The Garret Tree
Monday, May 18, 2009
  What "breaking news" means in May 2009

Around 8:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, May 17, 2009, an earthquake with a prelminary estimated magnitude of 5.0 struck near Los Angeles International Airport LAX. As this is written an hour later, at 0025 hours May 18 Eastern Daylight Time, the Los Angeles Fire Department reports no major structural damage or injuries.

Here is a lesson for all those news executives in our dying industry who insist on screaming about hours-old "breaking news."

This is a screengrab from Tweetdeck taken at 0017 hours EDT which shows Twitter trending topics, as measured by Tweetdeck. (Twitter's own trending topics are a little different, I've found but in this case the earthuquake is still a top topic). The top topic, of course, is the earthquake, aftershocks, and the Los Angeles neighborhoods where it the quake was felt.

Even the Los Angeles Times in its coverage is quoting the LA Fire Departments Twitter feed.

Updated at 9:10 p.m.: An initial assessment by the Los Angles Fire Department found "no major structural damage, no serious injuries," according to spokesman Brian Humphrey's Twitter feed.

In May 2009, news breaks on Twitter.

If you've got a red "breaking news" banner on your screen or web page even an hour later, rather than "developing story" you're crying wolf and further eroding the credibility of our already stricken profession.

More and more people on the cutting edge of online journalism and high tech coverage are calling for a return to quality (although no one is sure how to pay for it right now). "Citizen journalism" is no longer someone ranting on the comments section of any news site. It is hundreds of those citizens' tweets.

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Friday, November 14, 2008
  Financial meltdown reaches the sun. Is Earth doomed?
Click on image for full size view.
(If the sun lost 15 per cent of its power, there would be another ice age)

When a computer becomes a photo editor.
From Google News, approximately 1100 ET Nov. 14, 2008

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Saturday, August 23, 2008
  The newscutter

For me the most fascinating talk at the David Lean Conference at Queen Mary University in London last last month (where I was speaking on The Bridge on the River Kwai) was by Linda Kaye, a senior researcher at the British Universities Film and Video Council.

Here's an abstract:

In January 1930, when David Lean was 21, he joined Gaumont Sound News as a cutter. He honed his editing skills at a time of rapid transition, as the sound revolution began to transform the film industry. Linda Kaye offers a unique insight into this experimental environment, which was to prove a key formative period in Lean's development. Linda Kaye is Senior Researcher on the 'David Lean and Gaumont Sound News' project at the British Universities Film & Video Council.

My emphasis on the word cutter.
For someone who has spent a great deal of my career in television news, Kaye's presentation was a "hey this is really neat" moment. How many times have I sat in an edit suite, going back to my first VO edit at CTV News (Remembrance Day viz from Ottawa in November 1988) on huge machines of two inch reel to reel video tape, then through Sony betacam to todays' desktop television editing on computer and server?

Well, here is where it all began (at least in the UK).

Kaye explained that in the transition from silent to sound came just at the same time as newsreels were coming alive, the "editor" was closer to what today we would call a news producer. What today we would call an "editor" was called a "cutter."

(And interestngly enough today there is a widely used Avid editing product called Newscutter. )

The special website David Lean and Gaumont Sound News (launched on August 1, 2008, just after the conference) takes you through the earliest days of editing news for the big screen.

There was a race in 1929 and 1930 in a highly competitve market to get the first news with sound on film (SOF or today SOT sound on tape) before the public.

If you want to skip the history (you really shouldn't) and just want to watch the news, you will find the Gaumont archive here.

Watch the item on a 1930 match play golf tournament and ask yourself just how different is it (if you forgive the muddy sound for a moment) with today's live coverage of a golf tournament with all cameras on Tiger Woods.

Listen to Stanley Baldwin warning about the deficit and the need for a balanced budget. (how little has changed! It's black and white not colour, otherwise, it's network news.)

Then there's BREAKING NEWS. "Breaking news" wasn't used, of course, but probably this was the first time the term would have meant something in film/video journalism (unlike today where "breaking news" is so over used that the public is beginning to ignore it). Unfortunately the clip is not on the website but here's the description:

The British R101 airship crashes at Beauvais, France with the loss of 48 lives including a Cabinet Minister. David Lean recalled recording the commentary for the first edition of Gaumont Sound News released early that evening. The newsreels claimed to beat the press to the news story of the year.

Business news combines with street actuality and natural sound (with no idea of the long term consequences of what is happening) with the collapse of the German economy and a run on a Berlin bank in 1931

It's part of a larger project co-sponsored by ITN and Reuters to put many of the old British newsreels on the web. It's called the News of the Twentieth Century Project and you can see British news from the 1920s until the 1970s.

Memo to newspaper managers: Watch the Oscars

Watching those first newsreels cut by David Lean and those other young men (as far as I know there were few young women in the field at the time) from their late teens to early twenties all those years ago, made me think about my newspaper colleagues who are jumping into video.

Video is the latest saviour for newspapers, especially in the United States where newspaper industry has been grossly mismanaged by their corporate overlords. The same emphasis on video is happening in Canada where, so far, newspaper corporate management seems to have kept their heads on their shoulders.

And figures do show that page views on newspaper pages does go up if there is video.

I have seen some great video on newspaper sites. But in many cases, the editing of some of that newspaper video is not as good as the work from those teenage film editors in 1930.

The difference is editing.

Lean first made his mark as a newscutter. He then became a feature film editor. He directed his movies with editing in mind. He directed Oscar winning movies with editing in mind.

at work the other day, I stopped an editor friend of mine in the hall and asked her, "How long does it take to become a good editor?"

An executive producer just happened to be passing at the time and she said, "Ten years," as she walked by.

My friend the editor nodded in agreement. "Anyone can read a software manual," she said. "Anyone can top and tail. (cutting a one shot sequence so it is at the beginning you want and the ending you want-RR) But it takes along time to know how craft a piece." (And I would add, save the reporter's or producer's ass if something wasn't shot or not shot properly)

Yet this is the typical job ad we see for newspapers today:

A minimum of xxx years experience in photography is required, training or education in photojournalism and video production is an asset expertise with PhotoShop, Final Cut Pro, slideshows and video is required

I recently saw an ad for a journalism professor at an American university that demanded both a Phd and expertise in Final Cut Pro. (Can you do both at the same time???)

Once, not long ago, a young photographer would pay his/her dues, gain experience, find a style in smaller newspapers before working up to a major metropolitan daily newspaper (like The Daily Planet).

In many ways, today's system works better for young talent. In the desperate search for the younger audience, news organizations are hiring young talent and the good ones are working at their full potential in major news organizations (at least until the next round of layoffs)

Newspaper managers are expecting people to read the manual for Final Cut Pro (newspapers are Mac based operations) and then produce quality work. A tiny talented few can. Many others can't and most will take years to learn the craft. (Only at that point does TV have to watch out. But TV managers get ready)

So newspaper managers mark your calendar so you have time to watch the Oscars. Some star opens the envelope for best achievement in editing. And another star opens the envelope for the best achievement in sound editing.

Then, newspaper manager, ask yourself, if anyone can do this, why are there Oscars for those fields?

Let the shooters shoot. If they're good at stills let them shoot stills. If they can shoot both stills and video beware of multitasking (when I see newspaper colleagues trying to do both I keep wondering, are they going to miss the good video moment when they are shooting stills and miss what what be an award winning still photo moment while fiddling with the video camera?)

So hire a newscutter to edit the video your folks shoot.
Who knows that kid you hire might win an Oscar one day (after that kid moves from news to the movies)

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Peter Power

This was England by Paul Gorbould

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Sunday, August 05, 2007
  Hemingway's lost "blog"
This week the CBC issued a set of "guidelines" for employees who blog. The guidelines were immediately controversial and the debate on Tod Maffin's Inside the CBC is still raging at this writing (70 comments as of Aug 5 at 1032 ET). My colleague Paul Gorbould has posted a thoughtful response to the controversy.

Which brings me to Ernest Hemingway's lost blog (or what would have been a blog if there had been a computerized world when "Papa" was writing.)

Most people know about Hemingway's famous lost short stories. In 1923, Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, was travelling from Paris to Lausanne to meet Hemingway and as she was waiting for a train at the Gare de Lyon, the suitcase with the stories was stolen from the station platform and so the stories were lost to literature and history. (Make a backup Ernest! Use carbon paper!)

The other lost work by Ernest Hemingway is less well known, his resignation letter from the Toronto Star. According to a number of Star histories, when Hemingway got fed up and decided to quit, he wrote a eloquent denunciation of The Star and its management on a long piece of paper taken from a teletype roll. (anticipating Jack Kerouac's method in On the Road by 30 years).

Imagine what it would have been like then if Hemingway had blogged? Now since it was a resignation letter, it wouldn't have broken any employee's blog restrictions, but that work, either on a blog or on teletype paper, would have likely have been the one the great documents in the history of journalism.

Hemingway apparently pinned the long sheet of teletype paper to a Star bulletin board and it remained there for months, and the staff kept reading it, loving it (one wonders what Star management thought) until one day it fall to the floor and was was swept up by the cleaning staff and ended up in a Toronto landfill.

I have had this website since December 26, 1999 (the date I registered It was created to promote my books and to put up the course outline and hints for my students when I taught at Ryerson University of School of Journalism. At that time, a few CBC employees had personal sites and when I started the site there was no objection, in fact I was told it was a great idea.

I posted my first blog entry on October 18, 2004, to track and promote the book I was writing at the time now called A River Kwai Story. Again, at the time, I was told it was a great idea.

Except of the time during the lockout, I have kept my blog tightly focused on my book project and on my photography along with occasional personal stuff.

But what do these guidelines say? That I can't talk about the brands of cameras I use, developments in the world of digital photography or the quality of my photo quality ink jet printer? As I do here and here and here and here. Is that endorsing (or not) a product?

A River Kwai Story is based on my academic research for my Master's Degree and it's about the history of war crimes and military tribunals. It could be, in some circles, be considered controversial. Does that mean CBC employees can't write controversial books--even if the work has done completely on their own time and has nothing to do what happens inside the corporation? (And for the record, stories based on my research have been offered to CBC News from time to time)

Which brings me back to Ernest Hemingway. If he was writing today, Hemingway would have to have a blog to promote his books, it is an absolute necessity in the 21st Century. Hemingway would have had to have a blog whether he worked for The Star or was an independent freelancer. I am sure Hemingway would use a blog as an outlet for his talents and ideas that might now, in the modern world of beancounting publishing, have no other outlet, even if the name of the author is Ernest Hemingway.

The problem is that most of the CBC employees who openly blog under their own names have been known from before the lockout. A year ago some of us issued the CBC Blogging Manifesto and signed our names to that document. It would have been easy to call a meeting and discuss these guidelines with the bloggers. I wasn't consulted and as far as I know, no other blogger was either.

Paul has quoted what the late CBC Ombudsman David Bazay said about blogging

If public broadcasters are to become bloggers I would hope that they would exercise their freedom of speech exactly the way they are compelled to exercise it within the CBC: with accuracy, fairness and integrity, with the responsible speech of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices that has helped make this place one of the great places in the world where the citizen can be well informed.

I thought at the time that Bazay was right on and I have followed those guidelines.
If any corporation anywhere, respects its employees, that is all that is needed.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007
  Toronto rally May 10 for BBC's Alan Johnston
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) have called on their members and all journalists to mark May 10, 2007, by attending a rally in Toronto in support of British journalist Alan Johnston. BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston was kidnapped by gunmen near his office in Gaza City on March 12, 2007. Thursday, May 10 marks his 60th day in captivity.

In Toronto at

Simcoe Park
200 Front Street West
(beside the CBC building)

Thursday, May 10, 2007
12:00 p.m. - 12:40p.m.

Speakers include:

Peter Mansbridge, CBC Television
Brian Stewart, CBC Television
Anna Maria Tremonti, CBC Radio
Rick MacInnes Rae, CBC Radio
Patrick Martin, The Globe and Mail
Sandro Contenta, Toronto Star

Alan Johnston banner

Click in the image link above or go to the BBC Editor's page on Alan Johnston.

Johnston, 44, is a veteran foreign correspondent. Before moving to Gaza in 2004, he ran BBC bureaus in Kabul and Tashkent. He is widely respected and liked by his peers. His reporting on events in Gaza has been widely acclaimed as balanced, insightful and courageous.

The BBC and media workers rights organizations around the world have been calling for Johnston's immediate and safe release from the day of his abduction. These appeals have taken on a new urgency as time goes on. His parents in Scotland, both in their 70s, have appeared on international television and radio to appeal to his kidnappers for their son's freedom.

Johnston is believed to be alive and in good health but there is no sign of his captors releasing him anytime soon. Why he's being held remains a matter for speculation.

A single media worker harmed or kidnapped is one too many. The International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) reports dozens of instances of journalists taken hostage each year, many of them in Iraq and the Gaza strip. Fourteen journalists have been kidnapped in the Gaza Strip since 2005. Reporters, camera crew and producers need to know they can work safely in troubled areas like Gaza. If journalists are unable to report freely, the world will have lost vital access to information.

CBC News Editor in Chief, Tony Burman's Letter: Why BBC's kidnapped Alan Johnston needs to be freed.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007
  Throwing out the baby with the developer bath water

A number of newspaper managers around the world, apparently desperate to keep their corner offices in the uncertain and unsettling world of the digital convergence are predicting the end of the still photo camera.

Some photographers, the "early adopters" are also jumping on the band wagon.

The photo is dead. Long live video they say.

They're wrong. They're throwing out the baby with the developer bath water. A sort of mixed metaphor, especially for the age of digital photography, but I hope it makes a point.

EPUK, the website for the Editorial Photographers United Kingdom and Ireland, in a story last fall, that I just came across, quoted the newly appointed Executive Editor (Pictures), Stuart Nicol, of the Daily Telegraph as saying:

“Digital stills photography will, when we look back on it, form a very small period of time in the history of photojournalism”, Nicol told EPUK. “Telegraph photographers will undoubtedly be shooting solely on video in the future, and certainly within a year we hope to be well advanced down that route.”

The article goes on to say

At the moment the quality of video stills available from small video cameras is generally below that needed to produce photographic quality. However, some US newspapers including the Detroit Free Press and Dallas Morning News have already begun shooting solely on video, at 1920×1080 pixel resolution, on cameras costing around $5000, equivalent to a high-end digital SLR body

You have to use the new High Definition cameras.
In this post on MultiMedia shooter there is a tutorial on how it is done.

I would also note that while many newspapers are adding video to their pages (just as television stations and networks are adding still photography) and both the Associated Press and the Canadian Press offer video for member websites, the quality when it is shot with a still camera or when processed just for the web is so poor that it cannot be used for broadcast unless it is the only video of an important news story.

In my view, and I have the experience, while video frame grabs can be good, there is no substitute for the still photographer and there never will be. There will still be photographers shooting stills with still cameras long after Mr. Nicol has retired from the Telegraph.

(And in checking the site, I couldn't find any images that looked as if they came from an HDTV video cam)

Shooting stills and shooting video are like two brothers or sisters. Same gene pool but different people.

For more than 10 years how, I have been grabbing frames from CBC News video for use on the website. I discovered very early that the trigger finger process used for on the fly frame grabs never produces a good still frame. For a good picture, you have to capture a section of the video and examine it frame by frame until you find one that has the potential for a good still picture.

If you find that one frame that captures the decisive moment and has great composition and framing and colour, you can get a good picture. But remember, at this point, with NTSC, with 515 lines,and PAL with between 575 and 625 lines, depending on the local standard, and a maximum capture of 720 x 540 pixels, you're talking the equivalent of a one megapixel camera.

The best High Definition frame is 1920 x 1080, which would roughly be the equivalent of a three to four megapixel still camera, although from what I saw from an briefing on future software developments by Adobe last fall, the fact the HDTV capture is digital does give the photo editor more to work with.

For a fast paced, money conscious news organization, the bean counters will quickly find out that it is faster for an experienced professional photo editor or photographer to scan the frames shot from a still camera with modern software and pick out the best pictures. In fact, it is highly likely that a photo editor could choose, process and send to the web or the layout desk a still picture before the video was captured and a good frame chosen for use.

Let's just give two examples where the difference between video and still photography is seen the most:

1)Speakers. A TV photographer shooting a speaker is recording the best clips. A still photographer recording the same speaker is looking for the decisive moment in the speech. You have the same moment, but the aim of the shooter is different.
The video camera records the movements of the face. In going through a series of captured frames, each frame will have a different moment of human expression.
The most difficult job in grabbing frames is not just finding a good picture, often it is finding the frame that doesn't make the speaker look an idiot, whether president or prime minister, mayor or police chief, cop on the scene or heroic kid (the politicians may be idiots but a frame grab is not the time to point that out.)
The still photographer can always do it better.

2. Action. The video shooter is looking and following the action. The camera is often moving. The current television camera captures at 30 frames per second, film at 24 frames a second and HDTV can capture at between 24 and 60 frames a second, depending on how the video is going to be used.

That means that even an HDTV camera cannot capture at any faster than 1/60 of a second. So whether it is football game, a wildlife shot or action on the street, a still photographer shooting at anywhere from 1/125 of a second to 1/1000 of a second can capture the action better. The problem is that when you look at a current NTSC frame, captured at 30 frames per second, 1/30 of a second, the action is blurred. Your eye doesn't see it on the TV screen, but it is there on the frame. You may get lucky and get the one frame that does capture the action-- I was able to do that last year with an Olympic skiing shot from the CBC broadcast that was requested by Canadian Press and run in papers across the country.

More likely you are going to get the face or the arms or the legs or the running back or the speeding car all jaggy, the equivalent of the photo blur. The only solution is to try multiple passes at deinterlacing in PhotoShop and even then it is not perfect.

The bottom line is that these are two different technologies. I have excellent 13" x 19" prints from pictures from my first 2 megapixel camera, so I am not saying it can't be done with an HDTV cam. But with the standard for consumer still cameras now at 10 megapixels, it is unlikely we will see the end of the still photographer anytime soon.

Want to compare still photos and well-processed NTSC capture images? Go the photo gallery I produced of the storm wrecked West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, Paradise Lost, click on Open in Full Screen and see the difference between a photograph and an NSTSC screen grab.

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I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.

My Photo
Name: Robin Rowland
Location: Toronto, Canada

I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal. The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months) My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often) The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)

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