Monday, March 5, 2012

Taking Popcorn.js for a Promenade in Paris

I am not a jounalist, but I play one on the web

Recently, I packed up my wife's trusty Marantz audio recorder, a set of headphones, a microphone and a camera and hopped on the metro. I literally had no idea what story I was setting out to tell, but I was confident that something would present itself... or that I would at least learn something. I did have a few general ideas in mind:

  • I was inspired by a story that I heard on 99% invisible about the Feltron Annual Report where Nicholas Felton is quoted as saying something like how your life (or memory) isn't measured by the the big trips or events, but it's measured instead by the little things that you do repeatedly each day.
  • I specifically wanted to emulate the great work from the New York Times' One in 8 Million series.
  • I wanted to keep in mind Ira Glass' description of the anecdote, a series of events, to craft a story in its purest form: "This happened, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing... How it has a momentum in and of itself."
Here is the result of my work, an interview with musician Bernard Constant:

Things I learned

  • Bring two sets of batteries
  • Since I was running low on batteries, just before I walked close enough to almost hear Bernard playing under the bridge, I opted not to record the sound of water hitting the boats... and I didn't take a good picture of the boats so I had to use one that I took last spring. Pausing to get that sound and take that picture likely would have added an extra degree of polish.
  • Get further away when recording music.
  • I should have read the section on interviewing in the Radio Diaries Teen Reporter Handbook. In particular, the paragraph on "Let people talk in full sentences." Had I done that, I could have kept myself, as narrator, out of the story. Then, this truly would have been more true to the format used in the NYT's One in 8 Million series.
  • Next time, I'm going to make sure that all my images have the same orientation and dimensions.
  • Next time, bring a tripod: Get a photo of yourself on location.
  • If the story leads you to a particular destination, get photos of every landmark along the way, in the direction you'll be walking when telling the story.
One interesting thing that this exercise impressed upon me was this: you hear a lot about journo-coders, about journalists who have learned to code and integrate coding in the service of a story; however it may be equally useful for journalism organizations to conduct "journalism bootcamps" for developers and programmers and to look for surprising, innovative and untold stories coming from this direction as well.

Goals for the One in 8 Million Popcorn.js Template

In addition to the journalism angle I had some technical goals for this project as well:

  • Be focused. Set out to do only a narrow set of tasks and to do them well.
  • Be embeddable.
  • Enable viewing the presentation in "Full Screen" mode.
  • Figure out how to get images to scale well in smaller posts such as facebook posts.
  • Separate content from the scripting... thinking of using a google spreadsheet and the Tabletop JavaScript library to generate the timeline for the subtitles and the images; separating content from presentation and scripts.
  • Allowing anyone the ability to modify the colors or theme of the page by way of variables in the url.
  • Styling the audio player. I've been going back and forth now about using the default soundcloud player and getting all the features that go with it, or being true to the original One in 8 Million app and having a minimal player.
  • Image hosting: Should there be a way to easily use Flickr or some other service for images? Perhaps it might be useful to write a script that could initially import a flickr set or tag to get urls and titles, attribution etc.
Updates to the template used for this presentation can be found on

Thank You