Digital Journalism: So Many Possibilities, So Little Money

May 5, 2010

The more I learn about digital journalism, the more excited I am to be entering the field. I love the creativity offered by multimedia. I love the flexibility offered by working online. I honestly love the freedom of not being tied to one news organization’s newsroom.

My career plans haven’t changed since studying online journalism – that is, they’re still pretty hazy. I know I want to write, and edit, and pursue serious photography and multimedia. I know I want my work to focus on travel, and culture, and international affairs. I definitely plan to research and write non-fiction books eventually, combining my love of history and journalism.

I don’t actually want a traditionally defined career in journalism, which is just as well since the normal journalism career trajectory doesn’t exist anymore. We’re no longer constrained by the old model of spending years working our way up from small newspaper to slightly bigger newspaper to yet bigger newspaper to major city newspaper. While researching my piece on the Huffington Post Investigative Fund for American Journalism Review, one young Fund staffer told me he could have pursued the grind of the old career path – or he could join the Fund and be immediately¬† doing serious investigative reporting and working alongside some of the best investigative journalists in the country.

Such opportunities are tremendously exciting to me, and I’m not that concerned about finding places to publish my work. Traditional media such as newspapers may be struggling, but the Web is wide open, and people are taking advantage of that fact daily. New start-ups pop up all the time, and they all need content.

The trouble, however, is getting paid a decent wage for this kind of work. I love how the Internet allows everyone to be published. I hate how that has devalued good writing and reporting. I especially hate the expectation that I will work for free or for a ridiculously low sum – that “experience” somehow makes up for adequate compensation, or that I must love journalism so much that I won’t mind the fact that struggling print publications and strapped start-ups will take my stories but won’t be able to pay me. That’s nonsense.

Digital journalism is undoubtedly the future of the industry, and I’ve loved discovering all the different ways to tell stories through multimedia. But despite the constant buzz over business models,¬† no one yet has any clear idea on how to make it pay – and that strengthens my resolve to avoid a traditional journalism career.


Digital Innovation: ReportingOn.com

May 1, 2010

“One part of our media universe is becoming far more robust than it’s ever been: the discussion part of the media, the part in which people get to interact and comment on the news,” media analyst Tom Rosenstiel said during a speech in November 2009.

Ryan Sholin has taken this development one step further: fostering discussion among journalists themselves at his award-winning project Reporting On. The director of news innovation at Publish2, Sholin founded Reporting On as a discussion-based site where journalists could pose questions about stories they’re working on. Fellow journalists respond to offer tips, sources, and their own experiences working on similar topics. By sharing their resources, the site aims to allow journalists to add context to their stories and find out if their topic is part of a broader trend.

As a concept, it’s brilliant. Crowdsourcing is becoming an ever more important strategy for journalists to discover sources and stories – so why not crowdsource other journalists? Reporters have always depended on input from their fellow newsroom staffers on how to approach certain stories or deal with a specific source. Opening up the pool of knowledge by using the Internet’s vast social networking ability is the next logical step. Furthermore, I feel that we’re seeing a lot more freelance journalists, due to news organizations cutting back and the ability to work remotely, and the site can give them the support and community their newsroom previously would have provided.

Journalists by their very nature love learning and sharing information, especially about their work. I think the project will certainly succeed. The site in its current form has been up since July 2009, with 90 questions posted as of May 1, 2010. New questions appear on average about once a week; as more people learn about the site, I’m sure discussion will increase. Especially pleasing is the fact that the site isn’t just for English language journalists – many questions are written in Spanish or Portuguese. Journalism is practiced all over the world, and more stories have global implications than ever before. It’s only fitting that a journalism community should be welcoming to all journalists.

I do think the site could use some improvement in its design. The questions are pretty easy to navigate, but their layout mildly reminds me of Yahoo Answers – not a comparison a serious site wants to make. I’m also not quite sure what the large grey number in the upper right of the question boxes signifies. I think it might be referring to the number of people “watching” the question for an answer, or perhaps the number of “points” the question has received – but it’s never explained and I don’t know what the points mean, either.

Finally, although I like the idea of letting people post with their avatars, the truth is that most people still don’t bother with avatars online. This leads to long columns of the same default image, making it look like only a couple people are actually using the site. Until avatar use becomes more widespread, I think sites like Sholin’s should avoid generating a default image if the user hasn’t uploaded one. It looks like more and more journalists are using Reporting On – and the site design should certainly reflect that.


The BBC’s Interactive Elements

April 15, 2010

As can be seen throughout its Web site in my previous post, the BBC likes to compartmentalize its coverage and resources. Audience/reader participation appears to be contained to the Have Your Say section,  through comments and user-submitted photos and videos. Interactive elements, meanwhile, have their own section titled Interactive Guides and Graphics.

The section provides excellent maps, charts, and other graphics visually presenting information on a wide variety of topics and stories, from the route of a new high speed rail line to a timeline of the global financial collapse to a “loneliness map” charting the rise in “a poor sense of belonging” in the UK. I like how these features are so easy to find and explore, although I’d like to see them also included with or linked to news stories, instead of just being corralled in their own corner of the Web site.

I found many references citing the results of official polls and surveys (conducted both by the BBC and other organizations) in BBC articles, but I have yet to find evidence of a single informal reader poll. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – online reader polls have virtually zero news value; they can’t possibly reach a representative sample. The BBC is there primarily to impart hard news. It makes sense they wouldn’t waste their time with “Do you think such and such reform is good or bad, pick A or B” fluff. Such questions are instead asked in Have Your Say, where readers can respond through short answer instead of multiple choice, and where their participation might actually yield a useful source or material for a BBC story.

Reader polls are no real loss, but I’d like to see more in the way of searchable databases from the BBC. I did find a searchable database called the Plant Finder as part of the BBC’s Gardening site, which features the media company’s television and radio programs on gardening. The database offers an impressive amount of information on plant species and how to grow them and is a great resource for readers, but it doesn’t exactly have a lot of hard news value. The BBC already frequently provides links next to many of its news stories to download original reports; if staffers could organize that data into easily searchable databases for online visitors, that would be even better.


The BBC’s Web Design

April 8, 2010

As could be expected of a well-established news organization with plenty of resources, the BBC’s Web site has a stellar design. The homepage achieves harmony through similar fonts and colors – all of the article headlines are the same font, and a color theme uses different shades of purple to highlight the banner and top stories.

Interestingly, the homepage has a different color scheme from day to day – on Thursday, April 8, it was purple, but the day before it was a shade of yellowish beige; on other days I’ve seen it pale green. Text and background colors are also used to provide contrast: on every day, the “Top News Story” tag and “More from BBC News” links are always outlined in vivid red, which immediately draws the eye.

The homepage also adheres to the rule of simplicity – unnecessary text and graphics don’t clutter up the page. Only the major stories under news, sports, and “Spotlight” feature an accompanying photo, and only the top three news and sports stories get the colored background. All of the stories and links on the homepage, meanwhile, closely follow the rule of proximity: large headers in purple clearly denote the different sections of news, sports, travel, business, and BBC TV and radio programs, with related articles and links neatly listed below them.

Where the BBC departs from normal standards of Web design is the rule of unity: the rest of its Web site’s pages look nothing like the homepage. The main News page ignores the purple color theme, with the top banner in red and article headlines in blue. The page is arranged in a completely different pattern as well: a column on the left provides links to news sections on different regions of the world, while the rest of the page does without the homepage’s neatly separated boxes. All of the other News pages featuring regional, business, technology, and entertainment news follow the same format.

Other pages are still more different: the main Radio page features a dark gray banner and very spare layout.

These are still beautifully designed pages, but I find it rather perplexing that they’re so different from the homepage. I’m not so sure about the changing color scheme of the homepage either; it could prove confusing to readers. The first time I noticed the different colors it was quite distracting – I thought at first I’d somehow ended up on the wrong page.

The reasoning for the different styles, I suppose, is that unlike many news outlets, the BBC is a vast organization with equally strong branches in print, television, and radio news. A Web layout for listeners looking for BBC radio stations should be arranged differently from one for readers seeking news articles. They’re separate mediums; it makes sense they should have distinct presentation styles.

Where the BBC could unify its various pages is through color: each page’s banner could feature the same bold background color, and all links could have their own distinct color as well. Even with different layouts on every page, a uniform BBC banner at the top would make it clear they’re all part of the same media company.


Brookside Gardens Spring Display

March 11, 2010

Montgomery College student Marian Kim photographs a dwarf powder puff tree from South America in the Brookside Gardens Conservatory in Wheaton, Maryland, on March 9, 2010. The gardens' Spring Zing event showcased early spring and tropical flowers such as snapdragons, orchids, and birds of paradise. (UMD Photo/Karen Carmichael)

I think this photo follows the rule of thirds – the line of Kim’s arm and the tripod help vertically divide the photo. The side of Kim’s face peering into the camera and the powderpuff flower both fall close to grid points. I also like the light quality that throws leafy shadows over Kim.

Barbara Suhre of Colesville smiles in the Butterfly Court of Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland, on March 9, 2010. Suhre and her husband try to come to the gardens twice a week in the spring, she said. (UMD Photo/Karen Carmichael)

This photo uses perspective to frame Suhre, and the eye is drawn to the brightness surrounding her. The moment also matters – I took several shots of Suhre from this spot, but this photo was the only one in which she was smiling and looking toward the camera.

Deep pink snapdragons glow in the Brookside Gardens Conservatory in Wheaton, Maryland, on March 9, 2010. Flowers are grown in a propagation greenhouse and brought to the conservatory at peak bloom. (UMD Photo/Karen Carmichael)

I wanted a detailed shot of the flowers to show what drew people to the garden. I used perspective to produce a sharp closeup of an especially fine bunch of snapdragons, with the other flowers creating softer pops of color in the background.

Owen Roberts of North Bethesda splashes in the conservatory pond of Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland on March 9, 2010. Owen visited the gardens' Spring Zing event with his mother, Linda, and grandmother Sylvia Hughes. (UMD Photo/Karen Carmichael)

Perspective comes into play here – I crouched down to get a lower angle, and focused on the flowers in the foreground. The hazy sunlight filtering through the greenhouse glass also enhances the location’s steamy, tropical feel.

Two-year-old Angela Giller of Wheaton runs past a bird's nest fern in the Brookside Gardens Conservatory in Wheaton, Maryland on March 9, 2010. The gardens' Spring Zing event attracted many families and Angela visited with her mother, Kirolina Giller, and 8-month-old sister Virginia. (UMD Photo/Karen Carmichael)

This picture is definitely all about the moment. I was photographing some greenhouse volunteers when I saw this little girl start to run down the path. I crouched down and snapped her just as she ran past. She was also smiling and happened to look at me just as I took the photo, so the emotion on her face also comes through.


BBC Web Video

March 11, 2010

As could be expected, it appears that the BBC takes a mostly traditional approach to its use of Web video. It is the British Broadcasting Corporation, after all.

The organization’s main Web site does have its own Video and Audio page, which unites all the latest Web-only videos and TV clips in one location. The page is divided into sections for top news, science & technology, health, business, and entertainment videos.

A video in the UK News section on a possible British Airways union strike closely follows the traditional TV format, with voiceover narration, a reporter on location speaking directly to the viewers, and interview subjects shot at an angle and not looking into the camera. It may be taken directly from one of the BBC’s cable news channels. I got that sense about a lot of the videos – most seemed to be produced for television, and then just posted online.

Videos found under the “Editor’s Choice” section on the right offered a bit more variety. A rather spectacular video of Mexican revelers literally dancing in fireworks forgoes all narration or explanation – the minute-long, minimally edited clip is there to capture a moment that couldn’t be conveyed nearly as well in text. It doesn’t at all look like a professional video, although it carries the BBC logo in the upper left corner, and I have to wonder if it was provided by a local or tourist at the festival. If so, however, there’s no credit provided for the video.

A similar video in production values under the “Most Popular Video/Audio” section shows the wild patterns formed by a massive flock of starlings in Gloucestershire, again without any narration or even any change in perspective. In comparison, another Editor’s Choice video on noted war photographer Don McCullin is elegantly (and traditionally) produced.

Surely the previous two are user-generated content? If they are, why is there no acknowledgement? Photos sent in by viewers are clearly labeled. The BBC’s Have Your Say page solicits contributions and clearly directs readers on how to upload their newsworthy videos. It seems rather odd that there’s apparently no system in place to recognize those shared videos if they are posted.


Dublin Protest through Photoshop

March 8, 2010

Burma Protest Rally in Dublin

Photo credit infomatique