Getting to know BLOX: Assets

Note: This is the first in a series of posts that aims at getting you more familiar with BLOX, the software that runs our website. The idea is that — even if you don’t work in BLOX every day — the more you know about it, the better you can envision what digital components could go with your stories.

To the software that runs our website, everything is an asset. It doesn’t matter if it’s a photo, an article, a video or a table. All are assets.

So, if you work with BLOX very long, you’ll find yourself referring to article assets instead of stories and HTML assets rather than code snippets. It sounds silly, I know, but BLOX’s developer, TownNews, chose the nomenclature. I’m just the messenger.

In this first post on BLOX, I’ll take you through the 14 different kinds of assets (as of this writing) and tell you the basics about each of them. In 14 follow-up posts, I’ll go into the details of what you can do with each kind of asset.

So, without further ado, the list:

  • Article – This is our bread and butter. All of your text stories are turned in to article assets. Of all the various kinds of assets, this is the type we use most of all. Articles can include all the standard text formatting, such as bold and italic text, as well as links to other things on the Web.
  • Image – As the name implies, this type of asset holds images of all kinds. They can be set to display in different positions and at different sizes, depending on the image.
  • Collection – Collections act differently depending on what they collect. At their most basic, a collection is a group of assets bundled together for the reader. If all those assets are images, the collection becomes a photo gallery. If they are a mix of different filetypes, they become sort of a topic page.
  • Audio – This filetype accepts audio as .mp3s, the format popular on the Web these days. All of your little audio recorders create files that can work on BLOX with just a little bit of editing and tinkering. Example
  • Flash – Flash is another piece of software made by Adobe, the company behind Photoshop and InDesign. Flash projects allow us to create all sorts of animation effects and interactivity. Ben Pierce can tell you all about Flash, and there is a 1,200-page book on my desk about it that I swear I’ll get around to reading someday. (We have used this asset type only twice — so far, that is.)
  • HTML – HTML is the language that the Web is built on. An HTML asset is used to contain a little bit of HTML code, which can do pretty much anything. This kind of asset is like the wildcard of BLOX. When all other types of assets fail, there’s HTML to fall back on.
  • Link – I already mentioned that we can add links into the text of article assets, but there is also a separate asset type just for links. The benefit is that a link asset can be used again and again as a companion to articles or other assets. Say, a link to the city of Bozeman’s website that we’d use every week with Amanda’s commission advance or a link to the YNP website to run out with every park story.
  • PDF – If you don’t know what a PDF is, go learn. The PDF asset holds PDF files and allows our readers to download them for their own uses.
  • Poll – The poll asset asks the reader questions and creates a bar graph or pie chart totaling their responses. We typically use these as part of the Opinion page, but we can also (and probably should also) do spot polls to go along with daily stories as a way to get the readers more involved.
  • Table – Just as the name implies, a table asset holds tabular data. It could be payroll data from the county or simply a table of campgrounds in the Gallatin National Forest. Anything that would be clearly described in a grid format can go in a table asset.
  • VMIX – VMIX is our video service — like our own private version of YouTube. It’s where your videos go when I upload them. The asset simply connects to the VMIX service and embeds your videos into BLOX.
  • Video – Not everybody uses VMIX, so BLOX offers its own video assets. These work the same way as the VMIX assets, except that the videos are stored inside BLOX instead of inside VMIX.
  • YouTube – If you’ve used YouTube, you probably have noticed that you can easily embed the videos in other places, like blogs and websites. The YouTube asset is a way to easily embed YouTube videos in BLOX and attach them to stories and other kinds of assets.
  • ZIP – The ZIP asset makes .zip files available to our readers. If you don’t know, a .zip file is a way to take a bunch of other files and compress them so they don’t take up as much space. This is handy for shrinking large files down so people on slow Internet connections can easily download them. We have never used this asset type.

Well, that’s it, your basic introduction to the different asset types. Check back in the not too distant future for more details about each one.


Video sequencing and editing

In this tuto­r­ial, the author tells us how 15 dif­fer­ent shots were edited into a sin­gle sequence. He goes through the shots, one-by-one, explain­ing each one’s pur­pose and what it does for the over­all story.

Some tips to take away from this video:

  • Sequences should have some sort of “opener” to get them going. In the case of this scene, the cam­era­man uses sta­tic shots of the flow­ers sold by the flower merchant.
  • Sequences should gen­er­ally start with a wide, “estab­lish­ing” shot to give view­ers a sense of the whole scene.
  • Use a vari­ety of medium and close-up shots through the sequence.
  • Close-up shots can be used as good tran­si­tional shots. (Think of these shots like the actor com­ing on stage to talk to and dis­tract the audi­ence while stage hands change the set behind her.)
  • Pans and zooms should have a pur­pose, a clear pur­pose. Don’t put them in because you can. Put them in because they help tell the story in some way.
  • Keep pans short, less than 20 seconds.
  • Each shot in the sequence should show the viewer some­thing new or dif­fer­ent that helps tell the story.

What kind of stories go well with video?

Angela Grant at News Videographer has listed some char­ac­ter­is­tics of sto­ries that work well with video. These slam-dunk video sto­ries should have:

  • Lots of move­ment and action
  • Something peo­ple just want to see
  • Emotion

Of course, these char­ac­ter­is­tics are obvi­ous, but Grant includes sev­eral exam­ples of each kind of story beneath the list items. It’s worth check­ing out the list of links.

Originally published on another of my blogs on May 5, 2009

Fundamentals of video: Sequencing

Sequences are the foun­da­tion of video sto­ry­telling, writes Colin Mulvany, a mul­ti­me­dia pro­ducer at The Spokesman-Review. “Sequences com­press time in a video story. Without this com­pres­sion, what you’re left with are long video clips that visu­ally bore view­ers to death.”

Rather than show­ing action in real time, show sev­eral estab­lish­ing shots to hint to the viewer of the action tak­ing place. Shoot a vari­ety of wide, tight and medium-range shots and you’ll have some­thing to work with in the edit­ing process and, ulti­mately, some­thing that will effec­tively com­mu­ni­cate a story.

When shoot­ing a sequence you have to antic­i­pate the action. Still pho­to­jour­nal­ists are skilled at this. But if you are a word per­son, it might be a bit for­eign to you. When I’m shoot­ing, I’m always run­ning sce­nar­ios through my mind. I ask­ing myself: Where’s the action headed? Where do I need to posi­tion myself to be in the right spot? What shots do I need to get me from point A to point B?

Mulvany also drills in the con­cept of not mov­ing the cam­era and to hold the shots long enough, at least 10 sec­onds. “Don’t pan or zoom,” he writes. “Just let the action enter or leave the frame.”

The other thing you should remem­ber is to weight your shots to the tight and super tight end of the shoot­ing spec­trum. Tight shots make great tran­si­tions between two wide shots or two medium shots. They pre­vent the infa­mous jump cut (two shots that look the same) that annoy and con­fuse peo­ple view­ing your video.

In addi­tion to pre­vent­ing viewer deaths as a result of bore­dom, using sequenc­ing tech­niques has cut down Mulvany’s edit­ing time.

Sound advice

Recording moving images can be hard enough; you’ve got a lot of different things to think about when the camera’s on. But the sound that goes along with your video is just as important, if not more so.

Consider this, we have to compress the heck out of video to get it into formats that will play happily on the lowest-common-denominator computers out there. However, audio quality remains pretty good, even when it’s compressed. So, as the quality of the video decreases, we must rely on audio more and more to carry the project.

Put another way: Users will often tolerate poor quality video, but if that crappy video is paired with terrible sound, they won’t even give the video a chance.

So, here are some things to keep in mind about the sound you’ll be recording with videos in the field:

  • Rooms are sel­dom as quiet as they seem. Even things like a run­ning com­puter, the air vents and flu­o­res­cent lights can turn what you thought was good audio into unus­able trash.
  • Make small talk with your inter­view sub­ject while you set up the cam­era and micro­phones. Not only does it help put the sub­ject at ease, and you can get an idea of how loudly they’ll be talking and whether you’ll need to tell them to speak up.
  • Be aware of the sounds you make.
  • If you’re using a clip on micro­phone, ask your inter­view sub­ject not to move around too much. The sound of a micro­phone mov­ing against cloth­ing can ruin an oth­er­wise per­fectly good soundtrack.
  • Be aware of the dif­fer­ent abil­i­ties of the micro­phones you’ll be using. If you’re relying on the microphone built in to your camera, realize it will not produce great quality in noisy situations. It may be best to ask the person you’re interviewing to step into the hallway or some other, quieter space.

I want to add one thing to this list (for now). Rooms with hard walls, like most of the cinderblock-built rooms on cam­pus, tend to cre­ate an echo when peo­ple speak loudly and clearly. We kind of tune it out when we’re sit­ting there hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a per­son, but a micro­phone is not so for­giv­ing — even a poor qual­ity one like the one built-in to your Kodak cameras.

If pos­si­ble, sit­u­ate your inter­view sub­jects in a room with some­thing on the walls, cur­tains or fab­ric or even wood. Just some­thing that won’t echo as much.

Associated Press publishes social media usage guidelines

How we should act on social networks has been a topic of interest for everyone in the newsroom, and apparently it has been for the Associated Press too. The AP has published a set of AP social media guidelines for journalists.

Some of the highlights:

  • Journalists should have accounts at the major social networking sites. “These sites are now an integral part of everyday life for millions of people around the world. They have become an essential tool for AP reporters to gather news and share links to our published work.”
  • The AP recommends having one account at each site that journalists use professionally and personally.
  • Journalists should identify themselves as members of the media somewhere in their personal profiles on the social networking site.
  • Don’t post political views and don’t post proprietary or confidential information.
  • Monitor your pages to make sure material posted by others doesn’t violate AP guidelines.
  • It is acceptable to friend or follow sources, but not to engage in behavior that indicates any sort of bias.

These are just a few of the guidelines. I encourage you to read them all when you get the chance — they’re not long.

For some response, check out journalism and social media consultant Steve Buttry’s post on the guidelines, which is pretty critical.


Are there things we shouldn’t tweet about?

Mathew Ingram at GigaOM wonders, given some recent controversy over a Boston reporter tweeting from a public figure’s funeral, whether there are some things we just shouldn’t tweet about, not even if you’re a reporter.

He notes:

All of these incidents may seem like classic cases of what Twitter critics call “over-sharing,” but the lines of what should remain private and what should become public (to the extent that a Twitter post is public) are continually being redrawn, and in many cases differ from person to person.

A few of you have expressed concerns in our meetings over what should and shouldn’t be tweeted. Given these examples, where do you think we should draw the line?

The BBC Guide to Good Shooting

I was able to to go through one of the BBC’s excel­lent tutorial/training courses online, the “Guide to Good Shooting.” I rec­om­mend the course because it pro­vides inter­ac­tive exer­cises to help you fig­ure out some of the specifics of set­ting up good video shots and pro­vides dia­grams to help explain some of the­o­ries behind light­ing and composition.

Some high­lights:

  • Like with every­thing else I’ve read so far, the empha­sis is on plan­ning, on know­ing what you’re get­ting into before you start film­ing or recording.
  • The course empha­sizes the impor­tance of hav­ing a check­list and get­ting all the shots you came for — but it also advises that you keep an open mind and adapt your plan when you notice the story changing.
  • The course goes through tuto­ri­als on focus­ing, com­pos­ing shots, cap­tur­ing move­ment, set­ting up inter­views, adjust­ing white bal­ance and lighting.

Originally published on another of my blogs on May 1, 2009

Facebook + Journalism 101

Facebook and JournalismI know I haven’t come along yet with the fifth and final installment of the Twitter series yet, but I came across this document tonight and thought it was too good to not post right away.

Vadim Lavrusik is an adjunct journalism instructor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also works with Facebook to teach journalists how they can put the social network to good use in their reporting.

The document embedded below is one that Lavrusik put together to help journalism instructors integrate Facebook into their curriculums, but it also offers a bevy of tips and ideas for how to make Facebook into yet another tool for your reporter’s toolbox.

Lavrusik describes it thus:

I’ve included some key aspects of Facebook that can be used by journalists in their reporting, as well as examples of assignments that can help familiarize students with Facebook as a reporting tool.


Practical tips for producing video

This post is another one that I’ve pulled from the archives of other training blogs I’ve written. This was originally published April 29, 2009.

Back to Mindy McAdams again. I can’t help it; her series, “Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency,” is so full of good advice for print jour­nal­ists mov­ing into the online media that it can’t be ignored.

This time, McAdams is look­ing at video. She’s not just con­cerned with the tech­niques, though. She wants to make sure that reporters cre­at­ing video sto­ries are cre­at­ing sto­ries that are worth telling.

Most jour­nal­ism stu­dents, and a lot of reporters too, “wouldn’t know an inter­est­ing story if it fell on their head.” For a story to be inter­est­ing and worth­while on video (and in most other media) it has to have three “things,” she says:

  1. action or activity
  2. emo­tion
  3. “you’ve got to see it to believe it” or “some­thing peo­ple just want to see”

So she rec­om­mends that before any cam­eras or other record­ing devices come out, the reporter scopes out the story, just to get a feel for the place and the char­ac­ters. “Remember,” she writes, “this is not break­ing news — this is a story. People will be doing these things later; it’s not a one-time action that you are going to miss with­out your camera.”

Plan, plan, plan. That’s her motto.

On the prac­ti­cal side of things, McAdams also sug­gests a shoot first, ask ques­tions later approach — mean­ing that she would rather that reporters shoot their footage before going in for an inter­view. If you inter­view first, she says, then you wind up shoot­ing footage to cover the mate­r­ial you learned about in the inter­view. Shooting first might open up some new door­ways for ques­tion­ing later, ques­tions you didn’t think of before. Shooting first could take your story in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent and more inter­est­ing direction.

McAdams also talks about the “five-shot method.” You should get five shots of every­thing you film, she says, to give you options in the edit­ing room.

  1. Extreme close-up of action detail
  2. Close-up of the per­son doing the action
  3. Medium shot, face and action together
  4. Over-the-shoulder view of the action, the point of view of the per­son doing the action
  5. One more dif­fer­ent, cre­ative angle

“It’s not that you will nec­es­sar­ily use all five shots,” she writes. “But if you’ve got them, you’ll find that edit­ing is immensely simplified.”

Other tips for video beginners:

  1. Dot not move the cam­era hor­i­zon­tally (pan).
  2. Do not move the cam­era ver­ti­cally (tilt).
  3. Don’t zoom.
  4. Press the “record off” but­ton — often.

Great advice, and I rec­om­mend read­ing the entire post. If you missed the link at the begin­ning of this post, here it is again.