Month: March 2017

Bleacher Report has a pet fish and is crushing it in the social media sphere. (Bonus: I become a stalker during this post.)

Friday, March 17, 10 a.m., Bleacher Report, New York City

It is interesting that when I tell my cab driver, who is an older man in his 60s, the address of Bleacher Report, he says, “Isn’t that where Newsweek used to be?” Newsweek is still there, but that exchange speaks volumes about the audience B/R pulls in — young men.

Yet as soon as I walk in I feel right at home. Maybe because I love sports or maybe because this place feels a lot like my college newspaper with the close quarters and congenial attitude of employees. Sports-related posters on the walls are random (I went nuts over a Spud Webb poster because, as a “short” person, I’ve always been a little obsessed with him.). Nothing feels extremely put together, and I mean that in a good way. This is the closest I’ve felt to an old-school newsroom in a while.Inside the Bleacher Report newsroom.

My favorite finds were 1) the arcade-like basketball game in the back of the office (B/R’s new digs will have an actual court) and 2) the pet fish. I feel confident the fish is in good hands because of the newsrooms I’ve been so far, the B/R staff is most welcoming, open and unlikely to kill an animal.

 Bleacher Report's pet fish

Six TVs set to various games are on and it’s March Madness time when I visit. (Every newsroom I’ve been to this week concedes that it’s a lost week due to March Madness sucking employee time and energy.) As I expected, sports paraphernalia (helmets, jerseys, etc.) sprinkle the office.

 Group workstations in the Bleacher Report newsroom

One of the things I always tell my students is that whatever they love in life can be turned into a career in journalism. Do you like gaming? Write for a gaming website. (Or be like PewDiePie, the most subscribed YouTuber in the world since 2013, currently at over 54 million. He basically makes a living because people watch him play video games.) Do you like animals? Shoot photography for a magazine or website that specializes in animals. Are you a daredevil? Be an international reporter that goes to far-flung, dangerous corners of the world to report on what others will not.

If you love something, there is a place in journalism for you.

 Bleacher Report journalists and editors looking happy.

Bleacher Report is a great example of that kind of niche journalism which, in this case, happens to be sports. More and more, companies are hiring journalists who are not trained as journalists, but specialize in, for example, science, then become science reporters. (A great example of this is Carl Zimmer, who visited my classroom at UA recently.)

At B/R I speak with Maurice Peebles, deputy editor of trending whose Twitter handle is @tallmaurice. I love that he embraces that (see photo of us below for comparison). The “trending” part of his title means that he looks at what topics people are talking about then turns those into further conversation with more content.

Maurice Peebles "@tallmaurice" and Meredith Cummings.
Maurice Peebles is so tall his Twitter handle is @tallmaurice. He barely fits in the frame.

Peebles is a Jersey boy who went to Rutgers and dove into the grind for years, blogging about sports with two friends. The two friends eventually dropped off and it was just him. Over time, things started taking off, but not before he took other jobs that had nothing to do with sports as he continued to blog. This speaks to another thing educators tell students, but until they do it it’s a hard concept to grasp. Telling students, “Finding a job is a full-time job. It is hard. It takes time,” is one thing, but living it is another. As Peebles said of his former blog:

“We were doing that for two years before we got any traction at all. The weird part for us was trying to stay positive while getting maybe 15–20 hits a day.”

Peebles refers to Bleacher Report as a “social first” company and is proud of it:

“I find a lot of people get into writing because they have something they want to say, and that’s important. But if you want to make a career out of this and you want to continue to be accessible to a lot of people you have to look at the audience and sort of see, what do they like? What are they gravitating towards? It’s nice to combine the two. I feel like in my role now I’ve really got a great chance to do passion projects as well as sort of look to grow our audience.”

I ask him what challenges Bleacher Report faces and he answers with candor:

Maurice Peebles at Bleacher Report, interviewed by Meredith Cummings.

After my visit to Sports Illustrated just a day earlier and comments made there by Kelsey Hendrix, it was interesting to see Peebles echo her sentiments about diversity in newsrooms, specifically with sports products. Peebles said B/R, which has a target audience of millennial males, wants to be careful not to focus too much on “frat boy dude culture.”

Maurice Peebles at Bleacher Report discusses diversity in newsrooms

12 p.m., Columbia University Journalism School, New York City

Talk about two different worlds. Not only are they not geographically close together, Bleacher Report and Columbia University couldn’t be further apart in their atmospheres, but I am here on a mission.

I am stalking a man named Nick Lemann who I think I might find here. Alas (words like alas are things you say when you’re at Columbia), he took a train to Boston just before my arrival and I missed him.

This isn’t a newsroom in the truest sense of the form, but I feel it worth mentioning that along the way I will stop at places to shoot video and photos for my classes. Lehmann is THE person I want to talk to about Joseph Pulitzer and his life. Many people know Pulitzer from the prizes that bear his name, but there is so much more to this man. So Mr. Lemann, if you’re reading this, let’s catch up!

I can’t even begin to think about talking about journalism history in any of my classes without a visit to Columbia to the school that Joseph Pulitzer bequeathed the funds to begin. So I traipse around campus and visit the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, of which I am a big fan.

Front door, Tow Center for Digital Journalism

I pay my respects to the Pulitzer statue both outside and inside, front and back (because you can never get enough Joey P.) at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Joseph Pulitzer statue, Columbia University.
Joseph Pulitzer statue outdoors, Columbia University.

Stay tuned for the second leg of my trip soon. For now, it’s back to UA to teach class.

Reblogged with permission from a post of the same title published at medium.com on March 17, 2017.

I’m LOLing and, OMG, look at that swimsuit issue! Today’s stops: Buzzfeed and Sports Illustrated

Thursday, March 16, 11 a.m. BuzzFeed, New York City office

BuzzFeed is exactly as buzzy as you think it would be. At the reception desk/security check-in I am offered stickers that say omg, wtf and lol, along with mints. Nothing starts a day off right quite like being offered a wtf sticker and a mint, both of which I take.

Even before I go into the building, the giant block font that greets me at the door and in the elevator area says, “This is going to be fun and very, very big.” Because the font is very fun and very, very big. I imagine all of my friends who geek out over typefaces would love and appreciate the clean lines. I have weird friends.

At Buzzfeed corporate headquarters, wall art that states "WTF" and "OMG"

I log onto the wireless guest Internet access and even the guest password is catchy and cute. From the moment I enter, Buzzfeed is a carefully cultivated image of hip. At 44, I have never felt so old.

I have not been given clearance by BuzzFeed’s public relations department to shoot video while at BuzzFeed (despite my attempts), but my very quick tour gives me a sense of the place. No. It slaps me in the face with a sense of the place.

As I am whisked up several flights of stairs, the culture clearly screams “WE ARE YOUNG AND HIP,” which is exactly what I expected. Not in a “We are young and hip and better than you” kind of way, just in a matter of fact manner.

On every desk is a yellow circle, just like the ones on the top right of the BuzzFeed home page, with each employee’s name on it. On each floor a kitchen area offers various drinks and snacks, from giant plastic containers of various nuts to a row of cereal that would make Seinfeld jealous. These are my people because they love food. But their food is way cooler than mine.

The newsroom is like many newsrooms in America, with televisions (that day turned to CNN, at least at the moment I was visiting) and people milling about, but mostly sitting and typing.

In a large, open room I sit down with my friend to chat, but not before noticing the chalkboard, upscale-bar-like signs for Guinness. While we talk, a giant (and I mean giant) wall-sized screen interrupts us, as various people in one part of the building talk to people in another part. It is very Orwellian, but in a happy, IKEA-fied way, as the furniture and decor, from tables to chairs to lamps, look like high-end IKEA furniture. Much of it is blue and orange and yellow and there is color everywhere. This is interesting because the floor, ceiling and walls are gray and industrial-style, except for the walls that were Expo-marker friendly that employees can write on. (I’m totally doing this to one of my walls when I get home because now all I want to do is color on the walls.)

At Buzzfeed corporate HQ, a glass wall with large decal stating "ROFL"

 

 

For all of its embracing cat videos and text message abbreviations, Buzzfeed’s split into a separate entertainment and news division has allowed it to come into the news business like a bull, and not do things in a business-as-usual way. Remember when it dumped a Trump dossier? (Which, by the way, I ethically disagree with because it violates the SPJ Code of Ethics, but my students and I have had healthy debates with each other and with a Buzzfeed employee who visited.) This is the second time during my project I am reminded that media companies, in some ways, cannot do journalism in the same way they once could.

Journalism has clearly missed the window for the time to step back, take a breath and think. So it strikes me that many media companies are trying to see what might stick. (In college, we used to throw spaghetti at the wall to see if it was done. If it stuck, it was done.) In Buzzfeed’s case, the expansion into seemingly endless new territory (See Tasty and Nifty) seems to be working. But in many companies I feel like lots of spaghetti is being thrown at walls.

Maybe it’s because I saw Aladdin on Broadway the night before I visited Buzzfeed, but I wish for a lamp and a genie so I can see into the future 10 years and see what journalism in America looks like. Will we even know what ROFL means any more?

2 p.m., Sports Illustrated, Time Inc. Building

Outdoor mirrored edifice of Time, Inc. HQ.

If part of my goal is to take a snapshot in time of 2017 media companies, Time, Inc. juxtaposed with Buzzfeed is a good study in that. The differences between the two are subtle and important.

Time, Inc. has carpeted floors, as opposed to BuzzFeed’s industrial look and is starkly more traditional. I feel no need to use abbreviations here. Or take a quiz.

I sense history, in part due to the photographs from years of SI on the walls and, downstairs at the entrance, a Time photography retrospective.

Time, Inc. is right by One World Trade Center and is imposing and corporate from the outside. I meet Kelsey Hendrix, Producer at Sports Illustrated (SI) on an upper floor after clearing security (something I’ve been asked to do at every media company in New York, but this one is particularly thorough). I’ve been here before, to visit Time magazine, where the elevator spits me out today, and there is very little differentiating Time magazine from SI.

The same colors and red filing cabinets, chairs and accents are sprinkled throughout the offices with standard issue cubbies. I’m no decorator, so I only point this out to show that newsrooms all have different vibes and this one is clean and corporate, except for that one random dog I saw walk through with its owner.

Hendrix runs social media, writes and edits articles, produces videos, calls talent (SI models), writes for Campus Rush (part of SI) and freelances for People Country. (I honestly had never heard of People Country, but in my defense I don’t enjoy country music. I might be the only person in Alabama like this.)

We talked a lot about magazines and the magazine industry — she works heavily on SI’s Swimsuit edition each year), and the magazine insider information will be helpful for my classes. I noted that there were no large posters of SI Swimsuit editions plastered to the walls any more than there were SI magazines everywhere, except one place:

Hendrix also runs several social media accounts. One of the challenges of her job is to not repeat herself on social media and use a different voice for various social media, while keeping her own voice in her personal social media. She said the two are widely different. Social media can be fun, but if you run a bunch of accounts for work, it’s not quite as fun when it’s for pleasure. (I may be interjecting some of my own experience in this, but it echoes what she said.)

What really strikes me, though, are her comments on diversity, but let me first put them in context of my week: Being in New York is always refreshing to me. In a cab my driver was from Poland. In an elevator a Swedish couple canoodled. Today I was on the subway and the man next to me was reading a newspaper in Greek. A group of young men wearing yarmulkes sat across from me. The man next to me spoke Italian on the phone. Frankly, these are things I don’t usually see.

Hendrix struggles to reconcile her surroundings with her work environment, something I’ve already heard several times on this trip from other journalists, and I’m just at the beginning of my journey.

Diversity in newsrooms is something that will come up again, as I am making it a point to ask every single person I talk to about this. Her comments need no explanation:

“In my personal life, diversity is all around me. I live in New York, one of the most diverse places in the world. There’s no escaping the fact that people from literally every part of the world come here and I think that’s the most beautiful part of New York. You’re on a subway car with people from 10 different countries at any given point in the day and that’s a beautiful thing. Diversity in the newsroom can still use a lot of work. As — and I don’t pull this card often — as a woman working in sports there’s definitely still a lot of room for more women to work in sports and for — especially women covering mens’ sports and men covering womens’ sports — for us to figure out the best way to cover those behind-the-scenes in depth, without being intrusive and without overstepping lines of privacy that should be there. But our industry could really use more diversity, for sure.”

Reblogged with permission from a post of the same title, published at medium.com on March 17, 2017.

Driving as fast as I can: Winter Storm Stella is really ticking me off

Tuesday, March 13,  8:30 a.m., Franconia Governmental Center, Franconia, Virginia

My project is a huge one, so I decided to start by visiting someone I know, as I am using new camera equipment and anything can go wrong. I also woke on about four hours of sleep and am running on pure adrenaline as I set off on this six-month adventure.

I am also in a hurry to get out of Virginia to beat a potential blizzard to my next stop, New York City. If I do everything as planned, I should get there just as the storm arrives.

Taylor Holland, a former student of mine at UA, is chief of staff for Supervisor Jeff McKay in Fairfax County, Virginia. He has a picture on his office wall of himself with former Disney actress-turned-singer Selena Gomez. I feel that this will not inspire confidence in his constituency, so the first 10 minutes I tease him mercilessly about that. We share “Roll Tide!” in various parts of speech like that ESPN commercial, then get down to business. (But not before I pull a large hairbrush out of my camera bag and primp as if it were me going to be on camera. In my defense, you never know. A reporter is always prepared. Plus, at that moment I may have looked like Einstein from the gusty wind. Priorities, y’all.)

Taylor Holland

A politician’s office may seem like an unlikely stop for a project chronicling American journalism, but Holland has seen reporting from both sides of the political fence, both as a reporter in Selma, Alabama and at the Washington Examiner, then as chief of staff for a politician. In fact, it was specifically his journalism experience that landed him the job with McKay’s office. In Holland’s words:

“We could do all the good in the world, but if we don’t effectively communicate it, no one’s going to know.”

I have long held that government should serve the public and journalists should as well. Holland agreed with me, and not just because he earned an A in my classes:

“It’s the role of politicians and journalists to both do good for the public. I think that’s why we both go into the field.”

The visit wasn’t without some sidestepping of national politics, which we shied away from. I’m saving that for a later stop on my cross-country tour.

“I think people look, especially now, to journalists to lead the way to shine light on things that maybe shouldn’t be happening,” Holland said. “I don’t want to spend too much time on that because there are so many things that shouldn’t be happening.”

Journalists must shine light where there is darkness. This is the mantra I repeat to my students. I hope they listen.

10:30 a.m., USA Today, Tyson’s Corner, Virginia

USA Today has got to be the most tucked away yet large, beautiful newsroom in the country. The expansive building fits nicely into the landscape with lots of glass and foliage. I think it says something when a media company is literally transparent. Mostly that there are things in this building that I will probably break.

USA Today offices, with considerable floor-to-ceiling glass.

I wanted to track down the architect and give that person an award. (I grew up surrounded by my dad’s blueprints.) Parking was so easy I thought I was being tricked. When I arrive at a newspaper that calls itself “America’s newspaper” I expect more traffic.

Executive Editor of USA Today Network National News Desk Beryl Love welcomed me into his office which immediately gave me emotional whiplash. On one wall was a beautiful framed montage of front pages from 9/11. It was haunting. I have a photo on my office wall of the twin towers and Statue of Liberty. I feel like there is a kinship among people working in newsrooms that day, and certainly all Americans, but an unspoken journalistic respect beyond his fancy title struck me.

On another wall is a shelf of smiling Cleveland Indians bobbleheads and an old M5010 Mac similar to the first computer I ever saw. So I knew right away, here is a man who has lived through defeats both large and small. World Series and floppy discs. I was careful not to bring up the Cubs.

Executive Editor of USA Today Network National News Desk Beryl Love

I interviewed him for over a half hour about various journalism-related things that will be helpful to my students, but are too numerous to list here. His laid-back, steady demeanor echoed his past, relaxed life out West in Reno.

Love talked to me about how one of the nation’s largest circulating newspapers decides what goes in the print edition each day. It all points back to website analytics and social media. I liked his analogy:

“It’s almost as if once a day we put our hand in this river of news and stop it for a second and take a snapshot of where we are.”

We discussed how stories bubble up into the national news from small communities (USA Today works with many local papers that are Gannet owned). He used an example of a Florida editor sending him an email about a story about a jet ski and cruise ship almost colliding. So in that case, the news came from a person in that community.

This speaks to what I’ve always thought much of the general public misunderstands: News isn’t random and haphazard. It isn’t always determined by social media as we know it. Often it’s determined by that as-old-school-as-you-can-get method, word of mouth and person-to-person. Editors everywhere have a Code of Ethics and values that help us determine what is news and how to treat it. So in a way, American newsrooms are back to square one. In Love’s words:

“People used to think to be informed they had to read or watch Brand X, Y or Z. That brand awareness people had for news and for information got decimated in a digital space. The challenge I think that we face is to make that watchdog accountability relevant to a different audience. One that has no ties to print and no loyalty to any product … The challenge for us is, we’re not going to back off of our First Amendment responsibilities, but we can’t do business as usual.”

One thing I was consistently aware of , especially when talking about brand loyalty — and this is not unique to USA Today — was the branding being pushed by Love. I don’t mean pushed in a bad way. Simply that every company that practices journalism now has to think more like public relations professionals do about how to brand and represent its product.

It trickles down to reporters. I used to love the anonymity of reporting. I enjoyed being in a community and watching people read my work and them not knowing I was listening to their reactions and overhearing conversations about issues I covered. Now Twitter/social media/clicks and shares have made that impossible, because if people don’t read or watch what you produce then it doesn’t make the company money.

What if they didn’t have to do that? What would change then in American journalism?

Reblogged with permission from a post by the same title, published on medium.com, March 14, 2017.

Follow My Lede: Six months, 10,000 miles and dozens of newsrooms: Chronicling American journalism

I love road trips.

The past two years my daughter and I have driven to New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, California (and down the coast) — all from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

On these trips I usually stop in and see friends who work in newsrooms. As a reporter turned journalism instructor (and freelancer) I have quite a collection of friends at media outlets because I’m sinking into the middle aged quicksand. Some of these visits are to my friends, some are former students.

Over the course of these trips something started to simmer and bother me: What people say about “the media” does not sync with what my experience has been as a journalist working in newsrooms in various states. I believe that newsrooms are as varied as Americans. My brief stops across the country back that up.

Meredith Cummings with her camera, on a balcony.
On assignment for a travel piece for a magazine (while representing my beloved Crimson Tide).

 

Journalists are Americans. They are old and young, rich and struggling, immigrants and people born in the United States, liberal and conservative, optimists and pessimists and, frankly, everything in between because it’s too hard to put them into a box, any more than I could put myself into one.

I need to test that hypothesis and see if I am right. Mostly for my students in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama, but also for myself.

So today I embark on an approximate 10,000-mile road trip over the next six months to visit newsrooms across the country, both large and tiny, traditional and cutting edge, general and specialized to talk to reporters, editors, content managers, graphic artists and social media managers. This mammoth undertaking is part of an innovation project I proposed to The University of Alabama. To my surprise — because my plan is a little bit nuts due to all of the driving — they said “Do it!” and I was named an Innovation Scholar In Residence.

It’s fitting that I start this journey today, the day Sunshine Week begins. Sunshine Week is a way for journalists to shed light on the fact that this country sorely needs better open records laws. (I’m pointing the finger squarely at my home state. Get it together, Alabama.)

At this moment, I am typing from a hotel in northern Virginia, having just driven 12 hours and lost two hours (thank you daylight savings time). I am literally driving into a blizzard in New York City tomorrow after local stops. I am tired.

Yet I am so excited, because Sunshine Week is also a great time for me to shed light on what “the media” actually does.

I think of the old photos of newsrooms I have seen. Margaret Bourke-White with her camera. Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post newsroom, leaning oh-so-casually on the desk. Edward R. Murrow at a microphone. I want to chronicle American newsrooms in 2017, beyond blown-up political rhetoric of “fake news!”

My students know that I like to rail against Americans for wanting everything to be black and white, this or that, left or right.

Where is the nuance? What about those gray areas in between? Life is almost never that simple. It’s messy and complicated and tangled.

By the time I am finished visiting all 25–30 newsrooms, my classes will be full of video and written content for our students. I also hope to write about my experiences as I travel. I anticipate that I will learn a lot from this project, even as I teach my own students.

I want to use video obtained through these visits to support learning objectives in each part of my classes. My goal is to bring these theoretical and abstract concepts to life for our students. While Skype and other online tools are fine for letting someone speak with a class, nothing matches the vibrancy of a newsroom. This project will help me bring the stories that happen in newsrooms daily to my students, but also to the public.

Many students have a picture in their heads of “the media,” but I want to drive home the point to them that the term “the media” can mean many different things.

Feel free to come along for the ride too.

Reblogged with permission from a post by the same title published on medium.com, March 12, 2017.

Video Lectures: From Concept to Reality

In my first entry, I discussed several of my sources of inspiration as a way of describing how I initially approached the project of making lecture videos. I’m going to leave most of the technical details – what applications I used, how I achieved particular effects – for a third entry. This entry, then, is an account of the awkward transition from abstract vision to deliverable course. Some of the awkwardness was the result of my working style. I don’t tend to systematically evaluate the options before moving forward; I dive in, try things, and, after hitting quite a few dead-ends, get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

One of the first decisions involved determining what proportion of the visuals would be created “from scratch” and what proportion would be “borrowed.” I’d start with a voice-over script that was my own, certainly, but I didn’t necessarily have to write, draw, photograph, or film every visual element I’d use. I already integrated a handful of film clips and photos in my typical classroom lecture, but video lectures presented the opportunity to do this on a much grander scale. What if I just made the whole thing out of clips? Wouldn’t this be better than bullet points or some digital approximation of a whiteboard?

The Pedagogical Potential of Sampling

Here, I feel compelled to cite another point of inspiration: the sample-based hip-hop pioneered in the 1980’s. Listening to this music taught me that a skilled artist could re-purpose clips of existing creative works and make something that felt just as compelling and original as any new work. Sampled beats and horn blasts carried with them the expensive studios and skilled session musicians of the originals, yielding a sound that had a professional sheen to it which other do-it-yourself musical movements like punk and “indie rock” simply didn’t possess. I found echoes of the methods and aesthetics of sample-based hip-hop in online culture of the past decade. Nearly every bit of viral ephemera circulating through social media seems to include an existing photo or phrase re-purposed for ironic intent.

Once you see the creative possibilities of sampling, everything around you (particularly images and recorded bits of sound and video) becomes a potential component in whatever you’re trying to create. This is, mostly, how I approached the process of creating the visuals for my lecture videos. I say “mostly” because I created some visual elements (maybe 25% of those used in my videos) from scratch, typically by creating and animating Powerpoint slides with figures and text and then recording these animations using video editing software. But the vast majority of the visual elements in my videos were appropriated.

Sometimes, I had particular clips or photos I wanted to use, either because I explicitly referenced them in the script or because they were good illustrations of the general principle I was explaining in the script. In the case of film clips, I could just hunt down DVDs of the film and capture the relevant part of the DVD using video capture or editing software, but I quickly realized that this approach would be too slow and onerous. The amount of labor involved in this process would mean that it would take months to create a single clip-heavy video lecture (the math on this changes if you have assistants, as a documentarian might, but this is unlikely to be the case for many teachers). And so I turned to the internet.

Knowing What You’re Missing

Finding these clips or photos was as straight-forward as any online search: I typed various iterations into Google Images or YouTube until I found what I was looking for or until I became too frustrated to keep trying different iterations. This process continually reminded me of the limitations of the seemingly-limitless troves of content freely available on Google Images and YouTube. There were also times when I didn’t have a particular image or clip in mind; I needed an example of a montage from the silent film era, or an image of a director, any director, working with actors. In these instances, the limitations of freely available content weren’t as obvious. I could find exemplars easily enough, but they tended to be the same exemplars, over and over, reflecting a certain limited set of sensibilities: American, white, young, and straight. This worked against my intention to feature images of a diverse array of people in my videos.

What was true of YouTube was also true of Google Images. It’s quite easy to find images and video of young, attractive, white people engaged in a wide variety of behaviors, but much harder to find images and video of anyone else engaging in anything other than culturally stereotypical behavior. There are exceptions, of course, but they take time to find, and so I had to build in the extra time to dig deeper than the first layer of YouTube and Google Images.

Of course, the sampling approach to making videos raises all sorts of ethical issues. Here’s where I landed on those issues: as long as you provide proper attribution and don’t create a substitutable version of the original, you’re okay. There is a way to create a sample-heavy work that motivates the listener/viewer to track down the entire original work, thereby increasing the visibility of the original. This happened with me while watching Visions of Light and I hope it happens when I include a visually stunning clip from an obscure Iranian film to which most students would never have been exposed. I feel a bit less certain when defending my use of interviews and B-Roll from documentaries I found on YouTube. Arguably, I’m mooching off of others’ hard work, and because lecture videos exist outside of the classroom context, I can see how they could be substituting for the original in some sense. I’m certainly open to a debate on what it’s okay to sample in a lecture video.

From the Specific to the Abstract

The sampling method is great when you’re describing a concept and want an accompanying visual to act as a kind of concretization of the concept, but this isn’t always what you want. Many textbooks and classroom lectures alternate between explication of abstract concepts and descriptions of specific examples, but most online video “explainers” either commit to showing specific examples of concepts explained on the soundtrack or show simple animations corresponding to the words on the soundtrack.

In its specificity, video forecloses imagination in a way that print and audio tend not to. When listening or reading, individuals can imagine what characters and places look like; in the learning context, students can fill in your own examples of a concept. So, that’s one thing I discovered through trial and error: there are certain ideas that I wanted, in some sense, to remain abstract. In such instances, I created animated diagrams that used shapes to represent concepts and their relationships to one another.

Creating and Maintaining a Visual Style

When creating these diagrams, I tried to think in terms of color, shape, movement, and using the entire frame. I used similar colors for ideas or concepts that are proximate to one another, and contrasting colors or shapes for concepts that are not proximate to one another. I didn’t bunch things up at the top of the frame just because the program with which I was working did this by default. I avoided using small fonts, anticipating that some students would be watching these videos on smaller screens. And I maintained visual appeal by moving the shapes around the frame, not in a gratuitous way (i.e., because I could), but instead as a means of improving clarity and keeping students engaged.

While I used some variety from minute to minute to keep students engaged (in terms of editing pace, color, and amount of movement), I tried to maintain some level of consistency across the videos. I found that if you use a lot animation in the first half of a video and don’t use any in the second half of the video, it was distracting (the viewer is left wondering, “where did the movement go? Why did things slow down?”). Each lecture video and the series of lecture videos will have a kind of internal stylistic norm that guides students’ expectations, and violations of those expectations will distract the student.

Here, it’s worth paying attention to how long it takes you to create your first lecture video. Of course, some of the process will become easier and quicker as you become more experienced, but not all of it will. If you develop an aesthetic that requires forty hours of work per video, you can easily end up with inconsistent qualities across your videos that is borne out of the necessity of finishing all of your videos in the allotted time.

Often, I wouldn’t know if a certain moment of the lecture would work well with a particular image until I tried it out. As the accomplished film editor Walter Murch notes, stitching together a motion picture is a lot like learning how to dance: you just need to get out there and try it.

Here is an example of my approach to sampling in online lecture videos:

In the next entry, I’ll share more of the technical details of the video lecture creation process.