Category Archives: journalism

What exactly is DIY journalism?

Photo: Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr

Photo: Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr

Last week, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, I spoke in a panel discussion called “Freelance: by choice or by necessity?“, together with some colleagues of different background and experience. There were a war correspondent, a tech journalist from Berlin and an investigative journalist based in Cairo.

We mainly talked about being a freelancer (you don’t *work* as a freelancer, you are one). Aside from discussing the appalling condition of the job market in Italy, we spent some thoughts on what makes a good, marketable freelancer in Italy and abroad.

I often mention the idea of ‘Do It Yourself journalism’, generally known as the ability to manage the whole process of news production from pitching a story to editing a video or taking pictures.

So I think it’s good to tell a bit more about what I mean by DIY in journalism, which is in fact something different from its conventional definition.

When I started my career and my new life as a multimedia reporter in the UK, I knew very little about multimedia, I wasn’t very organised and I handled multitasking quite badly. To say the least. Over time I improved my skills, I became more confident with my English and learnt how to produce a multimedia news package independently. I now have a few pieces of equipment as well, a reflex camera with a couple of lenses, a zoom recorder, tripod.

I have always liked to think I am a DIY journalist, but I’ve never really thought about what is exactly that identifies me as such.

So one obvious answer could be that if you have a very good equipment and know how to use it, you are probably in a good position to be a self sufficient producer. Does that mean that a DIY journalist is some sort of techy geek with a lot of money to spend upfront? Certainly not.

I believe that all the fuss around the multimedia, multitasking and multi skilled modern journalist can be boiled down to one simple idea. The DIY journalist needs to be a good storyteller. But since the dominion of the words in journalism has come to an end more than a few years ago, the storytelling we need to master is a non-linear one.

A beautiful feature still is and probably will remain an appealing way to tell stories, but as an example look at the feature How Malaria Defeats our Drugs by Ed Yong. It’s a great piece of writing, enriched by some non linear elements (photos, extras) that somehow break the flow and open new patterns for the users to build their own story.

A non-linear narrative is like a web, dotted with junctions generating multiple paths. It is not a path you have to follow from A to B and from B to C, but a story that you build yourself navigating the content. It’s much more similar to how human interaction works in real life than any other form of storytelling.

Ed Yong’s feature is just one example, but you will find traces of non linear narratives basically everywhere. Social media handles are pivotal points within non linear plots, but even the juxtaposition of images and text triggers a different experience from the sum of visual and written part.

A journalist who understands how to combine a variety of materials to create a narrative that opens up multiple user experiences doesn’t need expensive equipment. I daresay he(she) doesn’t even need outstanding writing skills. A good storytelling stands alone.

On the African media revolution

So, I decided to take a break.

I needed a holiday and since I gave up my big travel to Cape Town I opted for a short trip to Perugia, in Italy, to attend of my favourite events, the International Journalism Festival.
For those who have never heard of it, the event takes place in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy and features a variety of very interesting panel discussions around journalism and the future of the industry. This year I was pleasantly surprised to discover a number of sessions addressing the issue of media and innovation in the Global South.

The talk I attended was called The Future of African Media, and hosted five experts and media entrepreneurs who use innovative strategies and simple technologies in Africa.

In my job, I read tons of stories on global development and I think that by now I have a decent grasp of the economic landscape of the continent, at least in its main features. For example, I know that Africa’s economy is growing fast and its population is exceptionally young. A very fertile environment for innovation, especially in technology.

But yesterday I learnt how this somehow theoretical idea is actually a solid reality and it can also teach something to the rich North.

For example, check Code for Africa, an innovative journalism project that would stand out even in the high tech environment of many Western countries. The idea is to stop using journalism, data and technology to educate citizens about stuff they are supposed to care about, and start listening to their needs instead.

So the Code for Africa collective produces “news tools” such as data visualisations, mobile apps and data sets manually scraped and uploaded onto the internet. These are not only beautiful and playful, but also truly useful. People aren’t supposed to be interested for the sake of it, but will use the information as a service to improve their everyday life.

There is a tool that helps people register for the elections and vote and another one to keep track of medicines’ prices. Journalists who want to take part are taught how to scrape and use data and how to code, so they eventually will be able to build their own tools to display and add value to their investigation.

I imagine that when it comes to Africa it may be easy to identify practical needs of people, as in many countries there are economic and political problems that make it difficult to deal with simple things. But the idea could work in the Global North as well, it’s really just a matter of identifying what services are lacking in a certain community. And this makes the initiatives naturally very marketable.

If you want to know more about Code for Africa and other similar initiatives, you can check my audio interview to Justin Arenstein, which will be published on SciDev.Net shortly

On Africa, energy and what’s next

aeepgroup

Looking back to my feelings about my first trip to Africa, I remember thinking – should I hate it (after having written so much about it) would I have to quit my job?

Now that was a joke, but in truth I didn’t know what to expect and I was rather nervous at the idea of catching strange diseases of parasites. Someone told me you can get maggots that grow under your skin. No joke he still has tiny scars on his forearm.

Anyway at the end of the two weeks I spent in Ethiopia I was struck by the difference between my Europe and what felt like another world, and I decided to go back to Africa as soon as possible. So South Africa is waiting for me in May, this time for holiday and I will probably be offline for a while.

Addis will linger in my memory as city of contrast, with mothers and babies sitting on the side of dusty roads while businessmen and diplomats eat expensive meals in the restaurant of a luxury hotel just a few meters away.

A room in an average hotel costs about 175 US$ per night, equivalent to 3380 birrs, the local currency. The average monthly salary of a chef or an experienced waiter is around 2000 birrs.

My two weeks were spent working on two very different tasks. For the first week I’ve been covering a conference of the African EU Energy Partnership. It was a very interesting meeting where I had the chance to meet awesome people from different countries, had a lot of fun and tested my skills with some data journalism.

The partners from Africa and the EU gathered for the first time in 2010, in Vienna, to set goals for energy progress in Africa to be met by 2020.The goal involved different fields, the most important of which were energy security, to be achieved through increased energy production from a mix of renewables and fossil fuels, and energy access for additional 100 million Africans by the end of the decade.

But the first status report, published during the conference, unveiled a rather upsetting situation. None of the target is likely to be met and a serious lack of planning leaves little room for hope. You can read a blog I wrote on the topic here, and the full report here.

Among other things, here’s an infographic I produced with Piktochart (here the interactive version). It shows how long would it take to meet the targets at the present rate of increase. Pretty striking figures: wind energy would meet the goals set for 2020 in… 2117.

That of course raises questions about the baseline used to set the goals, and about the data collection capacity underlying it. You will hear more on that in my next podcast, to be published in a few days.

Africa energy performance

 

News from Poland

cop

Disclaimer – this post was written on Friday.

The first two months of my new job at SciDev.Net have been great, more than I dared to expect. The first day ended up boozing at an Italian restaurant, and after a brief research trip to France I am now blogging from Warsaw, in Poland, where I’ve been following the climate negotiations of the UNFCCC (COP19).

I know I’ll miss the vibe of these two weeks, but I can’t stay away from London for long without being homesick. So my flight back will be bittersweet, and Sunday will mark the first day of a reflection on the profession, on my personal goals and on international politics.

For now, I want to record an interesting discussion that took place yesterday over an oversize Polish beer and a plate of salmon. During the day, the EU spokesperson showed up at the media center to brief the journalists off-the-record. Counterintuitively, I recorded the conversation, though for my own use.

Then, discussing with my new friends it turns out that one of us is firmly against the off-the-record as well as the politics of embargo on press releases. Interestingly, he maintains that the embargo is a way for PR of controlling the journalist. He also thinks that the off-the-record shouldn’t exist as if a piece of information matters it should be immediately made public.

I appreciate the beauty of the ideal, radical transparency, but I don’t really think it can work in the long term. Some information needs to remain in the background, or it could not only be damaging for the subjects involved, source and journalists, but also be ultimately misleading.

That said, of course one needs to judge case by case depending on what’s at stake, but try to think about an ugly beast such as the climate negotiations. It’s an issue that looks pretty tangled and I promise, seen from inside it is even worse. Would it be of any good to disclose every word that you hear from a politician? I think it wouldn’t improve your reporting nor the public understanding of what’s really going on.

Giving to politicians and NGOs representatives the possibility of talking freely provides you with perspective and enables you to ask critical questions.

Though skilled sources will try to feed to you the questions they want you to ask their opponents, I think that a good journalist may take advange of off-the-record information more often than not.

What do you think?

Want to move? Happy to help

Memories from the best year of my life - really

 

After my interview published in IoTornoSe, I keep receiving messages from people who are currently in the same situation I was in two years ago.

Sadly, I don’t have the time or capacity to reply to all of them but I do remember how much help I received from people I barely knew at the time. Without them, my life wouldn’t be as happy as it is now. I would probably still be in Italy, with an underqualified and underpaid job.

I really understand the importance of receiving the right information and support while planning a life abroad or just considering the idea of working with partners in another country.

I think the economic crisis in Italy is striking the media particularly bad, because it affects not only salaries but also the profession’s values. And that’s of course frustrating for those who choose journalism in the hope of (*saving the world*) giving something back to the community.

At a point in your career you may ask yourself why you are struggling so much, for so little money, when your job has lost all of its public interest.

I won’t say that everything is perfect here, or that moving from Italy is always a winning gamble; but in my opinion it is certainly an option.

For those who are considering to pursue a career in journalism and media in the UK, I am thinking of setting up a blog with as much information as I will be able to scrape for you. I can try and put you in touch to people able to give the right advice, or just compile a FAQ list.

For the time being I am looking feedback in order to detail the project and make sure it will be of some help. If you are curious, interested or willing to take part, drop me a line and let me know what you’d expect from the new platform.

How To – Audio Slideshow

Few weeks ago me and my editor came up with the idea of writing a practical guide on audio slideshows. It’ll take a while to plan and eventually publish it, but I thought to pen something about it in the meantime, since multimedia production is occupying most of my time and attention at the moment.

Also, there are myths to dispel about the audio slideshow format. Before starting to work with audio slideshows in a professional way, I believed they were just a poor alternative to the video, easier and cheaper to produce.

To me it was more a thing that a geeky teenager would make as a dedication to his sweetheart. Something like that:

Nah. That’s not the case.

It’s not easy to make a good audio slideshow. You need to be familiar with at least two softwares, for audio and video editing. I use Premiere Pro for the video part and Adobe Audition to assemble the audio track. If you take your own pictures, which I try to do as much as possible to have better visuals (and avoid copyright annoyance), you’ll need to edit the RAW format with Lightroom.

While a film requires very basic skills in terms of audio, for an audio slideshow you want to produce a piece that is suitable for radio and therefore of very good quality. It also needs to be smartly combined with the visuals and that’s a matter of taste and practical skills.

Sometimes you may think it’d be cool to have a particular effect, but you just don’t know how to do. And if you are under pressure you really don’t have the time to crawl the internet for tutorials.

There are a couple of effects that are specific for audio slideshow production and are almost useless in video editing. So, some videomakers may struggle because they simply haven’t been taught how to use them.

Once you know where to find the commands, the interface of Premiere Pro is pretty intuitive. Below you can see the effects control panel (click to enlarge). By manipulating “position” and “scale”, after having selected a clip, you can move a still image and zoom it in and out.

In the effects panel the red line marks the time on the track,  while the bullet points mark the beginning and the endpoint of the change in position and scale (zoom).

(My interface is in Italian but the layout is the same of the English version)

premierepro interfaceYou can use the same panel and commands to change colors, luminosity, contrast and saturation of a clip.

I used this trick for an  audioslideshow that I was asked to edit (in particular, at 1’18” to 1’28”). Some of the original pictures weren’t great so I tried to make them more lively with just a touch of color manipulation.

 

But let’s start from the beginning. Here’s the first audioslideshow I’ve ever made. I still maintain it isn’t completely bad, the pictures are nice and the audio track is interesting. However, I didn’t use any effect to make it flow better and the audio is just a chunk of footage which I didn’t edit.

Here is one of my latest creatures. I cross faded all the pictures and used some zooming and panning. This is a tricky bit, as it’s difficult to build a perfectly paced piece without being boring or cheesy. For example, pictures need to  slow down when to create an emotional effect, while you’ll make them flow a bit faster to compensate a boring and flat voice.

Once you have a good grasp of the basics, you can adapt the audio slideshow’s design depending on the materials you have . For example, while interviewing a group of researchers for the story you can watch below, I discovered that they had some very pretty video footage. I seized the opportunity and tried a mixed format.

Hope this is useful. Should you have any question [or remarks :’) ], feel free to drop me a line below!

On being a beggar and becoming a magician

magician

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while. I knew I wanted to write something about the life of a freelancer, and also about my personal experience as an expat.

Almost a year has passed from when I first landed in my new home to start a new life and I felt ready to sum things up. Every day I forget another bit of what it felt like to live in a country without hope and to be part of a disrupted industry. Still, it’s good to shed new light on old memories. Asking questions, even to myself, and trying to understand difficult dynamics is part of my job.

So, I was planning a reflection on my experience as Italian freelancer when Italy anticipated me. The national media community was shocked by a letter written by the war reporter Francesca Borri, appeared on the Columbia Journalism Review. In the opinion piece she denounced the problem of Italian media, speaking out over the economic crisis in the field that’s endangering the quality of national journalism.

Borri has been criticised for her auto celebrative tone, but after the first appearance of her contribution the debate on the condition of freelancers in Italy had sparked. By coincidence, in the same period I gave an interview to the blog “Io torno se” [I’ll come back if…], telling about my experience and how my life has improved from the personal and professional point of view. I didn’t mean to make it come across as a lousy fairy tale, but there I was.

Being very current, my interview got a lot of traffic, and I received a number of messages on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin. I was honestly surprised by how people perceived my experience as a sort of upside down Italian dream. That is clearly a misinterpretation of my story, nonetheless I was deeply touched.

Many shared their personal stories with me, sometimes they even asked for advice. This made me think about my life in Italy, how hopeless I was. In a way I would have liked to make very clear that I didn’t just take a header. I had to plan, to be very rational and build a better, but reasonable vision of my future.

Dreams are good, but are nothing without gumption. Moreover, dreams are personal and it is really not for me to teach people what should they look like. As a 29 year old me, after a year in the UK and a master in Science Journalism, I would be more interested in speculating about strategies and processes instead of knowing everything about a particular ‘case study’.

But then I thought about the 28 year old me, in my previous life, and realised that in Italy, especially if you are a journalist, you want to dream because dreams are all you’ve got. There’s no point in working on strategies, in having an entrepreneurial attitude, in planning a career if as a freelancer you get from 15 to 50 euros a story (bloody hell! – said my teacher).

I now would prefer to focus on what I have learnt and not on my lame tale, but I have to be honest: it was a very personal story, a compelling case study, that took the 28 years old me away.

Being a freelance journalist here is a good life. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t manage to find a better job, but that you are so good that your editor chooses you every day. Every single piece of journalism you will deliver will be of good quality – and will be well paid.

In Italy, the label “freelance” is just an euphemism for “broke flex worker”. Nobody is proud to be a freelance. For me, it’s a dream job. With a couple of relevant exceptions, I wouldn’t trade it for the security of an office position.

If I survived Italy, I can not only survive, but enjoy an extremely flexible life here.

Being a freelancer is a great opportunity to improve your skills and stay updated, it’s a demanding job but you are free to choose your favourite stories and report on them in the way that suits you best.

While in Italy I felt like a beggar, here I feel a bit like a magician, my work is full of surprises and my task is – also – to be surprising.

World first gene-bank for livestock – a multimedia pilot

For those who are still wondering, yes I’ve finished my Master, I’ve managed a pass in media law and I finally dare to say that I am a – certified – science journalist!

Just don’t call me science writer please, I will always be a journalist more than anything else.

Anyways, rather than publishing merry pictures of farewell parties, cakes and other amenities I thought to celebrate my graduation with my first multimedia piece published by a professional platform.

It is a pilot for me as a journalist, and for SciDev.Net that has just set up a new website with more space for multimedia reporting and features. There are more in the pipeline, so every comment is welcome.

#Reflective Journalism – day two

Building a Narrative

Not exactly the most productive Saturday morning. But it’s a weekend after all. In order to write the extensive proposal I am gonna submit to the – potential – hosting platform next week, I need to lay out a clear structure.

The first thing we’ve been taught at the beginning of the year is that each article must tell a story; therefore it needs a narrative that flows well: A goes to B, B goes to C.

This project is about building a strong narrative that flows throughout a series of seven posts. Not only every article must tell a compelling story, but it should lead to the next one like each step brings you higher in a stair. So here’s my first map, I wrote it pencil on paper like a proper marketing strategist. Or an investigative journalist if you prefer.

reflective1 reflective2

Fancy eh?

Maybe the final point needs a bit of clarification, but I’m almost there.

reflective3

#Reflective Journalism – day one

Today London was sunny and spring-scented. For City Journalism people this means not only the end of a tough winter, but also the beginning of our work on the final project.

We can choose between different media, and each path has different rules. There’s print, TV, radio, and online. I chose the latter, which has been my specialism for years by now. Despite being mildly concerned, I am truly excited about this project. This is going to be my first important piece of journalism in English, and I am designing it to address important issues of UK economy and politics.

The project will be a blog consisting of seven posts; it will also include infographics and video. The host is a surprise, I’ll reveal it only once we have a deal… I am a superstitious Italian, after all.

Along with the project, we’ve been asked to write a 1000 words’ reflective piece, in which we should describe the editorial production process, our personal and professional evolution, how the project has been laid out. Through this reflective work we’re supposed to set goals and evaluate them at the end of the year. It might happen that they turn out to be different from we thought at the beginning, it’s part of the process.

For the time being, the only thing I am sure about is the title, “What do you do in a recession? Science, Innovation and Money”.The topic is a combination of different issues, chosen among what to me is more interesting, relevant to understand how science talks with the society. I will speak about research funding, economic and cultural uncertainty, spending, resilience and creativity in science and technology.

And of course, given my – enquiring soul – (someone would call it gossip slant) I will play around with FOI. Fingercrossed about that, it never goes how it’s supposed to.

While keeping you up to date on my progresses I will use this space to take notes and be sure that nothing is forgotten along the way.

day one