What I learned from J2150

Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

This will be my last blog post for J2150. The projects, quizzes, hours spent assembling audio and video are all over. After next week, it will all be finished. Although I’m still working on finalizing my final group project (which you can check out here), and studying for the multiple-choice exam Monday, I’ve been thinking about the lessons I learned in the class. There are plenty of them to share, but most of you who are reading this already know what they are. But there is one that stuck with me, and it’s nowhere to be found in an online lesson or 8 hours of Lynda videos.

The greatest lesson I learned in J2150 was how to set standards. For my first few assignments, I set my expectations too high, and when I couldn’t meet them, I was frustrated. During assignments, I collected audio that was too quiet or video that was out of focus, and I was no longer be happy with my work, because it wasn’t the best I could do.

Later on, I realized that it was more important to have three sets of standards, because otherwise it felt like I was always failing. Here they are.

At the lowest tier are the essential requirements for the task or project. If everything goes wrong, at least you’ve got the basics covered. I had a habit of turning in late assignments in J2150, and I don’t think I would have had that problem if I made sure to meet the requirements first.

At the top is your personal vision for excellence, an attainable yet challenging goal that requires going above-and-beyond the project requirements to reach it. I think most people have this in mind when they start a project, and that’s great. But it can easily become a barrier when you compare everything you do to professional work.

In the middle is a personal standard for which the requirements have been met, and you have gone beyond those to create a quality product you can be proud of. I think people forget about this one. They get frustrated that they couldn’t meet their highest standard, and they lose most of their focus. They ignore the good quality of the work they did accomplish.

Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” In a course as demanding as J2150, this quote is a necessary mantra. Looking back, J2150 was a great place for failure. I really enjoyed being able to peer review the work of my classmates and see everyone improve over the semester. We all made mistakes, and it was OK.

Anyways, it’s time to wrap this up. To everyone who reads this from J2150G, cheers! We made it! It was a great semester with all of you, and I hope you all do great things here at the journalism school.

—This is Ben Kothe reporting for the last time(!) from J2150 section G, Columbia.


Breaking the rules of J2150

During Monday’s lecture, we looked at a few examples of student work from the 7-week project. There were lots of interesting stories and it was great to see what other students have been creating. In this post, I want to share two examples of video stories with narrative elements that push the boundaries and break the rules of what we learned in J2150.

First is a short documentary about Justin Boyd, a sound artist living in San Antonio, who records and manipulates the sounds around him.

Justin Boyd: Sound and Time from Walley Films on Vimeo.

The ability to hear Boyd’s recordings while observing him in the field is a superb audio-visual experience. The video clips are also arranged into sequences that make use of this accompaniment. We see a tight shot of him placing a microphone on the train tracks and hear the rumbling vibrations that we would never hear otherwise. Then, medium and wide shots of the passing train. The scene I find most interesting is the reenactment of his childhood listening experiences, accompanied by Boyd’s voice. I thought it was strange to include something like that at first, but now I believe the director wanted to show Boyd’s curiosity and experimentation as being similar to the curiosity of children.

Next, a short film called “The Runners.”

The Runners from Banyak Films on Vimeo.

When I watched this for the first time, I noticed that almost everything about this footage goes against the techniques we learned in J2150. There are bad camera angles, shaky footage, clips that jolt in and out of focus, and audio that’s battered by wind and background noise. But considering that the film was shot from the back of a cart pulled by a bicycle, I think it’s all right to make some exceptions. And there are so many great things about this piece anyways, like the conversations we hear with the runners. Some of them don’t talk for long before brushing off the filmmakers, like the woman in the first clip. But others keep running and talking, and answer to personal questions like “Have you ever been in love?” You can learn more about the filming of this video here.

Matan Rochlitz and Ivo Gormley on their filming equipment.

These conversations make up for the technical faults of this film, as well as the interactions between the runners and the filmmakers. And despite the poor consistency of the interview audio, the sound of heavy breathing and shoes pounding against the ground provide rhythm and add to the experience.

Something that both of these videos have is the presence of the filmmaker. In Sound and Time, Boyd pauses and laughs when the sound of a passing train interrupts a scene. It’s a refreshing break from the serious moment, and it works to establish the setting of the film. And in The Runners, the filmmakers are part of the story. We can imagine the sort of bewilderment that the runners are feeling when they see Gormley ride alongside them, towing a camera-wielding Rochlitz.

These videos provide an example of the creative possibilities that we have with video stories. As we leave J2150 behind I think we should remember that we can still practice the fundamental techniques we’ve learned without sacrificing our creativity or curiosity.

Three weeks with NYT Now

On April 2, The New York Times released NYT Now, a news aggregation app for tablets and smartphones. It’s one of the two new Times subscription plans, the other being Times Premier.

But while Premier is a hefty, all access pass, NYT Now is for snacking. The app features a curated selection of stories, updated throughout the day by an editorial staff of 15 to 20. Based off of this trendy web page, it seems that NYT Now is geared toward smartphone-wielding young professionals who don’t have time to sit down with a newspaper, or read stories online. 

There are three tiers of stories in the app: Briefings, Top News, and Our Picks. Briefings are summaries of current events, and the content reflects the time of day. There is a 6 a.m. morning briefing, a lunchtime read from noon to 2 p.m., a 6 p.m. evening briefing and a nighttime read from 9 p.m. to midnight.


A snapshot of my feed on Friday, April 25, 2014. Some stories provide the estimated reading time, which is helpful for those who only have limited reading time.

Top News is a selection of top stories from the Times, with an emphasis on hard news and top opinion articles. These are full stories, but the story preview shows 2-3 highlights from the story in bullet points in case you just want to skim.

Our Picks is a curated selection of stories from other news organizations. Stories from Reuters, USA Today, The Guardian, Forbes, Wired and even FiveThirtyEight often make the list, as well as stories from lesser-known brands. This is one of my favorite things about the app. Sometimes I just want something good to read, and I don’t want to spend time searching for it. It’s also nice to see that the Times is highlighting the work of other newspapers, reminding us that there are plenty of other great stories and opinions around.


Another screenshot, this time from Our Picks. That eye-catching font used for the pull quote is NYT Karnak, a custom bold display version of Karnak designed by Font Bureau and Matthew Carter for the 2014 New York Times redesign.

I’m a Times digital subscriber. Since I have unlimited access to the website and the mobile app, I didn’t expect to find myself turning to NYT Now much. But over the past three weeks, I’ve had a great experience using the app. It’s a more polished version of news aggregation that doesn’t ditch quality for brevity. I remember trying Circa News a few months ago, and how it felt gimmicky and detached. Similar apps to Circa, like Summify, offer aggregated news summaries that are a bore to read.

Another reason I find myself using NYT Now more often could be related to the design of iOS. The New York Times iOS app is restricted to the Newsstand app on my iPhone, whereas NYT Now is not. That means opening NYT Now takes one less tap than the Times does. That extra tap might seem trivial, but it has a noticeable influence on where I’ll go for a quick read.

The NYT Now app is a great app for many reasons, but the odd pricing might hinder its success. A subscription to NYT Now is $2 a week, (or $7.99 a month) while a monthly digital subscription to the Times costs $3.75 a week. $1.75 more gets you full access to the Times phone and tablet apps, as well as everything on the website. If you already own a Times subscription, NYT Now access is free.

I’m excited to see what will become of NYT Now, and how other news organizations will react if the app becomes a success—or a failure, if people can’t get on board with paying for it. But I hope it sticks around, because it’s an example of what an excellent news app should be like. 

Comic Sans gets a makeover

Even if you know nothing about typography, chances are you have an opinion about the infamous font, Comic Sans. On Tuesday, April 7, Australian designer Craig Rozynski unveiled “Comic Neue,” a free typeface that attempts to dress up Comic Sans so that it might become more love-able. It’s thinner and trendier, but it still looks like Comic Sans. 


Comic Neue vs. Comic Sans

After Rozynski’s font was released, discussions about Comic Sans vs. Comic Neue popped up all over the Internet. I was surprised to see the variety of people that had such strong opinions about whether Comic Sans Neue was an improvement on the original or not. Even news organizations expressed their opinion: Mashable ran the headline, “A new version of Comic Sans actually looks pretty cool,” though Huffington Post’s story was titled, “Someone created a slightly less horrible version of Comic Sans.”

But why does Comic Sans need to be “fixed?” When Vincent Connare created the quirky font for Microsoft in 1994, he intended to use Comic Sans in a computer program that was marketed toward people who were hesitant to use technology. It was supposed to be warm and less formal than Times New Roman, the font that ended up in the final software. But Microsoft packaged it with their computers as a free font soon afterwards, and it didn’t take long before everyone was using it as a go-to font for inappropriate occasions. Sure, it looks fine on an elementary school science fair project, but when CERN scientists used Comic Sans in their presentation of the Higgs Boson Particle discovery in 2012, even Vincent Connare himself had to give them a piece of his mind, tweeting “@ProfBrianCox what’s with all the shit slides!”


A slide from the 2012 presentation by CERN

But Comic Sans isn’t all bad. The goofy serifs and uneven characters are easier for people with dyslexia to read, and the “doge” meme wouldn’t be as funny in a serious font.


So what good will it do to replace Comic Sans with a version that’s only slightly different? If people are not going to use Comic Sans, then I doubt they’ll use something that looks similar to it.

Will Comic Sans’ quest for world domination be thwarted by Rozynski’s Comic Neue?  I’m not so sure. We’ll just have to wait and see.


NOTE: Do you love Comic Sans? You might be a Comic Sans criminal, and in that case you need to visit this wonderful website and educate yourself on it’s proper usage. http://www.comicsanscriminal.com/

Spring Breaking in St. Louis


My “desk” is really just a board resting on a keyboard stand, but it was a surprisingly cozy place to work over break.

While many of my friends were away on vacation with their families for spring break, I spent my time at home in St. Louis. 

After everyone left campus Friday, my friend Thom and I went for an afternoon hike at Rock Bridge park. One of my favorite things about going to school in Columbia is the abundance of parks and trails so close to campus. In St. Louis, it’s at least a 20-30 minute drive to find a trail to spend a few hours on, but in Columbia, the woods are so much closer.





Image Adventures with Thom Carter.


Thursday night I went to see the Blues play the Minnesota Wild at the Scottrade Center with some friends of mine, who are also fellow Mizzou students. As we trekked back to my roommate’s house after the game, we ended up getting soaked by a rainstorm.



Zach Sullentrup at the Metrolink Station.



Jack Witthaus, Sam Byrne and Zach Sullentrup after the Blues game. At this point, we gave up trying to stay dry.


Every time I come back to St. Louis, I find new things to see and places to go. After visiting Strange Donuts in Maplewood for the first time over winter break, it’s been my ritual to stop by and grab some deliciously strange creations before heading back to Columbia. A hot cup of coffee and a blueberry cheesecake donut were my short-lived companions as I walked around the streets of Maplewood that morning. To my surprise, I ended up at Schlafly Bottleworks, which is also in Maplewood, as it turns out. 


Strange Donuts.


Blueberry Cheesecake donut, courtesy of Strange Donuts. mmmm.


Schlafly Bottleworks.








Schlafly Bottleworks.


At a greenhouse somewhere in St. Louis.

I spent most of my time over spring break working on school projects, but when I wasn’t crunching numbers for J2000 infographics, studying for German and College Algebra or working on my J2150 TV News project, I was working on the artwork and photos for Tidal Volume’s upcoming EP “Icing.” We spent Wednesday afternoon filming a music video, which meant hauling a cake around, and throwing eggs, flour and icing at their faces. Working with them is one of my favorite things to do, because it gives me the chance to express myself through photography in a new way, and to create something awesome with my friends at the same time. I was able to use my flash to set up a makeshift studio in Zach’s garage, which allowed us to spend several hours after dark filming and taking photos. 


Zach Sullentrup, before the shoot.


Zach Sullentrup, after having flour, egg and icing thrown at his face.



The official Tidal Volume “icing” cake.

This isn’t my first time working with Tidal Volume. Last year, I spent some time with them over spring break, taking photos and getting into all kinds of shenanigans. You can see promo images and photos from some of their shows on my Flickr page. (which is due for an update sometime soon, when I get around to it.) 

———-> https://www.flickr.com/photos/benjoko/sets/72157633260497867/ <———-

There weren’t any grand canyons, sunny beaches or wild parties during my break but sometimes there’s nothing better than being able to sit at home and study or read without feeling rushed by classes or deadlines, to spend time walking around the city, or make cool things with your friends. 



The relaunch of FiveThirtyEight

Nate Silver (photo via The Guardian)

“It’s time for us to start making the news a little nerdier.”
Those were the words Nate Silver used to end his manifesto article for the resurrected site FiveThirtyEight, Silver’s political blog that was formerly on The New York Times. The article, titled “What The Fox Knows” (Which has nothing to do with the viral music video by Ylvis) graced the front page of the website when it launched Monday, March 17.
In What The Fox Knows, Silver lays out the differences between traditional journalism and data journalism reporting. While traditional journalism is told through anecdotes and stories, there is a lot to be desired, specifically the explanatory statistics and data analysis that can make a story more meaningful. Silver explains that “one of the potential advantages of data journalism is that is generalizes better than traditional approaches, particularly as data sets increase in scale to become larger and more complex.”
There are several things about Five Thirty Eight’s relaunch that have me excited. First of all, it’s being funded by ESPN. I feel like I can rest easy knowing that Silver and his staff won’t be shutting me out with a paywall anytime soon, because they won’t be scrambling for funds. The site looks great, with minimal advertisements and a painless reading experience. The data and code used on the site will be shared on Github, allowing others to make use of their data. And in the next few months, ESPN Films and Grantland will be working with Five Thirty Eight to create documentary films.
We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out for Silver and his staff, and whether or not this will influence the spread of data reporting among other news organizations. But so far the site is definitely worthy of it’s hype.

Am I making myself clear? – How mobile devices affect our reporting

Judd Silva’s lecture, “Where we’re going in mobile,” was a welcome break from the showers of praise that have been surrounding mobile journalism tools. I remember when Steve Rice first started speaking about the mobile J2150 class; he ending his pitch by reminding us, “mobile is the future of journalism reporting.” While there is truth in that statement, I think we should talk about the shift in the reporting process that can occur when we leave behind audio recorders and notebooks for iPhones and iPads. 

When someone decides to share his or her story with a journalist, there is a lot of uncertainty involved. That subject is giving up the control of his or her narrative to someone else, and first impressions are important. When an iPhone replaces the familiar sight of a camera or sound recording device, the relationship between a journalist and his or her subject changes.

Visual cues are important when we read situations. We react best to familiar and predictable faces and objects. The problem with mobile devices is that they are indecipherable from the perspective of everyone but the user.

When I see someone on the street looking at their phone, I can only guess what they might be doing at that moment. This is something we need to think about when we approach a subject with a phone or tablet. 

Having a DSLR camera in your hands tells the subject that you are there to experience the moment with them, and to record the events that are happening. The camera defines the limitations of your relationship. With a phone, you are not offering the same kind of attention to the subject as you would with a camera. Our devices have so many opportunities for distraction that, when we are on our phones, it’s reasonable to expect that we may be checking email or using Twitter, rather than giving our full attention to the subject. 

On the other hand, a smartphone can be an inconspicuous and valuable tool. For example, NPR photographer David Gilkey’s iPhone 4 became a critical reporting tool while photographing the Trans-Siberian railroad for a project called “Russia by Rail.”

photo by David Gilkey for NPR

“Russians still tend to view cameras with suspicion, even though the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago. A cellphone, however, proved to be far less threatening.”—David Greene

I’m not a behavioral scientist, and I haven’t looked at any data that would confirm that using an iPhone for reporting would lessen the quality of the story—but I believe it is an important discussion that needs to happen when we talk about reporting with mobile devices.