Ramblings

Photo: Ireland v Poland

I’m using the new Flickr’s storage space to upload some of my photos from my hard drives. Having lost a lot of photos in the great hard drive crash of 2009, the more places they exist in the cloud the better.

Today’s uploads come from the Ireland v Poland football friendly at the Aviva in February. I was very ill-equipped for the job, with a lightweight tripod, D80, and a simple 18-135mm kit zoom. The end results needed a lot of sharpening.

I’ve since bought a much nicer 70-300 VRII, which performs much better. Still, here’s what I got on the night.

Computer screens as disposable technology

I’m exceptionally late to the game on this, but last week i bought an iPad. And it’s not the operating system or the size and form factor that impresses me the most: it’s the screen technology.

The advancements in displays keep coming year on year, to the extent that monitors have become a disposable technology. Things have been moving that way since the launch of the iMac in 1998, which rolled its monitor directly into the computer: meaning that upgrading the hardware meant binning the screen.

I tend to invest heavily in the technology I use most: a good keyboard and comfortable mouse are things I’m happy to spend money on – even my own money to beef up work computers. But monitors don’t fall into that mental category.

This is nonsense, of course, because if there’s any piece of technology we use most often, it’s our displays. But at work I use a 4:3 ratio standard monitor that, thanks to a damaged input, has a slight flicker. At home, I use a 32-inch high definition television as a screen, but I’ve come to realise this is far from ideal: the resolution is stretched out over a greater area, giving me less clarity.

The iPad has really hammered this point home for me. Most of the displays I use in my day-to-day life are causes of slight eye strain. Now, I find myself using the iPad, propped up on its stand, for every task possible. It’s the most pleasant experience available, despite being a little extra labour with the input devices.

Most of the displays we use are effectively out of date. Of course, powering ever-increasing resolutions needs more powerful graphics cards, and my 32-inch screen would be ludicrously expensive.

Nonetheless, consider this: in a few years, we may all be toting ultra-high pixel densities on our screens. And once prices come down, it’ll be worth it.

The oddball art of advertising newspapers

Update: Yes, it’s the Independent.

There have been some really interesting adverts popping up around Dublin – two starkly contrasting images with the simple tagline ‘we are defined by the choices we make.’

The general consensus seemed to be that the campaign was somehow connected to hot political topics, but now it seems like it may be an advertising campaign for newspapers.

Specifically, there are reports of the Irish Independent logo appearing on some of the adverts in town from Reddit Ireland users, and a claim that they placed a small site at independent.ie/lifesaboutchoices before quickly removing it.

If that’s true, the mind boggles. I’m fascinated by news media advertising strategies. The Irish Times recently went down the route of The Story of Why, the main piece of which is a long, self-congratulatory and overly ‘arty’ video that screened ahead of feature films. It hit wide of the mark, I think, because it portrayed the news business the way it wants to be seen. But it doesn’t focus on the reader or tell the reader what the news can do for them.

That contrasts sharply with one the most famous ads for The Guardian, which sells the benefit directly to the reader – they show you both sides of the story.

‘Life’s about choices’ looks like another high-end campaign. The posters have done their job of piquing interest, and it’s damn fine work from whichever agency was involved. But the tone of the campaign, based around choice, is an odd one for a newspaper, which historically have liked to be seen as impartial.

I wonder how they’ll proceed with this. I hope the campaign centres around informing people to make choices rather than telling people what choices to make. The Indo has been a pretty divisive paper for a few years, so a new brand strategy, if that’s what this is, will be very interesting.

Infographic: Facebook in Ireland

I recently helped Edelman Ireland design this infographic on Facebook use in Ireland.

Key stats include that Facebook’s user base has doubled in the last two years, that there are slightly more women than men using it and that 25 – 34 is the largest age group.

I’m indebted to the fascinating archives of Mulley Communications for historical usage numbers. Damien Mulley has been running a blog since 2003, and has been tracking the growth of social media for years.

Larger version (900px wide) available by clicking here.

facebookireland1

Four Fine Resources for Fledgling Journos

There’s a notion amongst journos who are good at what they do that every prospective reporter should be born with some sort of heaven-sent ability to write a story in perfect inverted pyramid form. Baloney. As anyone who’s spent time as a section editor for a college paper knows, first-year students getting stuck in to writing for the first time need to be shown the ropes.

Not every university that has a college paper has a journalism course or school of media. Mine didn’t, but I was lucky enough to be educated by a smart and savvy team in a student paper which has been around for over 50 years. For those less fortunate, there’s plenty of material out there to teach those who need to teach themselves. Whether you’re an incoming news editor who needs to train reporters for the first time, or someone who has inherited the Editor’s position and wants to brush up on some skills, these are some resources which have helped me out over the years.

The News Manual

 

This is a real nuts-and-bolts guide to writing news, and should be metaphorically thrust into the eager hands of beginners. Structure, the importance of intros, what questions to answer: all the core stuff is there. Teaching reporters the basics early on will not only save the sub-editors a lot of hours, it will make your staff better writers.

The manual was originally drafted by UNESCO in the early 90’s as a resource for news outlets in developing nations that might not have formal education set up for the media. As such, it’s a great match for student newsrooms where some or all of the staff might not be taking courses in reporting.

Click here to read The News Manual

The Student Newspaper Survival Guide

 

What a book. Rachel Kanigel writes an inspirational book that covers the basics of each style of writing, from news to features to sports, with sections on photography and editing. The book is aimed squarely at the college newspaper market, and as a result contains advice on dealing with college authorities, seizure of copies, and other university-specific problems.

It’s written with an American audience in mind, but that’s no bad thing. The US student press is bigger and more successful than that of most other countries, and many of the tips for structure and organisation can really help redefine the newsrooms of any paper, making them more efficient and professional. For any paper looking to get off the ground or reinvent itself, this truly is a must-have.

You can buy this book on Amazon or have a look inside on Google books. There’s also an author’s site, but it hasn’t been updated in a long time.

The Associated Press Stylebook

 

Every newspaper should have a style guide. Odds are that if you invest time into writing your own, some staff will never use it. So, align your house style to one of the big names- the AP or the Chicago Manual, which carry weight and authority. I find that the AP Stylebook tends to cross borders very, very well. It contains comprehensive advice on punctuation and listings for industry-specific terms.

It’s also very widely available, coming in paperback, electronic, or even iPhone app formats. Although asking every writer to buy a copy would be pointless, it’s a great resource to have on the office bookshelf or editor’s desk. I’ve found myself missing the office copy since I’ve started writing freelance. A formal style guide is the easiest way to introduce consistency in style, which adds a whole new layer of polish (and, again, will save the subs many headaches).

The AP stylebook has its own website with multiple purchase options available here; unfortunately delivery of a physical copy of the newly-released 2010 version is prohibitively expensive. The 2009 edition is readily available on Amazon, while those who opt for an iPhone version from the App Store will receive a free update to the 2010 version once it’s ported.

There’s also a very nice and easy-to-use Guardian Style Guide available, though it’s not nearly as comprehensive as the AP.

Freedom of Information knowledge

The FOI act (which you can read here) is your friend. Universities receive funding from the state, via the HEA, so they’re covered by the act. That means you can request information that your college (or any other state body) won’t give you willingly. There are exceptions, notably “commercially sensitive information” (which gets trotted out a lot, and is sometimes worth appealing) and personal information about someone else.

There’s a €15 charge for each request, and they can also charge for hours of work if they need to hunt down files or copy them. Luckily, you can also FOI personal information about yourself without any charge. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of this in a small environment like a college: you’d be amazed at how often people you know are involved in stories.

Sadly, there’s no idiot’s guide to FOI that I can find tailored to jousnlists, thought the government does maintain a guide of sorts here. The short version is to ask for the records without the act first (just in case they hand them over), then to write a letter stating that you are making a request under the act, enclosing the €15 fee. A word of warning: you’ve got to be specific about the records you request.

There’s also the (free) Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) option which you can find out more about here and here.

With these four resources under your belt, you’re off to a good start. Of course, there’s no substitute for actually doing what you’re reading about, so get stuck in!

Have I missed any quality resources for those starting out? If so, let me know in the comments and I’ll add them if they’re good.

A working web-to-print system on a budget


A long time ago, I wrote that in an ideal world, student newspapers should be able to figure out a way to move content between InDesign and an online content management system automatically; there’s no reason why XML can’t be read by either.

Well, not only is it possible, but the Bangor Daily News has spent the money to get it done, and, in an enormous display of generosity, has released the code publicly.

This blog post summarises the information perfectly, and nitty-gritty details are available on their development blog.

This is fantastic system for low-budget operations like student newspapers or locals that simply can’t afford an enterprise solution like the incredible Woodwing. And it focuses on a web-first solution, which is something often talked about but rarely practised.

I’m very interested to see who takes advantage of the open source code. If I were starting as Editor of my student paper again, I certainly would.

Days spent on Finance Bills 2010 & 2011

financebill-timescale-small

Click for larger version. If you’ve been following the passage of the Finance bill through the Oireachtas this week, you may have noticed how much political posturing there is, and how little valid discussion of the issues there has been. for context’s sake, I’ve plotted the number of days this year’s bill has spent or is scheduled to spend being debated in the coming days against last year’s Bill. When you actually look at the number of days being spent like this, it suggests there will be enormous problems with the enacted bill. It might have been better for all involved to debate this bill at length.

Low-tech love

I recently reawakened a relationship with an old flame of mine. For years, we’ve been on-again and off-again, since that time in college I thought I’d outgrown her. But we’re back together again, and she’s perfect. She’s silky smooth, reliable, and soaks up every word I say. And she’s currently wrapped in leather.

Her name is Paper.

See, I’m the type of person who needs to trick myself into working. I’d consider myself highly productive, but it’s not by nature. No, like many of us, I play games with my time, trying to make my calendar, my to-do lists and documents as fun as they can possibly be. Whether it’s my new favourite, the Pomodoro Technique, or the good old reliable Getting Things Done system, I’ve got an arsenal of anti-procrastination tools at my disposal that serve me well. And they need to be perfect.

Mind tricks, see?

I got hooked on these tricks and mind games by my good friend the photo editor back in 2007. He was always impeccably well-organised, and would constantly remind me of the editorial duties I had forgotten about several times during the course of the day. Eventually, I asked about the secret and he showed me how to make a list of projects and associated actions on the good old A4 pad. I’ve never looked back and am now a convert to the church of GTD.

Of course, this organization guru of mine soon purchased an iPhone, and when we talked again about the system months later, he showed me a selection of the shiny apps to help organise your life. Needless to say, when I purchased my own slice of the Apple smartphone pie, I eagerly downloaded the magic apps that would increase my efficiency 1000%. With gusto, I showed my purchases to my mentor. And he said:

Oh, those? I stopped using them ages ago. I prefer paper. Paper works.

…or something to that effect. I, of course, didn’t listen, and my productivity took a massive nosedive.

Scribbling is good

See, the problem with digital solutions is that they’re inflexible. They always have too many or two few features, or different options that don’t play well together. You might be able to view a project summary page, but probably not alongside its associated notes or support material on the same page. Hell, the supporting documents are probably on paper anyway. Maybe you’ve found the perfect program, but it doesn’t support one key feature of your workflow. Let’s face it; we all customise these systems a little. We’re all individual little snowflakes when it comes to efficiency.

I like scribbling in the columns. It makes my system better. My calendar needs arrows and circles to show related events and important appointments. I soak up visual info faster and more efficiently, and it’s far easier to edit and annotate.

I’m also more efficient when the key piece of organisational equipment I keep with me has blank pages for brainstorming and doodling. Ideas flow more freely: if you don’t believe me, grab a piece of A4 and start throwing down ideas now. I bet you’ll be surprised at how fluid it is compared to typing.

Flexibility

I’m actually using a Filofax I picked up in town for €25 now. It’s a simple, elegant solution, and so far I love it. It beats my previous number one paper tool, a flimsy and battered Moleskine, because it’s endlessly customisable. Sections can be reordered, added to or thrown away, and you can download or create custom pages, like they’ve done on DIYPlanner.com. I have to-dos (action lists) and projects (sorted alphabetically) at the front, followed by the calendar. It’s flawless so far. I might mix things up a bit in the coming weeks to experiment, but the compact ring binder format is so very useful for that very reason. If you’re not a fan of bulk, there’s an amazing compact GTD moleskine solution out there.

The best thing about the paper system for me is that i can relax more. It’s a constant, visible reminder that everything is safely recorded and not forgotten. I know my data is safe on my mobile device or in the cloud, but I don’t feel that it is. With a solid piece of kit, I don’t worry. And that’s worth anything.

Paper works. Some things, like contacts, work best on a smartphone for obvious reasons. But low-tech can be better, and often is. If you’re dissatisfied with your current system, give the old girl a ring. She’s just as steadfast as she always has been.

Ditch Foursquare, Embrace Yelp, and Get Value From Geolocation

Geolocation, we’re told, is the future of social communication. But for anyone in Ireland who has tried using Foursquare, the location app that shares where you are with friends, it has likely been an enormous disappointment. Once you get past the novelty factor, the persistent questioning of non-smartphone friends (“what’s the point of it?”) begins to make a lot of sense. After all, there really isn’t even that much of a user base. Getting right to the point, Foursquare has no purpose in this country. There are no discounts for mayorships, and no local development officers to build the community. And your friends probably aren’t getting that much value out of knowing you moved from work to home. It’s a colossal waste of time.

But there is a geolocation service that offers real value to the end user, has a dedicated user base, and is tons of fun to use. And it’s the mobile version of the popular Yelp social reviews site.

This service provides value to the user by showing them top-rated cafes, bars etc nearby, nails the social element with weekly newsletters, check-ins and and tips/comments, and, best of all, is making a genuine effort with real live people to build a community. Which knocks the competition out of the park.

I singed up to Yelp on the iPhone after a quick Google search for a good bike shop in Dublin yielded user reviews. Convinced that our tiny nation wouldn’t have any real content, I downloaded the mobile app to prove myself right. I wasn’t right. Within a minute I had read multiple user reviews of several nearby bicycle shops, and decided to try one I had never seen before (which was excellent, by the way).

There is a good sizeable chunk of content there, and it’s growing by the day. A lot of it is powered by a small group of people with a prolific output, but that’s ok: it means that the content is there for the new user to gain value from the service. Which is precisely what a lot of other services that launch in Ireland lack. Perhaps- and this might be crazy- perhaps there is an actual community officer for Dublin/Ireland? Madness, surely?

No. A few days later, I was pleasantly surprised to find this message in my e-mail inbox:

Hi Dave,

I wanted to drop you a quick note and introduce myself. I’m the Community Manager for Dublin. Just wanted to say hello!

Glad to see that you have signed up to the fun! I hope you join your fellow Dublin Yelpers in sharing opinions on the local places you love, hate, need so badly you would run red lights to get to, or can’t stand so much you would rather eat hot coals than step foot in again.

All of your diverse opinions help make up The Weekly Yelp (http://www.yelp.ie/weekly), our newsletter that highlights current happenings in and around Dublin. Each week I comb the site to find the most useful, funny, and cool reviews that give a local’s perspective on where to spend your time, money and daily caloric intake…

Finally. Someone gets it. For these types of services to work, there needs to be a person or team responsible for the growth of content in an area. That was always Foursquare’s problem. The aforementioned Annie L is one of the most prolific users on Yelp Dublin, and from what I can see she’s constantly replying to user queries in the talk pages (which are chat areas with questions about the city). Hell, that same e-mail mentioned that “elite” contributors get invited to beer pong games as a reward.

This approach deserves to get noticed. Finally, someone is showing little old Dublin a little attention. And this is god damn useful. Standing on Fishamble St and wondering where you should grab a coffee with that old friend you just bumped into? Sorted. I’d love to see this grow more and justify the company’s decision to invest in Dublin.

You’ll find me on Yelp as davemolloy, and should sign up yourself here! Now, I must go and review my local pub.