect light relief “share” story and my problems getting the word out illustrate some of the frustrations with the iPad as a creative reporting tool and some of the problems with current news organisations’ decisions around how to produce news apps.

Normally the Turtle story would have been easy to share because, unlike a number of other news apps, the ABC has good Twitter integration – including auto link shortening – for sharing stories straight from the app. However, the app story has no link to the YouTube video. The ABC is not alone here all news apps have decided to forgo links within their apps, so researching connections to related content is difficult. But if I was going to tweet this, I first wanted to view the video and of course I wanted to include a link. So I had to exit the app and go into the YouTube app and search for the Turtle video. I tried a few different searches – including some written phrases from the YouTube notes quoted by ABC – which failed to turn up the video. So I exited the YouTube app and went to Safari, I tried the ABC’s normal website to see if they linked to the video in their web version of the story. Not that I could see. Safari produced a few other news versions and one of them provided a link to the video, which on the iPad opens in the YouTube app. The You Tube app has share via email but no Twitter integration. So to share a simple 140 word tweet I had to:

1. Open the story in the ABC app, press the share via Twitter, which produces an auto tweet of headline and shortened url, which I copied but didn’t send; close

2. Open Twitterific app, paste tweet into new tweet form but didn’t send; close

3. Open YouTube app and find Turtle video; press the share via email and copy the url – as the app has no browser style url field; close

4. Back to Twitterific, open new tweet field which has kept my previous unsent version pasted from  the ABC app, add in the YouTube info and finally send.

It probably seems even more complex than it was. In some ways switching between apps is just slightly more complex than switching between open tabs on a normal browser (two or three finger taps instead of one mouse click), and for some functions I have learned to adapt pretty well, however in this case it was far more complex than it aught to have been. Hopefully all this will improve with the multitasking functions on the new iPhone4 OS but this doesn’t hit iPads till later this year.

However even after all this I had not anticipated one final problem. As I was reading and tweeting other stories, I noticed a message from @marygazze: “That turtle link just raised a huge red flag with bit.ly. Got another?” Hmm. Turns out that the ABC uses “is.gd” shortening and when I transfered it into to Twitterific the already shortened link was reshortened by bit.ly and this caused the “red flag”. I tired to check all this on my iPad but finally I got up and went into the study opened up my big browser and a set of tabs and had the whole thing fixed and retweeted in minutes.

A final interesting point is that when I looked at the normal ABC web story (not the iPad app version) on my large screen desktop I saw that they had actually included a link to the YouTube clip in the sidebar under “related stories.” I had missed this on my initial scan when I checked the normal ABC site through Safari on my iPad:  firstly I was looking for an instory link and secondly the smaller screen didn’t allow the sidebar link to jump out on a quick scan. This in itself is an interesting comment on Nick Carr’s recent thoughts on “Delinkification“. (For further comments on this see Jason Fry’s thoughts at Nieman Lab)

The Turtle story itself wasn’t really worth all the effort. The camera was found in January, so it’s really a strange story for ABC to be running six months later. But it serves as a good case study of certain trends in news delivery and my experience tweeting this story certainly serves as an interesting case study of the tweetability of iPad news. It also signals that news organisations should think harder about the nature of news in the evolving news ecology. If a news organisation is going to run a story in any format about a YouTube video they are simply not providing complete reporting without providing a link, if they can’t or wont provide a link why even bother running the story. Not providing a link demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the nature of viral YouTube videos and web sharing which is after all at the heart of what makes this story newsworthy.

Just to complete the strange twists of this story on sharability, I can’t embed the video here because the original poster disabled YouTube’s normal embed settings. Maybe he didn’t want to infringe the Turtle’s copyright! (More likely it’s a perverse attempt to up his view rate) If you want to see it, here’s the link to YouTube.

I have lots of other thoughts on iPad news apps and usability issues which I will cover soon in another post.

Images of death

The Saddam hanging videos have raised key questions about the changing power of circulated images. The brutality of the incident is emphasised in the dirty grain and jerky focus of the mobile phone images. the release of the second video apparently posted on a pro-baathist news site and apparently showing the ugly state of Saddam’s neck after the hanging was labeled: “A new film of the late immortal martyr, President Saddam Hussein.” It is clear that the images are quickly becoming a part of the radical Sunni haigiography of Saddam.Today there was a brief report in the Sydney Morning Herald about revenge hangings by Saddam’s supporters:

The day after Saddam’s execution, residents in Baghdad’s Haifa Street reported that three minibuses had roared into the street. Gunmen pulled blindfolded prisoners out of the buses, shooting any who tried to resist. They then threw ropes over streetlight poles, put nooses round the necks of the remaining hostages and suspended them. “We watched as all these blindfolded men were hung up and some were shot in the head,” said a supermarket worker, Imad Atwan.An Interior Ministry spokesman said 102 bodies of Shiites had been discovered. “We believe 90 per cent of them were taken hostage for Saddam Hussein’s execution,” he said.

It is interesting that this incident has been barely reported and no images of it have begun to circulate whereas when four American contractors were hung on the bridges of Fallujah the west’s outrage was enough justification for the publication of the images.On Alternet today Richard Blair reminds us of the power of images on public opinion during the Vietnam war (image above: Nick Ut’s Pulitzer prize winning photo of nine-year-old girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing her village after a napalm attack) and notes that both the US government and the American media continue to censor images of the Iraq war:

This past Sunday, the Washington Post buried a story on Page A14 that could certainly have a significant influence over the public’s perception of future U.S. involvement in Iraq:

Capturing images of war on their digital cameras, as many troops in Iraq have done, Marines took dozens of gruesome photographs of the 24 civilians who were killed in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005… …Among the images, there is a young boy with a picture of a helicopter on his pajamas, slumped over, his face and head covered in blood. There is a mother lying on a bed, arms splayed, the bodies of three young children huddled against her right side. There are men with gaping head wounds, and a woman and a child hunkered down on their knees, their hands frozen around their faces as if permanently bracing for an attack. …The images are contained in thousands of pages of NCIS investigative documents obtained by The Washington Post. Post editors decided that most of the images are too graphic to publish… [emphasis mine]

During a week when George Bush is preparing to announce his strategery for escalation of U.S. involvement in Iraq, and on a day when five more servicemen were killed, the Post editors made a decision that they wouldn’t publish graphic images of the war, either in their newspaper or online.

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Naming the Civil War

As GWB steadfastly resists calling the conflict in Iraq a “civil war” despite the pronouncements of many of his own current and ex-military advisers, media outlets also grapple with the nomenclature. E&P reports that starting Monday The Los Angeles Times, NBC and MSNBC, will all be using that troublesome phrase to describe what is going on in Iraq. More interestingly the Washington Post seems to be stuck in a precautionary loop. Leonard Downie, Jr., the Post’s executive editor told E&P:

“We just describe what goes on everyday. We don’t have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another. The language in the stories is very precise when dealing with it. At various times people say it is ‘close to a civil war,’ but we don’t have a policy about it.”

This is typical disingenuous strategic objectivity. The obvious question is how and when does ‘close to civil war’ become simply ‘civil war’? How can a media outlet make ‘very precise’ judgments about such matters? The Post’s top reporter Dana Priest is more revealing:

“Well, I think one of the reasons the President resists that label is because it equates almost with a failure of U.S. policy. I will say for the Washington Post, we have not labeled it a civil war. I have asked around to see why not or see what’s the thinking on that — and really our reporters have not filed that. We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war. I certainly — and I would agree with General McCaffrey on this — absolutely the level of violence equals a civil war.”

Priest’s comments reveal that the Post’s caution derives not from some grand commitment to journalistic objectivity it is in fact a text book example of “official source” theory and Stuart Hall’s argument that one of the subtle but highly influential ways official sources hold power over media portrayals is that they are usually the ones that define the language that is used. Hall argues that it is incredibly difficult for other “secondary definers” to move through this initial textual definition of the issue. A classic quote from Hall:

“The more one accepts that how people act will depend in part on how the situations in which they act are defined, and the less one assumes either a natural meaning for things or a universal consensus on what things mean, then the more socially and politically important becomes the process by means of which certain events get recurrently signified in certain ways.” (Rediscovery of Ideology 1982)

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Fundamentally adversarial

Maybe my post yesterday was too pessimistic. Perhaps the controversy over the Pulitzers will round support for a press that is taking itself more seriously. As the NYT reports:

Some observers on the press side saw the awards as a recognition that the split between the government and the press, which many thought had been papered over during the first Bush administration, had widened again.

“I think that there is a renewed recognition that the relationship with government is fundamentally adversarial,” said William L. Israel, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I have not seen the kind of unanimity from the Pulitzer board for some time. Over and over, they endorsed work that held the government to account.”…

But Eugene L. Roberts Jr., a former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, said that the press policies of the administration in power were always worse than those of the administration that went before it.

“I think every generation of journalist thinks they are more put-upon and aggrieved than the one that came before it,” he said. “I worked in the 50’s and 60’s at Southern papers, and there was plenty of pressure back then.”

Still, the press likes to cite its moral authority, especially in the face of an administration that has reflexively invoked executive privilege, a tool that was used 4 times between 1953 and 1974 at the height of the cold war and 23 times between 2001 and 2004.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Bush has made it clear that he does not buy the industry’s widely held conceit that it serves as a proxy for the American people. That, he has suggested over the course of his two terms, is his job.

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Creating Neutral Experts

The Revealer has a good critique of newspaper sourcing practices when quoting “experts” from think tanks. The NYT acknowledge in a story today that they were caught out in their earlier reporting of The Lincoln Group’s activities in Iraq. The Lincoln Group a PR outfit with ten million dollars worth of contracts in Iraq has been under investigation for paying to get pro-US stories in local Iraqi media and most recently paying Sunni clerics for their support.

Last month when the story broke, and again this morning, the NYT quotes “Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research organization” as an outside expert. They acknowledge this morning that Rubin may not be just a disinterested scholar:

Mr. Rubin was quoted last month in The New York Times about Lincoln’s work for the Pentagon placing articles in Iraqi publications: “I’m not surprised this goes on,” he said, without disclosing his work for Lincoln. “Especially in an atmosphere where terrorists and insurgents – replete with oil boom cash – do the same. We need an even playing field, but cannot fight with both hands tied behind our backs.”

However The Revealer’s Jeff Sharlet makes the more pertinent point:

This obscures the fact that Rubin is not a “scholar” in the traditional sense of the term, but a committed neoconservative activist, a former official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and, according to two reliable reporters in the liberal magazine Mother Jones, one of Wolfowitz’s cheerleaders in the early stages of the war.

This doesn’t mean Rubin shouldn’t be quoted in the paper, but it does mean that he should be identified as more than a “Middle East scholar.” Rubin’s an apparatchik.

And a loony one, to boot. The Times‘ ideology-erasure policy not only recasts conservatives (and in other cases, leftists) as centrists, it also gives its talking heads the appearance of reasonable detachment. You be the judge. (More about Rubin here, from the leftist International Relations Center.)

…Perspectives of people such as Rubin should be in the news — after all, he helped make the events under discussion happen — but they should not be categorized as outside “experts.” That’s like quoting a naked PETA activist as a neutral observer in an article about fur.

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Answering back

Great article in the NYT by Katherine Seelye on the way the internet is changing the relationships between sources and journalists, between the writers and those being written about. It is a great article because it does what good journalism does, it provides a range of points of view while still being pointed in its analysis. It begins with a fairly bland analysis of the phenomenon:

Unhappy subjects discovered a decade ago that they could use their Web sites to correct the record or deconstruct articles to expose what they perceived as a journalist’s bias or wrongheaded narration.

But now they are going a step further. Subjects of newspaper articles and news broadcasts now fight back with the same methods reporters use to generate articles and broadcasts – taping interviews, gathering e-mail exchanges, taking notes on phone conversations – and publish them on their own Web sites. This new weapon in the media wars is shifting the center of gravity in the way that news is gathered and presented, and it carries implications for the future of journalism.

Too many journalists would have left it at that and this would have been one of the many articles that concentrate on the mechanistic ways blogs and the internet are influencing journalism. But Seelye goes further:

The printing of transcripts, e-mail messages and conversations, and the ability to pull up information from search engines like Google, have empowered those whom Jay Rosen, a blogger and journalism professor at New York University, calls “the people formerly known as the audience.”

“In this new world, the audience and sources are publishers,” Mr. Rosen said. “They are now saying to journalists, ‘We are producers, too. So the interview lies midpoint between us. You produce things from it, and we do, too.’ From now on, in a potentially hostile interview situation, this will be the norm.”

These processes are changing both journalism paradigms and journalism practices.

Journalists now realise that they have to be extra careful in their transactions with sources and some programs are posting their own full transcripts. It is also changing formal public relations practices with businesses incorporating blogs into their publicity strategies. But the revenge of the source is not just a utopic story about reform and empowerment.

Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org and a former producer at ABC News and CNN, said that while the active participation by so many readers was healthy for democracy and journalism, it had allowed partisanship to mask itself as media criticism and had given rise to a new level of vitriol.

“It’s now O.K. to demonize the messenger,” he said. “This has led to a very uncivil discourse in which it seems to be O.K. to shout down, discredit, delegitimize and denigrate the people who are reporting stories and to pick at their methodology and ascribe motives to them that are often unfair.”

Seelye gives one example where a creationist group used these techniques to dispute a Nightline piece on intelligent design.

Ultimately this process is part of the broader push towards “transparency” in news media:

Reporters say that these developments are forcing them to change how they do their jobs; some are asking themselves if they can justify how they are filtering information. “We’ve got to be more transparent about the news-gathering process,” said Craig Crawford, a columnist for Congressional Quarterly and author of “Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media.” “We’ve pretended to be like priests turning water to wine, like it’s a secret process. Those days are gone.”

Some news outlets are posting transcripts of their interviews with newsmakers, and some reporters are posting their own material. Stephen Baker, a senior writer at BusinessWeek, has posted not only transcripts from his interviews but also his own notes on his Web site, saying he likes to involve his readers in the journalistic process.

“Sometimes I say to my readers, Here’s my interview. What story would you have written?” said Mr. Baker, who writes about technology. Journalism, he added, used to be a clear-cut “before and after process,” much like making a meal; the cooking was done privately in the kitchen and then the meal was served. Now, he said, “every aspect of it is scrutinized.”

One of the difficulties with this is that it is forcing a simultaneous public and professional reevaluation of news gathering processes. But it is difficult and confusing to suddenly have a public conversation about news when so much of what journalists take for granted as routine story formation is seen as a quasi alchemical process by much of the public. We have sold the myth of objectivity for so long that it has become common wisdom: whereas once upon a time this provided a protective shield it is now being used as a weapon against us.

It’s classic blowback.

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Purple Hearts

US Graphic designer Jeff Culver has come up with a far more informative electoral map than those published by mainstream media.

It is an interesting example of how the graphic devices and rhetorical frames that we use actually construct very different narratives. While the election maps which show the blue and red states (say this example from Time) show a divided America with the red states in the ascendency, Culver’s map which shows the gradations of support for Bush and Kerry along a set of hues from red to blue portrays quite a different reality.

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Values

Everyone’s reporting on the values issue and Karl Rove’s masterly strategy. No one yet seems to know quite what it means. The NYT sums up the numbers succinctly:

It was not a landslide, or a re-alignment, or even a seismic shock. But it was decisive, and it is impossible to read President Bush’s re-election with larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress as anything other than the clearest confirmation yet that this is a center-right country – divided yes, but with an undisputed majority united behind his leadership.

Surveys of voters leaving the polls found that a majority believed the national economy was not so good, that tax cuts had done nothing to help it and that the war in Iraq had jeopardized national security. But fully one-fifth of voters said they cared most about “moral values” – as many as cared about terrorism and the economy – and 8 in 10 of them chose Mr. Bush.

In other words, while Mr. Bush remains a polarizing figure on both coasts and in big cities, he has proved himself a galvanizing one in the broad geographic and political center of the country. He increased his share of the vote among women, Hispanics, older voters and even city dwellers significantly from 2000, made slight gains among Catholics and Jews and turned what was then a 500,000-popular-vote defeat into a 3.6 million-popular-vote victory on Tuesday.

On Rove Andrew Sullivan admits that Bush’s strategist read the American electorate – or at least an important part of it – better than anyone else:

A lot of gay people are devastated this morning, and terrified. We have seen, and not for the first time, how using fear of a minority can be so effective a tool in building a political movement. The single most important issue for Republican voters, according to exit polls, was not the war on terror or Iraq or the economy. It was ‘moral values.’ Karl Rove understood the American psyche better than I did. By demonizing gay couples, the Republicans were able to bring in whole swathes of new anti-gay believers into their party. With new senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, two of the most anti-gay politicians in America, we can only brace ourselves for what is now coming.

Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post goes to the nub of the “values” rhetoric:

The term wasn’t defined, and Democrats spent much of yesterday protesting that they have morals and values, too. The term is basically a code phrase for abortion and gays. For some people, particularly religious evangelicals, these issues are even more important than Iraq, terrorism, the economy, health care, the environment and education. Moral issues gnaw at the guts of people who think they know right from wrong and normal from sick. The reelection of George W. Bush as the 43rd president of the United States appears to be at least in part because of a fear that liberals favor marital unions among sodomites.

Greg Grieve, a Fellow at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, makes a very perceptive comment on The Revealer website:

[a colleague] and I have been talking about ‘moral values’ all morning. And it seems to us that it is working as an empty signifier, similar to Barthes’ notion of ‘myth,’ onto which people are projecting their conceptions. As Barthes writes in ‘Myth Today’: ‘The signifier presents itself in an ambiguous way: it is at the same time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other.’ (117) As the Russian saying goes: ‘A sacred space is never empty.’ There seems to be a need for two steps: (1) to debunk the Myth of moral values, and then (2) to craft a new ‘myth’ that democrats can control for progressive ends.