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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