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    Tuesday Tool: Capture, annotate and save screenshots in a snap

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    Tuesday Tool: Capture, annotate and save screenshots in a snap

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    This one’s for the online journalists out there. How often have you needed a quick screenshot to illustrate an article, or for your own records?

    Usually this means taking a snapshot, saving it, then opening it in an illustration application, adding text and marks, cropping it and saving it again. It’s all a bit time-consuming.

    No more. Not if you’re using Awesome Screenshot.

    Awesome Screenshot is an all-in-one screenshot capture and annotate extension. With it you can take a snapshot of the entire web page you’re looking at, just the visible portion in your browser or a selected area of the website. Then you can notes including text, circles, arrows and boxes can be added to the snapshot and saved to your desktop or uploaded to the web.

    Awesome Screenshot is available for Chrome as well as for Firefox 4 and seriously simplifies the tiresome process of capturing and annotating screenshots.


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    10 tips for better writing

    media writing

    10 tips for better writing

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Many years working as an editor and writer have taught me one thing: Anyone can write but not everyone can write well.

    This doesn’t mean writing technique can’t be improved. Writing is like exercise: the more you practice the better you become. Of course not everyone will be the next Tolstoy, Hemingway or Margaret Atwood, no matter how much they practice, but with time anyone can easily become a better than average writer.

    Great writing is not simply about how many words you can string together. It is all about how well you put those words together and, in many cases, how many words you don’t have to say to get your message across.

    There are countless ways to improve your technique but here I list just ten things that, if done regularly, could make all the difference to your writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a journalist, blogger or PR writer, practice makes for better writing.

    1 – Plan

    Unless you’re writing a personal journal don’t just start writing. You don’t have to have an entire storyboard planned out before hitting your keyboard but you do need to know what you plan to say. Why are you writing this article? What point are you trying to make? Without knowing where you are going with your article you’re not only likely to wander off course but you’re also going to waste time as you write and rewrite it as you think of new things to say.

    2 – Know your audience

    Who are you writing for? Are you talking to experts in their field or consumers with no prior knowledge of a product? If you’re writing for business partners it’s safe to assume they have some inside information and understand industry jargon. If you’re writing for the mass market it’s safer to assume no prior knowledge and explain everything clearly.

    3 – Answer all the questions

    Don’t assume readers have inside knowledge. Does your article answer the who, why, where, how, what questions? Not all articles will have all of these elements but if they do then make absolutely sure that they are answered. In the era of the Internet, for example, your article may be read by readers around the world. Do they know where such-and-such a street is, or do they know who person X is? Never, ever leave a reader with a question (something our local newspaper is expert at), it just frustrates them. Ask yourself: “What would I want to know if I was reading this?”

    4 – Watch the jargon

    Avoid all jargon unless it is impossible to do so. Jargon may be understood by part of your audience but it can just as easily alienate readers unfamiliar with the terms. Never assume that readers understand acronyms or industry-specific terms, no matter how commonplace they are. The extra couple of words required to explain the issue will pay off by removing any cause for doubt.

    3 – Write for readers

    Writing is about communicating with readers. Long words and clever metaphors might make you feel pleased with yourself but how do they help the reader? All the cleverness and insight in the world is worthless if the reader is bored, confused or uncertain of what you are saying.

    5 – Short paragraphs

    The best writing is short and concise. Keep your paragraphs short and packed with information. Each paragraph should ideally contain just a single point. This may be done in one sentence or five sentences, but resist the urge to over-explain or cover too much in each paragraph. Short paragraphs make it easier for the mind to absorb information because they are manageable chunks.

    6 – Short sentences

    Short sentences are equally important. Never write a three line sentence when a single-line one will do. For the same reason as short paragraphs make reading easier, short sentences make it easier to follow the argument. Each sentence should have a single point.

    7 – Simplify

    Never use a long word (or jargon) when a shorter word or phrase will do. Never write acquire when buy will do. Never write utilise when use says the same thing. Long words make for harder reading and may confuse readers.

    8 – Be specific about details

    Always be specific about what you are saying: “Most people think this candidate is the best” is not as strong as “90 percent of people think this candidate is the best”. Avoid generalisations such as “this new product is 33 percent faster” without saying what it is faster than. “The phone is available in various colours” is not as effective as saying “the phone is available with a black, white or silver case”.

    9 – Write as you speak

    You probably don’t speak to your friends with words such as problematize or end-to-end solution, so why write like that? Long, academic words may sound clever but they can be ambiguous and confusing to readers. If you write the way you speak chances are that you will be better understood. This doesn’t mean that you should pepper your writing with slang but avoid being overly formal.

    10 – Avoid unnecessary words

    Good writing is free of excess words. Mark Twain once famously wrote: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” When you’ve finished writing read your work through and remove unnecessary words. Even if you have to rework it sightly to accommodate these changes it will undoubtedly make your writing clearer.

    10 – Revise and rewrite

    Re-read your writing. It’s obvious but often overlooked in the rush to publish. Look for words that are unnecessary, long sentences that can be broken up and paragraphs that can be simplified. Ask yourself: are their any questions left unanswered? Is it clear what I am saying, where or what this is about and who is involved? Better still, have someone else read your writing and ask them if it is clear.

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    Will the world be worse off if e-books fail? Yes, says Margaret Atwood


    Will the world be worse off if e-books fail? Yes, says Margaret Atwood

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    In a recent interview published on the Globe and Mail site, author Margaret Atwood was asked: Will the world be worse off if e-books fail? In typical style Atwood responded:

    Well, first let us picture what kind of event might lead to that: 1. Solar flares, which melt all the e-communication services. 2. Widespread plague, which is going to kill anyone running the companies that make them. So that being the case, I would say yes! That the world will be considerably worse off if, the next morning, you wake up and nobody’s reading anything on e-readers because the event that will have caused that is horrific!

    Underneath this seemingly flippant remark Atwood suggests what many people are starting to come to terms with: e-books are here to stay, whether authors, publishers and readers like it or not. It will take a natural disaster to change this.

    It’s also the subject of much of this interview in which Atwood argues that e-books may well encourage youngsters to read because they are seen as “cool” and ultimately contribute to people reading more.

    You can follow Margaret Atwood on Twitter (@margaretatwood) or on her blog.

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    Twitter Wire: Atwood on e-books, The Economist on new formats and Murdoch’s Daily


    Twitter Wire: Atwood on e-books, The Economist on new formats and Murdoch’s Daily

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Seen something worth reading? Email me.

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    Morning coffee and a media news round-up


    Morning coffee and a media news round-up

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Time to kick off the day with a quick whip-around of the stories making the headlines this morning. First up, online surpasses print. In case you missed it yesterday, online ad revenues and readership exceeded print for this first time in 2010. This is in the US where the Pew Research Centre found that the majority of people surveyed got their news online rather than from a printed newspaper. Newspaper ad revenue for the 2010 year fell a hefty 46% to around $22 billion while online ad revenue hit $25 billion for the year.

    Next, tablet PCs are apparently not yet a real replacement for newspapers. The UK’s Telegraph is reporting findings that run contrary to the current tablet PC hype saying that its iPad app is being used only when readers don’t actually have access to a printed newspaper. The Telegraph reports that “on average the Telegraph iPad app was being used only seven times a month, when users … were unable to buy a paper. The devices were being left at home or at work – not being carried everywhere.” This may well be a temporary scenario but is nonetheless interesting as most news publishers have been hoping that devices such as the iPad were going to finally provide a real platform for the future of news.

    The Louse & the Flea is reporting that Neutral reporting makes for foggy thinking. An intriguing new report has found that neutral reporting often left readers bewildered. The report from Ohio University found that readers tended to doubt their own ability to determine the truth in politics after reading an article that simply lists competing claims without offering any idea of which side is right.

    So, what is like to actually rely on Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily iPad app for your news? Ad Age’s Simon Dumenco spent a month with The Daily and now has some tips for News Corp. on what they are doing right and, mostly, wrong. Overall Dumenco is mostly underwhelmed by The Daily and finds it “erratic and unfocused” and prompting him to urge the publication to “stand for something, damn it!”.

    Finally, the debate over the Financial Time’s subscriber numbers rages on. When the Financial Times released its latest subscriber numbers earlier this year, showing that the company topped 200,000 digital subscribers for the first time, there was furious debate over what the numbers actually meant The latest contribution came early in the week from Reuters’ Felix Salmon who argues that the focus on digital successes at Pearson’s flagship daily actually masked the ongoing decline in print subscribers.

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    When all you need is a great ampersand


    When all you need is a great ampersand

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Sometimes all it takes is one character to turn a plain piece of text into a great one. And that one character is the ampersand.

    Here in South Africa think of the iconic Mail&Guardian brand, for example. Take away the & and you have nothing special.

    Not all ampersands are made equal though. Very often you find a font you like for a project and it’s only later,when you finally need an ampersand, that you discover a character that looks like it fell off a truck on the way to a scrap dealer’s yard.It’s hideous and completely out of proportion with the rest of your chosen font.

    In the world of print it’s relatively straight forward to style the ampersand using a different font.

    In the world of web type, fortunately, it’s also becoming relatively easy to do the same, so long as you have a great selection of ampersands to choose from, such as these:

    Which is where the Open Source Ampersands project comes in handy. As its name suggests Open Source Ampersands is a collection of freely available open source ampersand characters. Each of the ampersands is provided as a single character in a number of different formats and also includes an example of the font in use.

    If you know your way around CSS stylesheets then it’s pretty simple to add any of the fonts to your site. If you’re new to CSS and fonts then open the demo file in a text editor, copy the section marked into your own HTML file, and then add <span class=”openamp”>&</span> to each instance of your ampersand. It’s a simple but clever idea.

    If you’re interested in learning more about using fonts on your web pages then it’s worth reading some of these: Use the best available ampersand (the article that inspired Open Source Ampersands), CSS @ ten and How to use custom fonts. These are just a few of many sites that will help you on your way to using better fonts on your website.

    In the coming weeks I hope to finally write up my own guide to using fonts (in plain, non-technical English). Join me on Twitter or Facebook to be among the first to know when that is published.

    Do you know of any other great font resources? Email me or post them in the comments and I’ll try and give them some coverage.


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    Grammar-phone: A metaphor staves off loneliness


    Grammar-phone: A metaphor staves off loneliness

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    This made me smile this morning. Sparks song Metaphor, from their Hello Young Lovers album, is exactly what it says it is: A song about metaphors. No masquerading here. It also has a catchy tune and offers sage, entertaining advice on the benefits of using metaphors correctly, including such pearls: “Use them wisely, use them well, and you’ll never know the hell of loneliness”.

    This live performance is, if anything, better than the album version I have in my collection.

    And remember, “Chicks dig, D-I-G, metaphors”.

    Sparks is an American band formed in Los Angeles in 1970 by brothers Ron and Russell Mael. The band started out life in 1968 as Halfnelson but renamed themselves in 1970, apparently at the suggestion of Albert Grossman, most famous as Bob Dylan’s manager for eight years. Grossman had said that they reminded him of the Marx Brothers and should call themselves the Sparks Brothers. Ultimately they only retained the Sparks name. Until the release of Hello Young Lovers I confess I had never heard of the band.

    Do you know any other great songs with a grammar theme? Tell me about them in the comments.


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    Modern journalist: Using advanced search to make the most of Twitter


    Modern journalist: Using advanced search to make the most of Twitter

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Twitter is fast becoming the go-to place for breaking news. If it happens in the world it’s probably on Twitter, somewhere. Which is all well and good considering there are in excess of 200 million Twitter accounts registered, but as a journalist how can you follow 100 million users just to keep on top of potential big news stories?

    And yet, Twitter can be a valuable source of information, links, sources and insights. If you know how to use it to its full potential.

    This is where Twitter’s advanced search features come into play. With a bit of clever searching and filtering journalists can tap into this huge resource and, with luck, pull out a few gems. It doesn’t matter if you’re just monitoring local news (geotagging is an increasingly popular feature of Twitter) or looking for a source for a story, advanced searching can narrow down your search massively.

    There are two ways of tapping into Twitter’s database: The easiest is to use the Twitter Advanced Search page, fill in couple of parameters and cross your fingers.

    Alternatively, it’s worth spending a bit of time learning the various search operators and use those. Here’s a simple guide to scratching beneath the surface of Twitter.

    Know what you’re looking for

    Knowing what it is you’re hoping to find significantly increases your chances when searching Twitter. Without a good idea of what you’re looking for it quickly becomes the proverbial needle in a haystack.

    Simple search

    Looking for a person’s name, a place or a hash tag (something that looks like #keyword) is pretty simple. This is the default search: Enter what you’re looking for in the search box on Twitter.

    Specific phrases

    Taking it a step further you can look for combinations of words. A search for “Trevor Manuel, for example, will search for the specific phrase “Trevor Manuel”. Without the quote marks it would return results that included both “Trevor” and “Manuel” but not necessarily as a phrase.

    Find this or that

    If you want search for either of two words you use the “OR” operator. So a search for ANC OR Julius would return results that included either of these two words, or both.

    Find this but not that

    You don’t always want every single instance of a word or phrase. To exclude a particular word or phrase you can use the “-” operator. So a search for beer -root would find instances of beer but not those referring to rootbeer.

    From me to you

    Perhaps you want to find tweets from someone, or to someone. The format to find messages posted by someone on Twitter is from:media_hack. So long as you know the username (@media_hack) you can find the tweets we posted. Of course, this is the same as looking at our Twitter feed so it’s not that impressive, but combined with other operators it has a lot more potential.

    Similarly, if you’re looking for messages posted to someone you just need their Twitter username: to:media_hack will find tweets directed at us. A good example of this are tweets posted to CNN.

    A variation on this is the @username search which lists tweets that mention a user rather than being directed at them specifically. Compare the @cnn results with those that are directed at CNN.

    Close to home

    Looking for something or someone with a specific geographic location? Most Twitter applications now have the ability to include locations along with a user’s Tweets. One way to use this is to simply add near:location to your search. So a search for earthquake near:brisbane should return Tweets mentioning earthquakes from users in Brisbane. It’s worth looking at Twitter’s guide to search operators for ideas on how geographic searches can be refined even further, including adding a distance from a specific place.

    It’s a date

    Similarly to adding a geographic location to a search you can also refine your Twitter searches using dates. The main operators here are “since” and “until”. A search for earthquake since:2010-03-27 will find mentions of earthquakes after March 27 2010 (the format is year-month-date). And a search for earthquake until:2010-03-27 will find mentions of earthquakes before March 27 2010.

    The extras

    There are a few other ways of filtering search results to make them relevant. Perhaps the most useful of these is the “links” operator. Searching for earthquake video filter:links will return results that not only mention both words but also include links. In this case there are many tweets with links to videos posted on YouTube that document earthquakes.

    Another option is to add a smiley (or emoticon) to searches. A search for movie 🙂 would return Tweets that the word movie and have a “positive” attitude. Similarly a 🙁 would return results with a negative attitude. It’s crude but with the right filtering and some tweaking results can be rewarding.

    Photo credit: Newsroom panorama by victoriapeckham on Flickr.com.
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    Google grant to boost digital journalism in Africa, Europe, Middle East


    Google grant to boost digital journalism in Africa, Europe, Middle East

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Providing new opportunity for Africa media workers, Google has announced a $2.7 million (R18.8m)fund to promote innovation in digital journalism in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

    The grant, which was awarded to the Vienna-based International Press Institute, will be used to sponsor the IPI News Innovation Contest. The contest is designed to find and fund breakthrough ideas that will have a long term impact on the future of digital news in communities across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

    From the announcement:

    Grants will be awarded to both non-profit and for-profit organisations working on digital journalism initiatives, including open-source and mobile technology projects created by or for journalists and distributed in the public interest. From today until June 1st, the IPI will invite proposals from around the region for projects devoted to online innovation in journalism, new economic models for news and training in digital reporting.

    Funds will be awarded in three areas:

    • News – For all applications that ensure the reliability and news;
    • Sustainability – For projects that foster new economic streams and economic models; and
    • Training – For projects that promote learning in digital journalism.

    The deadline for funding applications is 1 June 2011.

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    Fontastic: The best in kinetic typography


    Fontastic: The best in kinetic typography

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    I’m a bit of a typography geek. Not in that boring, drone-on-and-on kind of way (I hope) but I am fascinated by the work and skill that it takes to produce a beautiful piece of type.

    So naturally, when @gendor tweeted earlier today with a link to a new Jack Parow video that uses kinetic typography, I was quickly sidetracked into finding some good examples of this art form. The Jack Parow video (see below) is pretty cool but take a look at some of these other examples and see how much can be done with a bunch of letters.

    Al Pacino – The Devil’s Advocate
    This is one of my favourites. The speech is pretty good to start with but the lettering adds a whole new dimension to it. The animation is among the best.

    Duck and Cover
    This short clip is made up from an old public service announcement from the 50s. Excellent animation and illustration captures some of the original feeling of the announcement but gives it a unique twist.

    Oceans Eleven
    Another good movie and a great piece of kinetic animation. Apparently a first-time project, it nevertheless uses some clever techniques to complement the words being spoken. The Al Pacino speech is more powerful but the overall effect here is better.

    Fight Club
    A kinetic version of the Eight Rules of Fight Club speech was inevitable and this version is pretty good. The fonts, colours and background combine to make an excellent short clip. Can you spot the spelling mistake?

    Citizen Cope
    There are many bands that use kinetic typography to good effect in their music videos. This one by Citizen Cope for their Let the Drummer Kick song is one of the better ones.

    Streelight Manifesto
    This simple video with equally simple song is fun. Its simple, striking colours and a couple of excellent ideas and techniques make for a clever little video.

    Reservoir Dogs
    The naming of the names. This is a well executed kinetic version of the that famous speech in which the various participants given their “names”: Mr Brown, Mr White, Mr Pink! It’s fairly basic but effective.

    Monty Python
    A re-creation of the witch scene in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Good colouring, a good choice of font and some nice simple graphics make this entertaining.

    The Jack Parow video
    The video that prompted this post. The video uses less animation than many of the examples above but some nice effects add just the right amount of interest.

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