By Mindy McAdams

Teaching Online Journalism

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Notes from the classroom and observations about today's practice of journalism online

Skills for journalists: The basics

Sunday, April 17, 2011 (1:47 pm)

Jennifer Peebles — a self-described “old geezer who used to work at a newspaper” — wrote a post at the SPJ Net Worked blog titled Digital media skills every young journalist needs. Like a lot of old geezers (I say that with affection!), she started with the fundamentals: Be honest, accurate, fair, etc.

I found the really good stuff farther down in her copy:

  1. “Write a basic breaking news story in the inverted pyramid.” This includes “basic skills in interviewing people, basic writing skills … and a basic knowledge of journalism ethics.”
  2. “Be able to record the audio of an interview with someone, do a simple edit on the audio recording of that interview and upload it to the Web for an audience to hear.” As Peebles noted, you can’t do this well if you don’t know how to interview people properly!
  3. “Be able to take a decent photograph” — with a cell-phone camera, point-and-shoot, or whatever is on hand at the moment when news breaks. I would add that “decent” means usable. The young journalist needs to know what that means. What is news value in a photograph? Do they know how to capture that?
  4. “Be able to make at least a short video story that doesn’t turn out looking like The Blair Witch Project.” And by “make,” we mean shoot AND edit. Editing includes exporting a usable (that word again) video file for the Web. In my experience, that’s where the rubber meets the road. Too many students will turn in a video file that was exported with something wrong in the settings, making the video stretched or squashed, blurred, smeary (digital schmutz), or otherwise awful looking. Practice is what makes it possible to produce decent (usable!) video. Practice!
  5. “Be able to perform basic functions in a spreadsheet and have at least a general understanding of how journalists use data to find stories.” This is so important, and I think far too many students are stuffing their fists into their ears and singing “Lalalalala” right now while they are reading this. Here’s what Peebles added:

… while entry-level reporters don’t need to be experts at computer-assisted reporting, they need an idea of how journalists procure data and then use relational database programs to cross-check those data files to find things like sex offenders who drive school buses, or perform calculations to find, for instance, which ZIP Code or county sees the highest rate of Ritalin prescriptions written to elementary school students.

She went on to list four more things she thinks every J-school grad ought to be able to do:

  • “Have an understanding of HTML and CSS, and understand how they’re used to make Web pages.” It has come to my attention that in various courses around the country, instructors are sometimes teaching outmoded techniques (such as using tables for layout). Wake up, kids! HTML5 is just around the corner!
  • “Be able to decide which platform best suits a given story.” This is SO important — but how will journalists do this if they are not continually seeking out new examples of online and multimedia journalism? Go beyond the home page of your favorite news website and make it a DAILY habit to check out the site’s latest Web-only videos, interactive graphics, and audio presentations.
  • “Understand the basic concepts of libel and defamation, and understand that these aren’t old-fashioned concepts that only apply to us geezers who worked for newspapers.”
  • “Understand the basic concepts of the First Amendment, freedom of the press and the people’s right to know, which everything we do is built on.”

I could not agree more with what Peebles wrote! My digest version here leaves out a lot of her insights, so please be sure to read her original post.

A great Flash infographic

Tuesday, April 5, 2011 (9:17 am)

This might be the best interactive information graphic ever. What do you think? I love the simplicity of the rollovers. The multiple information (timeline, map) delivered in the top image below is delightful.

Tapuiassauro, o novo dinossauro do Brasil won a gold medal at this year’s Malofiej (see links to all awards).

10 useful resources about data visualization

Sunday, April 3, 2011 (12:31 pm)

These will be useful to introduce students, journalists, or yourself to the concepts of data visualization. Bonus: There’s an interesting discussion on Quora about the difference between information graphics and data visualization.

(1) When the Data Struts Its Stuff (April 2, 2011): A 1,000-word article that covers a lot of non-journalism work in this field, including the marvelous Gapminder World.

(2) 7 Things You Should Know About Data Visualization: This two-page PDF from EduCause provides a text-only explanation.

Representing large amounts of disparate information in a visual form often allows you to see patterns that would otherwise be buried in vast, unconnected data sets. … Visualizations allow you to understand and process enormous amounts of information quickly because it is all represented in a single image or animation.

(3) FlowingData: This blog by Nathan Yau, a statistics scholar, is a wonderful resource, frequently updated with great examples from all kinds of sources.

(4) Visualization Options Available in Many Eyes: Part of the “Many Eyes” site from IBM Research, this list links to examples of every kind of information chart and graphic you can create with the Many Eyes application. You get an illustration and a clear, brief explanation — great for teaching. See an example: Bubble Chart Guide.

(5) VisualJournalism: A great blog that’s focused on information graphics and journalism, published by Gert K. Nielsen, a longtime news graphics editor in Denmark.

(6) Journalism in the Age of Data: A Video Report on Data Visualization by Geoff McGhee: Interviews with data graphics experts, including journalists and non-journalists. The package includes a large collection of linked resources, cleverly keyed to the videos, which are split into manageable short chapters. Geoff has been a journalist at The New York Times,, and Le Monde Interactif.

(7) Another excellent blog devoted to the topic, and also a great source of recent examples. The authors are engineers and interaction designers at Interactive Things, a design and technology studio in Switzerland.

(8) 10 Awesome Free Tools to Make Infographics: Time to get your hands dirty! This useful blog post (from October 2010) also offers advice on how to make an information graphic.

(9) Research: How to Tell Stories with Data? This blog post at Information Aesthetics (yet another fine blog about data graphics) summarizes a groundbreaking article (How Do People Tell Stories Through Interactive Visualization?) written by two Stanford University researchers in 2010.

(10) A Practical Guide to Designing with Data: A new book by Brian Suda provides a gentle introduction — suitable for journalism students. It’s not high-end theory like the work of Edward Tufte, but the explanations are really well suited to people without a background in statistics or graphic design.

Know about a good resource I missed? Please add it in the comments!

Timelines in journalism: A closer look

Friday, April 1, 2011 (11:38 pm)

You’re not going to create one every week, but a timeline is a useful — and helpful — type of information graphic, and fairly common in journalism. When teaching students about timelines, here are some ideas to consider and discuss:

Chronology or timeline?

Sometimes a timeline is not a timeline, according to Len de Groot, a longtime graphics journalist. A timeline shows actual spans of time, with proportional measurements for decades, years, days or hours, depending on the total time involved. “The space between events should be as important [as] or more important than the events themselves,” he says. A chronology, on the other hand, shows the momentum of a series of events. It might be more effective if presented as a list, or as an illustrated slideshow.

Here’s an excellent chronology about Operation Odyssey Dawn on Libya, from El País:

Cronología: Operación Amanecer de la Odisea sobre Libia

Not what we think of when we imagine a timeline, is it? But it’s quite well suited to telling the story of recent events in Libya, and it is being updated day by day. (Navigate days via the two arrows at upper left.)

The Wall Street Journal has published a multi-line timeline covering recent events in Arab countries (below). Selecting any day loads a region map and summary of events for that day in an area above the timeline. I like the way this compact layout shows us at a glance where activities have occurred, and when. This is a very successful timeline graphic tailored closely to the story.

WSJ: Middle East Turmoil

Here are some questions we can ask before we sketch our timeline ideas:

  1. Is this a story about hours, days, years or decades?
  2. Should equal periods of time be represented with equal space? (Example: 100 pixels equals one year.)
  3. Are parallel time periods required? (Example: While this was happening in India, this was happening in China.)
  4. Does it make sense to combine the timeline with a map or a line graph?
  5. Should photos or other images be added to the timeline to help tell the story?
  6. How much text is necessary to make the story understandable — and satisfying?

A “timeline” that does not represent time proportionally to space — but which works well, I think, because it is straightforward and clear, is this one by graphic designer Sean Carton:

Sean Carton: Social Media Timeline

Design questions

Most timeline graphics present time in horizontal lines, with the oldest events to the left and more recent ones progressing to the right (I suppose we would do it right-to-left if we were Arab or Chinese). A notable and very recent exception is the Guardian’s brilliant (and vertical) Arab spring: An interactive timeline of Middle East protests (blogged about by Tracy Boyer last week). Arab Spring timeline graphic

I think it’s useful to think about Len de Groot’s distinction between timelines and chronologies when admiring this graphic: Is this really a “timeline”? I don’t think so — has there ever been a better illustration of the momentum of events? No need to quibble over the words, though, when the execution is so effective.

Here are some questions we can ask as we examine our sketches of our timeline ideas:

  1. Will people like it?
  2. Is it helpful, easy to understand?
  3. Is it confusing?
  4. Hard to use?
  5. Does it add something that text alone would not convey?
  6. Does the graphic need to be a timeline — or would a regular slideshow (or map, or whatever) be equally effective?

One of the more successful interactive timelines is 10 years old — every time I revisit this package about Winston Churchill, I am amazed all over again at how well it works. Note in particular the double timeline at the bottom: The upper bar is Churchill’s life, and the lower bar shows concurrent world events.

Library of Congress: Churchill and the Great Republic

The Template Trap

Sometimes I think we fall into a “one size fits all” trap with templates or tools. You have a template or a tool, and you re-use it for various stories. But is that always the right decision? Does expediency sometimes defeat the goal of clear communication?

WSJ: Deepwater Horizon Rig Disaster

I think the Deepwater Horizon Rig Disaster timeline (above) is much more successful than the Biggest Volcanic Eruptions (below), which skimps on details about the eruptions. Both are from The Wall Street Journal.

WSJ: Biggest Volcanic Eruptions

Likewise, CNN’s Trapped Chilean Miners timeline (below) is better suited to its timeline interface than the recent Egyptian Protests timeline, which uses the same interface.

CNN: Trapped Chilean Miners

Timeline tools

TimelineSetter is a new, free tool from the great folks at Pro Publica, the nonprofit investigative journalism organization. It’s not available for mass consumption just yet (“We have some more code generalization and fixes we need to do before it’s ready to open source, but we plan to do so as soon as we can,” they said on March 22), but it might be useful in lots of different situations. Below is a timeline created with this tool.

Pro Publica: How One Blast Affected Five Soldiers

The functionality and the design are similar to the timeline template The New York Times has been using for some time; for a recent example, see Elizabeth Taylor: 1932-2011 (below). I found the checkbox options to be distracting and unnecessary.

New York Times: Elizabeth Taylor: 1932-2011

Other free timeline tools were described (and linked) in a post by Alex Gamela in May 2010. Dipity and SIMILE are fairly well known; others are less so, but it’s worthwhile to check out the different visual approaches to presenting information in this way.

Which of these tools produces the best result for the story you want to tell?

Do not create an interactive timeline just because it’s cool. Use interactivity to make the information more clear.

Two older timelines that are worth a look:

Teaching about storytelling

Thursday, March 10, 2011 (12:47 pm)

As a follow-up to Tuesday’s post about getting a story (and teaching students about stories), I’m going to refer to three earlier posts here:

What I learned from Ken Speake, a longtime TV journalist (The elements of storytelling) is that a really good storyteller can find a story almost anywhere — but more important, why is he able to do that? Because he’s curious about the world, about people, about things he sees. He’s not walking around thinking: “Damn, I have to find a story …” He’s thinking: “Wow, I wonder who made that? I wonder why she’s doing that? I wonder how that got here?”

What I learned about students is that when they go out to gather images and sound, they are focused on the activity of gathering and not the end result — telling an interesting story. So I leaned on what I have learned from multimedia storytellers (RGMP 11: Tell a good story with images and sound), and one way to summarize that for inexperienced student journalists is to say: Forget about beginning, middle and end. Think about what you want to end with — the point of it all. Tell me why this story is worth telling. Why is it worth anyone’s time to watch it, listen to it, read it?

If you can’t tell me that, then you do not have a story at all.

If you can tell me what the point of it all is, then that’s the point to which your finished story needs to lead me — lead the audience. Take us there. This is different from a factual straight-news lede.

And finally, you should be able to analyze an effective story and identify why it grabbed your attention (in the opening); how it held your attention (with variety and pacing); how it came to a point, or a climax; and how it tied it up neatly and left you feeling glad you’d heard/seen/read this story: Storytelling 101 with ‘The Annoying Orange.’

And then — of course — there’s Ira Glass.

I think one thing we need to do is have more analysis — and ask students to perform more analysis — of stories that work well as stories.

Is your story actually a story?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 (1:49 pm)

“The problem with many news stories is that they’re not really stories at all.” (Source: Advancing the Story, an excellent blog about broadcast journalism and multimedia.)

This is true not only in TV news but across the board — and not only for student work! Sometimes the material is new (or at least news), but it lacks story. It lacks the quality of a story.

I like to say a lot of journalism is merely reports. A report is NOT a story. The act of reporting can produce a story, but usually, it doesn’t.

The five W’s and an H produce a report, a listing of facts. A good reporter shapes them into a optimum bundle, with a sensible order and no unnecessary chatter, no repetition — and no factual errors (we hope). Around the world, that reporting bundle is called “a story,” and I’m not trying to change the vocabulary. What we call that bundle is not the issue.

The issue is that when I ask students to go out and find a story that is interesting, that is fresh, that has something new or provocative or engaging to offer — they come back with a report. A report about a fund-raising event, a band practice, a street-corner protest. But there’s no story there.

I think that in the process of teaching them reporting, we may kill their instinct for finding and telling real stories.

Is that the problem? Or have they never known what a story is?

Web literacy: Should be required

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 (9:16 am)

A student calls me on the phone. “Professor McAdams, I wonder if you could help me. I’ve never taken a class with you, but …”

“Yes, what can I do for you?” I reply.

“I bought my own website, but I’m not sure how to get my Web pages there.”

From past experience, I know what I need to ask now.

“Did you buy Web hosting, or did you only buy a domain name?”

The answer is usually unsure, but after some more questions, we usually establish that the student bought a domain name and NOT hosting. The student did not know the difference. The student assumed that the latter comes with the former.

This has happened at least three times in the past year.

So I resolved to write a simple blog post, with some helpful links, that I can send to these students in the future. And I can make it required reading in my own classes. Here it is:

Web hosting and domain names, at Journalists’ Toolkit.

At about 500 words, it’s not too taxing.