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Archive for October, 2007

QOTD: I became a journalist to come as close as possible…

Monday, October 29th, 2007

“I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.”
— Henry Luce

Maybe a computer reading the news isn’t the best idea

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

I noticed something I never have when reading a story at the Springfield (Ohio) News-Sun today. There was an audio icon and click to listen in the corner of the story.

I know Springfield has been experimenting with editors doing daily headlines via video. So I thought, maybe they’re having reporters read their stories. That’s strange but kind of cool.

It is the story, read aloud, which you download or listen to. But it wasn’t the reporter, it was a computer. And it was kind of creepy.

When we got our very first Windows computer, I was about 10. And there was this program that would read your text in whatever computer voice you chose. It would try to have the right inflection, but mostly it was just humorous and in some instances creepy. It amused my friends and I plenty as we crank called other friends. (Come on, this was middle school! And soundboards hadn’t been invented yet.)

That is kind of how I felt listening to the story. It was very creepy to me, and disjointed. It stumbled over words and slowed down the flow when it came to numbers and dates.

This service is apparently offered by Newsworthy Audio, which offers its services to other newspapers as well. I couldn’t find a list, but Springfield’s sister paper the Dayton Daily News has the same icon on its stories. Not sure if all Cox papers do or if it’s an Ohio thing, but it’s on some stories at Cox’s Atlanta Journal Constitution, including this one, which I will use as an example here.


Schools plant gardens to sprout healthy eaters

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

On the kind of sunny, clear fall afternoon that torments children cooped up in classrooms, a group of fifth-graders is living every kid’s dream.

They’re roaming around a courtyard, soaking up the sun and talking with friends. And their teacher couldn’t be happier. As first one, then another runs up to her with an assignment, Marsha Cherichel checks their work and urges them to plug away at the solution.

The right answer to this math word problem, which involves multiplication, division and decimals, means more than just getting a check mark on a paper. It means within a few weeks, the students will harvest radishes from the garden they’re designing, getting their first taste of one of the hottest trends in hands-on education.

School gardens are enjoying a revival energized by the local food movement and concern over childhood obesity. Growing fruits and vegetables, the thinking goes, will teach science, math, even literature — and, garden organizers hope, a lifetime of healthier eating habits.

… (you get the idea)

I thought, maybe a straight news story would be better. But after jumping over some annoying registration walls, I found one and clicked the audio link and was disappointed to find it’s almost as bad.

I think it’s a good idea in theory, to be able to listen to the newspaper instead of having to sit down and actively read it. Busy lifestyles and all. But as a writer, I cringe at the idea of my words being mangled and interpreted by a computer reading it the way the stories I clicked on were. I’d rather not, thank you. I just don’t see how a reader, or in this case listener, could stand more than 10 seconds of listening. It was painful.

I don’t know if there will ever be a replacement for a real human reading, at least not without a lot of hand-holding and tweaking by audio engineers. Whether it’s audio books or audio stories (or broadcast even), I find it hard to believe these on-the-fly computer-generated audio stories could gain any kind of traction or regular listeners. Perhaps after a while you are able to parse it out and listen beyond the horrible and annoying pronunciation to the stories themselves. I just don’t see how. And again, if I could reiterate, as a writer AND reader, I cringed while listening to these.

Facebook, the beginning of the end?

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Just this morning in the NPD meeting, I was talking about how eventually even the behemoth Facebook will lose its cool and kids will flee it for greener pastures of the next great thing.

Though I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet, or will anytime soon, I did laugh when I saw this Business Week article today that says Microsoft bought a $240 million chunk of the company, which puts its value in the, oh, $15 billion range. (More about the news.)

It’s good news for Microsoft, which beat out Google for the 1.6 percent share, but as I told the ME when I pointed the story out: This partnership with king-of-the-less-than-hip Microsoft could be the first kiss of death for a company that relies on its cool factor to hold the attention of Generation-Permanently-Distracted.

If not that, this: “Zuckerberg, 23, wants to take Facebook public at some point.” There’s something cool about the site precisely because it started as a college kid’s idea to link up with peers. Though it’s cool to be part of something that big, what really makes it a sticky site is that it seems small and personal. Your network is who you know, and who they know, and who may be in your class or in your city. But it’s defined and not really a free for all. Going public seems like opening some floodgates that I’m not sure wouldn’t wash away some of the roots holding kids down there. It’s not like there isn’t a plethora of other options around that could just as easily become the next big trend. Who knows?

But there’s the rub. Nobody knows. Facebook could continue to innovate, stay ahead and predict the turns in preference and consumption of the kids it’s pandering to. So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my kids and my kids’ kids will still be posting on their friends’ walls when I’m old and complaining about how “back in my day, we had these CDs and if you so much as sneezed the disk would scratch.” And I’ll be wishing when Facebook had its IPO I’d cashed in. But at the rate it’s going, Facebook’s a bit too rich for my blood.

‘What sold me on journalism’

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

When I went into college as a journalism major, nobody, not even me, actually expected I would finish as such. I’ve often told people I chose the major fully expecting to fail, though I’d never really failed at anything. I didn’t want to just fall into science without at least attempting something else. I didn’t have the right personality for journalism. I didn’t have the right skills — my strengths were in Calculus and Biology, and though I’d done my share of writing for the high school newspaper and literary magazine, my grammar was atrocious or at the least embarrassing. But the one thing about me that made journalism a fit was I like a challenge. Journalism, I reasoned, was a challenge.

I saw this story about a former WP editor teaching now linked from Romenesko, and as I was reading it I came across this passage, which triggered a memory of my first few weeks as a reporter for the Daily Kent Stater.

Jackie Jones said:

Jones said her passion for journalism began years before, as she studied at George Washington University and began writing for its student newspaper, The Hatchet.

“I did a story for the GW Hatchet on the university’s food service,” Jones said. “Students complained about the food and would periodically bring food samples to the office to back up their claims. Someone brought a saucer of asparagus to the newsroom that had twigs in it.”

Jones said that when she began reporting on the situation, she met several barriers, including the food service managers shrugging off the twigs by telling her the cafeteria asparagus had “a wood-like consistency.”

Jones said her reporting required the school to take action.

“It forced the university to put out new bids and made the food service clean up its act in an effort to retain the contract – which it did, ultimately. The meals got better, and the selections became more diverse.”

Jones said as soon as she saw that her reporting had an effect, she was hooked.

“What sold me on journalism was learning that I could make a difference, as clichéd as that sounds,” Jones said. “Working for the student newspaper best prepared me for my career.”

OK. My ‘aha’ story was not about cafeteria food. There are actually three stories I can distinctly recall happening within a month of each other that convinced me of the important role a journalist plays.

First, the very first story I wrote for the Stater was about how a recent change in contract with Microsoft was costing students more money, BUT it wasn’t costing them more than the bookstore was by not telling them about that agreement and instead peddling their “student discount” version for $200 without mention of the $70 software option available right there as well. I knew as a freshman I had purchased the software for $20, and I had originally begun my story focusing on the jump to $70. But when I went to the bookstore to try and find a source or two who were buying the software, was alarmed to watch as the clerk sold the $200 box on the shelf to an unsuspecting student. They wanted to sell through their vendor, and though the software was available to pick-up at the bookstore, you had to make the purchase online. But wasn’t it worth at least mentioning that to cash-strapped students? Especially when 15 feet from the software desk was an Internet-enabled computer these kids could go make the purchase on? Well, after my story ran, they still wouldn’t go as far as telling kids “Don’t buy that software, go online and get this,” but I consider it a victory that they did put up a huge sign behind the desk advising students of that option.

There you have it, my first story I was able to a) alert kids to this option and b) make the bookstore alter its practices.

Second, only my second story — and first centerpiece, though my first story also had run on front — and I saw firsthand how my reporting directly impacted other people. The story was an enterprise look at identity theft and its prevalence among students, what students should look out for and a story from one student who had been a victim. That night, I was gathered around with the other officers before our Habitat for Humanity meeting. The co-president was flipping through her mail with a trash can beside her, tossing most everything. She tosses one envelope and then two seconds later reaches back down and grabs it out. Then she looks up and says, “I was reading this article in the Stater…” and proceeds to tell us about how you should shred credit card offers before tossing them to prevent identity theft. I laughed and said, yeah, I know, I wrote the article. But the laugh was also just happiness. My work had just prevented her from a potential disaster. How many other kids had I saved?

Third, was my first “breaking news” story ever. I’d been a reporter for a few weeks, less than a month, and my beat was student finance. Not a whole lot of breaking news there. So one Thursday, I had just finished filing my 40 inches required for class that week when we heard on the scanner there was a buck (as in those huge deer, you know?) loose running around campus. There was one other reporter in the office and she was already working on deadline. The news editor, who I’m sure only knew my name from my dual-role as a proofreader on the nights she supervised the paper, scans the room and sets her eyes on me. She tells me to go check it out. I am scared and also clueless. I catch my breath long enough to ask, “What do I do?” And she doesn’t skip a beat: “Grab a notebook and find out what happened.” So, I rush over to the area between the dorm and construction area next door where the buck was reported.

I could see the glass window shattered where passers-by told me they’d just watched the buck jump through. As I’m getting names and statements from witnesses, the buck jumps back out — CHARGING US. One of the kids in the crowd is so spooked he literally climbs up and jumps the construction fence. The rest of us dodge en masse back up the hill away from the buck as it proceeds to tear its antler in the construction fence and then sprint back down the sidewalk toward the dorm. This was the moment where I knew my role was never again to be the casual observer. I ran back down after the deer, and was able to get the first-person story of the girl whose window the buck would jump through as he charged the building that second and final time.

I guess you could say that’s how you’re supposed to be initiated into news, by the seat of your pants. It definitely was for me. Hard and swift. Within a month of starting as a reporter at the student newspaper, I was absolutely hooked.

J&C Multimedia: Purdue in Space

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

The J&C’s graphics designer has been really impressing me of late with his quick pick-up of Flash projects.

This week there’s a series running about Purdue in Space ramping up to the official dedication of the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering.

I was impressed by the clean presentation in this flash project about the different astronauts to come out of Purdue.

Flash presentation, Purdue astronauts

As you can see, it’s very clean. The red arrows scroll between the astronauts, or you can close out the window and pick and choose the ones you are interested in.

I think that’s a very effective presentation, probably the most effective way it could have been presented online. Good job, guys!

Now if we only did a better job promoting it online…

Who’s Atom?

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

Because nobody else appreciated it as much as me when it happened, I wanted to share this quick tid-bit with my blog readers, most will get the humor.

Someone was showing me a jib-jab video where local candidates’ heads were set to a night of the living dead/republicans/democrats storyline. It was funny. It was also randomly posted as a single blog entry on a blog that was apparently created solely for that purpose, with no other posts or information on it.

So I asked, “Who made it?” figuring, even though I didn’t see any obvious bio or anything, the person showing me might know because obviously someone had shared it with them.

Then they said something that made me both want to laugh and cry: “Whoever Adam is.”

And, not seeing a name, I was like, “Adam?” And told them to click the name to see if there’s a profile.

They click the link at the bottom of the page, which brought up the Atom feed. Atom not Adam. I explained what that was, to a few eye rolls from the peanut gallery.

Feeling amateur

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

So, I was reading this blog post with interest about training the staff of the Canton Repository on video. In part because being from Ohio (Canton’s just a half-hour south of Akron, where I was grew up) I have an interest in media there, but also because I once was considering an online job there. And still have some reservations — yes after everything they’ve been through — about not going there because of what I could have learned and the freedom I would have had to experiment. But c’est la vie!

I found this comment in particular spot-on:

The small camera issue was also brought up by the photo staff. Professional gear brings with it a perception by the public that you are professional. Prosumer gear/consumer gear can create a different perception.

Let me tell you how much I hate our (the paper’s) point and shoot cameras. Doing head shots, I do not mind and prefer a point and shoot. In fact, I often times just use my personal one for the schools page mugs just because a) it’s smaller, b) I don’t need to sign it out, and c) it’s always on me so I can grab mugs & quotes any time I’m out on another assignment rather than having to set aside time for that.

But when they ask me to use the cameras to take a real picture? It’s embarrassing.

I know, I know. It shouldn’t be right? But that comment up there is exactly how I feel, like an amateur. (The photos also tend to suck, because you can only do so much with zoom and the standard flash.) Plus, our point and shoots are clunky and annoying and just… embarrassing. But again, what can you do.

I guess what you do is as the blog poster suggests, you act like a professional. It goes back to the old saying, you can get in anywhere with a clipboard and a sense of purpose. So, I guess rather than fumble and make a joke about the point and shoots, I should just act like it’s just another day and nothing out of the ordinary. And that’s how people will (hopefully) perceive it.

I’ll report back on whether this works.