Your correspondent, in his closet

I climbed into our closet yesterday, with a laptop and a Flashmic. This was much less kinky than it might appear. In fact, I did so in the line of duty.

At The Economist, as at most other media organizations, we correspondents are being encouraged to produce occasional videos alongside our reporting pieces. So I did that this week: I wrote a piece about California’s “petition industry” for ballot initiatives, and produced an accompanying video.

Allow me to regale you with the rather comical process involved, and with some observations about technology.

First, I should point out that print journalism is as distant from video journalism as a Bach concerto from a a Salsa bar. You can excel at one and suck at the other. I stipulate that The Economist has been quite good at print for 167 years, but that we have not transferred that success to other media (for instance, when we tried to do television in the 1990s).

That said, multimedia seems to be the future, so it makes sense for us to buy a call option (ie, to risk a small amount for the potential of a big upside).

So a cameraman, Eric Salat, and I joined John Grubb, Tyler Vanderbilt and the team of Repair California as they collected signatures to put two measures on California’s ballot later this year. Eric then sent the footage back to London, where Marguerite Howell edited it. The first thing she did is to take me out. (You still see me briefly in a few frames.) That’s because, for the time being, we must stay on brand, you see. Meaning: anonymous. Apparently, you are allowed to hear my voice in the “voice-over”, as long as you don’t know my name.

Now, about that voice-over:

Marguerite wrote a “script” that would fit with the footage she selected. The first thing we had to do was to edit that script together. In the old days, we would have emailed a Word document back and forth. This time, I just clicked on “Open as a Google Doc” in my Gmail, then “shared” the doc with Marguerite.

This meant that we were now able to edit the script together — she in London, I in California — as though we were typing at the same computer. We weren’t even pressing “save” or “refresh” in the browser. Whatever change one of us made, the other saw in almost-real time.

“Please tell the others in London how easy life could be,” I begged Marguerite, aware that some of our colleagues are not yet ready to abandon their … typewriters.

Then it was time for me to read the script out loud. Skype is not good enough for this sort of thing, so I used the Flashmic, with Marguerite on speaker phone.

“You sound hollow, echo-ey,” she said. “Can you go somewhere with fewer bare surfaces?”

I took the laptop and mike and sat on our bed, amid the pillows and blankets. Still not good enough.

“There’s always the nuclear option,” said Marguerite. “Would you consider climbing into your closet?”

I did. Miraculously, that took care of the echo.

On cue, some of my wife’s items, stacked in a female way, descended on me from above — the sound effects of which Marguerite on speaker phone seemed to enjoy. It occurred to me that I was lucky my wife’s high heels were on the other side of the closet — I was in the hiking-boot section.

Once you actually voice-over, you have to keep fiddling with the script to fit the timing of the video footage, and I kept thinking how cool it was that I could simply look at my laptop screen, without even touching it, to see Marguerite in London change my words in the Google Doc.

I have been on American radio a few times, where producers always pester you to exaggerate and over-enunciate your syllables, CNN style, and to say words with shock and concern, especially when those words are banal. I’ve never mastered that tone. Now, however, to my pleasant surprise, Marguerite said: “Don’t worry about that. Just speak however you feel.” Great place, The Economist.

And so it was done.

Now, a few closing remarks:

1) Don’t despair (yet)

You will be tempted to point out all the obvious ways in which our website is bad at displaying multimedia content. For instance, I was not able to embed the video in this blog (even though there is a deceptive “embed” button?!). I was barely able to get the permalink — in fact, I’m not sure the link works even now. The print story does not obviously refer you to the video, nor the video to the story. Et cetera.

Rest assured, that those and other shortcomings are just as apparent to us as to you. And we are fixing them.

The problem, I am told, is our existing content-management system, which we are phasing out, with difficulty. The new system is called Drupal, and it rocks. Soon, very soon, the website will be great, in all the obvious ways.

2) Technology conclusions

Based on this little experience, I am able to endorse two technologies.

  1. Google Docs, and cloud computing in general.
  2. Closets.

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19 thoughts on “Your correspondent, in his closet

  1. Great stuff. I’m loving google docs too – all except the footnotes, which are really poor. I want to switch over for all my writing, but it’s not quite there yet.

    • The only thing I have not yet transferred to Google Docs is my book manuscript — and for the same reason: When I started writing, about two years ago, there seemed to be no footnotes/endnotes in Google Docs.

      But that may have changed. Have you checked lately?

  2. Glad to see you came out of the closet, finally.

    I tried to listen to the audio/video on the Economist website, but the feed kept stopping. Perhaps the troubles are on my end here. I tried several times, but only was able to hear half of it.

    Your narration sounds clear and easy on the ear…

  3. glad that cloud computing works for you, and appreciative of the link to your older blog about it – so i don’t repeat any previous posts.

    this link is interesting as “cost” is the first hurdle that comes to mind when i think of cloud computing.

    http://www.cio.com/article/499137/The_Skinny_Straw_Cloud_Computing_s_Bottleneck_and_How_to_Address_It

    since i need all the bells and whistles of my current software, free apps in the clouds don’t entice me. besides, what is the expression, no free lunches? the apps may appear to be free, but what of the cost of access?

    i am grateful to be able to afford my home computer and also to be able to afford the $19/mo. internet fee. not everyone is so lucky.

    anyone know if the xo computer is compatible with cloud computing? http://laptop.org/en/

    • I think all internet-connected devices are compatible with cloud computing.

      BTW, I don’t quite follow your logic: You object to the “cost” of cloud computing, but still buy Microsoft Office?

      The marginal cost, for most consumers, is zero. Which is to say: I pay an all-you-can-eat fee to my internet providers (AT&T on my iPhone 3G, the cable company for my home, the various WiFi providers on planes and in airports etc). I would buy the connecticity anyway. Once I have it, however, things like Google Docs, Facebook, etc are free. (free to me, that is. There is a small bandwidth cost to somebody else.)

    • the all you can eat buffet you describe is way out of my price range. assuming i use ms office, it’s a one time 100$ fee, over time it breaks down to nothing.

      my home phone has no long distance, cell phone for emergency use only, receiving government phone assistance for land line – $19/mo. is all the “connectivity” i can afford. it’s my link to the outside world.

      the apps i pay lots of money for are adobe creative suite – assuming they eventually offer something similar in the clouds for “free” wouldn’t i be paying monthly bandwidth fees to access? (it is what the article implies)

      for many the cost of a computer is cost prohibitive, for others the cost of connectivity – i must not know enough about cloud computing, how will it save these people money? perhaps i misunderstood the article – it doesn’t seem to be cost effective for many business either.

    • You misunderstood: By “all-you-can-eat” I meant not opulence but a fixed price.

      You are already paying that fixed price (because you are commenting on a blog, for which you need an internet connection. Ergo, you have an internet connection.)

      Beyond that, for you as a consumer Google Docs is entirely and completely free. So you could save yourself the Microsoft tithe (which my wife and I will do, next time we buy a computer)

    • o.k. yes.

      “for many the cost of a computer is cost prohibitive, for others the cost of connectivity” – i am able to afford the cost of a computer and with $$ help an internet connection, because you cannot have internet without phone, therefore in my case, i no longer need to purchase MS Office.

      1. is google docs compatible with MS Office or Open Office or etc. for those who have not made the switch?

      2. isn’t MS Office a good thing to fall back on (ROI wise) if you can’t afford the cost of connectivity?
      in my neighbor hood those who can’t afford a computer go to the library where they have two options a. use the internet but you cannot “save” – b. use the computer lab without internet access

      3. my complex apps are NOT available in the clouds, should they be in the future i would expect a cost increase in connectivity (whereas buying the software is one-time cost)

      4. case by case the article states “the issue of bandwidth and data location” is cost related.

      so basically google docs works to eliminate a few simple apps if you were going to pay for connectivity anyway? i am missing how this is the wave of the future?

      if i was really broke i could cancel internet and “burn my work to cd/dvd” to transport it since my expensive apps must be purchased. not free in the clouds.

      perhaps it is only in it’s infancy, a few things would have to evolve; unlimited bandwidth, more complex cloud apps, negligible few for service connectivity costs. this would be very useful, but then how would the inventors(?? creators) profit from cloud computing?

  4. I think you may have got some facts confused Cheri. From the title of this post, and the above photographic evidences, all I can see is Andreas still deeply embedded in the closet comfortably. While “echo” was given as the reason, I think Andreas just want to share with us the closeted side of him. In fact, Andreas is flashing us at the same time, well, ok, Flashmic-ing us.

    P.S. Wow, $999 at Amazon, that Flashmic is one expensive bugger. I can’t find more info from the Sennheiser.com site. Is it a battery operated or you need a PC?

    For the following Christmas recording, my better half sang using a Sony Karaoke mic and I did the capturing using the Griffin iMic http://www.griffintechnology.com/products/imic/

    P.P.S. I just feel so sorry for my friends and relatives living in California. Your latest post (plus what I’ve learned from the earlier debate) has inspired me to write a blog entry tentatively entitled, “Why I hate the California initiative industry more than the Chinese Hot Pot Industry?” I am not sure if I can do humour well, it will be fun, I hope.

    • Your wife seems to have unusual talent. A female Orpheus, in fact.

      The Flashmic is obscenely priced. Fortunately, somebody somewhere FedExed it to me for this recording and I just have to FedEx it back.

      My guess is that within a year or so we’ll have the equivalent of a Moore’s Law bring the price of recording crisp audio down to the negligible.

  5. “………..(something) is as distant (or as different) from (something else) as a Bach concerto (is) from a Salsa Bar……….”

    I like this. May I use it?

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