Online Journalism Culture Shock in the UK

I haven’t written for a while, because I was stuck with my thesis and projects at grad school. And then had to quickly move to UK for a broadcast job. I don’t know if my work place will let me keep up this blog or not, especially because it might include analysis and critique of my work place as well (as it did in the past before I become employed in the current media company), so I will check with my editors soon.

But I just quickly wanted to document my feeling of shock and awe, for how much the rest of the world is far from American discussions and hype about online journalism, how much print is still highly respected, how much your online experience can easily and totally be ignored, how much Web can be ignored all together, and even how unpopular Firefox is. I have to confess my first impression was disappointment over not finding a work place computer that has Firefox on it, and I didn’t have admin permission to install one. (I later found a few computers with already installed Firefox which some needed upgrades and some would crash upon restarting.) Free Wifi is almost nonexistent here in the UK as far as I’ve seen. Work place and my hotel doesn’t offer Wifi at all. My iPod touch still has unsent emails I wrote in it during my flight to the UK two weeks ago. I faced with so many other connectivity issues as well which is pushing me towards buying an iPhone although I don’t want to be stuck with an 18-month cell phone contract.

So, I kinda feel like my education has been useless. I feel like a stranger in my new work place and my experience is not being appreciated or used. I’m having a culture shock I guess. 😐

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Live Blog of Iran 360˚: Exploring Politics, Economics and Society in a Global Hot Spot

Well, it’s not live anymore. I just saw it today, and the conference ended last Thursday. But anyway, it gives a few hints about what the conference was about and who talked about what.

Generally the conference was aimed at educating/briefing American journalists about the “real” situation in Iran so that they avoid misconceptions and stereotypes common in US coverage of Iran. A group of Iranian journalists/academics (including me) and a former American ambassador were the panelists. Also, An American psychologist gave an interesting talk about stereotypes, how they are constantly being shaped and how they shape our understanding of the world. (Wise choice by the conference organizers!) Journalists from some top American media outlets were the audience.

I was a speaker in “Changing Fabric of Iran: A society in flux” panel. Not very surprisingly, I talked about women’s movement in Iran, and insisted on how it is independent, but how it has been always perceived and conceptualized in relation to politics and male nationalism, either by the state or the opposition groups and Western journalists. I insisted that this movement is a feminist movement and it’s not right to put the movement within the Islamist/Secularist or Pro-government/Pro-regime-change dichotomy. I also mentioned how some Western governments and organizations are doing more harm to social movements in Iran by announcing their support of the movements, and how a vigorous journalism will investigate these interferences and will hold the Western governments and journalists accountable for the damage they cause the activists living inside Iran. I also mentioned couple of times that we tend to ignore the role of patriarchy in the various forms of gender discriminations in the Iranian society, and we just want to put all the blame on Ahmadinejad’s government, as if the previous politicians were inherently pro-women.

I will try to write about what I talked about in the panel more in the future. I wasn’t able to say everything I wanted to say, because, stupidly, I had a “Hilary moment” (as one of my friends sarcastically put it) and cried while I was talking about the stoning of Jafar Kiani last summer. Also, it was impossible to talk about a 100-year-old women’s movement in 10 minutes and avoid stereotyping and simplifying.

There was this neocon journalist at the conference that couldn’t bear listening to a different point of view. While I was talking to him about how problematic this dichotomous demon/victim representation of Iranian government and its people is, I realized that he is rudely looking at the ceiling, pretending that he’s not listening. So, I wasn’t surprised to see him absent at the psychology talk and our panel. These people have already made their minds and they don’t want to hear any alternative viewpoints. This stubbornness and self-righteousness scares me to death, specially when it comes from a “journalist.”

On the side note, I really had a great time in this conference. It was held in the beautiful Airlie center and was really like a retreat that I so badly needed. I also met lots of interesting journalists and we had lots of fun in the center’s pub.

Dear conference mates, please keep in touch if you read here! I will promise I’ll show you some 3D version of Iran as well (not to limit ourselves to 360˚!)

p.s. I just realized that WordPress has made a few changes in its control panel. Nice try, I like the new configuration much better. Gives me more control.

Why I don’t like BBC’s new design

Oh no! The good old award-winning BBC News website is totally reshaped, and yes, I don’t like this new look very much!

Apparently, after months of research and getting feedback from their audience, and despite the fact that many people have asked them not to change the format, they have reshaped the website in order to give the content some room to breathe.

I totally agree that the older page was much more crowded, but it was so well-organized that it wouldn’t bother me (and many people who have left comments for BBC’s editors blog). BBC News is one of the few news websites that I frequently check, but not through my Google Reader. I like to go to BBC’s actual website and have a glance at what is going on all around the world. Two minutes at their homepage is enough to give me an idea about what is going on and what I want to actually click on and read. That’s what I call usability.

In order to give more room to the headlines to breathe, and in order to have some white space, they have decreased the number of headlines which is really a poor decision. (Why should you change something that has been working well?) Well, in our 101 web design classes the professors and the books go all about the importance of having white space. But as White mentions, white space should be used efficiently and purposefully. I don’t see the purpose of the white space in the right-hand column, the “Around the World Now” section, and the actually black space on the top black header.

What’s the purpose of that black header anyway? It is totally undermining the red header which is supposed to stick out to attract attentions and implies a BBC identity. The red header is not attractive either. The older version of the red header had more gradient in it and was shinier. This is now just a mute plain red which is not as attractive as a header should be. BORING

But the most problematic thing about this new design in my idea is the plainness of the fonts. The font colors should be darker in my idea, specially the titles of the sections that also need to be bold. No background, border, or visual cue is used for the title of each section, so the sections are not distinguished from each other very well. The font of the section titles are not very different from the font of the texts, so it doesn’t let you distinguish the title from the text easily.

And “where is the weather?” A lot of people have left comments complaining that the weather link is missing. Yes, they’re British. The weather link should be the most accessible link on the main page. (I later realized that there is this not-so-easily-noticable link on the left hand of the site where you can switch between the international version and the UK version. In the UK version you’ll see the link to all the things people were looking for such as local news and weather. But shouldn’t this link be a little more eye-catching?)

Nothing sticks out in this page. Nothing is seducing you to be clicked. You might just get attracted to the few items that have pictures on them. In the old page, the hierarchy of information and the way each section was distinguished from the others would attract your attention to the headlines of every single section, and you could have your pick. But this is not the case with the plain faded titles in the new design.

I should admit though that their entry pages are much better. Still there is the problem of faded fonts and not very distinctive section titles on the right hand column, but it has more interesting and relevant information on it comparing to the old version.

I hope BBC editors and designers listen to what people are saying in the now more than 500 comments posted on the editors blog, many of which complaining about the new design and talking about the weaknesses I’ve mentioned too.

But at the same time, the editors’ blog entry about revamping the website is a great education piece. It tells you why and how decisions would be made for redesigning, and what issues should be put into consideration while doing that.

Fire FTP

This is the best FTP client I’ve ever seen. Works fast, and allows directory comparison and syncing directories while navigating. More importantly, it is just an add-on on Firefox! Install the add-on here in a second, and you can go to Tools in Firefox and open th FTP client in a Firefox window! Best Firefox add-on I’ve ever seen. (Even better than the ad blocker and Web developer add-ons!)

I was so happy with Fire FTP that I donated a very little amount of money to its developer, just to show my appreciation. Maybe you should do that too if you are as happy as I am with their service. God bless Firefox. 🙂

p.s. Check out this great easy to understand Fire FTP tutorial Mindy McAdams has put online for us.

Rent a car, Be brief!

I haven’t been writing here for a long time. I couldn’t register for journalist’s toolkit 2 class, because I could only register for another required course. But I really regret that I couldn’t be in that class, because it concentrates more on video, something which I need to learn for my project in lieu of thesis. Also, as I am looking for jobs, I can see how much knowing how to shoot and edit video can increase your employment chances.

I’m trying to keep myself update with what goes on in toolkit 2 class through the class blog, its syllabus, and the students’ blogs which are all listed in my blogroll. I also experienced shooting video for web myself in a trip I made to Boston during Christmas holidays. I learned two valuable lessons from the trip.

The first one was to rent a car and book a hotel instead of relying on my friends’ help. I have lots of friends in Boston, so I stayed with one of them and I was taking rides from him or my other friends at nights, or I had to spend hours to commute between Wellesley (where the subject of interview lives) and Boston (where I was staying). I realized this was not a good choice, since I was dependent on other people’s schedule, and, they wouldn’t realize that I was on a work trip. They somehow expected me to spend more time with them and I was nervous all the time not to hurt anybody. Also, since the whole area was covered with snow, it was not so easy to move from one place to another by public transportation while carrying all the gadgets, especially the tripod. I lost lots of valuable time commuting or having fun with my kind and great friends, and I later realized that I could spend that time on watching the shots right ahead to see if I wanted to shoot again or not. Now that I am back to Gainesville I wish I could go back to shoot some parts again, but I can’t afford plane tickets again, not to mention that it would be much cheaper if I would rent a car and stay in a cheap hotel for two days, instead of buying another ticket and spending lots of valuable time editing the shots.

The second lesson I learned was that I should not let the interviewee talk for hours. Similar to audio interviews, the less material you will have, the easier to edit later. It is even more difficult to edit video and cut out some parts, because with audio you can easily cut out sentences, but in video you can’t cut that much or you will have lots of unpleasant jump cuts.

No matter how well you are at shooting videos and working with gadgets, you should pay attention to your interviewing skills when you are working on a story. As Mindy has emphasized in this post, nothing is more important than story telling. A good story will not come out if you don’t ask smart and to-the-point questions that will elicit short but interesting answers.

Right now I have 5 hours of video which should be cut into four 2-minute videos! Perhaps that’s one reason I haven’t touched the tapes yet… But I’m writing these things here to remind myself about my mistakes and prepare myself for my next trip to Washington for shooting more videos and doing some more interviews. I’m certainly going to rent a car this time, but still I can’t afford to stay in a hotel and should stay with friends. Perhaps I should tell them well in advance that this time I can’t hang out with anyone and I’m going to be a journalist on an assignment.

Show must go on :)

I just wanted to say I’m going to keep this blog and update it in the future. But like my personal blog, I won’t update it very regularly. So I would appreciate if you subscribe to the blog’s feed if you are interested in my writings.

Gotta get some rest now! Happy end of semester 🙂

Journalists’ Toolkit Class: My Assessment

Journalists’ Toolkit I class offered a variety of well-designed exercises through which I gradually built my ability to tell stories using multimedia platforms. The best thing about the class was this gradual move from completely controlled and scripted exercises to the real world experience of producing a multimedia package about an issue.

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Journalists’ Toolkit Class: My Feelings

I love reporting. I love story telling. I love telling stories of real and everyday experiences of people. I love to go to a strange place, spend some time there, interact with its people, and come to new understandings about that place and its people, and share those understandings with others. That’s why I always wanted to be a journalist since my childhood and that’s why I chose to study journalism at the University of Florida.

But my dreams seemed not coming true, after I took a reporting class at UF and found out about my shortcomings in writing in English. Being an Iranian who has been in the US for less than four years, I realized that I can never master English language the way I know my own native Persian. Comparing my news stories written in English and Persian, I realized that the soul my work has in Persian is missing in my English stories. My English writings do not have the same creativity my Persian writings do, because I lack the knowledge of words with which I can play with, to create an amusing and influential story.

But after a semester in a class about online journalism, I discovered that there exist tools other than words that can help me tell my stories. Photos, audio, Soundslides, and video are all platforms through which I can tell my stories, without feeling mute.

The skills I learned in Journalists’ Toolkit class gave me a new voice that I can raise to follow my dream of being a story teller. And I strongly believe that many times multimidia platforms help you tell an even more powerful story than a print story. After all, a picture tells a thousand words. Pictures accompanied with effective audio narrations can even tell more…

Final Story Package: Homelessness in Gainesville

Here’s my final story package for Journalists’ Toolkit class, which includes a Soundslides and a map:

Screenshot of Homelessness in Gainesville Package

We had to Make a soundslides about an issue, and put some sort of data, either a Google Map, or a statistical chart made by Fusion Charts, to give some extra information about the subject.

At first I thought I can’t make this package and will lose all my credibility, because the people I initially talked to to help me get in touch with homeless people later didn’t return my calls or emails. I was missing the deadline, while we had about three weeks to work on this story. I started googling keywords related to homelessness and Gainesville, and I found out that there is a clinic in a church called Helping Hands Clinic that offers services to the homeless every Monday at 5pm.

I had 15 minutes to get there. So I drove like crazy to the place. I talked to the people working there and they agreed to let me interview them.

As I moved around the clinic, I started chatting with homeless people there. They were curious why I’m taking photos from the building. I asked them what they think about the clinic. As we were talking, I gradually changed the subject to what they thought about the condition of homeless people in Gainesville, if they have any complaints, and if they have any suggestions on how people like me can help.

People became more interested and talked more. Then I asked some of them if they are willing to help me to make the story. One man, Rick, gave me some good suggestions, but he refused to be interviewed. He said he’s tired of being interviewed by so many papers and students! I said I respect his decision, but gave him my number in case he changed his mind, or he was willing to help me.

I went to downtown plaza after the clinic, where many homeless people spend the night. One woman I met at the clinic said she will be waiting for me to be interviewed in the plaza, and surprisingly she was there. Other homeless people would stop by as I was talking to her, and I chatted with them as well, asked their opinions, and asked them how people like me can help them.

The day after that I went to downtown plaza again, where the Home Van, a mobile service that distributes free food and cloths for the homeless around the town was supposed to be. Surprisingly, I saw Rick there and he said I came to help you, because it’s not safe here and you need someone to show you around.

He later helped me go to the woods and talk to more people. I made friends with some more homeless people. We sat together and ate. I invited Rick for coffee. He knows photography and even gave me some suggestion on setting the ISO of my camera for taking photos at night. He asked me to take my photo at the clinic, and a homeless woman came and sat next to me to be in the photo.

helping hands

I interviewed 12 homeless people and two volunteers working at Helping Hands Clinic, and was left with 3 hours of interview that had to be cut short to two minutes! Well, I spent a lot of time editing the audio, and slept only few hours for three nights to finally come to the present version of the audio.

I wasn’t happy with the lighting of some of the photos, because they were taken at night. As I was reviewing Kobre’s photojournalism book’s chapter on issue stories, I noticed that the majority of photos on that chapter are black and white. I used Real Grain plugin in photoshop (download free trail here) to test how photos turn out in black and white. I realized the photos are much more powerful in black and white.

I am satisfied with the outcome. I think the time I spent was worth it. I owe most of my success to spending time to get to know the homeless people, make friends with them, and LISTEN to them.

So far I have recieved a lot of nice feedback from people who has seen the soundlsides. Now I can’t wait to take my laptop to downtown plaza and show the soundslides to my homeless friends and see what they think about it.

Pure structured information has no soul!

I love when I read a story in a newspaper about health insurance issue in Florida, and see a chart next to it that lets me find out in a glance how big the percentage of uninsured people is. I like to see a local map and see where Gainesville’s sex offenders live, and see a chart next to it that shows some data about the rate and types of sex crimes and the demographics of the victims and the offenders. I like to find out when and where the funeral of a person I knew is and get to know more about the dates of important events of her life, when I read her obituary. All the mentioned information can be considered structured information as Adrian Holovaty puts it:

So much of what local journalists collect day-to-day is structured information: the type of information that can be sliced-and-diced, in an automated fashion, by computers. Yet the information gets distilled into a big blob of text — a newspaper story — that has no chance of being repurposed.

As much as I appreciate “sliced-and-diced” structured information/data in the form of maps, charts, and graphs that can be constantly updated through a database, I mostly consider them as accessories to the main story. We need facts for sure. In a world where the Internet is growing beyond imagination and millions of people can easily and promptly use the Web to get information, newspapers should be really good at providing important facts people are interested in, to be able to compete and survive in the field. But I just can’t accept that “So much of what local journalists collect day-to-day is structured information: the type of information that can be sliced-and-diced, in an automated fashion, by computers.”

We should not forget why we need information, why people read newspapers, and even why journalism exists. The whole news business is about life, meaning, and feelings. We need the information about sex offenders to protect ourselves, yet we need to know more than statistics. We should know what happens that a person becomes a sex offender, how does a victim survive, how should you react when an issue as devastating as sexual assault happens to you or a family member. We need news stories because they affect the way we experience life.

So, I become a little weary when it comes to over-celebrating the new tools that can offer us structured information using databases and computer programs, and when we say that there is some form of information (specifically I’m talking about the information that is related to an “issue” story), that can’t be put in the form of a story (online or on paper). I’m afraid this approach to journalism will reduce everything to numbers, percentages, and figures.

For example, Adrian Holovaty says:

  • An obituary is about a person, involves dates and funeral homes.
  • A wedding announcement is about a couple, with a wedding date, engagement date, bride hometown, groom hometown and various other happy, flowery pieces of information.

And he goes on with some simillar examples and then concludes that:

See the theme here? A lot of the information that newspaper organizations collect is relentlessly structured. It just takes somebody to realize the structure (the easy part), and it just takes somebody to start storing it in a structured format (the hard part).

But I don’t agree with Holovaty on this part. I either don’t see the structured information in the news of a person’s death for example, or I wish not to see it put in a structured format. The structured data do not share with me the experiences, feelings, revelations, or extraordinary moments of a person’s life, while a well-written obituary makes me feel something about the deceased.

When we interview people, gather audio, or shoot video, we try to capture something interesting about life. A set of pure facts will not give us that experience, and it will also be boring! I’m not dismissing the importance of structured information, but I think the main job of a journalist is to tell an interesting story. Structured information can complement the interesting story to make an even better story, a more informative one.