Teaching Examples

Journalism stories: A multimedia approach (Part 2)
January 22, 2007, 1:12 pm
Filed under: journalism, journalists, multimedia, reporting, storytelling, workflow

To continue from where I left off yesterday — here’s where I am taking a turn away from journalism as we know it. What kind of reporting should be invested in EACH module of the story? (Yesterday I discussed how to come up with the modules before you begin reporting the story.)

Module: How Would a Higher Minimum Wage Affect Us?

Don’t waste your great interviewer on gathering the statistical data. The numbers should be the responsibility of someone who knows best how to find them, verify them, and present them in the best possible format. That would be your news graphics artist, your analytical reporter, your research librarian (if you have one). Do you have a database expert? This information needs to be stored efficiently after it is gathered (so you can use it forever, and not reinvent the wheel every time this story cycles back around), and it needs to be presented — in all media — in a graphical format. That means news graphics. If you want to include a history of the minimum wage in the U.S., bundle it into this module — and make it graphical. Text for numbers? Bad! Charts and diagrams for numbers? Good! (If they are done well, that is. Read Tufte if you don’t understand this yet. Or Nigel Holmes.)

Module: The People Who Want a Raise

How about those interviews with the workers? You know a picture of a hard-pressed father of five getting up at 4 a.m. or waiting for the bus is going to say more than 1,000 words written about that moment. So send your best photographer out with the print reporter — and make sure they get audio too. And for heaven’s sake, do a real interview. If all you’re going to do is fish for quotes, why even bother going out?

Module: Impact on Local Businesses

How about the employers? Part of this story is always how small businesses will be “crushed” by an increased minimum wage. Maybe they will have to fire people. They certainly won’t be able to “create new jobs.” I don’t need any more statistics from the fat lobbyists who claim to represent the small businessman. I would understand better if you could show me a local florist, or the guy who runs a lawn service, or a woman who owns a small bakery. I think this part of the story might work best with a short, tightly edited video of each business owner, accompanied by a Q&A-style text. Your B-roll for the interview should show that person’s workers doing their jobs.

You know the core of this story is in the numbers. How many people making minimum wage in your region work for the bakers and the lawn-service guys, and how many work for a gigantic retail or food-service corporation? Can you tell that story? So you probably need a graphic or two in this module as well.

Module: How Our Elected Representatives See the Minimum Wage

This is about how the laws get made. How our government works. Your representatives in the U.S. Congress have been voting for or against minimum wage increases for 60 years already. How have they voted, and what are their reasons? Numbers are involved here — so once again, you will need your news graphics department to step up. But you probably also ought to get on the phone and talk to the people who represent the people in your state. I would separate this information out from the “How Would a Higher Minimum Wage Affect Us?” module — can you see why? That module is not merely about numbers; it is about answering a certain set of questions. This module is about other questions — concerning how the public interest is represented in Washington.

Avoiding Redundant Information

The hardest thing about this kind of storytelling is avoiding redundancy. Some people will want to absorb everything in all four modules. Do not waste their time by repeating the same information in more than one module! With online media, linking saves us from the need to write a “second-day lede” — just link to the related material.

The better the communication is among members of this reporting team, the better the story will be. By dividing the work in advance, you essentially make everyone’s workload lighter. Everyone working on the story needs to keep the others in the loop about what was gathered and what is still out there. This kind of story is not possible without teamwork.

Where Does the Writing Come In?

Let’s face it — no one except the Pulitzer Prize jury reads those 10,000-word (or 100,000-word) stories that some newspapers love to print.

There is certainly a need for written pieces in this story. But no one — no one — needs a comprehensive text-only narrative. Don’t write one. Don’t even start to write one.

I’m not saying it all dumbs down to blurbs and captions. No.

But the writing must gain focus and utility. That means word counts. I recommend a cap of 600 words for any stand-alone text piece in the story package. Don’t forget to use subheadings. They help!

If you really need more than 600 words (and it’s not a list of, say, 10 items at 100 words each), then you have two separate topics. Two 400-word texts are better than one 700-word text.


Open up a dialogue right there in the package. Attach a Blogger blog if you can’t do it any other way — but get people talking. Ask them what they think about the story and the way you told it. Ask for suggestions. And then — follow up.

And Finally: Don’t Bury It!

Play this thing on the home page and in a sky box on Page One every day for a week. Come on, you know no one can find this stuff on your impossibly cluttered Web site! No one should wonder why an online package languishes unviewed when it’s frickin’ hidden below 8,000 navigation buttons leading to Cars, Jobs, and Real Estate. (Not to mention the “Cutest Baby” photo contest.)

If you want the people to see this thing, you have to lay it down in front of them. Generate some buzz. Heck, buy a radio ad during drive time. Get people talking. And then see if you get some traffic on that story.

I think you will.

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Journalism stories: A multimedia approach (Part 1)
January 21, 2007, 3:03 pm
Filed under: journalism, journalists, multimedia, reporting, storytelling, workflow

Last week I wrote a bit about the idea that journalists tell stories:
It’s about stories … which stories? And why?

This is turning into something of a mantra among many in the journalism field, as they emphasize that this fact remains the same, in spite of all the upheaval going on in journalism today: We tell stories.

I would add that these are true stories. And finally, while they might often entertain or amuse, our best stories are intended to help people understand the world they live in. Not merely to inform, to convey facts like strawberries in a basket, but to enrich and nourish the public’s understanding of why things are as they are, and how and why things might change.

So how should we approach stories today, in our changing field?

The example I flung out last week was the minimum wage debate in the U.S. right now. Hardly a “sexy” story, and not very visual, either.

1. Start with a written list of questions.

And not only your own questions. Make a list of everything that various people in your community might not know or understand — or might misunderstand — about this story. Write the questions out. Writing them (or typing them) is important.

2. Take some time. There is no big rush.

Approach the story at this stage as if you had all the time (and all the personnel) you could possibly need to tell the largest, longest version of this story. Why? One of the ongoing problems in day-to-day journalism is that we act as if everything is breaking news. Very little that we cover is actually breaking news. The minimum wage story has been important in the U.S. for my entire lifetime. Just because Congress had a vote does not make this story breaking news.

3. Chunk the story in advance.

Brainstorm about discrete story modules that would address the questions on your list. Clump the related questions together. For example, questions about why a capable adult does not have a better-paying job; separately, questions about how many people would be affected by an increase in the minimum wage (both workers and employers).

Right now this does not sound very different from a normal story process, does it? But keep in mind, we have not interviewed anyone yet. We haven’t made any phone calls. We have probably searched the Internet a bit, and I hope we have chatted with a few of our friends and family members outside the journalism business. (If we haven’t, then how good is our list of questions? Forgive me, but we don’t know what other people think unless we ask them.)

About these “modules”: The idea is to satisfy the curiosity of anyone who comes to this story, regardless of what he or she is curious about. So a module is a device to answer a certain cluster of questions, to meet a particular type of interest. People can dive straight into any module from the outset, and they can ignore all the other modules if they want to. They can explore the modules in any order.

4. Finalize a very small set of relevant modules.

Ideally you can format this story as a set of three to six modules. Figure out how to reduce the number of modules to as few as possible. (Use the five W’s and an H if it helps.) Yes, I know this sounds like writing a series for the newspaper or producing a multi-part special report for TV. But so far, you have not done any reporting. And these are not separate “stories.” They are all aspects of one story.

You’re going to determine the shape of this story before you start throwing time and money at the reporting. Last night’s traffic accident probably is not worth this treatment, of course — but a story that has recurred since 1938 (when the U.S. instituted a national minimum wage) is worth it.

You will have at least three modules, or else you haven’t thought hard enough about this story (or the story is too minor for this treatment). I would estimate that most substantial stories require four or five modules.

(As much as I admire washingtonpost.com’s Being a Black Man, it does not work to tell us the story. It’s a library, an encyclopedia, an overflowing cornucopia — not a story. It could have been one story, multifaceted and complex, yet also approachable and accessible. That’s not how they chose to handle it.)

5. Plan the reporting needed for EACH module.

Now that you have your modules, you can start to discuss what makes the most sense for creating each module. What kind of reporting answers the questions within that module?

For example, to answer questions about why many capable adults do not have a better-paying job, conduct a series of interviews with people who currently make minimum wage. Then add in the insights of employment counselors who work with low-income families.

To answer questions about how many people would be affected by an increase in the minimum wage, create information graphics that show the proportion of workers and, separately, the proportion of employers. (Naturally, these should be specific to your region or state, unless you are The New York Times, The Washington Post or USA Today.)

Tomorrow I’ll describe four modules that would tell this story.

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A few tidbits about time (and how to manage it)
December 17, 2006, 8:39 pm
Filed under: blogs, data, workflow

One way or another, all of these good things came via GigaOM:

  • 10 tips for time management in a multitasking world (about being mindful of where exactly the time goes and how we fall behind), from Penelope Trunk, a columnist at the Boston Globe.
  • Paper, Pen and Blackberry (about the joys of writing things down).
  • NoteTaker is software for Mac OS X only. At first glance, I thought, Yeah, right, like I need a paper notebook metaphor on my computer! Hah! Then I watched two of the tutorial videos, and I realized this is even easier than the wiki I have been using (and private). Then a little lightbulb went on in the back of my mind, and I had a fond, fond remembrance of HyperCard, lo, those many years ago (the last time I owned a Mac). There’s a lot I can do with del.icio.us, real Post-It notes, or the memo app in my BlackBerry phone. But NoteTaker would be good for other things, like organizing a large writing project. (There’s a $30 academic discount!)
  • “Blog if you have something to say and respect your reader’s time. If you respect their time, they are going to give you some time of their day” (see full post).

This one did not come from GigaOM, but it’s been in my bookmarks for a while, and if you’ve read this far, you will probably like it:

PigPogPDA – A Moleskine Hacked into a Complete System (honestly, I would never do this myself; if you want to, see a Moleskine catalog, or buy Moleskines at Amazon.com).

I will return to our regularly scheduled online journalism content tomorrow.

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