Posts Tagged ‘rocky mountain news’

Scalpel, Stat! Hold On a Second.

September 16, 2009

Last year around this time, the presidential candidates were talking a lot about tools. No, this is not a Joe The Plumber reference.

Don’t remember? The candidates were speaking figuratively about reigning in spending.

Obama said his opponent’s approach amounted to “using a hatchet when you need a scalpel.” McCain countered that both tools were needed: he’d go in with a hatchet first, then pull out a scalpel.

Regardless of whether you agreed with Obama, his metaphor painted a picture. To use a hatchet for a job clearly meant for a scalpel, say brain surgery, would be silly, not to mention gruesome. To use a communications tool unfit for the task is also reckless.

Not three weeks into my fall semester studies, the mantra, “Let the story dictate the tool,” has been popping up a lot. It’s been nearly as ubiquitous as commentary on Kanye West’s VMA outburst. (Heck, even my favorite football team is weighing in on that.) OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but, in the iMedia world, this is a kind of a big deal. It’s being reinforced at every turn:

  • By my class readings: Forrester Research’s social media primer “Groundswell” preaches “Concentrate on the relationships, not the technologies.”
  • By my research: Spanish media company Novotécnica, a May 2008 article in the journal Convergence said, instructs its journalists to be platform agnostic: “Reporters are constantly generating news content and the central desk decides each time how to distribute it,” a senior editor told researchers.
  • And by guest speakers: Former BBC journalist Jonathan Halls implored me and my classmates to focus on the story. Individual tools will go out of style, he said. Sound storytelling won’t.

Unfortunately, pressure to churn out fresh content and establish a presence in new mediums often leads news organizations to violate the story-first credo.

Last year, the now defunct Rocky Mountain News live tweeted a 3-year-old’s funeral. It had his family’s permission, but, a tool favored for posting (often mundane) status updates, sharing shortened urls and firing off witty one liners hardly seems capable of capturing the depth of emotion associated with a young child’s death. “Rabbi recites 23rd psalm,” “family member remembers marten,” “earth being placed on coffin” were a few of the posts.

More routinely, news sites will do a video story simply because they haven’t done a video story in a while or merely tweak traditional content to fit a new tool instead of developing material from scratch that leverages its functionality.

My former paper, which has recently begun to explore Facebook as a news delivery and marketing tool, this summer had an ah-ha moment with Twitter. After weeks of using the microblogging service as an RSS feed in different clothes, it saw an opportunity to do something more: give users intimate access to a major sporting event happening in its backyard. All four days of Tiger Woods’ AT&T National golf tournament, a reporter was assigned to file frequent dispatches. It took a while for reporters to get comfortable with the format, but once they did, they really ran with it. Here are some choice tweets:

  • Spotting some of these guys is a Where’s Waldo experience. Steuart Appleby breaks the mold wearing an apple green shirt.
  • ‘Sure you can interview me, but don’t use my name. I’m playing hooky from work.’ Dave, from Burke, Virginia
  • Basically the only clouds over the course are from the cigar smoke

What’s more, they found that tweeting, by forcing them to look for rich detail and pithy quotes, enhanced their reporting.

So, how can journalists be confident they’re using the right tool? Considering the following factors should get them on their way:

  • Look, listen, and think: Use photos and videos when there are compelling, action-oriented visuals. Use audio when there is rich natural sound. Use infographics or interactive presentations to simplify the voluminous or complex.
  • Audience: Is the format appropriate for the probable audience? A podcast, for example, probably isn’t the best format for a story about the new senior center. It would be an ideal format, however, for a story about a transit line targeting young commuters.
  • Turnaround time: Some mediums have longer production processes than others. Before committing to a format, make sure the deadline allows enough time to create a quality product.
  • What’s gained? What’s lost?: Tools giveth, tools taketh away. Yes, a picture is worth 1,000 words, but what about the “words” that are out of frame? Weigh what’s gained against what’s lost. If a video’s going to end up being all talking heads, you might be better off sticking with text.
  • Does it get along with other content?: If producing sidebar content, does it complement the mainbar? Or does it repeat it or distract from it?
  • Staff expertise: Does your staff have enough technological and strategic familiarity with a tool to use it effectively? If not, wait until they do before playing with it.
  • Is it searchable?: If a lot of people are likely to be searching for the content, know the limitations of video and Flash and how to work around them.
  • Is it shareable?: If a lot of people are likely to want to share the content with others, does the format make it easy for them to do so?