Digital Tools Can Enhance News Storytelling

As much as journalism seems to have changed in the digital era, storytelling remains at its heart. Journalists need to embrace the new tools offered online to enhance their craft. The [Cedar Rapids, Iowa] Gazette's Max Freund: "The digital tools available to us should not be seen as a hip, young takeover of classic journalism. Instead, they should be viewed as valuable accouterments."

Editor’s note: CrowdCheck is a new occasional commentary guest written by the media industry’s digital professionals offering ground game tips and insights.

 As a young journalist I went through college being told, “The world of journalism is changing.”

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And while that statement may instill fear in some, I don’t think it should.

People always have and always will want interesting, entertaining and insightful stories, and writing will always have a place.

The digital tools available to us should not be seen as a hip, young takeover of classic journalism. Instead, they should be viewed as valuable accouterments.

So here I will detail my experience with three simple, inexpensive and powerful digital tools — audio, data visualization through Fusion Tables, and simple programming in Python — that have added to the written word.


Brand Connections

There is no denying the power an audio piece can provide a story. It is impossible to convey the inflection in your source’s voice in a more effective way than allowing the reader to listen to that source’s emotion directly.

A reporter can attempt to set the scene of a room through descriptive language, but letting someone sit back, close their eyes and listen to the ambient noise of a setting waft over them has a stronger effect. Furthermore, in-studio pieces like expert roundtables and Q&A’s can provide valuable depth and context to a story.

The quality of an audio piece is directly proportional to the money spent. A tricked-out recording studio will produce higher quality sound than an iPhone shoved in a source’s face, but there are a few quick ways to produce polished audio for pennies.

Do you have a phone? Then you already have an audio recording device.

Apple’s iPhones come with the application Audio Memos built in, and Android devices have a similar program. And for just a few bucks you can download and test a variety of recording apps. If the audio quality that comes directly through your phone isn’t pleasing, there are external microphones that plug in and provide more clarity to the recording.

But the key to the audio quality is to control your setting.

Sometimes that isn’t possible. Sometimes you will be in a crowded room, but whenever possible, isolate your subject to record the interview.

If you think the ambient noise of the setting is valuable, then return to the location and record that noise separate from the interview. This will allow you to fiddle with both the interview and background noise independently.

Once you have your audio, you have to edit. This is a step many traditional journalists skip. They record interviews for note taking purposes and translate the quotes into their written stories, and then discard the recording.

Stop that. There is value in that sound, and there is no reason not to give the readers that added value.

At The Gazette I split my editing between two free programs, Audacity and GarageBand. Audacity is cross platform, while GarageBand is for Macs only.

However, they both work in roughly the same way.


Both are non-linear editing software. Your audio will appear as one continuous line of sound, and you will see what is called the waveform. Essentially, it is a visualization of the sound.

From here you clip, cut and move around the audio until you are satisfied.

As you can see from the pictures, there are multiple tracks present. Remember that ambient noise tip? By placing the ambient noise on a separate track you will be able to adjust the levels and location of the noise independent of the interview.

Both programs have similar functionality, however I prefer GarageBand because I find the interface easier to navigate.

At The Gazette, we want to make quality audio a consistent part of our reporter’s stories. As a result, we have invested in a recording studio, which is outfitted with four microphones, a mixer, a computer and a device for recording sources that call in. The whole setup cost around $1,000.

To familiarize the reporting staff with the equipment, I have undertaken a weekly podcast show called Week in Review. I bring reporters into the studio that have written interesting stories from the prior week — usually two or three per show —and have a short conversation about their story. This allows the reporter to gain valuable experience with our equipment, while also giving them an outlet to provide interesting anecdotes about their reporting process.

This podcast format, while fun, can also provide monetization opportunities. If the content is consistent and develops a following, then find a local business that wants to provide a quick advertising message at the beginning or end of the show.

Newspapers sell space in their papers, why not attempt to sell space in your audio?

Visualizing Data

I don’t care who you are; you cannot look someone in the eyes and honestly tell them you enjoy looking at spreadsheets.



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