June 27, 2007 in Interviews
Editor’s note: I interviewed Will Sullivan, who runs the widely read Journerdism weblog and also works as Interactive Projects Editor at the Palm Beach Post. Part of the interview was conducted via GTalk instant messaging, and the latter part via e-mail after technical glitches hit our IM session. Thanks to Will for taking the time to talk with me. UPDATE: glitches with importing the text for the interview have been fixed (hopefully).
ICM: First off, you recently participated in the NPPA multimedia summit in Oregon. What were the main things you took away from the experience that might be of interest to our audience? #
Sullivan: Well, beyond some technical things I learned, the big lesson for me was that fundamentally, the shift to multimedia has happened. I mentioned this in my blog, but the interest away from still to video/multimedia formats is here, and here to stay. Even in the Q&A session with Carolyn Cole, one of the greatest photographers alive today, about half the questions from the audience was about what she thought about multimedia and her experience at the Immersion Seminar [she was one of the students]. #
We concentrated a lot on video and audio slideshows, but there was a lot of interest in Flash and other advanced storytelling methods. Itâ€™s a very exciting time to be involved in the media and to see the shift happening is really energizing. #
ICM: Generally speaking, you’ve been working in new media for a while and watching what’s going on in various newsrooms. You mentioned that the “shift” has happened. Do you get the sense that it’s happened across newsrooms, or more specifically in the photoj area, which is obviously most directly affected by online/multimedia? #
Sullivan: Yea, absolutely, staffers young and old across the land are really getting into new methods of storytelling (video, graphics, online chats, blogs, etc.). Interns and younger reporters really help drive this, but Iâ€™ve seen a lot of â€˜establishedâ€™ staff really embrace the web. Thereâ€™s always going to be people who donâ€™t want to adapt but they are warming to it and starting to understand that the core business of news/information has rapidly changed in the past 5-10 years and it will continue to morph and accelerate at an unheard of pace. #
So while we still have the chance and we have all have all these cool new tools and ways to tell stories in different forms on the Web, theyâ€™re jumping on board. Itâ€™s kind of a viral thing, but itâ€™s really exciting to be a part of and hear about it happening in newsrooms across the country. #
And in newsrooms where there are voluntary buyouts, those that donâ€™t get into it tend to take the buyouts and move on anyway. So it works out for everyone. #
ICM: Quite a bit of discussion lately about whether programmers should learn journalism, or journalists should learn programming. Care to weigh in on that? Were you a journalist first? or a programmer? #
Sullivan: Well, learning programming certainly doesnâ€™t hurt. I think thereâ€™s about 12 journalist programmers in this country that can basically write their own ticket anywhere — Holovaty, Davis, Waite, Willis, Dance, Tamman, Szymanski, etc. â€“ because they are awesome programming ninjas. #
If someone begins studying journalism and they already have that background, then embrace it. We really need that skill, more than anything right now. But we still need a lot of new skills. #
Do I think all journalists need to know how to program Python? It wouldnâ€™t hurt, but thatâ€™s a bit much. We need experts that specialize. #
For students coming out of school right now (or soon) I think they need to understand the potential of some of these applications and development environments. If they really get into and specialize in programming, thatâ€™s awesome. Theyâ€™re incredibly more marketable than the next grad that just writes or just takes still images. #
Iâ€™d say the same thing about CAR reporting. Or Flash programming. Or video shooting and editing. Or design. etc. #
The key is to understand and at least try all of the areas, but focus and become an expert in a couple. #
It comes down to the core problem of newsrooms getting smaller and needing more multi-skilled workers. #
For me, I was a programmer before a journalist, but it was a few years apart. I was kind of a nerd in school and really got into BBS (bulletin board systems) at an early age. (This is before the Internet existed publicly.) Once I entered high school and was dissatisfied with my experience working at the school newspaper, I started my own underground paper. #
I also got into video with my friends as a teen, just messing around with an old video camera my parents had. All those years of just doing these things for fun/nerd lust really are paying off now. #
The point is, while you’re in school: DIY! Get your hands dirty in everything. Play with it. Understand it. And then specialize in the areas that you really have a natural talent. #
ICM: A similar discussion has revolved around another controversial topic – high-end vs. low-end video cameras and who needs to learn what in terms of shooting, editing, etc. We get questions from advisers often about what equipment they should purchase. What’s your advice in that area? #
Sullivan: Buy the best gear you can afford and focus on developing good storytelling and editing techniques. #
The current state of the Internet bandwidth is pretty prohibitive to publish extremely high end stuff and unless you have some broadcast TV partners or some means of distributing full quality, a lot of that detail gets lost in compression. #
When national broadband speed picks up (as in, REAL broadband, like most developed countries have, not 256k dsl or choked cable internet), then thatâ€™s another story, but given the current telecom monopolyâ€™s stranglehold, I donâ€™t see that changing anytime in the next two to five years. #
I donâ€™t think TV is the video model we should follow but we can definitely learn a lot from them in the workflow / quick turn / editing realm. So students, embrace any chance you can get to shadow a TV shooter. I learned a hell of a lot the few times Iâ€™ve done it. #
Donâ€™t get me wrong though, if you can afford it, get the great gear. I do think eventually weâ€™ll all need to move to high-end equipment but if itâ€™s a matter of getting one awesome camera versus four ok cameras, go with the four and work on your technical skills. Those donâ€™t really cost tens of thousands of dollars and usually end up costing you time and what could have been quality footage. #
And then once broadband or products like AppleTV take off, youâ€™ll be skilled and ready to do great high-end work. #
So the issue Iâ€™m much more concerned about is the lack of proper training, editing and opportunities for people to take gear out and fail. Failing while shooting and editing is part of the learning process. We need to realize that and allow staff resources to be devoted to it. Iâ€™ve seen so much reporter video that is a great effort but shouldnâ€™t see the light of day. Iâ€™ve also seen lots of â€˜high endâ€™ video that really needs a re-edit. #
Iâ€™m concerned about the bad experiences and bridges we may be burning with our audience over chasing a few hundred/thousand (depending on your site traffic) hits. What if half of those viewers get bored and decide not to click on your videos anymore? #
Our fundamental strengths as part of the â€˜mainstream mediaâ€™ is our brand and with that comes an expectation of reliability, relevance and quality. #
ICM: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing news journalists now that the “shift” to multimedia has taken place? #
Sullivan: The biggest (impossible) challenge seems to be learning and evolving as the medium is still evolving and growing. Like we spoke about with the ‘should every reporter be a programmer?’ conundrum, it’s hard to say which basket to put all your eggs in. We need to be nimble, relevant and interesting. We need to keep evolving. #
ICM: What advice would you give to college media outlets who wanted to get “ahead of the curve” to anticipate the future, instead of following the industry? #
Sullivan: I don’t exactly have a silver bullet. In general, focus on producing quality work, remaining relevant and interesting when/where/however the audience wants your content. Watch how people interact with newspapers, the Internet, TV, radio — every from of media — and use that information to choose your battles / stories / site features wisely. #
If you really want to get ahead of the curve, I have a feeling once uniform standards are developed for mobile platforms that industry will revolutionize everything the way the Internet changed print/tv/radio everyone’s habits. So jump on that train and ride it. #
ICM: You’ve made quite a name for yourself as a blogger taking a little different approach than others like Ryan Sholin, for instance. how did you arrive at the format you use, and what advice would you give to students who were looking to blog? #
Sullivan: My blog format evolved out of basically trying to save my sanity. I started off in the traditional format, doing a topical posts daily, but I really got addicted to RSS feeds. (I currently subscribe to 986 feeds.) And keeping up on those at least semi-daily takes a lot of time. So I couldn’t do that, post links and the longer topical diatribes and make sure I had clean clothes and a functioning car at the same time. So now I do the digests and little bits of opinion/snark with sparse topical posts. #
This summer I’m redesigning and restructuring my blog so I can be a better blogger (more transparency, more immediacy, more conversation, more resources). With the changes, I should be able to spend more time working on longer form pieces and at the same time, the links in my digests will hit the page/feeds immediately, instead of at 3 a.m. when I’m usually pulling things together. #
My advice for students would be to be yourself when blogging, link often and read a lot of other blogs. Be careful about what you say too; it will very likely come back to haunt you. #
ICM: Any other advice you’d like to give specifically to college journalists as they prepare for their careers? #
- Embrace every opportunity that’s humanly possible in college. Work at the college radio station. TV station. Newspaper. Start your own paper. Start your own blog or online publication. College is your best chance to experience everything, learn and fail without loosing a job or dignity.
- Embrace the “DIY” mentality in every aspect of your life. Make things happen if the current media environment isn’t your cup of tea. Bootstrap it and create your own publication/product.
- Always be generous with your gratitude to people who help you out along your career path. It will come back to help/haunt you if you don’t.
- Always be generous helping people out along your career path. It will come back to help/haunt you.
- Speak up in the newsroom. If the old boss man (or boss woman) is really out of touch, tell them (nicely). Your generation is more connected to the media than any before and will save journalism.
- Take business, entrepreneurship and marketing classes.
- Defend net neutrality, democracy and the freedom of information like your life depends on it. Because your livelihood does.
- Volunteer and get involved with one of the dozens of journalism organizations. It’s a great place to learn and I hate to say it but it’s a great chance to network, which will get you jobs. (I’m not a fan of the “X got a job because he knows Y” formula that runs rampant in most newsrooms. X should get the job because he’s way more skilled than Y. But if you’re equally skilled and X knows someone, they’ll always get the job over your paper resume. So get involved and share your skills with everyone else.)
- Buy YourName.com and put up a basic website. Even if it’s totally lame and basic. Just do it. And link to Journerdism.com and CollegeMediaInnovation.org
- Acknowledge that you may not ever work for your ‘dream paper’ or that they may be a very different animal by the time you get there. (I paraphrased this from something Rich Gordon, one of my Medill profs and a really cool guy, once said. It’s very true.)
- Always have a back up plan in case the ship sinks.
- Floss regularly.
Sullivan: The most recent project is, “Walks with Angels,” a story about two Haitian girls that came to the U.S. to get relatively common surgery they couldn’t get in their homeland. It’s a series of audio slideshows peppered with explanatory infographics. Throughout this project we battled with trying to make this a relevant, interesting story and not just ‘another story of a sick kid in a foreign country.’ The girls’ similar story arc and surprise really ending helped drive the narrative and made it pretty interesting. #
It was quite a challenge, especially working without using voice over, when most of the audio recorded was in Creole with a translator doing the translations live (while the story is being reported and photos being taken she was translating). Our team — Uma Sanghvi, Dianna Smith, Jennifer Podis, Justin Gilken, Steve Lopez and Margaret McKenzie — did a stupendous job though and we’ve received a lot of great feedback from the community. There’s also been a flood of donations to help other children in this situation. ##