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Shorthand or the Dictaphone, a 21st century dilemma 30 November 2008

Posted by jordanfarley in Shorthand.
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The merits of shorthand versus recording on audio devices have long been debated among journalism students and professional hacks alike. For previous generations shorthand was an essential skill due to the absence of portable recording devices, but for the current generation of journalists a device smaller than your average phone (or your phone itself) can be used to capture hours of audio, word for word, perfect for those once in a lifetime interviews.

Just this week the results of the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) convergence skills survey, announced at the NCTJ Journalism Skills Conference in Salford, revealed a clear concern among employers that traditional skills like shorthand were lacking in new recruits. Kim Fletcher, NCTJ chairman, says in his introduction to the findings that a worrying gap in the ability of recruits to write shorthand was reported, a skill which is “as vital as ever”, with 43% of employers in the survey highlighting shorthand as an area where there was a skills gap.

 

 “Shorthand notes offer an instantly accessible record of events that can be skimmed over in a matter of seconds rather than minutes” 

 

As far back as 1925 the Dictaphone company was spouting the advantages of Dictaphones over shorthand, however even today shorthand has several crucial benefits over recording devices, and these aren’t ever likely to change. Firstly shorthand is 100% mobile, you can take a shorthand notebook and pen pretty much anywhere, those skilled enough in shorthand can even use it on the move. It can be hard to record calls over a LAN line as arrangements must usually be made in advance, ruling out the ability to capture calls which come in out of the blue (although there is a service available in America that does solve this problem, at a cost). Recording devices are not legally allowed in UK courts so shorthand is your only choice there if you want accurate quotes and, as I have found, there are still people who feel uncomfortable being recorded for an interview.

Secondly shorthand carries much more weight as a legal document than a recording (which is usually inadmissible in court). This seems a little bit illogical to me as I would find it much easier to tamper with my own notes than doctor an audio recording, but as long as professional journalists are required to keep good quality written notes for up to five years for legal reasons they will have to make sure their shorthand is up to scratch.

Finally the biggest advantage of shorthand according to Denis Campbell, Observer sports reporter, is that it is so much faster to use than an audio recording. In an environment where rapid filing requirements are standard (such as at sports events), it isn’t practical for journalists to be rewinding audio devices and searching for that essential quote or bit of information. Shorthand notes offer an instantly accessible record of events that can be skimmed over in a matter of seconds rather than minutes.

 

“Those of us who have shorthand like to think that it is vital, but is it any more important than an ability to type fast enough for Twitter?”

 

Recording devices on the other hand have the obvious advantage that they can capture a conversation exactly, there’s no excuse for missing out on juicy quotes. The other crucial advantage of recording an interview is that not having to constantly look down at a notepad allows for a much more natural conversation, and usually a much better interview. Also, as Rick Waghorn told us in a recent lecture, “You can’t make a podcast out of a shorthand quote.” While this is a valid comment any journalist working in podcasts is likely to use professional recording equipment or invite guests into a recording studio if their comments are intended for broadcast.

It’s pretty clear from all this that neither practice should be favoured over the other. A notepad and pen is much more reliable than a digital recording device, which is subject to limitations of battery life and space, but only so long as your shorthand is up to scratch. I can tell you from experience that knowing the theory and using shorthand in a real interview are two very different things, and so far I am very glad I have had my digital recorder to fall back on.

Charlie Beckett says on his blog, “Those of us who have shorthand like to think that it is vital, but is it any more important than an ability to type fast enough for Twitter?” This might be confusing matters by bringing typing into the debate but his point is clear, with all manner of ways to take notes how do we decide which one is best? Ultimately it comes down to a combination of the lot of them, at least it better had or I am going to be very angry about all those 9 am shorthand classes.

Video courtesy of ltlnphngrphfrth1e6 under Creative Commons licence.

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Blogging platforms: the easy route to an audience? 22 November 2008

Posted by jordanfarley in Blogging Platforms, Search Engine Optimisation.
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lots of laptops

Attracting readers is crucial to the success of any blog. Last week I touched on the subject of building an audience through Search Engine Optimisation and participation in online communities, but what if I was to tell you there are blogging platforms out there right now which can all but guarantee a double digit audience from your very first post?

Hosting a blog on independent sites like blogger and wordpress is the most common way to create content for the web. Scott Karp has identified the some of the benefits of blogging for journalists: it allows us to publish content which you cannot publish elsewhere, it gives us the power and responsibility which comes with becoming our own editor and publisher, blogs can act as an online portfolio and crucially blogging gives us experience with technologies that are fast transforming the media as we know it.

The downside of blogging independently is that you have to fight for your audience. Professional journalists who blog have the backing of not only their name but a big media brand to help them attract readers, amateur journalists on the other hand do not have these crutches to fall back on. Building an audience can take months, if not years.

Becoming part of an online community can make or break a blog and this is exactly what big media blogging platforms like My Telegraph offer, instant access to an online community which all but guarantees an audience. The benefit is clear, as long as you post frequently (at least four times a week according to Shane Richmond), maintain a high standard and write for a niche you will have a successful blog on your hands. However the downside of allowing your blog to fall under the banner of The Telegraph is moderation. For obvious reasons hosts have to moderate the content which appears on their site and as a consequence can your work ever truly be considered your own?

Big media blogging platforms are also clearly inappropriate for the kind of blogs many people create. A blog suitable to a site like My Telegraph would likely be news or current affairs based, while many of the blogs the public create are more personal and often have little to do with the latest headlines. For journalists who blog this is not a problem, the remit of every journalist is to create content which is either interesting or relevant (preferably both), but a huge number of journalists publish blogs independently for good reason, freedom is everything in the world of opinion.

Perhaps it might be a good idea to set up our very own Cardiff University School of Journalism (JOMEC) blogging platform, but rather than an actual tool for creating blogs (which would be an impracticably huge undertaking) it could be a web page featuring links to the best of the work produced by JOMEC students. It would create an instant community and open up the content we are creating to the rest of the world. If success online depends on being part of the conversation what better way to get yourself heard than shouting with 100 voices instead of one.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) Director Kevin Smith 20 November 2008

Posted by jordanfarley in Uncategorized.
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As a long time Kevin Smith fan I went into Zack and Miri a little bit worried that Smith’s unique use of language might have been a little watered down for the Judd Apatow generation of film fans. Boy was I wrong. Despite starring Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, Justin Long and Gerry Bednob – all veterans of Apatow productions – Smith does not compromise and in fact probably delivers the filthiest movie of his career.

Rogen stars as Zack, a typical lovable looser role for the Knocked Up star, who lives with fellow lovable looser Miri (Banks). The pair are struggling to make a living and find themselves in particularly dire straits when their utilities are shut down the day before thanksgiving. This also happens to be the day of Zack and Miri’s high school reunion, where Zack meets gay porn star Brandon (Long) in perhaps the best scene of the film. This gives Zack the idea which could save the pair from poverty, make a porno starring themselves – who wouldn’t pay to see two old classmates fuck?
The plot is threadbare and predictable unfortunately, will onscreen sex between best friends Zack and Miri blossom into something more? Of course it will, the outcome is never in doubt, but that’s not where Zack and Miri shines. Smith’s dialogue is razor sharp and, along with Clerks 2, shows a return to form we were all hoping for after the disappointing Jersey Girl.
However this type of comedy will not be for everyone, the language is foul at the best of times and some of the amateur porn scenes cut a little close to the bone, it’s about as close to porn as you can get in a mainstream movie without actually showing anything.
The entire cast is excellent, a sweeping statement I know but true. Rogen is playing a role we’ve seen him in many times before, but the script he is given to play with helps him raise his game well above his performance in this years Pineapple Express. Banks (seen recently as Laura Bush in W.) is also excellent, though I never really bought that someone so beautiful and endearing would ever find herself in such a situation. The supporting cast deliver a lot of laughs and I was particularly pleased to see Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson, Smith regulars, in roles different enough from their characters of Jay and Randal to make me wonder why more directors don’t cast these two brilliant comic actors.
My one problem with the film is a problem I have had with almost every Apatow production to date (and unfortunately several of Smith’s films as well), they all seem to be a little bit misogynistic to me. From the 40-Year Old Virgin, through Superbad and Chasing Amy beautiful women, who would undoubtedly never give the men portrayed in these films the time of day in real life, constantly fall for the lovable looser, a substitute for the audience’s sense of worthwhile. It is this sort of male wish-fulfillment that makes me cringe when I see it on screen, it just doesn’t ring true and sadly seems to be the starting point for a lot of modern comedy scripts.
But having said that I loved Zack and Miri, the laughs come almost non-stop in the first half and although they drop off in the second, thanks to the melodramatic developments in Zack and Miri’s relationship, the film will keep you entertained throughout. Also be sure to sit through the end credits for a wonderful coda.

Max Payne (2008) Director John Moore 16 November 2008

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Best trailer of the year so far?

I have to declare myself an interested party in the case of Max Payne. I am a huge fan of the 2001 computer game and remember fondly getting it the day it came out way back when and being blown away by the magnificent slow-mo gun play, but more so by the game’s wonderful film-noir atmosphere, the gripping plot and the brilliant realisation of Max through extensive voice over narration. In fact the game was so effortlessly cinematic at times it’s hard to imagine how an adaptation on the big screen could get it wrong, and while Moore’s Payne isn’t a complete failure it certainly isn’t the adaptation fans were hoping for.

Mark Wahlberg stars as the eponymous Payne, an NYPD homicide detective who’s career nose dived to the bottom of the barrel after the murder of his wife and child. After a chance encounter with Quantum of Solace Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko ends up in her grusome demise Max finds a new lead in his quest to solve the case consuming his life, a new drug on the streets called Valkyr. Also along for the ride are Beau Bridges as BB Hensley, ex-partner of Max’s father and now working as head of security for the Aesir Pharmaceuticals company, Mila Kunis as Mona Sax, out to avenge the death of her sister Kurylenko and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges as Jim Bravura, the internal affairs agent investigating Max’s case.

The plot is relatively simple and follows the main developments in the game pretty admirably. There are some pretty big changes (primarily the hallucinations of winged creatures that the valkyr addicts see in the film version – presumably because they look cool) but the biggest loss in the transition is the voice over. Admittedly voice overs in films are generally not a good idea but it works so well in the game it’s hard to imagine it falling flat in an over stylised film like this anyway.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me in watching Payne was the real lack of any decent action set pieces. By my count there were two: a shoot out with a SWAT team in the Aesir building (which comes almost an hour into the film) and the climactic shoot out in the same building. For an adaptation based on a game whose main selling point was bullet time shoot outs it’s almost unforgivable that the film should be so lacking in quality action scenes.

Never the less Moore nails the film noir atmosphere of the game pretty much perfectly, the snow covered New York looking more beautiful than the game’s creators could ever hope to achieve. The film is technically well made with some nice visual flourishes but it’s nothing special and little more than an audience would expect from a big budget, glossy action film in the era of the music video director.

The performances are unfortunately all below par. Wahlberg, an actor who I like but can say he has been good in only two films (Boogie Nights and The Departed), is all frowns and no emotion. He looks the part but never delivers on what should have been an emotionally charged portrayal of a man on the cusp of avenging his wife and child. Beau Bridges rings it in, as does Chris Bridges while Mila Kunis was so improbably mis-cast it’s no wonder the role of Sax, prominent in the game, has been reduced to all but nothing here. The film also has a supporting cast of Hollywood bit players Chris O’Donnell (Batman and Robin really ruined his career) and Donal Logue as well as a bizarre cameo from singer Nelly Furtado.

Although not an outright failure Max Payne fails to deliver on the potential it had in bucket fulls. It was never going to be The Godfather, or even Mad Max for that matter, but had Moore and first time screen writer Beau Thorne added in a satisfactory action quotient and a decent voice over they might have had the first truly successful video game adaptation on their hands. As it is Max Payne stands out as an achievement in style over substance and further proof that maybe Hollywood should finally reconsider adapting games for the big screen.

Search engine optimisation and the battle for journalistic integrity 16 November 2008

Posted by jordanfarley in Search Engine Optimisation, Social Media, Uncategorized.
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Remember Google owe you nothing. This guy’s a legend.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), now there’s a piece of internet jargon if ever I heard one. Any journalist, whether it be the young upstart or the grizzled professional has to be acutely aware of it nowadays or run the risk of losing a piece of finely tuned copy to the web’s saturated search engines.

But what the heck is it? Put simply SEO is a way of writing for search engines (or to be more precise for real people on the other end of search engines) that will mean your story is given a suitably high ranking in the list of hits returned after a reader has committed a certain combination of words to Google’s magic box of web simplicity.

Writing for the reader on the other end of the search engine wouldn’t be so bad if journalists only had to consider SEO when writing headlines and teasers, but search engines generally look at the first 100 words or more of a page when assessing relevance and this is an intrusion too far.

Technology has shaped journalistic practice before. As Steve Lohr pointed out over at The New York Times, the inverted pyramid style of modern news stories was partly necessitated by the fact that the telegram was an expensive and unreliable way to transmit the news, and so all the important points of a story were brought to the front should the rest be lost to the wire. However this style was a natural evolution of the way journalists were writing already. Packing the early sections of your copy (or the entire piece) with as many Google friendly words as possible on the other hand is not. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before search engines routinely scan entire articles (if they aren’t doing so already) to assess relevance in the nanoseconds they are able to scan headlines today, and when that happens will the online journalist be expected to tailor their entire copy for Mr Google bot?

It is important to point out that a lot of the considerations static news sites like the BBC or The Guardian have to make for SEO do not apply to blogs. Whereas big media must work on tailoring copy for keyword searches their websites are already considered ‘important’ enough by Google to be worth linking to. Blogs on the other hand do not have this luxury. In order for a blogger to get their voice heard by Google participation in social media is key, link building in particular. However, even more so for the amateur blogger than the professional hack, good content is what will get you noticed. People will link to what they deem to be interesting, relevant and informative, this is the base on which web journalism has to rest as, even with all the best SEO practices the web has to offer, if the story offers the reader nothing new it will simply be discarded.

Quality copy must always be valued above the demands of Google and although compromises might be necessary to survive that’s no reason why the machine should come before man.

 

Video Courtesy of http://www.sagerock.com