From multimedia productions, to Computer Assisted Reporting

Last Thursday, I presented a series of great news related multimedia productions before a group of students of the Sciences Politiques School of Journalism where I happen to have a small gig.  I was curious to see their reactions. Too often, journalism students are mostly interested in the pursuit of a “voie royale”. This is especially true of those following a high-end academic path such as “Sciences Po”; they yearn to write for big newspapers, especially on noble beats such as foreign policy and politics. Fine. Grand ambitions are healthy.
Last year, as I was coaching another group on the handling of daily editorial meetings for a fictitious newspaper, I started to worry. In the real world, their editorial output would have been boring, un-commercial. Many in that group of students found me of the utmost vulgarity as I discouraged front-page stories covering elections in Zimbabwe, for example. Instead, I tried to ingrain into their well-wired brain the charms of explanatory journalism (I was fresh coming out of six years at 20 minutes, which was, after all, a solid success — 2.7m readers — and based on a good journalism mix).

This year’s group is different. They are two years younger, hence more realistic about their professional future. I helped them build a decent blog titled “Matière Crise” featuring untold (as much as they could) aspects of the economic crisis. They did fairly well, I think. For the last sessions, we decided to look into the best alternative ways to present news. I relied mostly on New York Times productions such as the extraordinary “Choosing a President“, an exceptional multimedia feature, but also on more accessible webcasts such as “One in 8 million” a moving tribute to the diversity of the New York population built simply on black & white aesthetics and on a powerful narrative. To these students, I tried to show how multimedia production could encompass a wide variety of subjects. These included investigative works like the superb web piece about the cynical communication strategy employed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the War in Iraq.

On the positive side, the students were quite interested by this form of storytelling. On a more negative side, I realized how unprepared they were to get into an authoring, technical and creative domain that might engulf a large part of their professional future. Journalism schools underplay an important part of the training of aspiring journalists: the development of technical skills. To most grown-up news people, drilling into arcane science of Flash or of other web production tools is as inappropriate as talking about editorial marketing (another field in which J-schools are out of touch).

The profession ought to pause for a moment and think about that.

Great multimedia productions involve precisely the convergence between journalistic insights and technical skills. This is well told in this interview of the New York Times’ multimedia crew. Most on staff have journalistic training greatly enhanced later by the acquisition of technical skills. To some degree. Of course, very few multi-talented people combine good storytelling skills and knowledge of computer programming languages. Aaron Pilhofer, for instance, falls into that category. He is the editor of Interactive New Technologies at the NY Times.

In 2007, to a deputy managing editor and to the CTO of the paper, he pitched the urgent need for launching a unit in experimental journalism. As he explained later in New York Magazine,  “The proposal was to create a newsroom: a group of developers-slash-journalists, or journalists-slash-developers, who would work on long-term, medium-term, short-term journalism —everything from elections to NFL.” As New York Mag put it, ” This team would “cut across all the desks,” providing a corrective to the maddening old system, in which each innovation required months for permissions and design. The new system elevated coders into full-fledged members of the Times—deputized to collaborate with reporters and editors, not merely to serve their needs”. Says Pilhofer: “It was surprisingly easy to make the case”.   Now this entirely self-taught multimedia editor oversees a team of web programmers able to handle the sophistication required of such a high audience website.

Ambitious multimedia storytelling doesn’t work simply by assembling sets of pictures along with a voice over. For the best teams, the expertise involves handling complex data streams, statistics, Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and 3D to design complex map-based narration like in this account of a climb to the Mount Kilimanjaro (a story awarded by the Society for News Design). But without the capability to articulate and to “stage” a subject, the best programmers are useless (and vice versa, lousy multimedia translation of a great story can lead to a complete blunder). Therefore, it is critical for journalists to learn how to transform complex sets of raw data into a compelling production.

Consider the National Institute on Computer-Assisted Reporting. NICAR is part of the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) organization, a nonprofit structure dedicated to improving the quality of the investigative reporting. IRE is tied to the University of Missouri  — which itself partners with the Sciences Po School of Journalism in Paris. NICAR has a stunning database covering topics from crime to economy, health or public programs; such content goes far beyond the usual government files that can be handled through Excel. Going back to 1989, we have full-blown relational databases allowing complex treatments, data mining and reduction.  In addition, to promote the use of their libraries, IRE and NICAR provide conferences, training sessions, at very affordable prices.

By the way, the development of database knowledge is not a sideshow. Analyzing, deciphering and staging raw data is at the core of the next evolution of the Word wide Web — as said its inventor Tim Berners-Lee, calling for everyone to “free raw data” on the Internet (see his talk at the last TED Conference).

Where am I heading with this? Five things should be considered when training journalists, whether in schools or in companies.

  1. Production skills. Scripting, staging a story are now key elements in modern journalistic storytelling. It is about designing mockups, showing how the story will unfold, finding the best viewer interactions, the type of media that will be more appropriate at what time, etc. I say this to my students at Sciences Po: train yourself on PowerPoint; it can be a great tool to pre-design rich multimedia stories or even to complete a simple but clever one for a blog. Many easy-to-use tools dedicated for multimedia productions such as SoundSlides are also helpful.
  2. Dealing with complexity, handling datasets, from public statistics to GIS. These are key instruments to spread knowledge in an increasingly visual society. Pr. Hans Rowling’s video with its mind-blowing use of statistics on global development has been viewed about 200.000 times. His talent was mainly to convert sets of complex stats into an attractive format, using a program (Gapminder), that is now available as a widget on Google Apps.
  3. Enroll pure technologies competences. Journalists need to learn how to deal with techies. Cross-pollination between the two is crucial.
  4. Encourage nerdy tendencies among students or rookies journalists. In doing so, they will dramatically increase their employability.
  5. Teach them how to sell their work, skills, passion. This ranges from setting pro-like blogs to — yes — creating their own tiny company, the commercial vehicle for rising above the crowd and monetizing their work.

This is what I’m saying to the aspiring journalists I coach. I’m even able to convince some that, in fact, these troubled times in the media bear great opportunities to develop the storytelling techniques of the future. -FF

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