March 29, 2007

Dave Toplikar, a multimedia journalist at U Iowa

Dave Toplikar is the man my Online Journalism students needed to meet. He is the real thing, a multimedia journalist at Lawrence Journal-World, with years of experience as a newspaper reporter, self-trained web editor and now beating education news for the paper and the web in a converged newsroom.

Dave was at the University of Iowa this week, sharing his expertise with different courses in the School of Journalism as a part of a very nice "Professionals in residence" program. This week my students were editing the video for some original reporting they are preparing as web stories. This are the tips that Dave sent me for them today:

I really appreciated their questions about how to decide when they should use a video camera or an audio recorder to add multimedia to a story. It's something that I've struggled with too over the last few months. But I think the best answer I can give them now is to try to prioritize stories by importance and by timeliness. If a reporter has a lot of time to do everything himself or herself, then they could do the whole package.

But if it's a breaking story, or a story that has to go in the next day's paper or on TV that night, you're going to want to spread out the workload and give it to the best people who can do the best parts of the job in the amount of time they have. For example, I wouldn't want to send one person carrying a still camera, a lens bag, a video camera, a tripod, lights, an audio recorder, a notebook and a pen out to a
story, unless I was going to give them plenty of time to get the information, then plenty of time to write, process the photos, make an audio slide show and make a web video.

Sometimes, all I have time to do is write the story before I have to go on to the next story. So I depend on a web producer to add some other elements to my story, such as scanned documents, outside links or links to archived stories.

This is probably pretty obvious, but I would recommend students who are already good at shooting and editing video to work on their writing skills. And if a reporter is already a good writer, that reporter can move on to learning multimedia skills, such as photography, video and sound editing. And let's not forget editors: If an editor is good at laying out pages in Quark, they probably would have no trouble at all learning how to lay out and design Web pages. Having multiple skills will help them find jobs much more quickly.

What I most appreciated of Dave is his avid attitude to learn new things. That is what make him who he is, and the Lawrence Journal-World website. He showed me his own videos in his iPod [photo], and still told me that he wanted to learn more from the TV guys.

Some other relevant things he explained us that can let you understand why the LJW is regarded as a lab of the newspaper of the future (NYTimes dixit):

  • There are no reporters for the web. Newspaper and TV reporters negotiate who covers each story (sometimes both, sometimes one passes data to the other) and the 3 online journalists ("web producers" at LJW) build on that reporting to create web stories that have more than just the text or the video when needed.

  • The web does not cover national or international news, and therefore the online journalists avoid the silly routine of editing AP wire. They wisely assume that who wants national news goes to or The newspaper is a different product, where readers expect a summary of what's going on in the world without having to buy another paper.

  • A big multimedia story requires planning and 2-3 weeks of work in newsgathering and production. But their web is also attractive for breaking news (the reporter usually tells on the phone the first data to the web producers) and evergreen content (U Kansas basketball background data, local restaurants guide...).

  • Newspaper reporters don't feel comfortable producing video; TV reporters prefer not to write paper stories. Everyone prefers what they are used to and editors want their reporters to prioritize their own product. It takes a while to get used to be multimedia! A "managing editor for convergence" tries to push everyone further and journalists receive training in house by peers.

  • The bottom line is still doing good reporting, no matter what formats you use. That is the priority for Dave. The online strategy evolves constantly, exploring possible options, and thinking about the future "everything is possible". Convergence, audience participation... are just part of the experiment!