A Bit of History

Journalism is gathering information, synthesizing it and publishing stories formatted for various mediums. Before the Internet became useful for displaying words and pictures, the primary means of distributing stories was ink on paper. Television has been a small player in story-telling due its forte as an entertainment medium.

Several technical innovations have changed the way we seek and receive information. One is simple the maturing of the Internet from a system by which researchers move data to one another to the full array of services you use on a daily basis. The development of web browsers and the accompanying programming languages made possible the integration of words and pictures in a way never before possible.

Paralleling the development of the Internet was the development of the microcomputer. The Apple I computer first came to market in 1975. The first IBM PC was available in late 1981. The Macintosh, introduced in 1984 revolutionized microcomputers by introducing the Graphical User Interface (GUI), which are the icons, folders, etc. that seem so natural to use now. In 2003, Apple Computer introduced the iLife suite of products that empowered users to easily produce stories in any form they wished and at very low cost. The Internet was there waiting for the stories to be published, again at very low costs.

Newspapers were slow to catch on to how they could use the Internet. At first they waited until the print product was delivered and then began to put stories on their websites pretty much as they appeared in the paper. New websites of the day were referred to as “shovelware” sites because content was shoveled from the paper to the Web. Now, again though Apple’s innovation with the iPad, magazines and news publications are designing to the device with user interaction a prime consideration.

Dana Achtley

In about 2000, I met Dana Achtley who made an indelible impression on me. He described himself as a “digital story-teller” and story-teller he was. He had a traveling stage show that merged his on stage commentary with a sophisticated projected multimedia show. I brought the show to IUPUI to benefit our students. I was disheartened when not a single student or faculty member attended the show. If he were alive today, I am sure the auditorium would be full because journalists need to learn multimedia. He taught many, many people how to tell their own stories using digitized family artifacts. His pioneering efforts along with the development of the Apple iLife products changed story-telling forever. After his death his website is still maintained. Take the time to explore a few examples of his story-telling method.

Story Telling

I have been a multimedia producer since the 1970s yet I still learned from and became enthused by Achtley’s ideas. Back in the day, multimedia consisted of two or more Carousel slide projectors in which the slide tray advances were controlled by a dedicated electronic controller. The controller would take its instructions by a four-track, reel-to-reel, tape recorder deck. Two of the channels were used for stereo sound, one for the control signals and one could be used for additional sound or not used at all. The most number of projectors that I used in a production was six. Those projectors are no longer made having been supplanted by LCD digital projectors with images supplied by a laptop computer.

My definition of multimedia in the journalism context is using two or more of our senses in telling a story. A video uses moving pictures and synchronized sound. Still photographs can easily be synchronized with a sound track using video editing software or a product developed by a journalist for journalists–Soundslides. Photojournalists used to carry cameras and lenses. Now their cameras are capable of shooting HD quality video and they carry digital sound recording gear as well. At National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) meetings invited speakers are radio reporters from National Public Radio. Why? Radio reporters know how to tell stories with sound and photographers now need to have those same skills. News websites want “rich media.” That is videos and still pictures with sound that tell compelling stories.

Declining advertising revenue have caused dramatic personnel cutbacks in the news business. Fewer people are asked to do more. I am not saying this is good; it is just a reality. Therefore, to be successful in the job market, you cannot have a limited skill set. Just as carpenters have many tools specialized to the task at hand, so should you have as many story-telling skills as possible. Words are very important but also in a way limiting. By adding pictures with an emotional soundtrack, you can take your story to a new dimension. You are inviting your audience to use more than one of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. So far, multimedia story-telling involves sight and sound. That leaves smell, touch and taste to future technical innovation.

My students have historically complained about having to spend time to learn software. It just doesn’t interest them. If that is what you think too, get over it. In order to produce digital stories, you need to know how to use a number of different software packages. What if you are about to graduate and still haven’t learned Premiere or Final Cut Pro? What if you haven’t had the audacity to learn Audacity? What is Lightroom anyway? Will my newsroom pay for me to learn? Any newsroom will hire the person who can already demonstrate software proficiency over someone who hasn’t taken the time to join the computer age. Training dollars are scarce. Over your career you will have to continue to learn and train yourself if you want to excel.