Saturday, 30 October 2010

Tech journalism, science journalism - tips & thoughts from London Girl Geek Dinner

The recent London Girl Geek Dinner on tech journalism was one of the best and most useful ever, for anyone who writes or broadcasts video or audio - whether or not as a professional journalist - eg tips on how to shoot professional looking video. Thanks as always to Judith Lewis and the team for organising this practical and interesting event, I think the first I've been to since the Regent Street shopping event.

Journalism is still very much a male dominated profession, about 60% male, and in technology and science journalism the percentage is the same if not worse.

Equally bad is the fact that, as the attendees agreed, far too many technology magazines and journals are seemingly aimed just at men (see my rant on tech magazine sexism in GirlyGeekdom - about T3 magazine, which I don't subscribe to anymore, quelle surprise. And, while I'm at it, much stuff aimed at women seems to be designed by men too, like pyjamas. Humph.)

Even Wired UK, who provided for the event free copies of their mag and some discounted subs, received some criticism for being written almost exclusively from a male perspective.

It seems that the market is nicheing or fragmenting. There is probably room for a magazine which caters for (or at least doesn't ignore) the growing female appetite for technology - indeed it's likely to be welcomed with open arms, at least by the attendees!

Now on to the individual talks.

The 3 journalists / broadcasters, who kindly gave their time to share their experiences and tips with us, were (in order of appearance) Angela Saini, Connie St Louis and Ramaa Sharma, and all of them have been or still are connected with the BBC.

Angela Saini - tips on being a journalist

Angela Saini, now a freelance journalist and author (blog), gave some practical tips on how to be a technology journalist or science journalist (her own background is engineering).

She doesn't seem to have put her slides online. I didn't make many notes as most of her points although very good and helpful seemed to be common sense to me.

Interestingly she was quite firm in her views on the distinction between bloggers and journalists. If you just sit in front of a keyboard, you're not a journalist. You have to go out there, collar and interview people, get exclusives.

See more on her blog post after the event, which also repeated her argument that the quality of media and news generally is going downhill as journalism is being devalued, both by "churnalists" who just copy and paste official or corporate press releases, and by people willing to work for free - interns as well as bloggers.

She thinks that journalists should demand to be paid, and paid fairly, for their work. (Apparently tech journalists generally get paid about 40 or 50p a word in the UK; more in the US.)

Surely editors and readers are partly to blame as well, for putting up with things like churnalism?

Connie St Louis - journalism qualification

Connie St Louis (blog), while still producing radio programmes for the BBC etc, is in charge of the Science Journalism MA at City University's highly regarded Department of Journalism. She too has a science background, in biology.

These days it's getting harder and harder to get a job in journalism, and having a formal qualification like a postgrad degree in journalism is one way to get your foot in the door.

The National Union of Journalists also offers training (it seems a bit chicken and egg to me though, if you have to have a journalism job before you can be an NUJ member, rather like trying to get an Equity card - not that I have one of those either).

Connie's Department also does research on journalism and media. One fascinating current project of hers is looking at the prevalence of churnalism by running plagiarism detection software on "news articles", as the source news releases are usually published online. The results will be published probably next year.

I'm looking forward to seeing them. I must say I had noticed the phenomenon myself, as I now subscribe to science / tech related news releases where I can, and had spotted the striking resemblances between many so-called news articles and the official news releases.

I don't read press releases so that I can copy them into blog posts - I don't hold with that, and never have. Too many people do it, bloggers as well as some professional journalists. In my view, either be the first to break the news, or else produce thoughtful reasoned analysis about it (which takes time and research). Don't just play "follow the leader" and repeat the press release or the first person who wrote about it.

I subscribe to news releases because I believe in getting the info straight from the horse's mouth as it's more likely to be accurate and reliable (assuming the body issuing the release isn't lying of course!), and more importantly it's less likely to be garbled or taken out of context - unlike in many secondhand reports, I have to say.

When blog posts or news stories don't provide links to the full original source, I really don't like it - there's no excuse for it, especially on the web (so what if "a government paper said…" - what's the full title of the paper, what department issued it, where can I get a copy?).

I often try to track the sources down for myself. In my own blog posts I certainly always try to link to the source where possible, so people can check the original if they wish, and hopefully see that they can trust my rendition.

Of course, it now seems obvious why many media articles don't link to the original - maybe they're worried readers will spot that they've just been copying press releases wholesale!

Ramaa Sharma - gadgets for multi-media journalism

Ramaa Sharma, who now teaches journalism internally at the BBC, is living proof that you don't always need a science background to get into tech journalism.

These days journalists have to be able to do stories for the web as well as TV, radio and print; and they not only are expected to write the stories but also to shoot the videos, record the audio and do the editing and uploading.

Ramaa gave us some very useful tips on multimedia journalism, including tools which don't cost the earth and won't break your back lugging them around.

In my view the latter is a big factor, not just for people who've done their back in like me, but also because making the gear that you need for the job too huge or heavy can be a deterrent to women, as we're simply not built like men.

Her recommended equipment included:
  1. Benk tripod - brolly sized and lightweight, yet opens out (to oohs and aahs, virtually) to quite a decent length. She said she got it from Maplins but I can't tell if it was this or this or indeed neither, as neither says "Benk" in the photo or description and they both cost the same, just £19.99).
  2. Gorillapod - a range of tripods for cameras as well as video cameras; basically a small tripod whose legs can be wrapped round almost anything. (If I were T3 I'd probably be making a "joke" about that.)
  3. Kodak Zi8 HD Pocket Video Camera - relatively cheap at under £100, very portable, now used by the BBC following her comparative review of this camcorder, the Flip and the iPhone. It even has a socket for a separate mic which the others don't. BBC WorldWide's poignant video about the Afghanistan dancing boys was shot using one. The only con with this kit is, you can't monitor the volume or quality of the audio live as you're recording it, for audio limiting; but she wouldn't be surprised if the next model had this feature too.
  4. Mic - most microphones will work with the Kodak, the one she had with her was a BeyerDynamic MCE 58. And from my own experience, don't forget that all important microphone shield or cover to minimise wind noise etc.

Her tips on shooting video that looks professional include:

  1. Keep the camera steady - don't be tempted to follow the subject around if they move, frame it carefully and then hold still. And shaky video is a no no! Hence it's important to use tripods, as to which see below.
  2. Take a mix of shots - at least one long distance shot, a medium distance shot and a close up shot, each one for about 10 seconds minimum; they can be used in your edits.
  3. Should be an obvious one, this - but don't have the light behind the subject (eg shooting in front of a window), have the light behind you.
  4. Video editing tools - when people asked for recommendations she suggested Final Cut for Mac, Adobe Premiere Pro (eek at the price, I say!) or Adobe Premiere Elements for Windows. (And here's me wiv Windows Movie Maker…)

You can hear these tips and more on Ramaa Sharma's video on pocket-sized video journalism.

Future Girl Geek events

The best way to find out about future LGGD events, which are generally free thanks to the generous sponsors, is to sign up for the London Girl Geek Dinners mailing list.

If you're male you can still go, as long as you're accompanied by a responsible female ;D (who signed you up for the event). I'm open to suitable bribes…

There are Girl Geek Dinners all over the world, just search to see if you have one locally.

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