Thursday, February 28, 2013

A failure to communicate

The part of Jason Halley's presentation at critique Wednesday that seemed to strike a chord for almost everyone was his direction to communicate better. Complaining about something not happening doesn't solve the problem, he said. Everyone needs to take responsibility for communicating the need, the progress and the delivery of every story and every piece of art.

Communication has always been a problem in newsrooms (except in newsrooms of one), and the lack of communication has actually seemed to get worse as fewer people are in the office at any given time and email and texting have taken the place of face-to-face contact.

Halley's suggestion was to use the phone, and it's a good one. But there can be other systems in place that would help everyone make sure all the elements of a story are available when it's time to post a package to the Web or slap it on a page.

My suggestion is to make a sharable runsheet in Google Drive not unlike the daily assignment board I once used in a TV newsroom. A runsheet for The Orion, though, would include plans for a week or more, rather than a single day. Here's what it might look like (click to make it larger):

The EIC, managing editor, photo editor, web editor, video editor and section editors would all share the spreadsheet and add assignments as they are made. Each day is represented by two columns, one with a story slug and the other with the staffers assigned: reporter/photographer/videographer/artist, etc.

The editors could choose to share the runsheet with members of the staff, with or without the ability to edit it. The advantages would include:
- a visual representation of sparse days for Web content that could be addressed early
- an assumption that stories can be due any day of the week
- instant communication about staffing for each story
- a plan for promoting stories through social media
- a virtual invitation for reporters and photographers (and artists and videographers) to talk to one another about their assignments
- A constantly updated snapshot of what the print paper will have available each week.

One person, probably the managing editor, would be responsible for hiding or deleting the previous day's columns so the current day's schedule is always in the same place, on the left side of the screen.

I think if everyone on staff would check a runsheet like this at least once a day, a lot of the communication that isn't happening could start happening. Worth a try?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Webcast gets closer to perfection

The almost-daily webcast at really didn't miss a beat during the transition from fall to spring semester despite an almost-complete staff turnover. It's getting closer to what I'd like to see day in and day out.

This morning, the 'cast had a classic story line-up -- breaking news, sports interview, weather report -- tied up in a neat 2-minute, 20-second package. Production values were excellent! The sound and lighting problems that marred some of the shows earlier in the semester have been cleaned up, and anchor Lacey Vaughn and weather reporter Allison Weeks have learned to relax and present a comfortable and conversational report.

Annie Maize's energy and preparation have resulted
in professional sports reports on the webcast.
Annie Maize's softball team interview combined good questions, good pacing and good use of stills as b-roll to present a professional package. And I can almost feel Annie's energy coming through my computer screen!

It's clear to everyone who has been watching the webcast video editor Nick Kinoshita and his group have put a lot of effort into shaping up the show. I like the odds that they'll be able to continue to produce a consistently excellent report every day.

Two suggestions:
- Simplify the writing to make it more conversational and easier to understand. A broadcast story should not sound like the same story in print. (I wrote a how-to about this earlier this year.)
- Have video or at least photos for every story. Think how much stronger this morning's lead piece about the fires on Sixth Street would have been if viewers could have seen images of burned couches and porches.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

And the winners are...

The features section turned in the names of 111 people they convinced to download the new Orion app this month. The staff gathered at Woodstock's on Saturday to collect their prize: a pizza party. They are (from left) Section Editor Katrina Cameron, Nicole D'Souza, Chantal Richards, Christine Lee, Cierra Goldstein, Liz Bowen and Zach Coyle.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

On pace for a Pacemaker?

The 2012 Pacemaker contest book arrived in the mail last week and it didn't have shots of The Orion or on the pages that showed the winners. Both were nominated for Pacemakers (an honor in itself), but not making the winners circle got me thinking about what the paper and website need to do to get back there.

Helpfully, the Pacemaker judges provided some general comments about this year's winners at the beginning of the online section that can be used as a guide. I've converted their comments into a checklist:

__  Recognizes the importance of a newsy website
__  Combines timeliness with strong writing
__  Does not simply reflect the print newspaper's content and publication schedule
__  Provides web-based content such as liveblogs or video
__  Feeds tweets into the website (the most consistent example of truly digital content)
__  Has clear writing
__  Has strong photography
__  Has clean design
__  Engages the audience (one website had 48 comments on a particular story).

I think most Orion staffers would agree this year's can put checks next to a lot more of those items than last year's could.

Still, I'd like to suggest that editors (and not just the online editor) should print this list and tape it to their computer monitors. That way, they can be thinking all the time about how to keep pushing toward excellence.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A word (or two) about headlines

As more stories are being published on before they're published in the paper, I'm noticing that the percentage of Web-friendly headlines is increasing at the same time.

By Web-friendly, I mean headlines that will direct someone using a search engine to a story that matches the keywords in the headline. Someone searching for a story that includes information about Gov. Jerry Brown, for example, will probably type Gov. and Jerry and Brown into Google or Yahoo! or Dogpile. If the headline on a story includes those three words, the more likely it is to show up near the top of the search results along with a link to story.

The more good keywords a headline contains, the more likely it is that a searcher will find his or her way to the story under that headline.

Often, that means that a headline written to match space requirements in the paper newspaper or that's built around a pun or a play on words is a bad headline for the Web (search engines really have no sense of humor). That should also mean that editors who are putting a story that has already been published in the paper should rewrite the headline to make it Web friendly.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Weekend reporters and editors step it up

Lots of compliments all around for's reporting this weekend, especially the sports staff, which stepped things up to another level with its game coverage.

The most fun and satisfying effort for me were the dual Twitter posts at the end of the men's basketball team's game against UC San Diego, which the Wildcats won on a last-second three-point basket.

Beat reporter Brett Appley captured the excitement on the court with his Tweets, and Online Editor Dan Reidel chimed in by using the Orion sports @-tag to supply additional details in the closing second of the game. Brett did a really nice job, then, of describing the unbelievable finish in his game story.

In addition, Price Peterson posted same-day stories about the rugby and softball games, and Emily Duran pitched in with her coverage of the baseball team's opening weekend series sweep.

Other good moments this weekend:
• Capturing Chico State's version of the Harlem Shake in both video and still photos (including an especially good mini-slide show by Brett Edwards).
• Terrific action shots of the men's rugby match, again by Brett.
• Nice review (by Zach Coyle) and photos (Meghan Silva) of Saturday's performance of "The Love Seat Diaries" posted on Sunday.

As a bonus, all three were smartly featured in the photo rotator on home page.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Decisions, decisions: Editing video stories

I was so pleased to see a video piece on the webcast this morning about what Chico State's response would be if a Virginia Tech- or Sandy Hook-type shooting happened on campus. The Huffington Post just ran a story that says one-in-four campus police departments report they aren't equipped to handle a similar shooting.

So the webcast video hits just the right note in its third paragraph by asking: "But how prepared is our school?"

The rest of the story, though, wasn't written very effectively, mostly because it was longer than it needed to be and didn't have the video footage it needed to tell the story well.

Here's the script (as I was able to transcribe it from the video):

Recent shootings across the nation have struck fear in schools everywhere.
The Cross-Cultural Leadership Center held an open session about gun control last week here in Chico.
But how prepared is our school?
(University Police Chief Robyn Hearn super)
IQ (:22): “You’ve got something going on inside a building…
OQ (:47): “…in the event of an emergency.”
For the last three years, Chico State campus has implemented an emergency P-A system that consists of 30 loudspeakers that can alert students and staff in case of an emergency anywhere on campus.
U-P-D has more than one training session each year in different buildings around campus, and also the Chico State campus emergency response team consists of 20 volunteers from Chico State faculty and staff.
They’re certified in C-P-R and First Aid in the chances that there’s an emergency.
You can read more on this story tomorrow in this week’s edition of The Orion.
The story violates the number-one rule about writing for broadcast: keep it simple. Viewers need to understand a radio or TV story the first time they hear it, so ruthlessly trimming copy to a story's bare essentials becomes essential.

In story, the writer and producer needed to be a little more ruthless. Here are some changes that would have made it more effective:

- The first sentence could be streamlined just a little to say "Recent shootings have struck fear in schools across the nation."
- The first bit of non-essential detail is the second paragraph, a meeting held last week that isn't directly related to the point of the story: how prepared Chico State is for a campus shooting incident. It could be replaced by something more pertinent (the Huffington Post statistic would have worked) or been dropped altogether, with the key sentence adding the "where": Is Chico State prepared for a similar tragedy?
- At this point, I'd have moved the Hearne sound bite later so the information about the loudspeaker system could introduce it: Over the past three years, the university has installed an emergency P-A system (video of the speakers here). Thirty loudspeakers can alert students, faculty and staff to an emergency anywhere on campus.
- That would be followed by the most essential part of the Hearne bite: what people would hear and when. For me, it would start with (:29) "It might say something like...." and end with (:43) "..right now." At 14 seconds, the actuality from Hearne gives the viewer an expert who supplies important information about what would happen in an emergency without unnecessary context.
- The rest of the story can be summed up in a sentence and then superimposed as bullet points over a still photo of the bell tower.
Chief Hearne says:
     • Campus police also offer emergency training once a year
     • Faculty and staff volunteers trained in C-P-R and First Aid are available in an emergency.

After adding "(A) recent report shows about a quarter of university police departments in the U-S aren't ready for an armed attack" after the lead, the story clocks in at 46 seconds, about 24 seconds shorter than version and much clearer.

The only thing missing for me, then, is a close that says something about how effective or ineffective these preparations might prove.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Strong news and sports effort over the weekend

The Orion news, sports, Web and video staffs made another outstanding effort this weekend.

The webcast Monday morning was getting close to what I consider the ideal: a vo/sot (voice over-sound on tape) piece of President Zingg's speech Friday afternoon, followed by Allison Week's weather standup, a reader about the recent stabbings and a roundup of weekend sports action.

Pedro Quintana, who must carry a police scanner in his pocket, did a wonderful job of covering the fight and stabbing downtown early Sunday morning, including a dramatic photo of cop cars swarming the scene. He was all over Twitter as the news broke.

Emily Duran did a nice job of putting together a couple of baseball stories and Brett Appley and Jake Martin filed solid stories from the men's and women's away basketball games, getting their reports on the Web hours after the final buzzer in both games.

And the Web team did a great job of getting everything online in a hurry and of promoting the breaking stories and an upcoming sports feature on Facebook and Instagram.

Here's what could have been better:

• The videographers seem to be having problems with getting enough light indoors. The Zingg video was the second time in a week a story was all but blacked out. I know technology sometimes throws a curve, but a better choice in this case would have been to find a still photo of the president, superimpose his sound bite and have the anchor read it. Another alternative would have been to use the audio with a screen capture of Zingg, again with the quote superimposed over a still photo.

• Lighting was a problem with Allison's weather report as well. Find a spot with whiter light if you have to shoot outside after twilight. If you're having problems with cameras, let's get it fixed.

• Using a description as a noun in sports stories is starting to become my biggest pet peeve. Instead of "Baseball swept all four of its games this weekend..." use, instead:
"The Wildcats baseball team..."
"The Chico State baseball team..."
"The baseball team..."
"The baseball squad..." 
Same strategy with men's basketball (the men's basketball team), women's basketball and rugby.

• Sports stories should not be accompanied by file photos of last year's team when reporting a home game. Staff photographers should be shooting home games. If they can't, reporters need to use their smartphones or be assigned a digital camera. I appreciate the effort to get some sort of art to accompany the stories (and your app audience thanks you, too!), but visuals from the game are an essential part of sports coverage. Photo staff: It's time to step up!

See the note below. Thanks for the cx!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Some ideas about aggregation and curation

Newspaper publishers and TV news executives haven't been howling quite as loudly as they were a few years ago about what they perceive as piracy by Google News and Yahoo News, which aggregate news from said newspapers and TV news programs but do no original reporting themselves. Maybe it's because the executives realize they're wasting their breath, or maybe they have decided they were actually getting some currency in the click economy.

I haven't figured out why they haven't done more aggregating themselves, unless it's because they have a financial stake in the current system of paid-for content (AP fees, syndication contracts) that's based on information scarcity. These big players ARE the paid-for system.

College papers, including The Orion, are not. So, it makes sense to me that The Orion should think about doing some aggregation of its own.

What might that look like?

How about a website section or home page module devoted to the most interesting stories on other college newspaper's websites? A one-sentence tease and headline linked to the original story that credits the source (as Yahoo News does) would give Chico State readers access to what other college newspaper editors think is interesting on their campus.

What about aggregating stories from other California college newspapers about teams in the California College Athletic Association? I'm sure Wildcat fans would be interested in reading about what other teams in the conference are doing.

A little work with a search engine or Twitter search could easily provide three or four stories a day from other online media about issues college students care about: employment prospects, managing debt, strategies for finding internships, bands popular with college students, etc. Before the Web, a library search of the same sort might have been used as the starting point for a staff-written story on the same subject (and still could), but simply linking to a story can also be of service to readers.

To me, what makes an information provider unique in the digital era, what provides its value in the market, is defining, understanding and serving a particular and specific audience. That certainly includes being the creators of information no one else is positioned to provide (the traditional role of campus and local newspapers), but it can and should also mean being curators of information from other sources of value to the audience.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Web is not a printing press had a couple of instructive examples this weekend of how to use the power and versatility of the Web.

On Friday, Yzel Romo put together a nice preview story about a KZFR benefit concert that split the story into a description of the event and a sidebar about who was going to perform. That's classic Web design, giving the reader bite-sized pieces in an attractive package.

The package could have been even better, though, had it used the most basic of Web tools: the hyperlink. The sidebar (at right) could have given visitors a much better idea of what the concert was going to be like this:

Ha'Penny Bridge, a Northern California Celtic music band with members from the Chico area. They recently appeared in the Chico World Festival last year.

Ali Battaglia and the Musical Brewing Company are inspired by rock 'n' roll of the '60s and '70s. ...

Jeff Pershing is a Chico State alumn(us), singer, songwriter and guitarist...The Jeff Pershing Band is influenced by....

Wolf Thump is a samba troupe with many performers....

The page could have added another dimension if, instead of links, the page designer had embedded videos:

The other story, a roundup from the Inline Hockey Team's tournament in Hamilton City over the weekend, was put together by Alan Cuevas (reporter) and Riley Mundia (photographer). 
The page features:
- a text story broken into pieces (game by game)
- a photo gallery of Riley's images from the game, and
- an embedded YouTube video. 

This effort shows an editor and staff attuned to the storytelling possibilities of the Web. I'm hoping to see a lot more like it this semester!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Pick-a-little, fix-a-little

Today, little criticisms and suggested tweaks:

• For the first time in a while, the photo rotator module in the top left corner of home page was empty this morning. Because it's the page's principal visual element, that should never happen. Fix: Have a photo or story scheduled for that spot in the event breaking news is not available.
 • Has anyone else noticed that the round Orion logos turn into stop signs on Facebook? Not a signal (however subconscious) you want to send to readers. Fix: Resize the logo and resubmit it.
• Using the original newspaper page art for the opinion icons on home page is a good idea until you don't have any art. In that case, the icons are boring gray squares with titles. Fix: Use the columnists' faces instead (and don't forget to tag those faces with the writer's names so Web surfers can find them).
• The sound quality and audio levels in the webscast are getting better, but they're still too variable. Fix: The Final Cut Pro user's manual suggests setting a common peak value for all clips; iMovie has an even easier process available through the clip editing function.
• Ambient sound was a problem in today's webcast during the interview with the Chico Animal Services manager. The sound of a car engine starting and running ruins the actuality. Fix: Be conscious of unnecessary background sounds when you record and re-interview when necessary. Natural ambient sound at low levels is fine, by the way, but distracting noises aren't.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A very good first week

It's hard not to be impressed by the efforts of everyone on The Orion staff this first week of the semester.

The newspaper did a terrific job of updating readers on six weeks of campus news, rounding up events and putting them in context.

The website has had fresh content daily, with Dan Reidel doing an excellent job of choosing photos for the top-left rotation module.  The news and sports Twitter feeds now serve as a digest of the latest Chico and Chico State news on the right side of the home page, with reporters doing an excellent job of tweeting the news and getting brief stories on the site. The addition of shortened URLs to the tweets made the news even more accessible to both Twitter and website audiences. When news was breaking, the web team used a breaking news crawl at the top of the home page to alert readers.

The video staff also made an outstanding effort. The webcasts have more video stories more often than they did last semester, and the reporters and videographer are getting out onto campus to capture news. When word gets around about this evolution in the broadcast, I know a bigger audience will follow.

The web team also made a good start on using Facebook and Instagram in a way that drives traffic to, a sign that a well-thought-out social media policy is starting to take shape.

Advertising in the print newspaper is still lagging behind projections, but the ad staff did a better job than last semester of finding clients who want to advertise on the website. I'm hoping the new app will find a similar group of advertisers who understand the potential of reaching students on their mobile phones.

So, all in all, this was a solid start. It tells me The Orion, on all its platforms, is ready to make big strides.