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What Filmmakers Can Learn from Journalists (and Vice Versa)

ONA13At the always-electrifying Online News Association conference, filmmakers could learn plenty from journalists—including the fact that journalists think they need filmmakers.

Video was all over the conference, as one of the essential storytelling tools for the digital journalist. Whether in the rush to create little explainers, or discussion of maker tools such as those provided by Zeega and Treehouse (Interlude), or the chatter over the New York Times’ recent interactive video Op Doc, Kat Cizek’s “The History of High Rises,” video storytelling was clearly one of the darlings of cutting-edge journalists.  Todd Melby’s Localore project, Black Gold Boom, was an ONA award winner.

And journalists are also winning video awards for their work. Applause moment: When futurist Amy Webb gave a tip of hat to Andy Pergam’s video team at the Washington Post, which won a regional Emmy award in June for “station excellence”—even though the Post is so not a broadcast station.

For anyone hoping to cut down on costs for aerial photography, the good news brought by the University of Nebraska’s Matt Waite is that soon the law will permit civilian drones. He flew a drone over the heads of conferees, causing only mild alarm.

After a century of drinking the objectivity Kool-Aid, journalists are grappling with the challenges of discovering story, acknowledging perspective, and telling stories from and with different points of view—all as part of the job of telling people the news. Homicide Watch’s Laura D’Amico said, “Every user enters the story differently, and it’s important to remember that every entry point is the beginning of a story.”

Journalists and filmmakers alike are are learning the need to build production teams drawing upon skills that they may never have known they needed before. 

This is boldly clear in the challenge of using big data. As big data increasingly become both available and critical to business models and content alike, both journalists and filmmakers need, as keynoter Nate Silver told them, to build partnerships with people who really understand statistics.  

They both need to understand the principles of data visualization—some of which are grounded in a basic understanding of statistics and some of which have to do with aesthetic choices.  Even though there are ever cooler tools to create data visualizations—one of ONA’s award winners was D3.js--the big challenge is to know why one way of presenting data is a better representation of the truths to be explained than another.

Both journalists and filmmakers, many of whom grew up in a mass-media world, are struggling to sort out tools to feed digital users who are now getting customized, nonstop streams of data. It’s a confusing world, and a welter of services were on display at ONA. Apps such as ban.jo let users sample and filter relevant news from a specific geographic area. Services such as iris.tv let companies find the right users for the right content (and advertising). Meanwhile, public TV is still struggling to get a back-end service for public television stations and their viewers to access content conveniently, and Hulu continues to be conundrum for the television industry. 

The dark side of big data was also on display at ONA, which featured several sessions and a keynote on government surveillance issues. Just as relevant, of course, is corporate surveillance.  In a fascinating and alarming presentation on emergent business models, John Foreman of Mail Chimp demonstrated how much is known about—and then used to affect the behavior of—the people who get the email newsletters that Mail Chimp users send. Which recipients are more likely to open an email in the morning? What works better, a short email subject line or a long one, and with whom? Which email domain names show the highest click-through rate?

Even without access to individual user accounts, Mail Chimp neatly triangulates with publicly known information to get astonishingly granular detail on their customers’ customers. This same kind of information, Justin Ellis of Neiman Labs pointed out, was available to journalism organizations. Milking this data to further monetize the relationship with journalistic users was the forefront of digital business models, he suggested. We can now officially be nostalgic for the days when only our eyeballs were sold to advertisers on television.