Some wicked multimedia tools…

At the Online News Association’s annual conference last week in San Francisco, I showed a few cool tools journalists might find uses for.

The first tool I showed was Swivel. This is a great and easy tool for taking data and creating interactive graphics from them. Here’s an example:

Swivel is free, though if you want to keep the data private, you have to pony up some cash.

The second tool I showed was AudioBoo. This is a nifty podcasting app for the iPhone. Not for listening podcasts, but for making them. Here’s how it works:

  1. Download the app
  2. Create an AudioBoo account
  3. Use the app to record audio
  4. Snap a photo to go with the audio
  5. Title the audio and tag it with keywords
  6. Publish the clip

The result is both a file and an RSS feed that one can subscribe to through iTunes. One can also automatically publish the audio to Twitter, Posterous, Tumblr, and more.

Here’s an example of the embedded audio player:

Those were the two main tools, but we had some extra time, so I offered two bonus tools.

The first bonus tool wasn’t really a tool, so much as just something too damn cool not to show. Specifically, Yelp!’s secret “Monocle” augmented reality tool. Basically, it works by layering information over a live camera image. Here, watch this YouTube video to better explain it:


And here’s the last one: regular expressions, also known as grep, or pattern-matching search.

Basically, this is a method of search or find-and-replace that uses wild cards and variables. Say, for example, you have a list of names, like this:

  • Jefferson, Thomas
  • Washington, George
  • Adams, John
  • Franklin, Benjamin
  • Lincoln, Abraham
  • Hancock, John
  • Jay, John

And, you want to change the order of each name to make it first name, space, last name. That is, instead of “Jefferson, Thomas” you want “Thomas Jefferson.”

Without grep/regular expressions, you’d have to cut/paste a bunch of names or retype them. (Or, you could find the comma and replace it with a tab, copy the lines to an Excel spreadsheet, change the orders of the columns, then copy the lines back to a text editor and then find/replace the tabs with spaces.) But, there’s a far easier way.

If you have a grep-enabled text editor, like TextMate, TextWrangler or BBEdit (among others), simply search for this:

(.*), (.*)

and replace with this:

2 1

So, how does that work? Simple. The period is a wild card for any character. The asterisk means “repeat.” So .* means “any character followed by any character, followed by any character, etc.” Because .* is followed by a comma and a space, that first set will find all the characters until it reaches a comma and space. And the parenthesis assigns that text string to a variable. So, it will find “Jefferson” and assign it the variable “1.” (The first set of parentheses gets the variable “1,” the second set of parentheses gets “2” and so on.)

After the space, another .* will find the remainder of the line and, thanks to the parenthesis, assign it the variable “2.”

Finally, it replaces what it finds with the value of “2,” followed by a space, followed by the variable “1.”

See? Yeah, I know it’s kind of obtuse. But, play with it and check out this awesome grep reference site.

Shooting video

Here are some quick tips for journalists for shooting successful Web video:

Put the camera on a tripod. Shaky video stinks. And, when compressing video for the web, stable video will compress much, much better.

Set up subject with microphone. Remember, 70 percent of video is audio. So, place a lav mic under your interview subject’s chin, about a hand’s length away. Make sure mic is working. (Cables are plugged in, tight, batteries are working, devices turned on, settings are correct, etc.) Always, always, always monitor your audio.

Pick a location with either no ambient sound or with relevant ambient sound (watch out for electronic hums, distracting environmental sounds). Level the shot. Keep sun at your back. Avoid placing the subject in front a bright background. This is esp. true for people with dark complexions. Look around the frame. Try to fill it with interesting information. Watch out for errant objects. Follow the rule of thirds. Compose your shot so it has depth and interesting angles. Don’t put the interview subject in the middle of the frame with the camera straight on. Too harsh and BORING.

Turn off cell phones. They interfere with audio. Also, people have a magical ability to call you in the middle of a shoot.

Set white balance. Every lighting situation is different. If you can, set your white balance.

Turn on auto focus. Zoom into subject’s eyes to focus. Turn off auto focus. Zoom out. Don’t move the camera.

Set exposure. Make sure the stuff you need to see is exposed correctly. Better to slightly underexpose that to overexpose.

Roll for 30 seconds at the beginning of the tape. Before each shot, roll for about 5 seconds, and then roll for about five seconds at the end of the shot.

Keep the shot steady. Don’t pan, don’t zoom. Let action unfold in front of you.

Monitor audio with headphones.

Ask questions that require full answers. For example, ask compound questions; requests; commands. Don’t ask yes/no questions.

Ask questions over again to get more cogent answers. Often, people will say something a second time that is more articulate than the first time they said it. Use silence to get people to talk.

Avoid conversational prompts/respones (uh huh, yeah, etc.).

Take notes while you shoot. Try to make note of timecode. Make a shot list of things to get B-roll of. If the interview subject talks about his feet, remember to shoot footage of his feet.

Vary your shots. Lots and lots of close-up/detail shots. Get action and reaction. Don’t just shoot the flames, shoot the firefighters resting, drinking water, wiping sweat from their brows. The crowd watching, people crying, etc.

Get your mic back when you’re done.

Task-oriented usage

Image representing iPhone 3G as depicted in Cr...
Image via CrunchBase

I’m constantly surprised by the frequency with which something that I have long thought/assumed/believed, but rarely considered, is articulately and cogently explained to me. This happened not long ago when a friend described how many people online are task-oriented. That is to say, people go online with a specific objective in mind and the way they engage with the Internet is tied to that objective.

More recently, I read a line that said (I’m paraphrasing), data and services, and not pages, are what’s central to the Web.

When you put those two thoughts together — task-oriented usage and the centrality of data and services — it instantly explains why some sites work so well and some are so terrible. Those that use data and services (enabled by high-quality design) to enable people to execute the task at hand are successful. Those that don’t, aren’t.

Think of some of the tasks that might drive people online:

  • I want a sports score
  • I want to know what’s happening right now
  • I want to see my fantasy league stats
  • I want to see how my money is doing
  • I want to see what the reaction to Obama’s speech was
  • I want to learn more about this “cellulosic ethanol” stuff
  • I want to see what Kanye did
  • I want to see what my friends are up to
  • I want to know what people are talking about
  • I want to find out what Apple just released
  • I want to find out what movie to see tonight and where it’s playing and buy tickets for it

Data and services do that. Pages do not. Extend that another layer into the mobile space. I’ve long been critical of the term “mobile” because for so long it didn’t serve these purposes (connecting objectives with successful outcomes). Rather, they served mobile carrier’s interests via terrible interfaces. But now, thanks to devices like the iPhone, people are now easily able to do the above kind of stuff whenever they think of it, no matter where they are at. That’s the killer app of mobile. Location awareness is a great feature, but the “now-ness” of mobile is key.

The challenge for news organizations is to a) have ideas in this space and b) orient ourselves so that we can bring them to life. Most news organizations are specifically not oriented to think and act this way. They are oriented to write stories (a.k.a, pages). See the problem?

I very much like the idea that data and services, rather than pages, are central to the Web.
That gets at one of the points I’ve heard you make, Amy, about how task-based people are… not just with the Web, but with anything.
– I want a sports score
– I want to know what’s happening right now
– I want to see my fantasy league stats
– I want to see how my money is doing
– I want to see what the reaction to Obama’s speech was
– I want to learn more about this “cellulosic ethanol” stuff
– I want to see what Kanye did
– I want to see what my friends are up to
– I want to know what people are talking about
– I want to find out what Apple just released
– I want to find out what movie to see tonight and where it’s playing and buy tickets for it
Data and services do that. Pages do not.
The thing about mobile is that it enables people to do this stuff when they think of it, no matter where they are at. That’s the success of the iPhone, in a nutshell.
The challenge for us (and others) is how to have these ideas and then bring them to life. In our case, we are not oriented to think and act this way. We are oriented to write stories (a.k.a, pages). That’s it.

Recent projects…

Every once in a while I add some of my recent projects to this blog. I probably need to do it more frequently, but hey, whatcha gonna do?

Anyway, here’s a few things to come out recently. This first piece is from a story on a GM plant closing in Ontario, Ohio. USA TODAY reporter Marisol Bello wrote the story and I worked with her on editing her audio and building this template-based interactive that shows the chain of events/connections that propagate through a town.


This presidential approval poll tracker package was a much bigger endeavor. For more than a year, I’ve wanted to create an approval poll tracker going back in time to Truman (that’s the first president for which we have complete data) to current times. Thanks to Bill Couch and Kristen Novak, we finally made it happen. I’m really pleased with the results, which overlay news events and allow for different ways of comparing the polls. We’ll keep the tracker updated and I’m looking forward to adding more information, like economic indicators and more. If you have any suggestions, please add them in the comments.


Some tools I use…

This might or might not be of interest to folks, but I’ll share anyway. There are a number of third-party apps I use that many people might not know about. Some of you might already use them, others might not. Here are a few of them with links and a brief description. I suggest you check them out.

1Password: This manages (and creates) passwords and auto fills them from any browser. Syncs across computers and devices. Extremely handy way to auto-enter information and maintain security.

A Better Finder Series: This makes it super easy to batch rename files in complex ways. For example, you can easily change a bunch of files that are named “FirstName LastName.jpg” to lastname-firstname.jpg” and more.

Adium: This is a multi-client instant messenger program.

AppFresh: This will automatically alert you to updated software.

AppZapper: This will delete applications and all of their associated files.

Audio Hijack Pro: Super easy way to capture and record audio from any source, such as a video stream or iTunes.

Automator: A super-easy way to create automated workflows.

Default Folder X: This utility allows you to set default open/save dialog box folders and simplify the navigation of open/save dialog boxes.

Dropbox: This is a Web-based tool for synchronizing folders across the Web and devices. You can create a drop box on your machine and create a Web interface so that others can easily upload files to it. Sort of like FTP but easier.

Komodo Edit: This is a cross-platform text editor, like TextMate, TextWrangler and BBEdit. This is particularly useful for PC users.

LittleSnapper: This is a great screenshot utility and manager. That is, it will take and manage your screenshots, including full Web pages with Flash on them:

MacFuse: This is an add on that allows you to use Mac OS X file handling on non-native volumes (i.e., Windows, etc.):

NeoOffice: This is an open source version of Microsoft Office, including a database that can link to SQL, like Access.

OmniGraffle Professional: This is an awesome flow chart and wire framing tool. I can’t speak highly enough about it: Be sure to also check out their other offerings. Like NeoOffice:

Path Finder: This tool replaces your standard Finder. One great attribute (and there are many) is that when you copy a file, it copies the entire path:

Perian: This is an awesome QuickTime components utility to make all kinds of video files work on the Mac:

RipIt: Great DVD ripper: (Also check out MacTheRipper (, VisualHub (no longer downloadable) and Handbrake ( for ripping and encoding video.)

Saft: This is a Safari add on that remembers your open Tabs and lots, lots more:

SuperDuper! This is a data backup and copying utility. Has saved my butt many times:

SWF and FLV Player: This will play SWFs and FLVs directly, and will also tell you their dimensions:

Switch: This is audio encoding software. Takes your audio and makes them MP3s. (Max is another:

TextSoap: This is a multi-step text cleaner. In other words, you can link multiple find/replaces in one step and clean up text automagically:

Transmit: The best FTP client out there with drag-drop interface, droplets and more:

TweetDeck: A great Twitter client with multiple panes for direct messages, searches, etc.:

WireTap Studio: Very similar to Audio Hijack Pro:

Xmarks: This will synchronize your bookmarks (and passwords) across platforms and computers. So, your FireFox and Safari bookmarks will always be in sync.:

YouSendIt: This is a way to e-mail somebody giant files.:

OpenID: This isn’t an application, but a service that will unify different profiles under one ID. For example, you can link several Basecamp accounts under one OpenID.

Regular expressions: This isn’t an application either, but rather a way of doing complex pattern-matching search and replace. Let’s say you want to search “Josh is a buffoon” and change it to “What a buffoon Josh is!” You could do that by searching “(Josh).*(buffoon)” and replacing it with “What a /2 /1 is!” It’s easier to demonstrate.

Concatenation in spreadsheets: Also not an app, but a way to take columns of data and turn it into XML. More here:

Batchgeocode: Need to get lat/long for a place, or a bunch of places?:

There are more, but this is a pretty good list. I hope it’s helpful to folks.