Communications in the digital age — plus other nerdery

April 15, 2014

Eight apps to take for a spin

NPR’s MediaShift site now has something called EdShift — “moving journalism education forward” — that’s definitely worth a look.

A recent article has the clickbait title of eight digital tools every journalist should try. Of the eight, I’ve have indeed tried Videolicious and came away impressed.

The others cover story telling, data crunching, publishing, communication and more. Of the bunch, Pop looks the most interesting.

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April 10, 2014

Disney's Story app may be the easiest way to create stories

I’ve been exploring a number of iOS apps lately that allow you to put pictures, video, text and music together to create a story. These are aimed at consumers looking to tell stories about their vacations or their children’s birthdays, but there is nothing stopping an enterprising journalist from using them to tell a news story.

The latest to come to my attention is from Disney, and aptly named Story. Of all the apps I’ve tried, this one was the easiest and most intuitive. I had only a couple of false starts before I was able to create and share a story with all the elements, including a theme.

You gather up pictures and videos, as usual, and have the option of placing captions on them. You can also use text on separate pages to keep the narrative moving.

There is a choice of several tunes to play in the background. There are also several themes, but unfortunately for journalists most of them are based on Disney movies. Luckily, there are some plainer themes to choose from. Also, the music tends to be upbeat, which might not be appropriate if your story is about something serious.

You can share your stories in the usual social-media ways, but if you want to embed it on your website it’s best to use email. That way you get a link to it on the Story website. And if you sign in, there is an option to share by using an embed code.

There are pros and cons with Story: it’s really simple to use, but, well, it’s Disney.

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March 30, 2014

Random is a great way to explore good reading

There are two ways to go when it comes to the news — a laser focus on on topic or random discovery.

Apps like Zite, Prismatic and Flipboard do a good job of discovery, using algorithms to bring you stories the software has learned that you find interesting. But now there’s an app called Random that takes this concept a step further.

After firing it up, you’re presented with half a dozen coloured tiles representing a variety of topics. Chances are one of them will tweak your curiosity. Tap it and discover the article, which is guaranteed to be worth reading — it’s not totally random, after all.

If you don’t like any of the topics, tap the white tile in the middle and get a different selection. As you start exploring the subjects, Random gets an idea of what you like and presents you with these subjects more often. Fortunately, though, the app doesn’t get carried away — you can still find yourself looking at topics that might never have occurred to you.

As an example, I went on a bit of a tear with articles about science fiction. As long as I chose this topic, Random was happy to give me more. But today, we’re on a clean slate with submarines and Bill Murray on tap.

Overall, Random is a beautifully designed app with a seemingly endless supply of good reading. But keep one eye on the clock. You might find you’ve spent more random time than you expected.

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March 16, 2014

Steller tells stories with text, photos and videos, but not audio so much

There seems to be no end to new apps in the iPhone App Store designed to help tell stories — and that’s good news for journalists looking for ways to innovate.

The latest to make a splash is Steller, which was given a coveted Editor’s Choice. Note, first of all that the spelling is not a mistake. The app is a “teller” of stories that does so in “stellar” fashion — or at least that’s what I get out of it.

So let’s fire up Steller and see what we can see. The home page defaults to a storyline view that consists of stories about how to use the app. They’re nicely done. They not only provide fine teaching tools, but also provide fine examples you can emulate.

When you find a story that looks interesting, give it a tap to bring it into focus. Then swipe from right to left to turn the pages. The page-turning effect reminds me of Flipboard turned sideways.

The cover page is typically a photo with the title on it. As you flip through, you’ll find more pages like these, along with some that have videos — also with text. Missing for the most part is audio unless the video happens to have sound with it.

The lack of sound could be deal-breaker for some people since it’s a handy way to provide narration. A similar app with good audio support is Explory, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.

On the other hand, Steller developers have promised plenty of updates, so enhanced sound capabilities could be coming soon.

Also on the home page are collections — basically story categories covering subjects such as food, music and the outdoors. If you “follow” these categories, they show up in the storyline.

Moving on from the home page, you can find yet more stories in the Discover section. This is divided between Editor’s Picks and Featured Authors, although it’s not clear how a story gets picked or featured. Still, it’s a good option for those who like to explore.

Other sections include Notifications, Profile and Drafts, but the most interesting of all is New Story. This is where Steller reveals its real power.

You create stories by choosing between three types of content (text, video or photo), then deciding on on a layout. Once that’s done you can edit the text or tweak the photo or video. The layouts all look professional so it’s almost impossible to create an ugly story.

You can keep going until you’re finished adding pages, then decide on how you want to publish. The story can go into collections you’ve already made or into a new one. You’ll then see it in the timeline and in your profile. If your story is not ready for prime time, you can save it as a draft.

If you publish something that later turns out to be embarrassing, just navigate to your profile and tap either the garbage can to delete it or the pencil to edit it.

Now you might be wondering about the point of publishing a story in Steller, which — let’s face it — is not exactly a household name. At least not yet. Fortunately, there is also the option of sharing via texting, email, Twitter or Facebook. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way of embedding a story on a website. Let’s hope that’s also in the pipeline.

Overall, I’m impressed with Steller. It’s an easy way to create great-looking stories. Updates I’d like to see are improved audio options and the ability to embed in a website or blog.

Steller has the disadvantage of being one just one of many apps that tell stories combining photos, videos and text. So it remains to be seen whether it will be able to break out from the crowd.

We may be at stage similar to where videos were at a couple of years ago. It wasn’t until Vine came along that one of them was able to gain some real traction. I’m keeping my eye on both Steller and Explory to see if one of them becomes the next Vine.

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March 1, 2014

People don't pay for news because they can't afford it

Much has been written about the decline in fortunes of newspapers, and of the news industry in general. One important point that has been lost in the shuffle is the decline of the middle class.

There was a time when it was normal for a family to subscribe to the local daily newspaper. It was cheap and chock full of a variety of content sure to please everyone. Even the kids could fight over who got first dibs on the comics.

But prices have gone up and a Canadian government report finds that incomes have stagnated. Worse, the middle class is actually shrinking — as MoneySense columnist Gail Vaz-Oxlade points out.

As someone who was recently booted out of the middle class when my place of employment, the Kamloops Daily News, shut down, I can tell you that one of the first things I did was look at my budget — how much I was spending and where I could make savings.

Suddenly, newspapers became a luxury. With tax, the Saturday edition of The Vancouver Sun costs $4 in “outlying” areas. When it becomes a choice between the paper and milk for my family, there is no contest.

Not surprisingly, the Globe and Mail no longer even bothers trying to sell to people who make less than $100,000.

The other thing that got cut was cable TV, which in this area pretty much means all TV since over-the-air is almost non-existent. If I want to watch local news, I have to find it on the Internet. An increasing number of people trying to get by in today’s economy have cut cable and gone with Netflix or other alternatives. That trend can’t be encouraging for local news shows.

Unfortunately, with many companies seeing their employees as little more than line items on a spreadsheet, we will continue to see fewer people willing or able to spend money on news.

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February 22, 2014

Explory capable of creating audio slideshows and more

For journalists — or anyone else — looking to create audio slideshows, the software standard has long been Soundslides. This app has a well-earned reputation for getting the job done, especially among those of us who don’t have time for a steep learning curve.

But it has a couple disadvantages. First is the cost: $39.95 for the basic version and $69.95 for the “plus” version. I have nothing against developers making a living, but with money increasingly scarce in the news industry, and the middle class under threat, anything that saves a few dollars is welcome.

Another disadvantage is that the files must be stored on server space owned by the user. Cost shouldn’t be a huge obstacle if you’re supported by an employer, but unfortunately it often comes into play. And it’s definitely a barrier if you’re on your own.

Because of this, I have been searching for a free alternative to Soundslides. That search fruitless was fruitless until recently with the discovery of an iPhone and iPad app called Explory. The name may be a bit lacking in style, but it packs a lot of features.

What impressed me most is that you can combine pictures, videos, voiceover, music and text into one presentation. I have yet to see another program that does all five.

This means means you can put photos and narration together to make the equivalent of an audio slideshow. The music and text are an nice bonus. And the video — well, that opens all kinds of creative opportunities.

Still, it’s one thing to have features and another to actually use them. As it turns out, creating “explories” is simple. First you add photos, videos and music. Or you can capture photos and video from with in the app. Second, you can record a narration. Third, you can add or edit text on an image. And fourth, you can set image duration, sound levels and other properties.

Images in the storyline are rearranged by tapping and dragging. You can add optional details by dropping one image on top of another. Plus, you can have a music track start on the image of your choice.

The app’s Help file is well worth looking into as the possibilities for creation are extensive to say the least.

On top of all this, a big advantage of Explory is the nice price of free. You are asked to sign in if you want to share your work with other Explory users, but otherwise there doesn’t appear to be a catch.

But what if you want to embed your story on a website? You can do that, too. If you sign in and post your presentation to Explory, it will show up on the website. From there, sharing gives you the option of an iframe embed code.

The only real problem I see with Explory is that it is one of several similar apps vying for our affections, some of which don’t appear to have a business plan other than hope to become popular and figure out something later. So, while your Explory creations will work great for now, it’s hard to know whether they’ll be around a year or two from now.

Despite this reservation, Explory is definitely worth exploring. The tools are all there for anyone with a story to tell.

Update: Another reservation is that all your content has to be in your iPhone or iPad. This is not helpful if you have a bunch of great photos in your camera that you want to use. Luckily, there is an article at Giga Om that covers all the bases on how to transfer those pictures.

Update 2: Peter Goldie, one of the founders at Explory, wrote to clear up a couple of points: First, they do indeed have a business plan involving payment for extra storage, and have every intention of staying around for the long haul. Second, the company has plans to make it easier for users to access photos from services such as Facebook, Flickr, Dropbox and Google+.

Below is an example of an Explory story called Pizza Night:

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February 17, 2014

The Internet needs an editor, and Hemingway is a good first step

Can an app really improve your writing? That’s the idea behind Hemingway — a sort of virtual editor now available online.

Language Log had a little fun with it by pointing out that Ernest Hemingway himself would have had a tough time satisfying the app.

So I tried running a few paragraphs from from newsonaut through the editor. Keeping an open mind, I was able to learn a few things.

Hemingway gives an evaluation of readability in terms of grade level. If someone with a Grade 7 education would find it easy to read, that’s good.

The app bases its judgment on five criteria. It doesn’t like sentences that are hard to read or, worse, very hard to read. How much harder than hard does a sentence have to be in ordered to be considered very hard? It’s all explained, but since the app is critical of adverbs, I have to wonder how it can tolerate the use of “very” — regarded by many as the most useless adjective of all.

It also advocates for simple phrases and limiting the passive voice.

In some cases, Hemingway liked my writing and in others it raised red flags. It wasn’t enough to make me want to make changes, but I did consider the criticism food for thought.

I would like to think of Hemingway as a solid first step toward something we need a lot more of on the Internet — editing. These days, anyone can publish. The downside is that many writers are publishing without the benefit of being edited. I’ve seen many long and complex articles by well-intentioned writers whose work might have received more attention if an editor had been allowed to give it a good massage.

Hemingway has a long way to go before it can take the place of a human editor, but it at least recognizes the importance of editing in a world where this function seems to have been forgotten.

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February 16, 2014

Sharing without really caring

This is a little scary for anyone who has cheered the large number of retweets received by an article. From The Verge:

Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, which measures real-time traffic for sites like Upworthy, dropped a bomb: “We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading,”

Entire careers have been built on promoting social media — and now we find out that many people are retweeting stuff they haven’t even read? This may not be entirely new behaviour, though. Many times people have told me that they leaf through a newspaper reading only the headlines.

And there is still hope for tweets. Studies have also found that people are more likely to link to an article if they have read it all the way through. It seems to be all or nothing, and a new metric called “attention minutes” may help us understand this phenomenon. Be sure to read the whole article to learn more.

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Do journalists really need another app to help them tell stories?

When I first read about this new app called Pop, I figured it was just another fun way for people share pictures, videos and GIFs. Turns out we’re supposed to take it a lot more seriously. From Nieman Journalism Lab we learn that the app is designed to be yet another new way for journalists to tell stories.

I certainly would like to see Pop succeed. I can’t help but feel, though, that if you have a compelling story to tell, you’ll find a way to tell it that is compelling. Finding the right tools (including apps) for the job is important but secondary.

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Apple might have some big surprises up its sleeve

From the San Francisco Chronicle, a couple of rumours we can sink our teeth into:

But Apple is thinking bigger. Much bigger. A source tells The Chronicle that (Apple) met with Tesla CEO Elon Musk in Cupertino last spring around the same time analysts suggested Apple acquire the electric car giant.

And from the same article:

The newspaper has also learned that Apple is heavily exploring medical devices, specifically sensor technology that can help predict heart attacks. Led by Tomlinson Holman, a renowned audio engineer who invented THX and 10.2 surround sound, Apple is exploring ways to predict heart attacks by studying the sound blood makes at it flows through arteries.

Apple has about $160 billion sitting in the bank, plus the company is highly profitable. This would be the perfect time to take a chance on branching out into something entirely new.

In any case, it sure beats reading about those ridiculous iWatch rumours.

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