Time for a refresh

It’s been over three years since I last did a refresh of my online identity – and things have changed a lot.

I’ve moved to WordPress from my ExpressionEngine install. EE is very powerful, and great for what I originally bought it for – learning to build HTML and CSS from scratch.

But I don’t blog with any frequency any more, and I don’t have time to build custom pages and sites whenever something needs a refresh or update.

WordPress – ubiquitous, free, easy WordPress – is the obvious solution.

I’ve a whole host of semi-embarrassing blog posts stretching all the way back to 2008 which I’ll import from the old database soon.

In the meantime — the blank slate is refreshing.

How to enjoy reading magazines

How to read this magazine instructionsInside the Story, a great magazine from digital journalist-turned-producer Adam Westbrook, has just released its fourth issue – the last this year. It contains, like the other issues, this wonderful reminder at the front that attentive reading is a very different thing from enjoying a novel or flicking through Buzzfeed.

With the decline in popularity of RSS readers and blogging, and the current trend to easy clicks and short-form content, this kind of bold announcement that you’ll need to pay attention is nice. It’s essentially a big call-to-action, and sets the tone nicely for a publication that covers some interesting ideas in depth.

The series as a whole is very much worth your time. The initial concept is usually online for free here, which features wisdom from some of the English language’s best digital storytellers (but seems to be down right now).

The real meat, though, is in the four-part magazine series. I encourage you to pick them all up, but trying out issue one on the use of narrative structure in non-fiction storytelling is a cheap way to test the waters.

Check it out.

Video: Kodaline Album launch in Dublin

I’ve been keeping up with my attempts to improve my video editing. Unfortunately, I left the tripod at the office. This video was shot on a single handicam with no tripod – using my wallet and notebook as supports – and the audio was recorded on an iPhone.

Everything was synced up in Adobe Premiere Pro, and I added a few shots of the scene to cover up the clumsier movements.

Quick and dirty but did the job – that false start actually took about five minutes to sort out.

Help me Write narrows ideas down to the ones your audience wants to read

Here’s the scenario: you’ve two great ideas ready to go, and limited time. Both deal with your area of expertise, but one is a straight feature to educate and inform your audience with useful content, and the other is a personal essay about your experiences battling a problem your audience can relate to.

Which one do you go for – straight and reliable, or personal and risky?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got lots of writing ideas, but you’re not always sure which ones will fly with your audience.

Enter Help Me Write from Makeshift, a cool product design studio in London. They’ve tried to solve that problem by connecting authors and audiences and ask: do you want to read this?

The process is simple: you dump your ideas to your Help Me Write profile page with a well-written first paragraph, like on you’d send to an editor with a query letter, and then share that page to your social profiles, your blog – wherever your audience lives.

Then, they just click ‘I’d like to read this’. No messing around collating repsonses from your Twitter feeds, just pure, democratic expressions of interest.

Help Me Write Interface

HelpMeWrite.co

Assuming you’ve got some feedback, once you write the piece, you’ve got a pre-existing audience ready to read it. It’s an extension of the technique you often see with feature writers on Twitter who drop tidbits about their current projects to whet a reader’s appetitie.

Obviously, this type of app works best for those who have a large pre-existing audience online. But considering that that’s the goal of every young writer out there these days (or it should be), this kind of app has a pretty bright future.

Big media potential

Imagine the potential to have this feature rolled into big media companies with some of the finest writing styles on earth. What if subscribers had the ability to tell their favourite newspaper that one minor idea from a columnists’ pile grabbed them and they just can’t wait to read it?

That’s what really fascinated me – the idea that media could institutionalise the kind of feedback that social media is so celebrated for.

Photo: Ireland v Poland

I’m using the new Flickr’s storage space to upload some of my photos from my hard drives. Having lost a lot of photos in the great hard drive crash of 2009, the more places they exist in the cloud the better.

Today’s uploads come from the Ireland v Poland football friendly at the Aviva in February. I was very ill-equipped for the job, with a lightweight tripod, D80, and a simple 18-135mm kit zoom. The end results needed a lot of sharpening.

I’ve since bought a much nicer 70-300 VRII, which performs much better. Still, here’s what I got on the night.

Computer screens as disposable technology

I’m exceptionally late to the game on this, but last week i bought an iPad. And it’s not the operating system or the size and form factor that impresses me the most: it’s the screen technology.

The advancements in displays keep coming year on year, to the extent that monitors have become a disposable technology. Things have been moving that way since the launch of the iMac in 1998, which rolled its monitor directly into the computer: meaning that upgrading the hardware meant binning the screen.

I tend to invest heavily in the technology I use most: a good keyboard and comfortable mouse are things I’m happy to spend money on – even my own money to beef up work computers. But monitors don’t fall into that mental category.

This is nonsense, of course, because if there’s any piece of technology we use most often, it’s our displays. But at work I use a 4:3 ratio standard monitor that, thanks to a damaged input, has a slight flicker. At home, I use a 32-inch high definition television as a screen, but I’ve come to realise this is far from ideal: the resolution is stretched out over a greater area, giving me less clarity.

The iPad has really hammered this point home for me. Most of the displays I use in my day-to-day life are causes of slight eye strain. Now, I find myself using the iPad, propped up on its stand, for every task possible. It’s the most pleasant experience available, despite being a little extra labour with the input devices.

Most of the displays we use are effectively out of date. Of course, powering ever-increasing resolutions needs more powerful graphics cards, and my 32-inch screen would be ludicrously expensive.

Nonetheless, consider this: in a few years, we may all be toting ultra-high pixel densities on our screens. And once prices come down, it’ll be worth it.

The oddball art of advertising newspapers

Update: Yes, it’s the Independent.

There have been some really interesting adverts popping up around Dublin – two starkly contrasting images with the simple tagline ‘we are defined by the choices we make.’

The general consensus seemed to be that the campaign was somehow connected to hot political topics, but now it seems like it may be an advertising campaign for newspapers.

Specifically, there are reports of the Irish Independent logo appearing on some of the adverts in town from Reddit Ireland users, and a claim that they placed a small site at independent.ie/lifesaboutchoices before quickly removing it.

If that’s true, the mind boggles. I’m fascinated by news media advertising strategies. The Irish Times recently went down the route of The Story of Why, the main piece of which is a long, self-congratulatory and overly ‘arty’ video that screened ahead of feature films. It hit wide of the mark, I think, because it portrayed the news business the way it wants to be seen. But it doesn’t focus on the reader or tell the reader what the news can do for them.

That contrasts sharply with one the most famous ads for The Guardian, which sells the benefit directly to the reader – they show you both sides of the story.

‘Life’s about choices’ looks like another high-end campaign. The posters have done their job of piquing interest, and it’s damn fine work from whichever agency was involved. But the tone of the campaign, based around choice, is an odd one for a newspaper, which historically have liked to be seen as impartial.

I wonder how they’ll proceed with this. I hope the campaign centres around informing people to make choices rather than telling people what choices to make. The Indo has been a pretty divisive paper for a few years, so a new brand strategy, if that’s what this is, will be very interesting.

Infographic: Facebook in Ireland

I recently helped Edelman Ireland design this infographic on Facebook use in Ireland.

Key stats include that Facebook’s user base has doubled in the last two years, that there are slightly more women than men using it and that 25 – 34 is the largest age group.

I’m indebted to the fascinating archives of Mulley Communications for historical usage numbers. Damien Mulley has been running a blog since 2003, and has been tracking the growth of social media for years.

Larger version (900px wide) available by clicking here.

facebookireland1

Four Fine Resources for Fledgling Journos

There’s a notion amongst journos who are good at what they do that every prospective reporter should be born with some sort of heaven-sent ability to write a story in perfect inverted pyramid form. Baloney. As anyone who’s spent time as a section editor for a college paper knows, first-year students getting stuck in to writing for the first time need to be shown the ropes.

Not every university that has a college paper has a journalism course or school of media. Mine didn’t, but I was lucky enough to be educated by a smart and savvy team in a student paper which has been around for over 50 years. For those less fortunate, there’s plenty of material out there to teach those who need to teach themselves. Whether you’re an incoming news editor who needs to train reporters for the first time, or someone who has inherited the Editor’s position and wants to brush up on some skills, these are some resources which have helped me out over the years.

The News Manual

 

This is a real nuts-and-bolts guide to writing news, and should be metaphorically thrust into the eager hands of beginners. Structure, the importance of intros, what questions to answer: all the core stuff is there. Teaching reporters the basics early on will not only save the sub-editors a lot of hours, it will make your staff better writers.

The manual was originally drafted by UNESCO in the early 90’s as a resource for news outlets in developing nations that might not have formal education set up for the media. As such, it’s a great match for student newsrooms where some or all of the staff might not be taking courses in reporting.

Click here to read The News Manual

The Student Newspaper Survival Guide

 

What a book. Rachel Kanigel writes an inspirational book that covers the basics of each style of writing, from news to features to sports, with sections on photography and editing. The book is aimed squarely at the college newspaper market, and as a result contains advice on dealing with college authorities, seizure of copies, and other university-specific problems.

It’s written with an American audience in mind, but that’s no bad thing. The US student press is bigger and more successful than that of most other countries, and many of the tips for structure and organisation can really help redefine the newsrooms of any paper, making them more efficient and professional. For any paper looking to get off the ground or reinvent itself, this truly is a must-have.

You can buy this book on Amazon or have a look inside on Google books. There’s also an author’s site, but it hasn’t been updated in a long time.

The Associated Press Stylebook

 

Every newspaper should have a style guide. Odds are that if you invest time into writing your own, some staff will never use it. So, align your house style to one of the big names- the AP or the Chicago Manual, which carry weight and authority. I find that the AP Stylebook tends to cross borders very, very well. It contains comprehensive advice on punctuation and listings for industry-specific terms.

It’s also very widely available, coming in paperback, electronic, or even iPhone app formats. Although asking every writer to buy a copy would be pointless, it’s a great resource to have on the office bookshelf or editor’s desk. I’ve found myself missing the office copy since I’ve started writing freelance. A formal style guide is the easiest way to introduce consistency in style, which adds a whole new layer of polish (and, again, will save the subs many headaches).

The AP stylebook has its own website with multiple purchase options available here; unfortunately delivery of a physical copy of the newly-released 2010 version is prohibitively expensive. The 2009 edition is readily available on Amazon, while those who opt for an iPhone version from the App Store will receive a free update to the 2010 version once it’s ported.

There’s also a very nice and easy-to-use Guardian Style Guide available, though it’s not nearly as comprehensive as the AP.

Freedom of Information knowledge

The FOI act (which you can read here) is your friend. Universities receive funding from the state, via the HEA, so they’re covered by the act. That means you can request information that your college (or any other state body) won’t give you willingly. There are exceptions, notably “commercially sensitive information” (which gets trotted out a lot, and is sometimes worth appealing) and personal information about someone else.

There’s a €15 charge for each request, and they can also charge for hours of work if they need to hunt down files or copy them. Luckily, you can also FOI personal information about yourself without any charge. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of this in a small environment like a college: you’d be amazed at how often people you know are involved in stories.

Sadly, there’s no idiot’s guide to FOI that I can find tailored to jousnlists, thought the government does maintain a guide of sorts here. The short version is to ask for the records without the act first (just in case they hand them over), then to write a letter stating that you are making a request under the act, enclosing the €15 fee. A word of warning: you’ve got to be specific about the records you request.

There’s also the (free) Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) option which you can find out more about here and here.

With these four resources under your belt, you’re off to a good start. Of course, there’s no substitute for actually doing what you’re reading about, so get stuck in!

Have I missed any quality resources for those starting out? If so, let me know in the comments and I’ll add them if they’re good.