The Easy Way To Do Cool Stuff Offline, Mostly Free

July 15, 2009

On the Internet no one can hear you scream.

Which is a good thing, because for a lot of journalists, the everchanging landscape of Web technology is the continuing-ed equivalent of Whack-a-Mole. As soon as we learn something, it is immediately replaced by something else totally different. (Question: Which of the following is not a social media or microblogging service? A. Twitter B. InstaPost C. Ning)

 SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: The following advice may cause your colleagues, editors and audience to view you as a multimedia wunderkind. Do not disabuse them of this notion and do not tell them how easy it was. When they asked how you learned it, tell them"SEJ"and do not elaborate. Suggest that your colleagues join and your editor pays for dues, conferences, travel or a new laptop.

What is an ink-stained (or video-stained, pixel-stained or linkstained ) wretch to do?You could scream. Go ahead, let it out. Feel better? I didn't think so.

The next option is to find some tricks that work for you and can be repeated over and over again to good effect. In the Commedia dell'arte these are called lazzi; those of us with a touch of Yiddishkeit call them schtick.Afew good pieces of schtick and you're never lost for what to do or say.

The following guide is by no means complete, but for the topics we cover, it gives you everything you need. Every tool is free, although some are all free and some are just mostly free. It doesn't take Miracle Max to know that there is a big difference between mostly free and all free, but that is just the way of the world. If you want multimedia to accompany a story (or to be the story), there are three basic gadgets on your utility belt: slide shows, charts and Google (or Yahoo) maps.

SLIDE SHOWS The genre of the slide show contains many variations: the photo gallery, the photo gallery set to sound, the photo gallery with narration, the photo and video presentation, the slide show the user navigates, the slide show that plays as a video, even an edited video package is a kind of slide show. In fact, when it comes to combining words, sounds and images, the slide show is beginning, middle and end.

So this has gotta be hard, right? It can be. But we can do it the easy way. Yes.We. Can.

The easy way? It's called SlideRocket. This is my slide show tool. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My tool is my best friend.

TIP: There are three ways to do anything online: the hard way, the wrong way and the easy way. The hard way can generally be used to accomplish twice as much as the easy way, but it takes ten times the time and effort.

SlideRocket is billed as a tool for preparing business presentations, an online analog to Microsoft PowerPoint. In fact, if you know how to use PowerPoint, you can create a slide show in PowerPoint, then upload it to SlideShow and make it available online as a Flash application or Flash video embedded in aWebpage.

VOCAB: Flash is a technology fromAdobe Systems used to create online animations and videos. It can have complicated interactivity or be as simple as play/pause/stop. It is the default standard for video and multimedia on theWeb. Adobe makes expensive software for authoring and editing Flash applications and videos. These are the hard way.

How easy is it? Very easy. You can upload photos or videos, you can create transition effects, you can add sound clips to individual slides or take a music or sound file and set it as a soundtrack for the entire presentation. You can decide whether to have each slide automatically advance after a certain number of seconds or wait for the user to click "next," you can choose from several attractive visual styles. It's all done on the SlideRocketWeb page, and if you get confused they have tutorials and instructional videos. When you're done, click publish and e-mail the code it generates to a Web producer to embed in a page.

VOCAB: Search engine optimization, SEO to its friends, is the sometimes dark art of making content more likely to be found when a user searches for it. In other words, it's how to make Google find your stuff. Google can't index words if they're in a picture, and neither can your Web site's own search engine. SEO is a giant topic in itself, complete with folk wisdom, urban legends, sophisticated technology and flat out scams. Just Google it, and you'll see.

What's the catch? SlideRocket is mostly free, but not all free. It's free to create an account, and you get a limited period in which all the features are available. After that, to be able to put your Slide- Rocket on a Web page, you need an individual subscription ($10 per month) or a business subscription ($20 per month for each user). Once your boss is hooked on your multimedia slide shows, she'll be happy to fork over $20 per month to keep them coming. Tell her it is a copyright license fee for the best-of-breed, cloudbased software as a service application you are utilizing to produce synergistic results with outsourced infrastructure.


Next is a cheap trick that is sure to please.You have a story.You have some information that would make a great chart with the story. You've put those data into Microsoft Excel (or similar spreadsheet program). But if you send it to New Media or Graphics, they'll kick back a jpeg that looks goofy online and does a bad job of search engine optimization.

This trick is Tableizer, and for creating it, Danny Sanchez of the Orlando Sentinel (his blog is at deserves the Pulitzer Prize for Kindness to Strangers. Tableizer lets you copy a bunch of cells out of Excel, paste them into a simpleWeb form, click submit and get back the (complicated and time-consuming to create) code to render that table on theWeb.

WARNING: Do not use Tableizer for things thatwouldn't be a table in print. Remember, if it's too big to read or too hard to read, the audience won't. My rule of thumb? More than 10 rows in a table or more than four columns, and you might want to think hard about it. More than 100 rows or more than six columns, and you're nuts.

It really is that scary. Copy, paste and click. Could it be easier? Yes. How much easier? Not much easier. 

Are tables of words and numbers the sexiest way to display information? No, but they are often the best way to do it, so don't be ashamed. Your readers will thank you.


And finally we get the apogee on Web coolness: the Google Map. OK, so Google Maps are no longer the most amazing, mindblowing thing ever (that's Twitter), but they're still darn cool and people think they're hard. In fact, doing them the right way is hard. But we don't use the "right" way, do we, my young apprentice? No, we use the way that is quicker, easier and more seductive.

First put the address and information into Excel in rows and columns. If you can, put the address, city, state and zip code each in their own column. You can create a column for the name, the date, an explanation or any other kind of information. Make sure to use simple column headings.

Next, go to BatchGeocode. Leave the format on "Tab Delimited." Copy your data from Excel into the Web form. Click "Validate Source". Scroll down and check out which fields it is using for which information and fiddle with that as necessary. By changing the "Group" field, you can color-code points in different ways.  

Click "Run Geocoder."

Under the map that appears, click the Under the map that appears, click the "download to Google Earth (KLM) file." Save it as something ending in ".klm".

Send this file to a Web producer and ask them to save it to a Web accessible location and send you back the URL. 

Go to Google Maps ( Paste the URL for your KML file into the search box and click "Search Maps".

The map should now display. Click the "Link" button in the upper right hand corner of the map. Click "Customize and preview embedded map," then play with the resulting control panel until you're happy. Copy the code from "Copy and paste this HTML to embed in your website" and email it to a producer. 

You're done.

Daniel Lathrop is co-founder of and chief data evangelist for InvestigateWest, a Seattle-based non-profit investigative reporting start-up that focuses on the issues and stories of western North America. He freelances for non-profit and journalism clients. Lathrop is lead author and editor of a forthcoming book from O'Reilly Media on Government 2.0. He has worked as a reporter and/or data wizard at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Center for Public Integrity, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and The Ames (Iowa) Tribune. He lives in Seattle,Wash., with his wife and two Maine Coon cats.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer 2009 issue.

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