Monday, March 17, 2008

Amy O'Leary Teaches the NYTimes About Sound

My rough notes of a "how-to" session on audio at the Nieman narrative conference, held in Boston over the weekend. Could imagine the day when several folks who attend a talk will collaborate on a wiki that summarizes the content--next to a publicly available video. Would test the idea of whether three heads are better than one.

The talk was given by Amy O'Leary, who went to the New York Times as a multimedia producer from her previous life as a public radio journalist.

O’Leary talked about what sound can and cannot do. (Loved the title of her presentation: “Screech, Bang (Sigh)” in which sigh was a real sigh, not the word “sigh.”

She had us listen to several audio clips and really pay attention to how sound worked in each piece. Some were audio-only. Some were narrated slide shows. But in each, she made the point that what sound does best is add emotion and authenticity. It's not so good at analysis, data presentation or complicated context. (Have to leave something for print, I guess.)

Because audio clips are so linear, O'Leary said, the first 15 seconds determine whether or not someone will click away. So even if you have hours of tape, take the best quote (called a cut in radio parlance) and put it at the beginning of your piece—even if it doesn’t immediately pertain to the theme of the piece.

Structure is very important to audio—as in print (although O’Leary doesn’t think much of the traditional billboard paragraph—thinks it gives too much away). “Choose your best piece of tape first” and then “give people a reason to stay through to the end.”

Print journalists new to audio tend to pick stories with obvious sound—like a movie festival or cuckoo clock collector. They’re looking for “sound effects,” not the effects of sound. Audio forces you to be a better journalist because you have to listen to people and NOT INTERRUPT THEM. No m-hmms to show you’re listening either. Lots of shaking of the head up and down.

O’Leary thinks Internet audio pieces don’t succeed if they’re longer than 3 minutes (about 600 words). (Note to self, Brian Storm might differ on this.) But in that three minutes, you take out 1 min 30 seconds for your tape—what the source says plus ambient sounds—then take out another 30 seconds for identifications, that leaves you 60 seconds to write your narration, or about 200 words. Basically two short paragraphs. “Writing script is very much like haiku,” O'Leary notes.

Try to make slide shows standalone pieces of journalism, as opposed to simple recap of a longer written story.

A few quick gear, software, website recommendations. . .
Software: ProTools (PC), Soundtrack Pro (Mac); Audacity (free)
Field Recorder used at NYTimes: Edirol R-09
Shotgun mike Amy demonstrated: AudioTechnica 835B (discontinued)

A couple of "how-to" websites, with reviews of equipment by Jay Allison (Click on “Sound in the story” .pdf)

And that's the end of my notes. If you need absolute accuracy, you can buy a download of the whole presentation for $16 at the conference website. Hmmm, am I giving away the store here?

Related story:
Do-It-Yourself Journalism

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Makes me nostalgic to produce again.