Writers Add Audio to Skill Set

By: Steve Outing

The Internet is beginning to change what skills are required of writers. Particularly for new media or online news organizations, writers may need to turn in more than just text to satisfy their employers.

As an example of this, last week I was interviewed by Reid Goldsborough, a freelancer who writes a regular Internet column for MSNBC. At the end of our very traditional phone interview, he asked if I would mind recording a few sound clips that would accompany his story on the MSNBC site as RealAudio clips. He told me in advance what three questions he would ask, then we set up a time that he would call back the next day to record my answers. The "recording session" took about 10 minutes, and was relatively painless for reporter and interviewee.

Goldsborough says MSNBC is the only one of his regular clients that asks for audio clips to be submitted along with a story, when appropriate. He also writes a regular computing column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which appears in print and on the Philadelphia Online Web site, and he writes for NetGuide; but neither publisher has yet asked for audio to add to his reports.

A technique that works

The writer says his normal technique is to do a second interview with a subject, devoted to the audio recording. He goes through the material of the initial interview, then looks for questions that are appropriate to ask for the sound recording -- ones that won't surprise the interviewee.

Goldsborough, who works in Pennsylvania, must establish a three-way conference call with his interviewee, an audio technician at MSNBC headquarters, and himself. The technician starts the recording session and disappears while Goldsborough asks his questions. When finished with the recording, the audio technician is responsible for editing the recording and converting it over from a WAV file to RealAudio format, editing out Goldsborough's questions and any false starts by the interviewee.

While adding a duty not normally asked of writers, the process as worked out by Goldsborough isn't too time-consuming. The recording typically takes 5 to 15 minutes, he says, and there's some prep time to figure out what information will best suit as an audio clip and craft the questions.

He says that the best sound clips are those that do not repeat what is in the column, yet are related to it. The ideal length is 30 to 60 seconds, so sometimes he'll cut off a long-winded interviewee with a polite "that's a good answer."

Most people are comfortable with the brief telephone audio interviews -- and it's made easier on the interviewee because he/she knows in advance what will be asked. But a few people are nervous about the experience, so Goldsborough has a technique to allay their fears. At any time, the interviewee is told, just start over from the beginning of the answer if necessary because of a miscue. The false start is edited out.

"Some people are really nervous," he says. "They get stage fright." But only once or twice has an interviewee been so nervous that their discomfort came across plainly during the recording. Those audio sessions were not put on the MSNBC site.

The turn of a phrase

Alan Boyle, who also writes for MSNBC, says he too doesn't find the collection of audio clips for a story too taxing. "When it works right, it's not really a distraction from the job at hand -- rather, it should be like a light going off, flashing 'hmm, that's a nicely turned phrase or a neat natural sound.' Just as someone might think, 'Wow, that would make a good picture' or 'That's a definite AVI!' (e.g., Yeltsin dancing or Dole falling)."

Boyles says of his experience with audio, "I'm generally talking along with an interviewee and suddenly get to a really juicy part (I hope), then I'll stop and say: 'Do you mind if we get into this for an audio clip?' So we're trying to recognize the best ways to tell elements of a story (some are best heard, some are best read, some perhaps are best experienced as an application). Seems to me that marriage of sound, text, pictures and interactivity is what the medium's all about."

While not widespread yet, the concept of writers collecting supplementary audio clips "is very much on the way," says Goldsborough. Another Web site that regularly has reporters doing audio is C|Net, though it's still rare to find reporters asking interview subjects for sound bites.

Yet, this is a trend that may make reporters uncomfortable. While collecting sound files for a feature story can be done easily, as the MSNBC writers demonstrate, it can become much more of a distraction if a writer is required to collect sound bites for a daily deadline story.

Kawasaki leads Mac Pack attack

Last week I reported on a Chicago Tribune computer writer who was inundated with e-mail by Apple Computer supporters incensed by one of his reports about the future of Apple. Much of the mail was sent as a result of Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki encouraging members of his EvangeList mailing list to flood the writer with mail.

Kira Marchenese of WashingtonPost.com reports, "(We haven't) gotten e-mail bombed yet, but Guy Kawasaki and his Mac Pack have struck in our discussion areas. When he finds a discussion asking users to rate operating systems or speculating on Mac's future, he sends his herd our way. Those discussions have gotten more than a hundred posts. By way of perspective, we're usually thrilled with a computer-oriented discussion that gets a dozen posts."

The Post's Dan Pacheco says of these incidents, which he calls "Mac harassment": "Whenever we try to start a dialogue in our discussion areas about anything Mac-related, Kawasaki directs his evangelists to spam us with their overwhelmingly positive opinions. It's completely destroyed our ability to faciliate user dialogue on some very important consumer issues. In one case, we put up a poll asking users if they would buy a new Macintosh when Apple is having such serious problems. The Mac Pack answer: 439 yes, 10 no. Someone should really come up with a term to describe what Apple is doing. For lack of a better word, we label it ballot-stuffing."

IPA becomes DDM

Interactive publishing has lost a voice. Rosalind Resnick, editor and publisher of Interactive Publishing Alert, a bi-monthly newsletter covering the online publishing business, has remade her newsletter into Digital Direct Marketing. Said Resnick in a letter to the newsletter's subscribers: "I could probably go on publishing IPA forever -- you know how I love to prognosticate! But, truth be told, I don't have much more to say about online publishing that I or the many other pundits who analyze this industry haven't said already."

The new newsletter will be "more relevant to the critical challenges of marketing and promotion that online publishers now face." DDM will be a monthly publication geared toward publishers and marketers with the mission of tracking developments in digital direct marketing and targeted online publishing. That happens to be one of the core businesses of Resnick's NetCreations, of which she is president.

Contact: Rosalind Resnick, rosalind@netcreations.com

New SPJ Web sites

The Society of Professional Journalists has two new Web sites. The first is a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) resource site based on the October issue of the Quill magazine, which dealt with this issue. The second site is SPJ's catalog on the Web, where the organization sells media merchandise. SPJ's main Web site is at http://www.spj.org.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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