Callum Borchers' Blog

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Archive for September 2010

Sometimes, a story just isn’t worth a slideshow

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One of the challenges to creating strong slideshows is selecting story topics that lend themselves to multiple photographs. Perhaps that’s obvious, but I think multimedia is sometimes like a new toy you overuse just because you love it — the riding lawn mower you rev up to decapitate dandelions along the walkway, when a good old weed whacker would suffice.

Boston.com, typically one of the Web’s savviest multimedia utilizers, was on its John Deere today with a slideshow called “Top consumer complaints in Mass.,” which chronicled the most frequent gripes heard by state agencies in 2009. Among 18 photos in the series, just two were Boston Globe originals; a third was a Globe illustration. The rest were only a notch above clip art — generic pictures drawn from iStockphoto, an online database of royalty-free photographs.

The text that accompanied the slideshow was informative, despite a sloppy your-you’re error: I learned the state’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation received more complaints about home improvement contractors than any other industry.

But I think the story could have been told effectively in a more traditional format. A 400-word article with a couple of Globe pics (since the rest didn’t really enhance the story anyway) would have been just fine.

A piece that more clearly warranted a slideshow was BBC.com‘s “Surgical instruments: Dreadful and Divine,” which featured shots of a new exhibit at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. In this case, the photos are the story. An article describing in words alone the house-of-horrors tools once used during medical procedures just wouldn’t be enough. The photographs, however, tell a compelling story with the aid of simple captions.

My only criticism of the BBC slideshow is I wish it included more than five photos.

The cliche is a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s true, a slideshow must be pretty valuable. But sometimes a story that isn’t worth a thousand words isn’t worth a picture — and certainly not a slideshow — either.

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Written by callumborchers

September 27, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Multimedia skill a prerequisite for contemporary journalists

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It probably was not her aim, but former Christian Science Monitor photographer Mary Knox Merrill, filling in for Professor Dan Kennedy during Wednesday’s class, provided fodder for anyone trying to imagine what sort of cycling activity might have caused Kennedy’s shattered elbow. I suppose the actual purpose of Merrill’s cyclocross showing was to demonstrate the kind of multimedia production expected of contemporary journalists, and also to share her own knowledge about how to create such projects.

Merrill’s work is high-level: She traveled to places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, worked on teams of several journalists, and spent significant time (two full days shooting cyclocross, for instance) on her pieces. She pointed to other top news outlets, like The New York Times, which are dedicating similar resources to their multimedia products. Today, I watched a Times video about former powerlifter Patrick Antonecchia that is so slickly produced that it could pass for broadcast television.

Former Christian Science Monitor photographer Mary Knox Merrill discussed multimedia journalism during Wednesday's Reinventing the News class.

But the reality is the resources available at CSM or the Times are not the norm. Most journalists must learn — if they have not already — to effectively tell multimedia stories with more basic, often consumer-level equipment.

And they can do it.

In 2006, when I was a freshman at Ithaca College, one of my fellow Park Scholars won the first-ever CellFlix Festival with a video, called “Cheat,” about his grandparents. The contest awarded $5,000 to the producer of the best 30-second video shot on a cell phone. The student, Mike Potter, actually made the video at the end of 2005, so we’re talking about a piece shot on a cell phone five years ago.

I hadn’t watched the clip in ages — until I sat down to write this post — but viewing it again now, I have two thoughts: First, anyone who isn’t actively acquiring multimedia skills is way behind, and second, we ought to be able to produce even better stuff today.

My guess is most news outlets will focus on producing multimedia pieces at a level between Merrill’s and Potter’s — not broadcast, but not Blackberry. Right now, for instance, I work as a freelance video producer for Boston.com. I use the same kind of Sony Handycam my mom totes to fifth-grade concerts, work as a one-man band, and devote three or four hours to each piece.

Seems like a happy medium for a new medium.

Written by callumborchers

September 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Bebinger highlights media’s desire to make money online

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I found Martha Bebinger‘s mere presence — never mind what she actually said — in our classroom Wednesday symbolically appropriate for a discussion about the future of journalism. For one thing, she represents a medium, radio, which many people decades ago believed would be killed by television — just as many today predict newspapers will be left in body bags by the Internet. For another, she represents an outlet, WBUR/NPR, which boasts perhaps the most successful non-advertising revenue model in American journalism.

Of course, the content of her presentation was valuable too, particularly on the revenue subject. Bebinger pointed to a subtle but significant change to the language many bloggers are using to sign up readers: They’re shifting from “RSS” to “subscribe.” At the moment, the change means little in actual practice. Readers receive notifications of new posts in similar manners (via e-mail, Twitter, etc.), whether by RSS feed or subscription.

During her visit to Dan Kennedy's Reinventing the News class Wednesday, WBUR's Martha Bebinger pointed to a subtle shift from "RSS" to "subscribe."

But the word subscription connotes payment, and Bebinger believes some bloggers — though they’re keeping their content free, for now — are using the language shift to prepare readers for future charges. No one, she theorizes, will pay for RSS; it’s a platform that’s always been free, so good luck convincing people to pay for it in the future. But subscriptions traditionally cost money. Even online, some elite outlets,  like The Wall Street Journal, have long charged for subscriptions.

Bebinger isn’t the only one who sees the foundations of paywalls being laid across cyberspace. Newsweek in January predicted 2010 would be the “Year of the Paid Subscription.”

“This year the Web turns 21,” the article begins. “So it’s somewhat ironic that 2010 will also be the year the place finally sobers up. Many of the startups and media sites that define the e-commerce ecosystem are, at long last, making serious plans to make serious money.”

It appears some of those plans are on hold. Hulu, identified by Newsweek as “the free site likeliest to begin charging in 2010” is, in fact, still free. The site pushed back indefinitely the launch of Hulu Plus, a $9.95 per month subscription that would provide access to old episodes of popular TV shows.

Still, I believe the overall media sentiment — “We’re sick of giving away our content for free” — highlighted by Bebinger and others is valid. But I also know people will refuse to pay for content they can get for free elsewhere. So if  media outlets plan to demand paid subscriptions, the challenge for us journalists is to make our work good enough and unique enough that folks will actually feel compelled to open their wallets.

Written by callumborchers

September 16, 2010 at 9:13 am

Posted in Assignments

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Moss coverage not as unfair as receiver predicted

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What Randy Moss said in his postgame press conference Sunday, after the Patriots opened the season with a 38-24 win over the Bengals, was wrong. Not what he said about his desire for a new contract before his current, three-year, $27 million deal expires at the end of the season; not what he said about feeling unappreciated by team ownership. I’m talking about his prediction that sports reporters would pillory him for his complaints.

Moss’ statements included generalizations like “anything that I may say will get blown out of proportion” and “anything that I say is going to get spun around.” The seven-time Pro Bowl receiver passed judgment on the coverage of his comments before the stories were written—before his comments were even completed, in fact.

Certainly, some media members fulfilled Moss’ prophecy. Those of us listening to the Pats’ postgame show on 98.5 The Sports Hub heard host Gary Tanguay characterize the presser as “idiotic” only moments after it ended.

But while preparing this post, which I planned as a counter-current defense of Moss, I discovered the current is, in fact, not flowing as strongly against the star as he forecast.

Ron Borges of The Boston Herald wrote Moss may be “the last honest man in pro football.” “Not many Americans like the truth anymore because it’s often inconvenient,” Borges added. “It’s not a cartoon or a simplistic homily. It’s not black or white. It’s complicated, nuanced, seldom what you think it is. That is especially true in pro sports, as Moss made clear.”

ESPN.com’s Jackie MacMullan penned a critical column, but managed to appreciate Moss’ candor, even as she objected to what she deemed poor timing and lack of tact.

“It’s called diplomacy, and it must have been a course that Moss skipped during his lengthy NFL education,” she wrote. “Give the man points for being honest, but then subtract almost as many for making it all about No. 81 on a day when [Wes] Welker completed an unfathomable comeback from a career-threatening knee injury to catch two touchdown passes.”

And Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe, though he dedicated much of today’s column to the inconsistencies between Moss’ personal and professional rhetoric, opened the piece by writing, “Randy Moss will forever be inscrutable. I don’t have a problem with that. Do you?”

No, I don’t. And, it turns out, neither do many reporters. So my biggest beef with Moss is that he condemned sportscasters and writers for the universal spinning and blowing-out-of-proportion he was certain would follow when, in truth, their analysis has been quite thoughtful and fair.

Written by callumborchers

September 14, 2010 at 3:17 pm