Found in Montreal

Just got back from a quick trip across the border for a workshop on teaching entrepreneurial journalism. Stay tuned for a rundown of what I learned. Meanwhile, enjoy what may be the finest piece of schwag I’ve picked up in a long time:



What can Zeega do for journalism?

Digital narrative is being redefined with projects like Snowfall Firestorm and, this week, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Bounced Around.

These stunning, intricate works are landmarks on the path to tomorrow’s journalism, but they also require more resources than most newsrooms can muster. That’s why tools like Zeega are so exciting. By meshing the curation power of Storify with the layout and design features of PhotoShop, Zeega allows users to piece together elegant, interactive narratives like these. Or join the Internet’s perpetual genuflection to cats.

Regardless of your end goal, Zeega is free and fairly straightforward to use. I’m especially fond of how it generates automatic citations for curated content, creating a trail of verification for viewers. Also nice: Zeega uses HTML5, not Flash, so it’s compatible with virtually every device.

If you’d like to give Zeega a try, follow these steps:

  • Click here to go to the Zeega homepage and create an account.
  • Click the blue “create new Zeega” button in the upper right corner of the homepage. You’ll see a user interface that looks something like this:


  • The column on the left is your pallet. Use it to find publicly-available sounds, images and videos. You can also upload your own.
  • Drag and drop those elements on to the black canvas in the center of the page. Elements can be combined using layers similar to those in PhotoShop.
  • To add a new slide in your Zeega, use the “add page” button in the upper left. To add text or change the background color, use the buttons to the right.
  • If you’d like an audio file to play during the Zeega, add one using the “soundtrack” button in the upper right.
  • When you’re done, publish and share your Zeega using the buttons in the upper right.

Want to learn more? Poynter’s NewsU recently hosted a Zeega webinar. You can watch a replay here.

On becoming a visual storyteller

It’s mid-March here in New Hampshire, which means several things: spring skiing, mud and town meeting — a centuries old form of direct democracy where eligible voters in a community gather annually to decide public matters. Should the town mandate recycling? Give the teachers a raise? Buy a new wing plow for the highway department?

It’s fantastic — especially if there’s a bake sale in the lobby.

I long ago lost track of the number of town meetings I’ve covered, but this was the first year I thought to document any part of the experience with photos. (My former colleagues in the Concord Monitor’s photo department, on the other hand, take town meeting visuals seriously.) But on Saturday morning, as I sat in the back corner of a sunny community center, I noticed how the light touched the pinstriped curtains on the voting booths. It was simple, beautiful and iconic.

Here’s the picture I took with my iPhone, toned up a bit with Instagram:

Road repair was the big issues at the 2013 town meeting in Northfield, NH. Photo/Meg Heckman
Road repair was the big issue at the 2013 town meeting in Northfield, NH. Photo/Meg Heckman

In the year since I joined Instagram, I’ve learned to see photos in my daily life. It grounds me, helps me notice details and write with a sense of place.  Sometimes I’ll take a picture of an item I want to describe in words later on or share a moment on Twitter or Facebook like something out of a visual reporter’s notebook. It’s immediate, provisional and accessible.

This kind of thinking is crucial to modern journalism. As this piece on points out, “the web is a visual medium.”

It didn’t start that way, back when HTML truly was all about marking up text. Over the years, though, the options for shaping the appearance of a Web page have grown more plentiful and sophisticated.

Now, of course, Web producers have a wide range of design tools at their disposal. Color, typography, imagery, positioning and many more design elements can be tuned to exacting detail. Emerging technologies like CSS3 and HTML5 make it easy to implement these visual ideas.

In the right hands, an array of design choices can produce impressive results. Misapplied, they can create a visual cacophony.

Effectively using visual elements has been a challenge as I’ve evolved from writer to post-platform storyteller, but so worth the effort. I love the idea of grabbing whatever tool will best tell a story organically. Pen and notebook. DSLR camera. iPhone. Sound kit. Data visualization software. All of the above — or something we have yet to imagine.

It’s an overwhelming prospect at first, but, done right, one that allows us to create the kind of narratives in which, as Ken Burns says, one plus one equals three.

From sob sisters to girl bloggers

Rosalind Russell plays reporter Hildy Johnson in the 1940 film 'His Girl Friday.' Souce: Wikimedia Commons
Rosalind Russell plays reporter Hildy Johnson in the 1940 film ‘His Girl Friday.’ Souce: Wikimedia Commons

Hildy Johnson chased down stories for a newspaper. Murphy Brown worked out of a cable station. And, as Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore wrote in this piece, today’s fictional, writerly heroines tend to toil away on blogs.

Tenore’s story reminded me of The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a project by USC Annenberg to document fictional journalists through the ages. The backbone of the project is a searchable database full of fun tidbits, but it also makes for an interesting study in how technology and evolving gender standards are changing perceptions of female journalists.

One of the first female characters in the database is a woman who dresses as a man to work as a reporter in a 1874 novel. It wasn’t long, though, before women were working openly as journalists in books, movies and TV shows. As USC journalism professor Joe Saltzman writes, fictional female reporters were more socially acceptable than the real thing during the first half of the 20th Century:

Practically every major actress of the period showed up in tailored coat and pants to fight the males in the newsroom, to assert her individualism and independence… and to become one of the few positive role models working outside the home.

Saltzman goes on to describe the origins of the term “sob sister” — a label given to female reporters because they were often handed tearjerker assignments as opposed to hard news. The sob sister concept, he says, has persevered over the decades:

The 21st-century images aren’t all that different from the images of the sob sisters of the past – if a woman is successful, it means she has assumed many of the characteristics of the newsman, losing her femininity in the process. Or, in most cases, she stays tantalizingly female and uses her womanliness to get to the top. It’s still mostly a no-win situation. For every positive image of a successful female journalist in film, TV, novels and short stories, there are a dozen stereotypical clichés.