Posted by: structureofnews | November 20, 2011

Who Dun It?

Interesting, short New York Times piece on a new-ish police practice of taking 360-degree panoramic views of crime scenes (warning: graphic photos) so that investigators can virtually explore the area long after the place has been cleaned up.

It conjures up all sorts of images of science-fiction spy thrillers, where blueprints of buildings and photos of every street corner always seem to be available to secretive government agencies with a couple of keystrokes.  In this case, the actual technology doesn’t seem all that new – we’ve seen lots of panoramic camera shots before – but the application of it is a smart one.  When you first arrive at a crime scene, do you know what to focus on?  I’m sure seasoned detectives have very good instincts, but it never hurts to be able to go back and look over all the evidence again.

And so now that it’s so much easier – and cheaper – to store tons of information, why not do it regularly?  That’s not entirely analogous to the ideas behind structured journalism – but it’s close.   Reporters – like detectives at a crime scene – sift tons of information in their head and then come to (hopefully smart) conclusions.  But there’s a lot left in their notebooks and heads that effectively gets thrown away.  Finding ways to access and tap all that information later on should unlock a lot of value.

Some methods to access that information will require some painful cultural change on the part of journalists, and involve upturning the way they’re used to working.  But other methods are more purely technological.   The revolutionary Lytro camera, which captures so much more data in any single image that viewers can focus on any point in it, is one example – it’s a way of bringing back much more from the field than just what the photographer was focusing on at the time.

I doubt reporters will ever be going around taking 360-degree photographs of where they’ve been, but the general idea is the same.  How can we make sure that all that effort expended in reporting any particular story isn’t thrown away after the 400-word piece on it has been filed?  How can we keep all that information gathered in searchable, useable formats to power future stories and news products?  (Or solve crimes…)


Responses

  1. Hi Reg,

    A query from a former journalist who has worked for 10 years in print and online. I am fascinated by the changes the industry is undergoing and your insights, and thank you for sharing them. I have a few remarks to make followed by a question.

    I am pretty disappointed by how little help is available to addressing deficits in digital skills in journalism at the moment. I seem to have joined the industry at the worst possible time, when training was non-existent in newspapers and half of the industry was still in denial about the internet’s growing role (the late 1990s).

    As a journalist in the job market today, we’re told that it’s important to be more entrepreneurial and think digitally, and that we need to be equipped to analyse and present data in new and intelligent ways, and yet it’s impossible to find someone to train you how to do it. Educational institutions don’t seem to know or understand what the industry needs, as the industry is still in a state of flux, and isn’t prepared to take on journalists who don’t have ‘ready-to-work’ digital skills. I regularly lose out in online writing roles to former TV producers as it is clearly easier to teach a producer the elements of news and feature writing than it is to train a writer to cut news clips. Austerity in the media means large news organisations will hire one person who can do three jobs.

    At a time when such emphasis is being placed on new ways of story-telling, it irks me that in my ten years in print up until March 2011 the only training I’ve been offered was two hours in InDesign, which is now a redundant skill. At a leading news wire, I worked as an online journalist without acquiring any new skills; we punched out endless streams of ‘content’ into cyberspace, that proliferated around the country, region and world. But I learned nothing.

    Essentially, my question, which is quite unfair following this diatribe, is what advice you would give to me? I am trying to present myself as a multimedia journalist, but there’s no employer prepared to help develop my digital skills. I was told by someone I interviewed — and it’s becoming a cliche now — that to move forward in digital media you had to fail, but fail fast. But there is nowhere where you can work and learn; I’m led to conclude that unless you’re already on the inside at Reuters, WSJ, AFP etc… nowhere will train you or help you develop new skills. Media employers were pretty useless at training before, and despite all the naval gazing, I don’t expect a Damascene conversion now.

    R

    • Rob,

      I’m sympathetic – and frankly, even at major media organizations, it’s not like training is all that abundant. There aren’t any great solutions, but depending on where you are, there are some options. In the US, IRE (www.ire.org) does run courses on a range of things that are helpful. Attending their annual conferences is a great way to network and pick up skills at workshops as well. Some universities, including in Hong Kong, run summer programs in digital skills for professional journalists. Some NGOs sponsor training sessions around the world on a range of digital skills. And then there are sites like lynda.com, where you can sign up relatively cheaply for video tutorials on a range of software. None of this is perfect by a long shot; but it’ll at least get you up to speed on some of the basics.

      Reg

  2. Much appreciated Reg. Glad you could confirm this for me too. I’m based in Singapore, but from other countries I’ve worked in I’ve noticed the shortage of journalism-focused multimedia courses. It’s not easy to know what employers want as they all place different emphasis on different skills. If you’re trained the old way in news reporting, your stock is sinking rather quickly unless you’re able to transfer those skills into other mediums (I was trained by journalists from The Sun and Daily Mail, so maybe mine is sinking faster than most!). Thank you for your advice.

    Rob

    • Rob, if you’re in Singapore and mobile, you might want to check out summer courses at HKU; they have some good ones on multimedia. In Singapore, I’m not sure what NTU or NUS offers, but I do know people who have done training there, such as Jeremy Wagstaff (www.loosewireblog.com). IRE may be a long distance for you to go, but it’s a good place to get a sense of where the business is headed.

      Broadly speaking, I’d say there are three broad tracks you could look at when you dive into digital – data, computer-assisted reporting and visualization; multimedia production (video, slide shows, audio, etc); and social media expertise. There’s others, of course, not least web development, but often when publishers ask for multimedia or digital skills they’re not sure which one of these they really want. My personal bias is for the first, but I recognize that most of the jobs are probably in the second. (or third).

      Good luck! Reg


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