The other week I gave students a brief overview of principles of recording audio for the web. One of these was ’emotive audio’, so in order that students had something to edit in the second part of the class, I gave students 20 minutes to ask a stranger a question designed to elicit an emotive response, such as “What was your most embarrassing moment?” (recorded by Anna Jones) or “Can you describe the last dream you had?” (Sarah Gee, and also Shemaine Rose). Some wimped out of the emotive questions, including Hannah Watson, who instead asked “What is your favourite animal/vegetable?” – dull replies, but she gets credit for asking one respondent to make a lion noise – and the other to make a sweetcorn noise…
A good example of audio being published online as part of journalistic transparency comes from The Guardian‘s Peter Mandelson-criticises-Blair piece:
“The Guardian believes it reported his remarks about the prime minister accurately and fairly. But in order to give readers the opportunity to judge the issue for themselves, we have published the relevant, lengthy section of the interview.”
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 del.icio.us 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 del.icio.us, 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.
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…
I’ve been grappling further with the issue of audio journalism and podcasting, and discussing the issue with ‘ podcasting expert’ Andrew Dubber. What is beginning to emerge from our discussions (audio versions in full below) includes the idea that audio does three things particularly well:
- Actuality – the feeling of being there
- Debate – the opportunity to interject, the tone of voice, another level
- Emotion – the tone of the voice communicating more than words alone
What’s more, if the purpose of journalism is to convey what is happening, argues Dubber, then audio becomes a primary way of making your audience face the story.
There are other advantages to audio. It’s easier to edit than video – “it’s linear”. It’s less intrusive than a video camera if you want to record events.
Then we come across a fourth thing that audio can do well –
- Providing background – in other words, next to an edited text interview the journalist can post the interview in full (what is sometimes called ‘wild footage’) much more quickly than if they were to transcribe the whole thing.
So here’s a question: should the online journalist just take a video camera with a view to only taking the audio track? “If you carry around a hammer everything’s going to look like a nail,” Dubber says – you run the risk of overlooking the audio in your search for images.
The fifth use of audio is really about distribution:
- Podcasting. It’s about convenience – time shifting, people not having to visit your website.
But it’s also how the podcaster imagines their audience, about intimacy – “not announcement but conversation”. We should be thinking about the medium when we produce content, rather than producing content (e.g. newspaper news) which we stuff into different sized tubes.
So here’s some ideas: environment is important. The sound of heavy machinery behind an interview with a factory worker, for instance, or of field wildlife for a story about GM crops.
Leave the office, forget about the studio, and go out to record your podcast – ‘the sound of stuff happening’
Here’s a question: what makes good online audio? Having already seen journalists struggle with online video and predictably try to duplicate the qualities of broadcast television, what should we take from broadcast radio – and what leave behind?
I have some suggestions.
Firstly, the audio should be short. Online users don’t have time to scan through a five minute speech. If the subject matter is long, then it should be ‘chunked’ into separate subject-specific pieces of audio.
Secondly, the audio should offer colour. This can come in two forms: a compelling voice; or atmosphere.
Say, for example, you interview someone who fought in World War II – quotes alone may not convey the fear in his voice as he recounts his experiences – or the joy.
Or say you attend a boxing match where the crowd got out of hand. The sounds of booing, the announcement on the PA, the confusion and argument could all make a compelling piece of audio that again, words wouldn’t describe as effectively.
Or, how about a mix of the two? A politician makes a speech and is heckled, for instance.
Now, that’s all I can think of: brevity, and compelling content. Are there any other reasons for using audio? I suppose if you have copyright covered you can use music to set a mood under a story, but that seems a lot of effort to make. Radio can keep its presenters, and the four-minute package that presents a range of viewpoints is just as effectively done with words.
But this seems too simple…
PODCASTS: Podcasts, it seems to me, represent a separate category here. These are useful as a distribution format for news generally, so if you’re producing podcasts you could be forgiven for simply reading out the headlines on the basis that people are likely to be listening to the podcast on an mp3 player as they travel when they’re not in a situation to read a paper or click through a website. Having said that, I think the same considerations as radio news apply – so, brevity again, and the importance of colour.
This originally appeared in the Blogger-hosted predecessor to this website.
‘Convergence’ is one of many buzzwords currently doing the rounds in the news industry, and like many buzzwords, there is often confusion about what it actually means. For some it represents a new model of mixed-media journalism; for others it represents a change in organisational structure.
For Janet Kolodzy it’s both, and more besides. Kolodzy takes that term ‘convergence’ as her starting point, and spends the whole of the first chapter outlining its different forms – from the convergence of technologies that has taken place with digitisation, to economic convergence in media ownership, through to the journalistic convergence that is seeing both a combination of media forms into one ‘multimedia’ form, and a multiplication of delivery systems.
From there she looks at how newsroom practices have had to change as a result of convergence, and at news values. To her credit she speaks to the people working in converged newsrooms and the book is littered with case studies – essential when looking at a medium that is being made up as we speak – and there are conceptual models for the theorist too.
There is a chapter on gathering and producing a news story in a convergent age, which gives a good insight into the different considerations in gathering video and text material – although more thought could have been given here to audio and interactivity. Indeed, a journalist following the steps outlined here would be guilty of traditional linear storytelling: while interviews are covered, for example, no mention is made of the option to get readers to post questions online, or indeed to arrange a live chat.
These ideas are left instead for the chapters on broadcast, print, and online ‘basics’. To her credit here Kolodzy does not stop at how to write for the web but also outlines non-linear forms from polls and forums to quizzes, timelines, calculators, slideshows, animations, webcasts and podcasts. A traditional journalist could be forgiven for getting dizzy at the raft of options – and that’s even before we’ve covered “Participatory journalism” (citizen journalism, wikis), which is given a chapter of its own under ‘The Next Wave’ section.
It is a sign of how fast things are moving that that particular ‘next wave’ is probably already with us, but in the final chapter Kolodzy quotes media design consultants Bowman and Willis on a trend that may be more significant in the longer term: “While news organisations may see their audiences as readers and viewers,” she notes, “the next wave are increasingly gamers, who like to explore.”
This is an unusual book. Most authors would identify themselves as practitioners or academics, and set out to appeal to an audience in their own image: either the budding journalist, or the student of the craft. Convergence Journalism, however, dares to assume the reader is interested in both the how and the why. Perhaps we are finally seeing a convergence of the two?