For a traditional print reporter, writing for the web is like shattering a vase you made into a zillion little pieces and putting it back together again in an entirely new shape.
Or should I say shapes?
One of the challenges -- and joys -- of this new medium is the ability it gives a reporter to highlight delightful or important nuggets of information that previously risked being lost in a long grey line of text by giving them their own box or headline or even webpage.
It requires a real grasp of the underlying themes and architecture of a story to "chunk" and package it in ways that are appropriate and appealing. A summary of this print pilgrim's progress:
- My first foray came in a "Writing for the Web" class with the redoubtable Amy Eisman, the best taskmistress cum cheerleader one could hope to have. To show I still have my feature-writing chops, I chose to do a project on knitting that focused on where DC kniters could find local resources and community. You can click through it starting here.
- Next stop: "Digital Storytelling" with sneaky-fast Jim Van Nostrand, a self-taught whiz who serves as a web designer for McClatchy, one of the nation's top news chains. I already had been gathering string at my day job for an advance obit on Lady Bird Johnson, so I redoubled my efforts, adding audio interviews and photos obtained from the Johnson archives to create this tribute. Later, when Mrs. Johnson died, some of my work made it into the obit I wrote for USA TODAY.
- Perhaps foolishly, I signed up for an extra class -- a summer distance-learning course offered by cool, cutting-edge Brigid Maher. The Twitter badge on the right hand side of my website is one result. Another was my first video project. In this case, I adapted a package I had already done for USA TODAY. Here's the USA TODAY version, and the video. Knowing what I now know, I would have edited the CSPAN clips to make for a tighter, faster-pased piece. But I'm still proud of this because I was able to see possibilities outside of plain text -- both in the story I did for print and the one I did for Brigid.
- Intense, impassioned videographer Bill Gentile gave us a crash course in how to conceive, shoot and edit a documentary. In this class, where we has our first exposure to Final Cut Pro, colleagues Quang Lam, Vanessa Camozzi and I produced Reading Road Trip, a project about the DC Public Library and it's new CEO.
- Veteran TV newswoman Jill Olmsted gave us another side of the video experience, teaching us how to produce a made-for-TV news piece, complete with stand-up intros and exits. In addition to storyboarding, writing, reporting, shooting and editing, this couse involved fairly intense vocal exercises that taught us how to project, modulate and articulate for TV and/our radio. Our class project, on the 2008 Solar Decathalon, can be viewed here. My contribution: the piece on the Rust Belt entries.
- Working with Lynne Perri, a former USA TODAY colleague who keeps one keen eye on design and the other on detail, we produced six Saturday's worth of the American Observer, an online publication of the American University School of Communications. This gave us a chance to write, edit, add links and produce audio and video on deadline. It also gave us an appreciation of templates. (We produced the front page without a net but used WordPress for the jumps.)
- Engaging polymath (how did he get from marine archaeology to newspaper web design?) David Johnson proved to be a surprisingly patient drill sergeant as he demonstrated the wonders of the Flash program. My final project used multimedia gathered while on the campaign trail to look at the Iowa caucuses in a new way.
- Another former USA TODAY colleague, the restlessly creative Jody Brannon led us through the capstone course of this program. We looked at creative new gadgets out on the Internet, such as Google maps, Wetpaint and Ning; searched the web to find examples of websites we liked and rated them.
Leap to video
Putting it all together
Use it or lose it. I plan to keep practicing and refining the skills I learned in my American University program. And I hope to continue learning others. To demo Soundslides software for my Princeton students, I put together this slideshow about the 2009 spring Gridiron dinner. Watch this space for more experiments!