Archive for the ‘online journalism’ Category

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.

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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.

Maps that can help tell more accurate stories

At the time of California fires this October, I read in the news somewhere that an area in San Marcos (a small town near San Diego) is one of the places that is burning. One of my childhood friends whom we hadn’t talked for a while lives on that area. I tried to reach her but her cell phone was strangely busy (It was strange because cell phones have call waiting and should not be busy.) So I got really worried. I saw in Mindy’s blog that LA Times has set up a Google Map application which shows the exact location of the fires along with some details. The map even had an option where you could get directions to or from the location of each fire. So, I put my friend’s address there and found out that they are four miles aways from the fire. That was really calming. Then I put the address of all my friends’ houses who live in the burning areas and found out that they are all safe, without the need to call like crazy everyone I know in California.

An article in NY Times in July 2007 talks about all the amazing new things you can do with Google Map and other online map applications that are now available, thanks to the competetion among search engines and some corporations to attract more users. These new services help us to have “a much richer description of the earth” as John V. Hanke, director of Google Maps and Google Earth, says in the mentioned article, since each user can now “geotag” various locations on the maps, by adding details and photos of each place, a sort of Wikipedia of places on earth.

But Google Maps and services simillar to it are not just useful for creating personalized geotags. These new services provide a great opportunity for journalists to offer vital information and details about a place that is covered in a news story. In the case of California fires, nothing could help me and so many other concerned people more than a map that exactly and accurately tells you where the fires are and how far they are from the location of your loved ones. Before seeing the LA Times map, I searched any news website and county websites I could find, to see if I can find out whether my friend’s house is under fire or not, but I couldn’t. A news story about the fires couldn’t help me and many other people at that time either, no matter how powerful those stories would be.

So, considering all the amazing things you can do with online maps, (such as this map that tells you about the places, times, and details of arsons in Chicago), many stories can offer much more additional – yet detailed and important – information. These maps can’t act as a replacement for news stories, but they would be great complements to put the news into a different perspective, most probably a more in-depth one. And of course, they are great tools to let you know if your loved ones are safe at the time of emergency.

Comments on a classmate’s Soundslides

I liked Shifen Xu‘s Soundslides “Live with Umoja” for some reasons, and didn’t like it for some other reasons. It’s a story of friendship and bonding through music. The story starts with introducing the main character and the topic of the story. I like the beginning of the story, because the starting sentence, “My band is called Umoja Orchestra,” is accompanied by the lively music of the band, and a nice overall photo of the band. It has a beat in it, it is forceful, and makes me interested to see the rest of the Soundslides, to figure out what’s interesting or important about this band called Umoja Orchestra.

However, I didn’t notice anything spacial at the rest of the slideshow that would give a climax to the story. Perhaps the idea that a lot of people are joining their band could become a climax, as a success story of the band. But the photos accompanying the audio do not give a sense of importance to the issue. Or perhaps, the idea that these people got to become closer to each other through their music could be considered the climax of the story. But again I don’t think it was forceful enough to convey a turning point.

On the other hand, I liked the ending. It has a sense of conclusion in it. The narrator talks about his overall feeling about his band, about friendship through music, and that “Friendship makes music way better.” The music fades away. The last photo is black and white, showing just the instruments. It gave me the feeling that a performance is finished, everybody is back home, and the instruments are left alone; a sense of ending.

Overall, I’m not sure whether I can call this a story, although there are certain elements of a story in this Soundslides. It has a good beginning and a good ending, it shows some interesting moments, and it tells some background info that can help us build a picture about the band and its history in mind. Perhaps if there was a climax moment in the story, for example the story of a concert, or a certain even that had happened for the band, this could become a more real story.

I liked the use of audio in this Soundslides. The music of the band was used as a sound bed, which made me feel the mood of the band’s work. It’s forceful beginning made me interested in the story, and its fading-away at the end of the story made me feel calm! I just suggest that Shifen turns the volume of the sound bed a bit down when the narrator is talking. It was a bit too loud and annoying at some points of the narration.

On the side note, I had some difficulty to relate this Soundslides to an aspect of campus life. I heard at some point some band members met through college, and I saw a photo of them on campus, but overall I couldn’t relate it to campus life. To me this was more something out of campus. It was more a profile of the band and their personal interactions, rather than an aspect of campus life. Perhaps some narration about how the band’s work affects the members’ school life, or how the band interacts with college students would make it more relevant. Also, it would be nice if there was something mentioned about the band’s practice or concerts on campus, if there were any.

My new blog on online journalism

After 6 years of running personal/political blogs in Persian and English, now I’m starting a new “serious” blog on online journalism for my Journalists’ Toolkit class at UF College of Journalism. It’s been a while I wanted to discuss what I learn at journalism school and my observations about the ways online journalism is practiced around the globe, but I was afraid I would lose my readers who are used to my diary-style writing. I’m happy that our assignment for this class to maintain a professional blog is giving me a chance to experience a new way of writing and share my knowledge or questions about the field with others. After all, I’ve been involved with online journalism for 5 years now, since I started the first online magazine in Iran called Cappuccino with a group of bloggers and amateur journalists.

I have witnessed how blogging and online media have given a new voice to Iranian women, social activists, and political dissidents in an environment that censorship increases on a daily basis. I have also been witness to how the Internet has revived the women’s movement in Iran and helped Iranian women’s rights activists to network, mobilize resources, recruit, and organize numerous campaigns to resist gender-discriminatory practices in Iran. Along with discussing what I learn in Journalists’ Toolkit class, I will also try to highlight some of the ways Iranian civil society is using online media to further their social activism, since my main research at grad school is focused on this issue.

At the main page of the course syllabus of Journalists’ Toolkit class we read:

This course prepares the student to work as a journalist in today’s newsrooms where the online and digital platforms are at least as important as the traditional print or broadcast platforms.

I hope I can improve my skills in Journalists’ Toolkit class to use online and digital platforms such as audio, video, slide shows, and blogging to tell the story of social activists around the world.

My English is not very good, at least not good enough to be a print journalist in English, but I’m glad that various online and digital platforms give journalists the opportunity to tell their stories beyond the boundaries of written words. I’m looking forward to improve my skills and learn new ways in Journalists’ Toolkit class to show, rather than tell, my stories.