See you soon, London

With one post a months I am really pioneering a new era of senseless slow blogging. You’ll know who to vote for the next Lazy Blogger of the Month awards.

Next on my schedule a trip to Ethiopia, where I will attend the second high level meeting of the African European Energy Partnership as part of the comm team.

I promise pictures, sounds and other frolics in ten days time.

 

In memory of a freedom fighter

aaron-swartz

I am not a programmer, and I don’t know much about the inception and evolution of the open access movement. But I spend a great part of my day on the internet.

The internet gave me a job, reshaped my social life and my ethics.

Today I discovered that exactly one year ago an internet activist, Aaron Swartz, committed suicide after being charged with illegally accessing a computer network at the MIT. He was just 2 years younger than me.

It makes me proud to know that in my new life, which I gained at the price of my homecountry, I have the power to act, the freedom to speak and the means to learn from people like Aaron Swartz.

Journalists aren’t so different from internet activists after all. We all fight for justice, we take up the same battle.

Aaron Swartz won’t be forgotten by the hacker community, but we should remember him as well.

Don’t do it for journalism

Thomas Guest via Flickr

Thomas Guest via Flickr

Do we really need to learn how to code? As journalists, I mean. Do journalists really stand out if they know how to code?

I’ve always liked the idea of learning how to code, as I like the idea of doing a million of other things. Though today I came across two divergent opinions  on journalism and coding that made me reconsider my stance.

The first column won me with a classic line:

“Every skill you don’t have leaves a whole class of stories out of your reach. And data stories are usually the ones that are hiding in plain sight.”

Scott Klein imagines a generation of brave new programmer journalists freshly graduated ready to steal your best stories and eventually your job. Unless you learn to code, I guess, even though they are younger and faster etc. The piece includes a list of highly cool data investigations that “any of us would have been proud to have written.” All of them are great stories, underpinned by programming.

But admittedly, most of them are the result of the joint effort of programmers AND journalists. Only one story displays the individual byline of Joanna S. Kao, interactive developer and reporter. And I wonder if Joanna actually works full time in a newsroom or gets most of her salary working at the digital desk.

It’s just on this question that the second voice stroke me with a simple, straight answer.

Coding may be useful for a very narrow category of journalists, but definitely not for all of them. Not even for multimedia people like me. Yes, my job requires a fair amount of technical skills. But not coding. Sadly and simply because I will never be as good as a professional developer and I am paid to be an editor, a reporter and a producer and my boss wants me to do my job.

Most of the big and medium size companies can afford to outsource this kind of specialised services, and if you want to be the coding guy you probably won’t be as sharp as a reporter, not having the time to practice your writing/reporting skills. I can see that in my job, when sometimes I struggle to combine editorial and technical tasks, while trying to also produce my own stuff.

I hate to admit it, but some super cool skills aren’t really useful in real life. If you want to play with computer, learn video and audio editing, maybe Illustrator, or After Effects, to create animations (I am lusting over it, it’s one of my new year’s resolutions). These are things that can be combined with journalism. Or better, with a JOB in journalism.

And beware, data journalism is not just for coders. Though it’s an obvious point, the author of the “pro” column seems to forget it.

It’s definitely true that “data stories are usually the ones that are hiding in plain sight.”

But to be a data guy you don’t need to know how to code. Really, you don’t. Familiarity with spreadsheets and huge patience to scrape them are a very good starting point. You probably need to know how to design and write a FOIA request. Then you can build on that, and the internet is packed with free tools to visualise data and make them interactive. But unless you are a professional developer you will never match stuff like that.

I think it’s still good to learn coding. But I want to do it for a good reason, because it’s important to be ITC literate, because it may be fun if you are a bit of a nerd and because it’s cool to know stuff that the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue about.

For once in my life, I won’t do it for journalism.

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?

New beginnings

Wow, it’s been more than a month since my last post. In my defense, I can say that much has happened and I was pretty busy, apart from a week of totally needed and deserved holiday in Italy.

Part of the last month has been spent preparing (and worrying about) the job application for multimedia producer at SciDev.Net. It was a quite long process, but I am happy to say that I got the job and I will start tomorrow.

Here’s the showreel I produced for the application.

So from tomorrow on my life’s gonna change and as I was told by my friends I am now a “proper Londoner”.

On top of it I also opened a blog in Italian, Penne in Panne, to support Italian journalists who want to move to the UK to study or work. I hope the project will bring together an active community in the next months. The crisis-chocked Italian industry is leaving too many young people unemployed and hopeless, thus moving to another country is for many the last chance to have a decent career. And I think that looking for better learning opportunities is also a good investment for the future. Should we see an Italian renaissance in a decade or so, there will be need of well trained brains that at the moment don’t seem to be welcome in Italy.

Other more cheerful resolutions for the coming year include learning French and improving at coding. Maybe I will build a robot at a point. Who knows, life’s full of surprises around here.

robot_david

Why Raspberry Pi

Last week I went to Cambridge to meet a group of engineers and computer scientists who are working with US$30 Raspberry Pi computers. Few of them were undergraduate students, very young yet impressively competent and passionate about their work.

I left the campus with a mixed feeling of enthusiasm and embarrassment, recalling my early twenties when I was still merrily wasting my time with a degree in Communication, while these boy-geniuses are developing solutions to save the world.

Of course, a place like Cambridge is ideal for great minds to thrive. They have funds, infrastructures and the best of the world’s research in many fields. I have been in Oxford as well but I liked Cambridge better, I found a more friendly and open-minded community. And they were building robots.

Robots!

A robot!!

A robot. Not sure what’s for… but hey how cool.

Needless to say, they won my heart.

Before visiting the lab, I had the opportunity to discuss with one of my interviewees the issues of education and open source, currently crucial within the IT community. The Raspberry Pi’s concept is interesting not because of its technology, which is really simple, but because it’s been designed to encourage people to take part and learn how to build computers and write softwares.

In the age of the internet our life is becoming more and more dependent on information technology, yet very few people are familiar with it. For example, not having a clue of what happens behind my screen when I work with a particular software or I look for information online makes me feel uncomfortable.

It’s true that we don’t need to know how everything works in our everyday life to use it properly and safely. For example, not all car drivers are mechanics. But a car is based on a stable technology that doesn’t require any major adaptation from the user. I can manage my granpa’s old banger or the last BMW with the same driving competences.

Things are different when it comes to computers. The internet is a dynamic environment and the technology underpinning it is in constant change. Of course computer science is not all about the web, but I dare to say that the way humans are now able to interact with machines is probably the major breakthrough in the whole history of information technology.

However, according to researchers a further step is needed. At the moment people know how to use internet and computers, but they don’t know how to build machines in order to perform original tasks.

The world is facing unprecedented challenges and innovation is more important than ever. Bringing people into computer science and engineering is crucial to develop solutions to new problems.

Knowing how to use a CMS or a search engine is not enough. These are tools designed for responding to relatively limited needs such as blogging or searching in the web. Only by creating adequate tools to perform brand new tasks we will get ready to respond to the needs of a changing world.

Open source technology and cheap computers like Arduino or Rasberry Pi are designed for this purpose. Enabling more people to participate in the improvement of technology is not only an act of democracy. It will also bring better results.

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.