Last Chance! Master Multimedia

The buzz about social media almost drowns out its real-world applications. Everyone talks about “going viral,” butMultimedia.folder what does that really mean? All this will be explored in an intensive, hands-on multimedia/social media course at Regis College, beginning July 1. This is not your father’s “social media workshop.” We are not selling products. We will examine the good, the bad, the cool and the uncool aspects of social media. Students will practice taking videos, matching images to words and presenting their projects before a live audience. Experts from the field will give students advice learned by hard experience.  You don’t have to enroll in the MAPW program to take this class. See here. 

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Conversations for Posterity

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I interviewed former First Lady Barbara Bush for a feature story for the Boston Herald  around 1994 or 1995. After all the interviews I have conducted, I only have a few photos of myself with my subjects, taken by the photographer on the story. Yes, those were the days before selfies.

Everyone loves to talk about him or herself. This is a truth that professional writers soon discover. They also learn that conducting an interview can be like herding cats; you have to gently (and sometimes not so gently) steer subjects to the right direction to get the information you need. If you are a journalist on deadline, you don’t have the luxury of a leisurely conversation. You need specific information or meaty quotes in minutes. If, however,  you are a researcher for a report or book or long-range project, you can’t be quick to cut off a line of conversation which might turn to an unexpected gold mine of information; you have to go with the flow. Tricky, challenging, often exhausting, interviewing still remains one of the more pleasurable aspects of research and writing. That is especially if the interview is more like a conversation, with  both parties stimulated by the give and take. What comes next – transcribing, analysis, editing and choosing the right quotes – is the not-so-fun part.

On Monday, June 2, I learned more about the art of the interview during two sessions on  oral history held as part of a Mass Humanities-sponsored conference on  “Never Done: Interpreting the History of Women at Work in Massachusetts.”  The conference, held at Holy Cross in Worcester, featured a variety of workshops and a keynote from historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard. (One of my heroines for her ability to extract information and insights from scraps of material.)

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I learned at the conference that this classic poster is actually not of Rosie the Riveter, but was created by Westinghouse as a war morale boosting tool. The image at right is of Rosie by Norman Rockwell.

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I attended the workshops on oral history, a keen interest of mine. I suppose have done “oral history” in my work as a book author although I didn’t call it that. The conference explored the process of doing both regional and national oral history projects such as as the work done by the Worcester Women’s Oral History Project, web and blog, or the work on Rosie the Riveter era spearheaded by Sam Redman, now assistant history professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Redman’s presentation touched on the

difference between interviews conducted for oral history and those for journalism. Oral history is, in many ways, the equivalent of pure research in the sciences. Often you’re recording the thoughts and experiences of so-called ordinary people with the belief that you’re preserving something of interest to future generations. Just think of how the history of women and minorities were once ignored; now we seek to tell the stories of domestic servants, farm workers, factory laborers and immigrants along with the tales of the (generally) white male leaders.

Both oral history and journalism have been profoundly affected by new technologies: Oral histories were once taped and transcribed, with the tapes reused or destroyed.Today, oral histories are transcribed and often posted on the web with the audio transcript or additional video and other interactive media, such the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer. Likewise, news organizations may post longer versions or complete transcripts of  interviews, including video, in addition to quotes plucked out for the print story. See this Boston Globe package.

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Interviewing a young Chinese activist when he landed at Logan Airport. This was for the Associated Press, which meant I had to file a story on the run. I’m the one on the left with both notebook and clunky tape recorder — this was about 1990, some time after the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989.

In fact, one of the most challenging aspects of my feature writing career was conducting long, fascinating interviews and being forced to cull only one or two quotes for the final print story. I would have welcomed the chance to post longer transcripts which would help to put a story in context.

I saw this in action the first time when I interviewed female bloggers for a story in the newly emerging blogging world. I did some of the interviews via email and one of my interviewees ended up posting the entire exchange on her site. I thought that was great as I could only use one or two sentences out the entire exchange. Other journalists might not have liked that, but I believe that ultimately it benefits the reader.

Web-based oral histories, moreover, can prove to be great tools for today’s writers and researchers. The ability to hear an interview adds so much more to just reading a transcript. Many transcripts, have to be edited for clarity  (all those “um” and “you knows” really should be cut) but it’s often helpful to listen to HOW a person talks as well as what she/he actually says.

I wish that I had had a digital recorder during my years as a Boston Herald reporter as I had a chance to interview many astounding people, writers, activists and scientists. Sometimes I taped them, more often, I just took notes. Often I was on deadline or  so recording was not possible. And even if I did tape some interviews, I usually  “recycled” those tapes. Storing tapes was also an issue;  I have some boxes full of old tapes that may or may not survive  the years.

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Frank Herbert, author of the Dune series, is one of my favorite sci-fi writers. I was able to interview him in college and again in the late 1980s (pictured here) when I was working for the Stamford Advocate. I was very grateful the photographer snapped my photo with the author.

How nice it is that today’s professionals can use a digital recorder or even a cell phone and download the results for storage. Just back up regularly (but you know that already.)

And yet, even with all this technology, interviewing remains very much a very personal art form.  Here are links to some of the interviews I’ve cited as examples in my digital journalism classes:

Two  of the classic Frost / Nixon sessions.

When an interviewee runs away with the show: Jon Stewart on Crossfire.

Katie Couric asks a tough question of Sarah Palin.

And the softball question that might have lost her the election.

A sweet interview of Lena Horne by Ed Bradley

Interviewing is a form of conversation with skills that can be learned and honed. I’m still working on those skills myself.