Monthly Archives: March 2007

Defining and conceptualising interactivity

A conversation with a radio colleague yesterday about a new course that I’m involved in – a Masters in Television and Interactive Content – threw up the question of how people define interactivity.

“What you mean by interactivity is probably not what I think of,” he said.

“I see interactivity as giving the user control,” I replied.

“Well OK then, we both think of interactivity in the same way. But to most people interactivity is video on the web and flashy things, which couldn’t be less interactive.”

I began thinking about this idea of how you define interactivity. “Giving the user control” is a nice summary, but what does that mean? How do you conceptualise it to make the process easier? Rolling it over in my head I’ve come up with two dimensions along which interactivity operates. Firstly:

  • Time: where broadcast required the user to be present at a particular time, and print to wait for the next edition, technologies such as Sky+, podcasts, mobile phones and websites allow the audience to consume at a time convenient to them. The PDF newspaper is an interesting development that also allows readers to avoid the dependence on print cycles.
  • Space: where television required the user to be physically present in front of a static set, mobile phones, mp3 players and portable mpeg players and wifi laptops allow the audience to consume in a space convenient to them. Portable radio and portable newspapers have always had this advantage.

Both these seem to be about hardware, and miniaturisation. The second level of interactivity is more about software:

  • Control over output: With linear media like TV, radio and print, the consumer relies on the ability of the producer, editor, etc. to structure how content is presented, or output. New media allows the audience to take some of that control.
    • At a basic level, for instance, hyperlinks allow the reader to dictate their experience of ‘content’.
    • With online video and audio, the user can pause, fast-forward, etc. – and if it has been split into ‘chunks’, the user can choose which bit of a longer video or audio piece they experience.
    • RSS, meanwhile, allows users to create their own media product, combining feeds from newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers, and even tags or Google News search terms.
    • Database-driven content allows the user to shape output based on their input – e.g. by entering their postcode they can read content specific to their area. At a general level search engines would be another example.
    • And Flash interactives allow the user to influence output in a range of ways. This may be as simple as selecting from a range of audio, video, text and still image options. It may be playing a game or quiz, where their interaction (e.g. what answers they get right, how they perform) shapes the output they experience.
  • Control over input: Again, the old media model was one that relied on the producer, editor, etc. to decide on the editorial agenda, and create the products. The audience may have had certain avenues of communication – the letter to the editor; the radio phone-in; the ‘Points of View‘. The new media model, as Dan Gillmor points out, is one that moves from a lecture to a conversation. So:
    • Blogs, podcasts, vlogs, YouTube, MySpace, etc. allow the audience to publish their own media
    • Forums, message boards, chatrooms and comments on mainstream media blogs allow the audience to discuss and influence the content of mainstream media, as well as engaging with each other, bypassing the media
    • Live chats with interviewees and media staff do the same.
    • User generated content/citizen journalism sees mainstream publishers actively seeking out input from consumers, from emails to mobile phone images, video and audio.
    • Wikis allow the audience to create their own collaborative content, which may be facilitated by mainstream media
    • Social recommendation software like, Digg, etc. allow users to influence the ‘headline’ webpages through bookmarking and tags.
    • A similar but separate example is how page view statistics can be used by publishers to rank content by popularity (often displayed side by side with the editorial view of what are the ‘top stories’)
    • I hesitate to add the last example but I will anyway: email. Although we could always, in theory, contact producers and editors by telephone, they didn’t publish their numbers on the ten o’clock news. Email addresses, however, are printed at the end of articles; displayed on screen alongside news reports; read out on radio; and of course displayed online.

I’m sure I’ve missed examples, or entire other dimensions. If you have an input to make, comment away.

Newspaper Video: Debate highlights good practice

This risks becoming an echo chamber, but Andy Dickinson continues his round-up of the online video debate with Newspaper Video: Debate highlights good practice:

“if Paul’s and my definitions of online covered the production aspects then The Five E’s of online video from Jeff Rayport’s talk from the Online Publishers Association conference in London. (via Jeff Jarvis’ blog summary ) cover the pre-production and why element.

  • Extend content you have and bring it to online media.
  • Expand video activities to make new and experimental forms of content.
  • Expose (let the outside in; e.g., NY Times wedding videos, Le Monde user videos).
  • Explode (let the inside out; syndication, in other words).
  • Exhale (you don’t know what will work so relax).

“Put them all together, and add a bit of Moncks Monikers and a dash of Kevin Anderson and I think there is enough there to at least start to answer the Why, what and how questions of online video.”

Newspaper video: Judge not lest ye be judged

Andy Dickinson has a synthesis of an argument over newspaper video, specifically how newspaper video should be judged. You’ll need ten minutes to go through all the posts linked to, but it’s a good question: who should judge web video? TV producers? Newspaper editors? The people behind web-only video operations like Rocketboom? The rules are still being invented…

Multimedia journalism winners, iPOY 2007

Mindy McAdams has the list of multimedia winners from iPOY 2007. Some stunning material here – the intro alone of The Dallas Morning News’ “Hurricane Katrina: One Year Later” is enough to bring you to tears, combining still images with audio from the survivors. Once you’ve recovered, you can look at slideshows, video, more combined audio/imagery, and even old-fashioned links. Combining still images with audio seems to be quite common judging by the other entries, including “The Lifeline”by the Los Angeles Times, which gets my vote for combining those ‘audio slideshows’ with a messageboard and graphics.

Young journalists should be salivating at the possibilities for engaging storytelling represented by these new technologies…

MySpace News? Everyone else is doing it…

Terry Heaton’s PoMo Blog is saying that MySpace has a news offering planned in the next few months “according to inside sources and the company’s own sales materials”:

  • “MySpace News takes News to a whole new level by dynamically aggregating real-time news and blogs from top sites around the Web
  • “Creates focused, topical news pages that users can interact and engage with throughout their day
  • “MySpace is making the news social, allowing users to:
    Rate and comment on every news item that comes through the system
    Submit stories they think are cool and even author pieces from their MySpace blog
  • “MySpace users previously had to leave the site to find comprehensive news, gossip, sporting news, etc. With MySpace News, we bring the news to them!

It will be interesting to see what MySpace can bring to the idea – it’s already been tried by The Sun (MySun) and, more recently, USAToday (as Heaton explains in his post), but it’s one thing for a news organisation to try social networking; quite another for a social networking company to try news. I’m hoping for intelligent agents that suggest RSS feeds, or automatically subscribe you to your friends’ blog feeds (I’ve never used the MySpace blog but that might persuade me otherwise), or their RSS feeds, in an Amazon ‘people who liked this also like this’ kind of way.

Given the critical mass of MySpace, could this be the tipping point (I hate that phrase) to bring RSS to the mainstream?

UPDATE: Matthew Ingram has posted his take on the announcement, with some interesting questions:

  • It “could give News Corp. lots of ideas about pushing its news content into such an aggregator, giving it priority of some kind, etc.”
  • “Will News Corp. use its MySpace News as a kind of jungle drum, to pick up stories that might be under the radar?” (my view: sadly, I don’t think so, as this assumes that News Corp. sees journalism as a priority, rather than making money)
  • “News Corp. is also trying to get other video content owners to bring their stuff to MySpace.”

Guardian wants ‘proper reporters’ for video and plans to invest 15 million online reports on The Guardian’s plans to invest £15m in its online operations and ‘big plans’ for video – “to take advantage of its advertising potential” (that old chestnut). Apparently Guardian Films, its television production company, has grown “rapidly over recent months to a point where it now broke even”. It seems broadcast-trained journalists can now look to the print sector for employment too:

“Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger told conference that £1 million would be invested in video production and hiring experienced production staff.

“Currently self-taught reporters and camera people put projects together.

“We don’t think we can go forward without proper resources and reporters,” he said.

Meanwhile, the move to use the web to target overseas markets continures, with the Guardian intending “to launch an American version of its Comment is free portal as part of its bid to be the world’s leading voice of liberalism.”

Four types of online video journalism

Well my search for wisdom on the subject of online video took me down the corridor to my genial colleague Bob Calver, Senior Lecturer in Broadcast Journalism, and a fellow online journalism lecturer. I recorded the whole thing on video (naturally) – link to come. But here’s some thoughts that came out of the discussion, as well as from looking at online video around the web.

Firstly, I think you can categorise online video (journalism) into four types:

  • ‘Moving pictures’. I call this the ‘Daily Prophet approach’ after the newspaper in Harry Potter where the images are magically animated. This is where video is added to a text story as an illustration, without narration but in the same way as a still image might be used. A good example is this story from the Eastern Daily Press. I’m also thinking CCTV footage would fit here;
  • The Video Diary. This splits into two sub-categories:
    • The video blog/vlog: person speaks into camera about their thoughts/opinions/experiences – Ian Reeves’ first attempt is a good example, which also happens to include some reflections on online video journalism;
    • The personal account: person with a story to tell is filmed by another person about their thoughts/opinions/experiences. This may be combined with others to form a video feature. The Washington Post’s ‘Being a Black Man‘ is one example of such video being integrated with a multimedia interactive.
  • Edited narrative. This is essentially a replication of the TV documentary or package, but in (generally) shorter form. The Exeter Express & Echo seem to have the right idea here, going out onto the streets to talk to (gasp) people (one student commented that the story itself would have been much duller in print), although they also do…
  • TV show/vodcast. Again, this is replicating broadcast techniques and is generally the most redundant type of online video. Rocketboom is an example of it done well (most likely because they are not coming from a print or broadcast organisation, but are online-only). The Daily Telegraph do it with their Business Daily, as do many local newspapers, including the Bolton News and Manchester Evening News. For advertising sales departments, it’s a useful way of tapping into TV advertising budgets, but for readers it’s redundant compared to searchable, scannable web text. Its only real use is for readers who want to download a video bulletin to watch on the move (vodcast), so why do so many newspapers force users to stream it? Control, control, control.

When should a journalist turn to the video camera?

When it adds value, Calver says. When the moving images contribute something that couldn’t be conveyed any other way. Interviews, for instance, can be done quite adequately in print or audio and may, in fact, be less interesting on video – unless the interviewee’s facial expressions are significant enough to be essential (the shifty politician, for instance), or there are visual tools to be used.

A couple of faux statistics emphasise the importance of thinking creatively about your filming: “People get bored after – what is it? Eleven, twelve seconds of an image being on screen? And they say 80% of information is not from the words people hear but from the images they are seeing. So you need to film movement, film the subject working at their computer, entering the office, etcetera, for cutaways” (these are cliches, so more creative options would be even better).

“Make sure you have enough pictures to cover the story too. You often see stories on news channels where they’re repeating the same images – a train on an embankment; waves crashing on a beached ship – over and over again because they didn’t get enough images.”

The Blog Effect

Bob agreed that blogs have influenced video journalism online so that the journalist themselves becomes an ingredient of the story. Since journalism became a conversation “part of that is who you’re talking to – what are they like, how are they dressed”, and video journalism allows you to include those signals. Rocketbom is a good example of how the medium has taken on vlog conventions; ze Frank is an example of those vlogger tricks (quick editing, user contributed content, jump cuts) and quite simply a vlogger par excellence. When I showed one of his vlogs to my students yesterday one asked “Can we watch another one?” relaunches

USA TOday April 19 has relaunched with, reportedly, more prominent user generated content:

MediaPost reports: “The revamped site, which went live Saturday, enables reader comments on each story and solicits users’ input in the form of photos and movie reviews. USA Today also is aping Digg, the new Netscape and other social news sites that allow readers to determine which stories are most important.”

Editor & Publisher explains: The site has incorporated technology developed by Pluck Corporation to “create a community around the news,” according to a release. Using the new features, users can see other news sources directly on the USA Today site; see others readers’ reactions to stories; recommend content and comments to each other; interact using comments and in public forums, upload digital photographs to the site; write arts and culture reviews of their own; and interact more with the newspaper’s staff.”

There certainly is a lot of UGC there – but the front page would benefit from being slimmed down from the whacking great five pages you have to scroll down (usability expert Jakob Nielsen says three Page Downs should be the maximum) – the best stuff takes two Page Downs to get to – photo galleries, video, blogs, and interactive graphics.

You can also read USA Today’s own blog post on the relaunch.

UPDATE (Apr 16 2007): The relaunch has been quite a success, as IIN reports “a dramatic 380% increase in registrations. Readers are also spending more time per visit on the site.”

Online Journalism students go live

My class of 16 online journalism students have been posting to a live news website – the originally-named UCE news – covering West Midlands stories. Each student has been given a ‘correspondent’ role, so for instance there is a transport correspondent, politics correspondent, education, health, sport, fashion, music, and so on.

In addition, each student is supposed to maintain a ‘correspondent’s blog’ commenting on what they’re doing.

After a slow start the students seem to be posting articles pretty regularly, with some particularly prolific contributors (the sports correspondent posted six articles on Friday alone – mainly as the Birmingham-hosted European Championships was drawing to a close). I’ve been impressed with some of the online research techniques of some of the students too – for example Todd Nash’s article on speed cameras which came from a policeman’s blog, and Rachael Wilson’s piece on risks highlighted by an ambulance worker blogger. Todd may also have scooped the Birmingham Mail by spotting a story about illegal goods on their own forum – a search of their own site suggests they didn’t spot it themselves.

The quality of the blogs is mixed, but top of the pile is Charlotte Dunckley’s blog as music correspondent. Charlotte is recording her progress with lots of links and reflection on her role. Felicity Drinkwater is doing a similar job with her blog, as is Todd Nash. Jessica James’ blog, meanwhile, is a good example of journalistic transparency.

If you can take a look at either the site or the blogs and post some comments to the students, or to this post, that would be grand. Some still don’t seem to realise their work is on show for the world to see…

Note: the Interactive section has no entries yet for this year as the students won’t be producing those for another 8 weeks or so (although it may feature audio or video as they begin working with that).