•  
  • Blog

    Hacking the news: Building interactive timelines from spreadsheet data

    media Uncategorized

    Hacking the news: Building interactive timelines from spreadsheet data

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    This is too cool not to deserve a special mention: The good people over at ProPublica yesterday released the software code for TimelineSetter as open source software.

    TimelineSetter is software for easily creating HTML news timelines from formatted spreadsheet data. Sounds terribly geeky but it’s actually not, and it’s a great start for online publications looking for an easy way to generate interactive elements.

    ProPublica, which is an independent non-profit newsroom, created TimelineSetter to fill the gap for an open source framework for generating interactive timelines. If they get it right, and so far it looks pretty good, they could completely do away with the need for hours of intense labour just to create a timeline or two to illustrate online news.

    The software pulls in data from spreadsheets in a specific format and outputs the timeline in a combination of HTML and Javascript. The resulting timelines are interactive and can contain all manner of data as some of these demos show.

    As the first public release of TimelineSetter it is still a little technical to get it working properly but it is a very promising tool for online journalists.

    More: TimelineSetter: Easy Timelines From Spreadsheets, Now Open to All.

    Read More
    April Fools wrap: The best of the media jokes

    media

    April Fools wrap: The best of the media jokes

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    It’s that time of year again, the day where newspapers around the world publish ridiculous and outrageous stories in honour of April Fools Day. I’m not all that sure how I feel about news media publishing made-up stories but I suppose, considering some of the articles published by SA’s mainstream newspapers, it’s not all that different to what they always do.

    Anyhow, in the interests of not being a curmudgeonly old whiner, here are some of the better April Fools articles that I’ve seen today. (more…)

    Read More
    Wednesday wrap: Twitter as media, hyperlocal startup tips, O’Reilly on e-books

    media

    Wednesday wrap: Twitter as media, hyperlocal startup tips, O’Reilly on e-books

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Is Twitter media? Apparently so according to a new report from Yahoo. The report says that while Twitter allows everyone to have a voice online it is still a handful of celebrities, organisations and media houses that drive the majority of content on the network. Among the findings: 20,000 users account for or attract the majority of attention on Twitter. The rest of us swim in the the little side pools.

    More hyperlocal tips: How to start your own local news site. Although still in its infancy in South Africa hyperlocal news is pretty big in the rest of the world. In this interview with 10,000 words the founders of the US-based Berkelyside talk about how they started, the lessons learned and the tools they use. A worthy read for anyone keen on setting up a local news site.

    Tim O’Reilly, a giant in the technology publishing arena, is known for his outspoken and often unique perspectives on the issues of the day. In this interview with Forbes’ Jon Bruner, O’Reilly explains why he has removed piracy measures from his books, why he thinks that the printed book is far from over and how the technology reading market has shifted from reference to tutorial books.

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

    media new media tools

    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.

     

    Read More
    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.

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

    media

    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.

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

    media

    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.

    Read More
    Morning coffee and a media news round-up

    media

    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.

    Read More
    When all you need is a great ampersand

    media

    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.

     

    Read More
    Grammar-phone: A metaphor staves off loneliness

    Uncategorized

    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.

     

    Read More
    The business of journalism is changing rapidly. Media Hack tracks these changes and delivers news, tips and insight directly to your inbox, every week.
    CLOSE [ X ]