Teaching Examples

New aggregation idea catches my attention
June 21, 2007, 12:44 pm
Filed under: ideas, journalism, news

I’m going to keep my eye on Thoof, an upcoming news aggregation site, now in beta. It might end up getting taken over by technology wonks (like Digg) or being gamed (also like Digg) — but if not, it could be really useful.

Thoof’s founder, Ian Clarke, is:

obsessed with the fact that even when accurate information exists on the Internet, it often does not have the political impact that it should.

“I’m concerned that most Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” he said. “All of the information is there, but people are still ill-informed.”

He believes Thoof will provide a way to make sure accurate information can spread, and that he can profit in the process.

That’s from John Markoff, writing in The New York Times on June 18.

This is an interesting twist:

Based on data from comScore, which measures Web traffic, Mr. Clarke estimates that about 1.3 billion pages are viewed daily on news and information sites, generating advertising of roughly $51 million a day. But sites based on user submissions account for only about half of 1 percent of all news viewing on the Web, he said.

Thoof is negotiating with an advertising syndicator to put ads on the site based on demographic and behavioral data that the Thoof system will provide about its users.

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One way to make money online
June 4, 2007, 6:33 pm
Filed under: advertising, community, ideas, journalism

Here’s one of those ideas that could make lots of money for you. I’m giving it away free, so buy me lunch or something if it works for you.

I was poking around on the Wichita Eagle site, looking at Ron Sylvester’s story about the BTK killer book, which he explained in a post at his blog, Multimedia Reporter. This ad caught my eye:

Ad from the Wichita Eagle online
I knew it was an ad, and I had a pretty good idea that it might link to a “special advertising section” — you know, those total garbage inserts that U.S. newspapers and advertisers waste paper on, usually hideously ugly throughout, and filled with absolutely awful text about nothing. (I understand that European newspapers, in contrast, have inserts that people actually like to read.)

Given that positive attitude I’ve got, WHY would I click? Two reasons:

  1. The left-rail ad, shown above, was so excellent, it simply gave me hope. I have rarely seen such as effective ad on any newspaper Web site. I’m not kidding. Color, simplicity, clarity. It’s great.
  2. I ride a motorcycle. (A Honda 750cc Shadow cruiser, if you care.)

I’m not joking around or being sarcastic. I’m very, very serious — this ad was a one-in-a-million ad, because I am a person WHO NEVER CLICKS on advertising. Never. Okay? Never!

I clicked on it.

Not only did it get me to click — I even looked at four pages of the insert. Now, the first hurdle is, of course, even getting me to click. Then to get me to click some more, and spend some time — whoa, baby! So I’m betting you are pretty interested in why.

As a person who rides, I like to find out about cool places to ride to. Even though I am very unlikely to take my bike to Kansas (and this was a purely local insert), I’m interested in learning whether they have any interesting destinations. Sure enough, there’s an article about Council Grove, a small town on the Santa Fe Trail.

Moreover, I was actually interested in the content of the ads! Because part of the culture of motorcycle riders (apart from tattoos and custom chrome) is bike shops and hangouts. So the ads told me about some bars (see page 15); I was hoping to see ads for campgrounds or maybe a local bed-and-breakfast, but no such luck. (Don’t laugh — middle-aged yuppie bikers do, in fact, sleep at B&B’s!)

Great Idea, Poor Implementation

Now, please pay attention to why I looked at ONLY four pages of this thing — and not more.

Two-page spread in the Open Road Motorcycle Edition
The interface is awful. The insert is bundled into a disgusting interface from a company called Travidia — they probably have a big booth at every newspaper trade show. I can easily imagine their sales pitch to your advertising department head: It’s no extra work for you to automagically put your whole insert online, complete with all the display ads! Well, who wouldn’t want that? How wonderful!

Except that it sucks.

  • It’s slow, even on my pretty-fast home DSL. Each time you go to a page, you wait and wait. I couldn’t stand that.
  • There’s no navigation except page-by-page. The down-side of transplanting a print thing to the Web is that the Web doesn’t work like a printed publication. I don’t want to go page-by-page (especially not this slowly) — I want links.
  • Both ads and advertorial copy pop up in horrible layover images that jump around. This is the most annoying part. It’s designed to make it easier for you to see things — the pop-ups are larger — but they work very badly and defeat their own purpose.
  • You can’t copy-and-paste anything. Like a phone number. A street address. (Too bad for the advertisers.)

Enlarged version of the ad pops up when you roll over
All right, if you’ve stuck with me this long, here’s how to make money — if you can get your advertising department on board … er, online. (And isn’t that a whole ‘nother can of worms right there? Newspapers think they have trouble in the newsroom, when there’s much bigger trouble in the advertising department, where pretty much nobody knows anything about online.)

Part 1: Motorcycle Culture

Bikers are not all thugs and outlaws. (I hope you have noticed this already.) What’s more, they spend money. Lots of money. They travel. They buy parts and accessories. They buy lots of clothes too! And they eat. They love to go for a long ride and end up at a great restaurant. Not just a biker bar, but a real restaurant with seafood, steaks, or even something international.

Your local area has lots and lots of places that cater to bikers. They would advertise.

Your local area has multiple biker groups that do all kinds of fundraising, mostly associated with planned rides, often “poker runs” or “toy runs.” (Go on, Google those.)

You have a whole online special section just waiting for a smart partnership between one or two reporters in your newsroom, your advertising department (if you can pry them out of 1999), and the bikers themselves, who are often very, very active online in a variety of national forums and discussion boards.

One last tip: Spring is a very big deal for bikers in U.S. states that have a cold winter season. It would be easy to spin off a printed insert in April or May and get tons of fresh ad dollars for it. Plus the printed version (you could do a “Get Ready for Winter” issue too) could promote the online site, and vice versa.

Part 2: Not Just Motorcycles, Silly!

The bikers are only one example of communities within your larger community that you don’t serve well now — and that command all sorts of new advertising opportunities (I can’t believe I just typed those words! Yeesh!) that you’re currently not enjoying.

In addition to the “unknown subcultures” component of this is the whole gamut of those awful print inserts, or advertorial sections.

Years ago I worked for a trade newspaper that covered the computer industry. Several times a year, our ad department would tell our editor that they were planning a 16- or 32-page “special section” on something like local area networks, CAD/CAM, or some other hot topic in the business.

Instead of writing crap for those sections — or contracting the copy out to freelancers, like The Washington Post does — our reporters wrote real stories that essentially served as backgrounders on different aspects of the technology. We didn’t allow advertising to tell us whom to talk to or what to write about. They gave us a topic, and we went out and covered the heck out of it — not from a news angle, but seriously, in ways that we knew our readers would value.

That’s the kind of sea change I am advocating in content for these “special sections” — take them seriously. Make them real journalism. The result will be greater value for your audience, for your community as a whole — and that will bring more visitors to the content, and hence more eyeballs to your advertisers.

You put the section online and open it up to the subculture. You let them make it theirs. You also use it to keep tabs on their issues and interests — fuel for the daily newspaper, you see? Instant sources, right there, waiting for you. And then, once or twice a year, you transform the online section into a special insert for print — but not the kind of garbage that your inserts are today. No, a real collection of journalism that serves the constituent community it covers.

About the Way the Ads Look

One more thing I thought about while looking at the Wichita Eagle’s “Open Road Motorcycle Edition Special Section” — while I did not appreciate the clunky way in which the pop-up overlay opened and jumped around, I did like the way I was looking at a real ad. It made me think about doing the same thing — only in a much more user-friendly way — with some JavaScript, a la Lightbox.

I considered the old (1999) arguments from the advertising department — that they don’t know how to use Photoshop, don’t know what a JPG is, don’t understand measurements in pixels, etc. But you know, just open the PDF and take a screen grab, for heaven’s sake! Sure someone in advertising can manage to do that correctly!

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Visual literacy in multimedia journalism
May 25, 2007, 2:43 pm
Filed under: education, graphics, ideas, storytelling

Building on my earlier post: How do we tell stories visually?

Let me begin with still photos. I know that many photographers like to put up a photo as a stand-alone, a work that answers to itself. In an art gallery, I can appreciate that. But it’s not a story, any more than a painting is a story all by itself. There’s a story in it, but it’s not told by the image alone. (You can infer a story from a single image, but that’s usually as far as it can go.)

Move on to the photo story, an established story form in journalism (Kenneth Kobré traces its origin to Life magazine in 1936 and the form we know today to 1948). Page layout contributes much to the print photo story, but it must also have words. Not necessarily a lot of words — but it’s just not a story if we don’t understand what’s going on in the images.

I’d like to ask you to think about comic strips, comic books, manga and graphic novels. In their more detailed sequences (more detailed, that is, than a photo story), they do occasionally tell a complete story without using any words at all. But only occasionally. (Manga do this especially well.)

My point: It’s hard to tell a story without words. The visuals do a lot of the work in storytelling, but rarely can they carry the full weight of the story without help.

When we add motion, however, some of our reliance on words can be eliminated.

I was thinking about this last night as I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. The early scenes are so short, with so few words — it’s the kind of opening that leaves you totally lost when you’re a kid. (You ask your parents, “What’s happening?” and they say “Shh!”) But as you learn the grammar of film, you get more out of such terse scenes.

Then I went back to the list of seven visualization types (sketches, diagrams, images, maps, objects, interactive visualizations, stories) and started mulling over each one of them. I was thinking, for example, “When is an interactive visualization not a story?” I was thinking, “Doesn’t a diagram tell a story?”

That’s when I arrived at this idea about completeness, or fullness, of a story. Go back to a single photograph, alone on a wall, without any caption. There’s probably a story there. But I don’t know what it is.

This brings me to maps. A map alone doesn’t tell a story. Some words are needed. But an animated map can tell a story — with very few words, or maybe no words at all.

A chart or graph can tell a story with very few words. An animated graphic can sometimes tell the story more effectively. Why? It leads you through a sequence of events (Update: That link needed to be replaced). It begins with a small amount of information and builds on that. It can end with an obvious climactic event (such as a steep plunge in the stock market, or a large increase in toxic gases) that illustrates a result, a conclusion. (Learn more from one of the great online infografistas, Alberto Cairo, in an OJR interview.)

I arrived at some questions we can ask when we are planning to tell a story:

  1. Can I use any kind of images or graphics to tell this story?
  2. Can motion help tell this story? Does any kind of motion — in space, or in time — play a part in the story?
  3. How many words are really necessary? (Let’s cut out as many words as possible without losing clarity.)

Do not underestimate the role of motion in visual storytelling. Do not overestimate the role of words, whether in text or in audio.

Let’s work on editing our multimedia the way we edit a text story: Omit unnecessary words. Get to the point. If establishing a mood or a scene helps advance the story, then do it. Anything that doesn’t contribute to the actual story you’re telling right now — cut it out.

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Visual literacy: Do you have it?
May 25, 2007, 4:27 am
Filed under: education, graphics, ideas, storytelling

There are seven visualization types, according to a demo tutorial at the Visual-Literacy.org e-learning course:

  1. Sketches
  2. Diagrams
  3. Images
  4. Maps
  5. Objects
  6. Interactive visualizations
  7. Stories

I found this interesting because I am fond of telling people there are five online media types:

  1. Text
  2. Photos
  3. Graphics
  4. Audio
  5. Video
  6. User interaction

(Yes, I know that’s six, but user interaction might include any or all of the others, while any of the others might exist without any significant interaction. So, um, call it five plus one.)

From my point of view, graphics can be either animated or static. Video and animation are not in the same class, as I see it. Neither do video and still photography overlap — you might disagree, but I find them to be opposites. Video is moving and alive, immersive, fluid; photography is a way of freezing the world, stopping time, making us appreciate a single instant that otherwise we might never see.

As I continued poking around at Visual-Literacy.org, I found a Breeze presentation (how I hate those!) in which a lecturer listed six “static” visualization fields:

  1. Art
  2. Advertising
  3. Graphic design
  4. Visual communication
  5. Information design
  6. Film

He went on later to list “interactive” visualization fields:

  1. Interaction design
  2. Game design
  3. Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  4. Medical visualization
  5. Scientific visualization
  6. Computer graphics
  7. Information visualization
  8. Human-computer interaction (HCI)
  9. Virtual reality
  10. Augmented reality
  11. Storytelling
  12. Knowledge visualization

As you might imagine, the presentation degraded after this list. Having two lists is one thing, and not a bad idea. Having 12 things on one list is not going to help people learn very well. (Talk about a need for good information design!)

In an online text called Literacy in the Digital Age, I found this —

Students who are visually literate:

1. Have working knowledge of visuals produced or displayed through electronic media

  • Understand basic elements of visual design, technique, and media.
  • Are aware of emotional, psychological, physiological, and cognitive influences in perceptions of visuals.
  • Comprehend representational, explanatory, abstract, and symbolic images.

2. Apply knowledge of visuals in electronic media

  • Are informed viewers, critics, and consumers of visual information.
  • Are knowledgeable designers, composers, and producers of visual information.
  • Are effective visual communicators.
  • Are expressive, innovative visual thinkers and successful problem-solvers.

If you’re wondering where all this is leading — so am I. But I can tell you, it’s those last three I’m very concerned about. I think the college students I see every day are pretty savvy visual consumers, but they’re not the producers I’d like them to be. They can stick things on a MySpace page, but they can’t necessarily conceive and execute a visual project. They write, but they don’t sketch.

You may want to tell me this is my job — as a journalism educator, I need to get them up to speed on this visual stuff. I won’t say you’re wrong. But they can’t even sketch.

I have no solutions yet. I’m thinking about it. Any ideas?

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