Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The modern journalist

Let's talk about journalism.

The following are excerpts from a Slack chat with members of The Little Rebellion. part of Nancy Heiz's SUNY New Paltz's advance editing journalism class.

The purpose of the chat was to explore:
  • Reporting skills and the role of the journalist in the newsroom of the future;
  • Real-time live reporting and the platforms that enable it; and
  • Immersive storytelling, specifically virtual reality and 360-degree content.

The chat took place over a number of days at sometimes at some funky hours, which allow me to not-so-much wax poetically but hopefully comprehensively elaborate on these topics. I thought it could be of use to the larger audience, including consumers, aspiring journalists and journalists at large. I've added some extra notes here and there and a totally irrelevant image or two to break the gray. I'm also breaking the chat in two. It was long!

In this post, I deal with the modern newsroom, digital tools and multitasking.


The newsroom of today

Traditional journalism roles are still there, but they are evolving and are adapting to the new realities of how people consume the news. 

In the ~Before Time~, a reporter would get a story assignment, gather the information, talk to sources, file a story and forget about it. That still happens! to some degree but now the gathering of content can happen in real-time via social media— with live updates or crowdsourcing of user-generated content, for example— and there can be leads and tips that can develop from engaging with the audience.

FURTHER! Newsroom realities demand that reporters are able to be thrown into any situation. A reporter in today's newsroom can cover entertainment, police and sports (hello, Brian) and, at least in our shop, everyone is expected to cut their own videos, and cover live things through Twitter, etc. So while a reporter in a newsroom can (and does) have a beat like city hall or the local town board, you shouldn't be surprised if that same reporter is sent to cover a murder trial, or a room full of cats (hello, Ariel).

And yes, room full of cats is a thing.

Ariél Zangla shot that video at the SPCA. She also jumped in to cover a murder trial in late April just for that day and she usually covers Kingston City Hall and general assignments.  Patricia R. Doxsey fully covered that trial and is our go-to person for such events.

That recap from the trial is, basically, the sausage being made. Then there's the story that has to be filed, based on those notes 

So, a modern newsroom tends to look for someone who — on top of traditional skills like solid reporting and an ethical base— can properly use social media for journalism, do video, and basic multimedia. The advantage of having such a skill set means that you can basically apply to a number of jobs.

By 'basic multimedia,' I mean the ability to shoot and cut video, be able to send live updates, add links and embeds for docs like primary sources to Scribd or Documentcloud, Google Maps, and spreadsheets (you're going to do numbers at some point).

It sounds like a lot but a lot of this basically comes down to grabbing the right URL and showing your work. 

If you looked at a website in the course of working on a story, why not show that site to your audience?

Do note that having a bunch of skills doesn't mean you have to throw everything at one story all the time. Having many tools at your disposal simply means you'll be able to bring the right tools to the appropriate situation.

It's important to also note that a lot of these we learned while already working, and there's more to come. So the main skill is keep learning and adapting. 

And it's OK if you're not great at everything. My snap game is weak, but I'm an old so ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ

I was asked, 'Do you think then that the most important trait employers are looking for is the willingness to learn?'

Thus, employers that are worth pursuing seek a willingness to learn in their potential hires.
We don't know what's going to be the THING next year so we're all in the same boat. 
But it crucial to have the core journalistic foundation: Reporting and writing in an ethical way. And a hunger for news. 

That's usually obvious from what you show. So if you're seeking a job in journalism, what you're doing now - be it a blog or stories or videos or your own site and even a band page you manage - becomes relevant.  The tools will change, but the passion has to be there. And don't be afraid to show anything that can become useful in a news situation, which can be a killer gif or a nicely edited SoundCloud file (Editor's note: The gif linked is not 'killer' and the SoundCloud file was not nicely edited).


But with so many skills to juggle, how do you manage?

The answer will depend on what you are tasked to do.

In many cases, a reporter will likely have to produce a written narrative with some visuals. The way to incorporate all that with live coverage is to use Twitter as your notepad (not for everything, obviously, sometimes you need to keep things in order to verify or dig further).

Get to the scene, tweet a photo immediately, and start sending updates: "I'm at the scene of x; there's y and z happening" etc. Your tweets have time stamps so that also helps. Shoot a short film from 30 seconds to a minute so it uploads fast and gives people a sense of what's happening — and you have enough to feed the audience while you work on a full story and gather all the other important info. (You can pull all these elements into a Storify post).

Think of it as giving chicken nuggets to an audience while you cook your full meal for another audience.

BUT! One of the things that I've found is that, basically, if you're doing live video, that's all you're going to be doing, since your phone is likely the device being used (so you can't really tweet update or take photos), so I only recommend live videos when you're with someone else producing other content; or if the live video IS the content.

I've managed to do a number of things along with live video in some controlled environments, but once something goes wrong, everything else falls apart because you're not gathering info when you're trying to fix a sound or a video problem.

A few times, a story has been written by compiling information from the live video, but this usually just works with news conferences and such.

Ideally, you want someone to be sending live updates (because audiences jump into live video at different times and you want them to be able to catch up) along with video. In our case, we also have to produce a print product and that HAS to happen, so if other things start failing, the priority is given to the gathering of information.

The structure of your tasks will inform what you need to prioritize.

Some events don't really need a written narrative when a group of photos or videos will suffice. This is much truer online.

Another important consideration when multi-tasking is deadlines. That will really inform what you'll stop doing. Something you just have to drop everything because you need to file something in time. Multi-tasking is possible but can add to your tasks tremendously if not managed properly.

Also, your phone can die really quickly with live video! Have an external battery (same for other devices, including a laptop).

It is crucial to know how much battery you can get out of a device. An iPhone or Android device can run out of battery in an hour with live video, or get really hot and stop working. Our iPhones are notorious for turning themselves off when it's really cold outside, especially when one is covering a snowstorm. A battery warms it up and wakes the phone up. So the tech will also inform your decisions and what tools to bring to an event.

What does multimedia add? 

''Boring" subjects can be made more interesting by creative presentations. Policy stuff can serve the audience better in an explainer format, for example, which can be both informative and entertaining. Sometimes an Infographic can help. For instance, you can make your own with and add Thinglink to make them pop.

Sometimes just a video explainer can suffice.

And print?

I am a fan of print, but print has many limitations. Distribution and timeliness and obvious lack of multimedia are major issues. But there's a certain serendipity when you go through a paper that you don't get online. It's a different experience (also, it can be more fulfilling), but it admittedly serves a different audience. I am not a fan of web layout, currently, in many news websites, because they just brought the print sensibilities into the web and that's not how the web works. Plus, don't get me started with all the ads, cookies, pop-ups, etc.

Print audiences are diminishing in the industry as a whole, irreparably, so we have to focus where the audience is, which is increasingly online and more so via smartphones. I'm pretty sure some print outfit will somehow survive as an ironic product somewhere, but it's no longer the force that it once was. The forms of distributions are fractured, so print is now just one platform (albeit still the one paying the bills at many publications).

What's important for platforms is an optimal user experience: good content! And ease of use, fast loading times, etc. If news organizations were to start there, the audiences will grow at a more organic and sustainable way. The current challenge for many news organizations is developing those audiences while maximizing their revenue in order to stay afloat. Those two goals are sometimes in conflict, and we in the editorial side always side with content and audiences but we're not always the ones calling the shots in our companies.

The tools of the trade

A lot of these tools are free to use so basically what you need is Internet access. Most newsrooms I know provide smartphones to their reporters so that they can do things mobile, but by then you should be at least somewhat familiar with them.

Use of social media is free, for instance, and you're probably already adept at a lot of it, including some of these tools (like Slack, which is also used in many newsrooms). Anything out of Google is free. With Google Drive, you have Docs, Sheets, etc.; Then there's Google Maps (with StreetView). Scribd is a free way to upload primary sources (so people don't end up with big PDFs in their phone); Storify is free to use.

The list goes on:

Your resourcefulness when presented with digital challenges — like having no money for a project, which happens, a lot— is one of the traits that can make you stand out as a digital journalist.

A lot of times, in our newsroom, we see something a big news organization has done, and we're like, 'can we do that?'
You'd be surprised what you can find for free that you can use. Then is a matter of when to use it and for what purpose.

I remember seeing a before-and-after quake NYT piece from Nepal and Italy and then I realized I could use JuxtaposeJS for free to do the same for other issues where the tool could come in handy.

So, for instance, You could have a before-and-after slide of the Wallkill River bridge in New Paltz to showcase the difference to illustrate a story about it.

The consideration from the story conception is, what can you do digitally to make the story better, for free, and in the time that you have? Does this story benefit with a map? or a Soundcloud file? or an embed of a doc?

Ideally, you want to have a smartphone. But journalists can't be everywhere anyway, and people usually are. When there is a news event, chances are someone has taken a photo and posted it already (even if you were to go, someone is already there). So you can always contact that person as a source, ask for permission to use the photo, etc.

If multimedia doesn't add to the story, then it probably shouldn't be there.

But adding multimedia to your stories can be the equivalent of showing your work and it adds value. If you google an address of an event you're going to cover, your audience probably would do the same. Adding that very map you already searched is a service (and not really more work, because you already did the work). Same with documents you obtained. Or perhaps you recorded an interview (that you can add as a sound file). The consideration here is time, and yes, you'll have to prioritize what you use and include depending on how much time you have.

After a while, using a lot of these tools becomes second nature, so you're not even thinking about them while you use them to gather the info to write your story. It's like using a telephone or sending an email.

However! Twitter and Slack and Facebook can be immensely distracting (I'm not even going to mention reddit) so time management is key.

If you know you need a certain amount of time to write a story and gather information, you need that time. The early story or series of tweets serves an audience that craves immediacy and accuracy. Others want 'slow' news the next day (or in a newsletter at the end of the day, a paper the following day or a podcast on the weekend). I'm not saying there hasn't been an erosion of standards in journalism aided by social media and deadline pressures, but if you carry yourself with your basic journalistic and ethical foundation, you'll be able to navigate these turbulent times.

Is digital disruption and the 24/7 a bad thing?

It can be a bad thing if one lets it be a bad thing. Obviously, not everything has to be out in the open all the time. There are many circumstances when you want to keep things close to the vest, especially if dealing with sensitive information. But generally speaking, it makes the process open and that is better by default. It should make journalists and their journalism better, ideally. But everyone's different and everyone's experiences on social media vary. The key is to be personable but professional.

A subsequent post will deal with emerging technologies, including AI, VR, and other acronyms, and what they mean to journalism.