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We did Hack Jersey this weekend at Montclair State (see my previous post for links) and one of my tasks was to stream the proceedings. We posted 5 1/2 hours to YouTube, including all of the speeches, the teams’ presentations to the judges, and the awards presentation, and I learned a lot.

The good news: For what we were doing, the results were acceptable. By myself, using three laptops and two Logitech webcams, and the WiFi available on campus, we managed to stream all of the speeches, intercutting each speaker’s Powerpoint (or HaikuDeck) slides and using a second laptop as a second camera.

Our setup: I attached a Logitech HD external webcam ($199) to my MacBook Pro laptop, mounted on an inexpensive (Velbon) tripod. We had a 10-foot USB extension cord which was critical in allowing me to move the camera close to the podium, while I sat 20 feet away (the webcams also have a 10-foot cord). I asked all of the speakers to e-mail me their presentation deck. Google Hangouts allows you to switch between your webcam (either the one embedded in your laptop or an external webcam) and your computer screen. So you can show the speaker and then cut to his/her slides as needed. The audio came from the microphone on the Logitech Webcam, which necessitated keeping that camera close to the podium.

That basic setup worked well, and for most of the presentations would have been sufficient. Except…..

Since this was a hack-a-thon, it seemed appropriate to push things a bit, so I decided to add a second camera. With Google Hangouts, you typically log-in on your computer and invite friends to join by sending them an e-mail with a link to the Hangout. They click the link and you can see each other, via the built-in webcam (assuming you have one).

But you can add an external webcam. You simply plug it in, and then in the Hangout, there is an option to choose the camera and microphone to use (you may need to reboot the computer to get the external webcam to show up). So you can point that external Webcam anywhere, particularly if it it is mounted on a light-weight tripod and has a 10-foot USB extension cord.
That’s the minimal setup you need to do a decent job of covering a speech at a conference.

To add a second camera, you need to invite somebody else to join your Hangout. You simply send them an e-mail, they click to join, and they show up, on their webcam. But if they have an external webcam, that becomes your second camera.

Google allows 10 participants in a Hangouts, so if each one had an external camera, you could have a 10-camera shoot. So if a hurricane is moving in on the Jersey coast, and you had friends spread out along the shore, all with a computer and external webcam, you could cut from one to the other to show the progress of the storm. Or get 9 friends to show up at a basketball game (or concert) with their iPads and all join a Hangout. I’m intrigued to see where this goes.

We settled for two laptops side-by-side, each with an external webcam. One was on a tripod aimed at the podium, and the other on a tripod aimed at the audience. We used a third laptop as a monitor.

Here’s where things got to be fun. The basic Hangout allows you and your friends to do a video chat. But Google has added an option, Google Hangouts On Air, that allows you to stream your output to YouTube and send a link to anyone, anywhere, allowing them to watch what you are streaming. The third computer allowed us to click on the link and monitor what was going out to the world (you could do that on your main computer, in another browser window, but I was worried about overloading the processor).

So we had the main computer (MacBook Pro laptop) with an external webcam showing the podium, intercutting the speaker’s presentation, using the screenshare function. The second computer had an external webcam showing the audience, and the third computer (all MacBook Pro laptops, although we substituted a Dell windows laptop on Sunday with no problems)  monitored the output of the Hangout.

On Sunday, we added another twist. Each Hack Jersey team was showing off what they had built, uploaded to a Web site and then displayed using one computer at the podium. We “invited” that computer to join the Hangout (sending an e-mail to the owner), so we had one computer with external webcam showing the podium, one on the audience, and one showing the output of the presentation computer.

The basic setup worked well. We were able to show the speaker, cut to his/her slides, and cut away to the audience as necessary. For the final presentations, for example, when the judges, who were sitting in the front row of the audience, asked questions of the presenters, we could cut back and forth between the two cameras and the presentations. Most of the time, the setup worked.

But…

I’m a longtime TV producer, so what sucked? In general, the audio and video quality was only acceptable. The Logitech 920 webcams claim to be 1020p but they are not even close, at least as we used them. The cameras had trouble holding focus and were very soft. It helped when we used the screenshare feature. But there is much room for improvement.

The audio, again, was acceptable, but could have been better. That’s largely because we were using the microphones on the webcams, and not using a separate microphone (which Google Hangouts allows) so we were getting audio from a microphone 6-8 feet from the speaker.

You need to mute the audio from all of the computers other than your main computer. Despite that precaution we still had audio issues as folks inadvertently unmuted their computers. An attempt by one presenter to play a video clip was a disaster, with major feedback, although I’m pretty sure that was from the laptop speaker feeding back into the microphone on the podium.

You also absolutely need to discuss what you are doing with all of the participants. While all of them gave us their decks, some of them had decks that included Web links to video or animations. Those did not always play properly over the Hangout. And we also had one presenter who logged out of the presentation laptop, which dumped them out of the Hangout and ended our ability to stream the presentations from the laptop. Fortunately, they were the next to the last presenter, and we could turn our second camera to the large screens to capture their presentation (though it looked pretty lousy).

I’ve been a TV news producer for a long time and much of this is pretty much par for the course. Folks do unexpected things in front of the camera, gear dies, you forget a key piece of equipment, and the challenge is to muddle through. I found myself doing typical TV news stuff — cutting to one camera to give me time to move the other one around to focus on something else so I could the move the first camera. But hey folks, we streamed 5 and 1/2 hours of stuff, using three laptops and two $200 webcams, and anyone in the world could watch, for free. Are Google Hangouts better than UStream or YouTube Live or something else? Would Boinx TV have given us more options? Please let me know.

But I’m betting two years from now, this (at better quality and feature set) is standard practice and most of what we now know about local TV is up-ended.

We held our first Hack Jersey event this weekend here at Montclair State, with about 60 journalists and coders participating. Among the speakers were Matthew Ericson, the deputy graphics director at the New York Times; Tom Meagher, data editor at Digital First Media; Stephen Engelberg and Jeff Larson of ProPublica; and New Jersey data expert Marc Pfeiffer.

Here are links to the video we streamed of their addresses. I’ll have more in a bit on how the video streaming went. We tried to get fancy with Google Hangouts and use separate logins for multiple cameras. It’s worth trying, but there are some headaches to consider.

The links:

Matt Ericson (NYTimes):

Tom Meagher (Digital First Media):

Marc Pfeiffer (former N.J. official):

Stephen Engelberg and Jeff Larson (ProPublica)

The participants present their apps:

Awards presentation:

BlitzWe’re hosting a hack-a-thon here at MSU next weekend, so I thought I’d go through my bookmarks and pull together some of my favorite examples of data journalism and interactives. We’ll be light on the graphic designers, so this will lean more toward data journalism than interactive graphics.

A recent favorite is this look at where each bomb or rocket fell on London during The Blitz in WWII. Just a glance at the map tells you more about how harrowing that experience must have been than most of us could capture in hundreds of words.

This one is excellent to show reporters how they just couldn’t do certain stories without data analysis. It looks at traffic fatalities by day of the week and time of day correlated with different factors such as alcohol use, weather and pedestrians. No way you could draw any conclusions from just examining the raw data. There are just too many data points and variables.

Here’s a similar one, but less detailed, from The Guardian. What’s impressive is how they take something such as state laws on gay rights and show how by graphing it out, you can draw some conclusions as to how the different regions of the U.S. compare.

This is much more pedestrian, but uses Google Maps, so it’s more likely to be the type of thing that reporters could do themselves. It plots bases in the U.S. from which military drones are controlled.

The NYTimes got a lot of attention during the 2012 London Olympics for their look at how the winning times for the 100-meter dash had shortened over the years, and justly so. The app conveys a lot of statistical info in an easy-to-grasp format.

Slate did its own, and it’s a useful comparison with the Times’, which is more impressive graphically but probably took a lot longer to produce.

One great interactive collection, though, is here: Florida Today’s impressive graphics about the U.S. space program. They’ve been doing it for years, and it shows.

Jan. 28 update – NY Times deputy graphics director Matthew Ericson spoke at our Hack Jersey event and described how some of their best multimedia apps were built, including the Olympic sprinting event I mentioned above. Check the Hack Jersey post for video of his entire speech.

weedsI have to add a link to Mike Fourcher’s incredibly insightful take on the problems facing hyperlocal news producers, though I want to give it more thought later.

Fourcher ran a local news Web site in the extremely competitive Chicago suburbs for three years, before shutting it down recently, and his thoughts are valuable because he spent so much time in the weeds, so he understands all of the nuances of trying to win both readers and advertisers.

First, I should mention that I spent five years with Patch, launching their first 10 sites and starting 85 sites in New Jersey that get 2 million unique visitors per month. But we were still nowhere close to breaking even. While my successors have a serious chance of reaching profitability for most of their sites this year, it won’t be easy, and pushing beyond the break-even mark will be an even greater challenge. I know firsthand the frustrations.

I think Fourcher’s most meaningful insights involve advertisers. He lists 21 “lessons learned” and I think numbers 2, 8, 15, 16 and 17 are the most important. Number 8 is probably the least understood and most profound challenge facing local journalists — their community simply does not need them. As he notes, the smart local businesses, the ones you hope will recognize how you can help them grow their businesses, realize that they can use blogs and social media to build their own cadre of local fans, without paying you for advertising. Fourcher states it well:

The original business model for news, back in Ben Franklin’s day, was to create handbills that people would read because it had interesting material on it. Local businesses liked handbills because it enabled them to get their sales message out to local consumers. That model, modified by the subscriber system, essentially stayed strong for two hundred years.

Direct mail and electronic media dented the newspaper model, but neither could challenge the ubiquitous demand for news shared by every consumer. But then, the cost effectiveness of creating direct connections between businesses and consumers through the internet has obliterated most of the “consumer aggregation” news organizations used to provide to businesses.

I found many local businesses in CSJ’s coverage area with email or social media lists of thousands of local consumers. One martini bar has tens of thousands of email subscribers. Under these circumstances, these local businesses (who also tend to be the ones most likely to have a marketing budget) are no longer looking to throw a wide net, but actually target by psychographic even more than before.

But equally important are numbers 15 and 16. Fourcher says he was slow to realize how badgered small business owners are by cold-call salespeople:

They are selling credit card processing, new products to stock, marketing opportunities, you name it. It took at least a year of publishing useful neighborhood news before a majority of local businesses acknowledged me and our salespeople as something other than a nuisance.

He also notes that most local businesses simply don’t have the cash flow to experiment with advertising on a new Web site. As one business owner explained it to him, “If I buy a $300 ad, I need to make $3,000 of new sales that month, just to break even, since I have a 10% markup. Why would I take that risk?”

And in Lessons Learned numbers 2 and 17, Fourcher notes how much harder it is to find good salespeople and build a successful ad sales plan than to hire good reporters.

Fourcher obviously is thoughtful and it is sad to see him give up his dream (though given his insights, I have a feeling that somebody will give him another opportunity soon — Hello, Jim Brady). But one factor he can’t evaluate is the possibility that hyperlocals can work, but only as part of a broader network. I don’t know if Patch or one of its national competitors will make it to profitability, but they DO have a big advantage. Ultimately, the goal of any publication is to win readers and doing that requires producing interesting content day in and day out. We realized early on at Patch that while we were focused on hyperlocal, there were also stories that could be shared, whether it was two Patch towns playing each other in football, or a new store that would be of interest to a regional audience, or a countywide or even statewide issue that would apply to all of our sites. I was initially wary of our push for bloggers, but when our 85 sites found an average of 10 folks each to try to blog, you discover 15-20 of them with strong voices that can be shared elsewhere.

Yes, you absolutely need current local content to win in the hyperlocal space, but some days the reality is that there just is not that much interesting to report on in an upscale town of 30,000. That’s where shared content, including stories from neighboring towns, issues of statewide interest, compelling bloggers and aggregated content are key to producing a must-read site.

Fourcher does a great job of laying out the challenges faced by a sole local hyperlocal editor. A handful of folks (my colleague Debbie Galant of Baristanet among them) have figured out how to overcome them. But personally, I think the answer to saving local journalism lies in larger networks, whether formal, such as Patch or Jim Brady’s Digital First, or informal, like the New Jersey News Commons Deb has formed here at MSU to try to help New Jersey’s small news producers to share content.

What worries me right now is that nobody has convincingly figured things out. Fourcher has the best explanation I have yet seen as to why that is so hard.

CanonSX50Just noticed this review of Canon’s new point-and-shoot with an incredible 50X zoom lens, and that got me to thinking about the continuing search for the perfect inexpensive multimedia camera.

In a previous job (at AOL’s Patch) I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out the best cheap camera to get for our reporter/editors. We were looking for something in the $300 range that was not too bulky that folks who had little experience with a camera could use to shoot good stills and video.

There are a lot of camera reviews on the Web of models such as Canon’s 5D (or the equivalent Nikon model) in the $3,000 range, and then you generally drop down to something like Canon’s mid-range EOS models (I have the T4i, the current model) that cost about $900 with a couple of lenses. (And yes, Nikon and lots of other folks have comparable models).

But when you drop down to the $250-$450 range, most of the reviews don’t find much to differentiate the different models except the arrangements of the controls.

That’s unfortunate, because for shooting news and sports, there are at least three features that are really important and often overlooked: optical zoom, how many frames the camera shoots per second in burst mode, and whether it has a jack to plug in an external microphone.

I’ll leave the technical reviews of the Canon 50X to the experts. There’s a nice one here, on The Wirecutter, that has good comparisons to competitors; and one by TechRadar is here. They both like the camera overall, but it’s that incredible 50X zoom that wows them.

So how good is a 50X zoom? You probably have about a 5X or 10X optical zoom if you have a point-and-shoot camera. If you have a DSLR, your lenses most likely range from something around 24mm to maybe 300mm.

The Canon 50X goes from 24mm all the way to 1200mm and that is simply the best zoom anywhere on a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot. How inexpensive? I found it as low as $379 in a quick Web search.

But why does the zoom matter? After all, one of the first rules I tell students in my multimedia class is to get as close to their subject as possible, to “zoom with your feet.” That’s always great advice, but in reality, particularly when you’re shooting news and sports, it doesn’t always get you the photo you want.

I first had my eyes opened to the power of a good zoom a few years ago, when we bought a Casio EXILIM for our sports editor with a 20X zoom (sorry, can’t remember the model number; it’s been five years). Before giving it to him, I took it out myself to shoot a tennis match and a lacrosse match, just to see what it would do, and the results were pretty amazing. I’d previously used my Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot with a 5X zoom to cover a baseball game, so I had a pretty good idea of the limitations of a traditional point-and-shoot camera. The best location to shoot baseball is generally behind first base, but there were bleachers and a fence there so I ended up behind third base. That gave me a decent shot of right-handed pitchers, and any base-runners heading around second base toward third and home, but whatever happened at first base or in the outfield was just too far away.

The tennis match presented similar challenges in terms of distance — Three singles matches were going on at once, and the court was surrounded by a chain link fence, so I was stuck standing at the fence, poking the lens through the openings.

But the Casio camera’s 20X zoom let me get close enough to get good facial expressions, even from 100 feet away.

A few days later, at a lacrosse match, the Casio’s zoom was critical to capture any action at all. Lacrosse is played on a very wide field, and it was simply impossible to get any closeups without the zoom.

I can’t imagine what something with a 50X zoom —  over twice as powerful — would let you capture, though I’m hoping to get a chance to find out.

But I also learned that while a camera’s zoom range is important, you should also focus on the burst mode. Tennis is fast and if you try to capture the action by taking one shot at a time, you’re often too slow on the shutter. But the Casio had an incredible burst mode of 60 frames per second, with each frame a full 6 megapixels. Hit the shutter and then scroll through 60 images to find just the right one when the ball is ricocheting off of the racket, or when a lacrosse player snapped her wrist to slap the ball toward the net. Once I used that feature, I’d never consider getting another camera without it.

But a fast burst mode is not just good for sports. I was discussing the camera with our sports editor sitting in a cafe and noticed a young boy eating ice cream sitting at a table outside. Although we were 50 feet away, the zoom let me get close, and the burst mode captured a great series of closeups of boy and ice cream (tongue out, eyes closed, etc.). The zoom let me get so close that I almost felt like a stalker, with its ability to invade someone’s private space without their ever knowing you were that close.

Both the Casio and the Canon also shoot slow-motion video, another great asset when shooting sports. The new Canon shoots 120 frames per second (30 fps is standard) at 640 by 480 resolution. Casio now touts its EX-FH25, with a 20X zoom, that shoots 40 frames per second, each one at 9 megapixels.

The Casio also has another feature that makes it particularly appropriate for sports and news — if you hold the shutter down halfway, the camera starts storing frames into a buffer and then when you press the shutter down fully, you can set it to save the frames already in the buffer. So you can capture something that occurred BEFORE you pressed the shutter, excellent for sports where by the time you realize a player is getting ready to do something significant and press the shutter, the action is already over.

There are several competitors in the $300-$400 price range (e.g., Pansonic ‘s Lumix DMC FZ200), so I’m certainly not recommending either the Canon or Casio. What I AM recommending is that if you are considering purchasing an inexpensive camera for your newsroom or j-school, that you take a hard look at both zoom range and burst mode when making your decision. If you do a little digging, you’ll discover that there are now several affordable point-and-shoot models available that can capture shots that previously would have been unattainable without much more expensive gear. And yeah, they’re also lots of fun.

Unfortunately, while these two cameras have great zooms and burst modes, they both have a flaw that makes them less-than-perfect for Web news and sports — neither appears to have a jack for an external microphone. I say apparently because I can’t find a review that says anything about an external jack, so I’m assuming it’s not there. That also says something about how most camera reviewers are traditional DSLR types who don’t understand the needs of multimedia producers, so it’s a feature they don’t mention. I gather the camera manufacturers believe that few camera users are really shooting video that requires decent audio, so they skip the inexpensive jack. But if you’re shooting news or sports, you need to interview folks, often on a noisy city street or sports arena, and the in-camera mic just doesn’t cut it. Yes, you can record the audio with a separate audio recorder (or even your smartphone — most of them include an app that does a decent job of capturing audio). Unfortunately, this is a flaw in every inexpensive point-and-shoot I’m aware of. Anybody know of one with an external audio jack, let me know.

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