Friday, December 28, 2007

Stocking Up

Inexpensive stock art Web sites are one of the modern marvels of the journalism world – so I hear. As a relatively young editor (I'm 24), they’re all I’ve ever really known when it comes to selecting supplemental images for feature stories and news sections in b2b publishing.

Until I read a recent article from Slate, I had never really thought about how easily mix-ups or misunderstandings can occur with stock images – especially on lean editorial staffs where reporters rather than photo editors choose artwork.

The Slate story is about article in Nature Medicine that profiles the BBC's apology about a documentary that chronicles the treatment of a group of HIV-positive foster children in Harlem. The story includes an image of a black toddler in a crib with the vague caption, “Foster children took part in trials of AIDS drugs.” One would assume this photo is actually of an HIV-positive foster child in Harlem. It’s not, though. The photo was taken in an Ethiopian orphanage, according to iStockphoto, a popular stock photography site where the image can be purchased.

It’s one thing to slap a generic caption onto an image of a light bulb representing a marketing article (if we must use photos like that), but what about news stories? Or stories with stock images of people?

Though I never sought stock art “the old way,” I would agree with Slate’s Jack Shafer when he says:

It's all to the good that today's publications have instantaneous access to millions of photos. And, generally speaking, it's a good thing that the Web reduces the amount of human skill required to find quality art.

What's lost in the new order is harder to quantify. Although the visual catalog has grown larger thanks to the Web, the images selected by publications often seem generic. The Web's bounty in untrained hands can conjure sameness as easily as variety.

Interestingly, though Nature Medicine's editor admitted a fact-checking error and conceded impropriety to Shafer, the article appears online with an uncorrected caption.

This issue begs the question: How deliberate is your staff’s stock-art selection process? Who chooses this art, how is it credited and how well is it edited – not just for grammar and style, but for content and accuracy?

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Three-Way Street (Remix)

Back when I was in college (the early 90s), I wrote an entire research paper for a class on publishing history on the concept of the "letters page" and how important the interactivity is to making people feel a part of the readership experience. I predicted at the time that magazines and newspapers would expand into online letters pages to expand the surface area and stickiness of this section (without having to pay for expensive print pages).

Little did I know at the time that this interactivity would explode into these things called blogs and reader forums, and due to the ease of finding author contact information (often with nice, easy hyperlinks) even our own email inboxes would become receptacles for reader responses (I've posted on this topic, including more abusive of these over at my work blog, where I was savaged for writing an article that was critical of Apple CEO Steve Jobs).

Anyway, every writer worth his reader's salt knows that in the Internet Age, there's always someone out there, waiting to pounce on any critical point you make and vent their frustration in the form of a nasty email, forum post, blog comment (or in the case of the following story, voicemail box). Me, I received about 20 or so hate emails per day for a month or so, along with some perfectly legitimate criticisms of my original article, and ended up repurposing the more well-reasoned of the responses into our magazine's letters page for that month.

Others have used different tactics to deal with similar situations, including the use of the rest of the readership to "crowdsource" a response.

The following story deals with such a situation, and comes in two parts: first check out this podcast taken from the voicemail inbox at the SF Chronicle newsdesk.

A pretty harsh response for what was a slight redundancy. However, the editors there got the last word by inviting someone to remix the voicemail message:

And here's
the remix.

It's fitting that the internet's interactivity allows for some extra creativity in crafting "extra-editorial" responses, especially to some of our more salty readers.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Happy Birthday To "Blog"

I read a Scobleizer post on the bus ride into work this morning that the term "blog" turns 10 today, which has me in a bit of a reflective mood. Robert Scoble has been a professional blogger since 2000, recently announced that he's joining the ranks of the magazine world (a spot on staff at FastCompany), further blurring the lines between citizen and professional journalism.

Me, I've been using the medium in one form or another since about 1999-2000, when I started using the reverse-chronology, threaded format that has been codified into the common blog we all know and love (or love to hate -- I also hear there's a lot of resentment and pushback from business journalists). If I were being looser about the term, I'd also probably count everything with that "online journal" feel, from my mid-1990s AOL and Geocities pages, thankfully (hopefully?) long-deleted by now, as well as the usual suspects -- a LiveJournal site and now, counting this one, four Blogger pages. The whole enterprise has gotten much easier to use -- both for writers and readers -- along the way, and has evolved from being just something to do with my spare opinions and into a professional competency for myself and many of my B2B peers. If you've got a blog (work or otherwise), post the link in the comments and I'll check it out.

Wow, ten years old. I wonder if that explains the rampant immaturity in the blogosphere? ;)

Monday, December 10, 2007

"For certain reasons this blog post of yours is not suitable for open publication and has been locked"

Those of you within complaining distance of me (and the reach of my whine is long) know that I'm in business school -- right now I'm studying financial accounting and "business law and ethics". I could make the cheap joke about law, ethics and business being some sort of extended oxymoronic menage-a-trois, but I do think that it makes sense to take them both at once, as accounting is a grey art at best, and although creative writing might be more synergistic (those quarterly reports are some great magical realism), studying law and ethics simultaneously makes for a good counterbalance.

Besides the balance, there seems to be another thread that I'm uncovering both in my studies and in my work at IndustryWeek -- namely, although all politics may be local, all business is global. What this means for us as trade journalists is pretty obvious -- the flattening of the world has enabled wider horizons, and new opportunities dot this newly revealed landscape if you've got the time to look around for them. Your readers should be doing the same.

With these global opportunities, though, may come some new threats and challenges that might be foreign to U.S. journalists. I have a cousin who is teaching in Myanmar, and she basically communicates to the rest of the family by blog. (Here's a link to her husband's community service organization if anyone's interested in donating to help the people of Myanmar.) When the crackdown came, the government shut down all lines of communication in and out of the country (I must admit, I didn't even know that was remotely possible) and although my cousin is smart and resourceful, it seemed a strange and dislocating experience to have those lines cut. I'm glad its over (for now at least), and truly hope it doesn't happen again, but I also hope that the people there get the right to determine their own destiny.

But are our rights right for everyone? I was listening to "On the Media" on NPR the other morning, and a Russian journalist was railing against the show for trying to impose values like "freedom of the press" onto other societies that might not appreciate them so much. (I know we hold certain truths to be self-evident, but does that make us self-obsessed?) All studies of ethics aside, I might be singing that same tune if my colleagues were dying in all sorts of interestingly accidental ways.

That argument had been percolating in my head for a day or two when, while doing some research for a class presentation on China, I came across some blog posts from the front lines of the battleground between the forces of censorship and the forces of a burgeoning free press in that country. (Rebecca McKinnon sums them up nicely -- her experience getting censored by Tianya, a Google-funded Chinese blog service, and others provided me with the title for this post). All around the world, people are dying to do the same thing I'm doing here, for bigger and better reasons.

Which brings me to a quick story. I was at a software conference in Germany earlier this year, and got to meet and strike up a friendship with an IT guy from Tehran. We both agreed that peace and prosperity are two universal desires, and agreed just as much that our leaders were acting, shall we say, counterproductively to our achieving those shared goals (our conversation happened at the height of the recent war drum crescendo from the White House). It was a great conversation -- he absolutely didn't believe me when I told him that Barack Hussein Obama, the bi-racial son of a single mom with Muslim roots on his fathers side, was running in a close race for the Democratic nomination for President.

I truly felt as if I had the opportunity to express one of those "freedoms" that our politicians have taken us to war over, not to mention damn near talking to death by now. Since that day, I've kept up our correspondence, and even took to forwarding a couple of his more insightful emails around to friends, but I noticed that every time I did, I made sure to wipe his name out from the signature and address line.

Why? I'm feeling a little paranoid these days. "For his sake, not mine" I tell myself as I delete the thread. The thing that bothers me is, I don't sound as sure as I'd like to on that front anymore. I get that "all alone and you hear something in the house, and you start talking loudly -- too loudly -- to yourself" feeling, and I'm not used to it.

Not like I really think I'm the target of a warrantless wiretap, it's just that the freedom to express myself -- no matter how trivial the subject -- is something that I am taking a little less for granted these days, and I'll be listening closely to what the politicians who desire to lead this free country of ours are saying about our civil liberties -- freedom of speech among them -- this election season.

Friday, December 7, 2007


OK, OK, I know the -a-a-S suffix is the "new 2.0" (would that make it 2.0 2.0? 2.0-a-a-S? Is there any other buzzphrase I can cram in there?) but I found a good post on the Office 2.0 Database, via Scoble that collects all the free (and not-so-free) "2.0" and "on-demand" services that are available for working folks trying to leverage new tech to solve the age-old problem of more work/less time. It's interesting to look at the list, though, and see that quite a few of the most competitive, talked about tools--anything from social bookmarking to wikis to project and document management applications--are open-sourced.

I've used a couple of these next-generation web-enabled collaborative applications now for both both work and school projects, and here at ASBPE Cleveland Scott and I used a collaborative Google Doc for creating our chapter's promotional one-sheet.

Of course, we ran behind deadline on that one and I ended up bootlegging something together last-minute, but (to use one of my favorite acronyms of all time) that was more of a "PICNIC" problem -- Problem In Chair, Not In Computer.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Outsource Your Own Job To India

Recently, I was faced with a perfect storm of deadlines -- features for work, finals for school and holiday party planning for the Cleveland chapter -- and I found myself in the classic overachiever's dilemma of too many to-do's, too little time.

One of the more onerous tasks I had waiting on my plate was to transcribe a long interview I had just done with Bob Gault, a managing VP at Siemens IT services/solutions for an upcoming IndustryWeek feature story.

It really was an enjoyable interview, packed with valuable insights and information about global outsourcing, but the problem was I had neither the time nor the inclination to actually sit down and transcribe it. This half-hour audio file was waiting out there, hanging in my mind like a big stop sign, and I knew at some point I would have to put everything else down and play at being my own secretary for a couple of tedious hours.

Then I remembered a great post I'd read from Ryan Norbauer over at Merlin Mann's productivity blog 43 Folders about what the "enlightened outsourcing" of podcast production:
It’s important to remember that you don’t necessarily have to outsource whole projects. To cite an interesting example, we do occasional podcasts at my company. The editing process is enormously tedious and used to take me many hours to turn a two-hour interview into just 30-40 minutes of talk and music. Sure, I’m slow and a total amateur when it comes to audio editing, but that’s really my point. There was clearly someone better suited to doing this work than me.

Since I have embraced outsourcing, I now send the raw audio to my man Ashish at Tech-Synergy, who promptly sends me back a flawless time-indexed transcript in text form. I then mark up that transcript by hand in red ink, which takes about 10 minutes, and scan it rapidly to PDF...I send the edits along with the raw audio to a firm in Argentina who edit it all together as a seamless podcast according to my marks. The whole process costs us less than $75 and saves me many painful hours of work.
It's easy to argue both for and against the merits of outsourcing, and I frequently do (often in the same conversation), but reading that last sentence was all the convincing I needed to give it a shot. I contacted Ashish, and not only was he more than pleased to have my business but he told me that Tech-Synergy follows the tried and true sales philosophy of "the first one is free" for transcribing a file up to 30 minutes long.

Well, I uploaded and emailed the 8MB .wav file from my digital recorder with some notes/titles etc. at about 10 PM and had the completed (and flawless) transcript waiting in my inbox when I woke up the next morning. All told, it saved me an hour or two of mind-numbing transcription work (and that's just counting the parts I'll use -- for the whole thing, probably more like three or four hours), and allowed me to get on to more value-added (and much less annoying) activities, like writing up that outsourcing/offshoring feature story.

Plus, I get postmodern pretentiousness points for outsourcing an interview about outsourcing...