Finally, readers will look at your PDFs

PDFs have long been a double-edged sword on our site.

They’re great because you can give readers so much more information without cluttering up your story with a bunch of numbers or names or extraneous details better suited for a sidebar or graphic. But as interesting or useful as that information may be, sticking a link to the PDF file in the story has never panned out traffic-wise. Readers just don’t seem to care enough about the information to click the link (or don’t notice it’s there because they don’t read every word) to get all that goodness.

Now we have a workable solution that won’t completely clutter the story. We’re using Scribd to embed documents inside the story text just like we do videos. The early returns are great. Far more people are reading the material in the few PDFs we’ve embedded than ever did through traditional linking.

So if you’ve got a PDF, text document of nearly any flavor (including those you can’t read because you don’t have the software) or PowerPoint presentation, it can now be shared in a meaningful way. Check with your friendly Web editor for details.

I speak 63 languages, and you can, too

I’ve been playing around with the Google Translate app for my smartphone. It allows you to type or speak into the phone and translate what you said into 62 other languages. I doubt I’ll ever need to converse with someone in Azerbaijani, but should the need arise, I could get by.

At this point, the app works fantastic translating English into other languages. Where it falls short is translating that language back to English. I hope updates will remedy this.

This app really has promise for the reporter out covering a story who needs to communicate who they are and why they’re there with someone who doesn’t speak the same language. Crime reporters often run into this bind. Sure, The Tribune has several bilingual English/Spanish speakers, but if you don’t know you need a Spanish speaker until you’re trying to talk with the main witness, it doesn’t matter who’s on the staff list.

To use the app (which is available for iPhone, as well, though the functionality may differ) you simply tell it which language you’re going to speak and which language you’d like to translate to. Then you type or speak what you’re trying to translate.

Sweet. Not only can I order some Schokolade in German, I can even have my phone say it for me if I’m a little nervous about declaring myself a jelly donut. Click the speaker button next to a word and a robotic lady’s voice does the hard work.

Translating one word is all fine and well, but that’s going to take too long on deadline. See that “Enter Conversation Mode” button at the bottom? Click that and you get something like this:

Yes, we’ve switched from German to Spanish. When in conversation mode, the app switches between the two languages so that each speaker my respond to the other and have it properly translated. As I mentioned, the translating to English is rough to say the least. The English to Russian and Russian to English were actually good. The English to Spanish translation was spot on, but the Spanish to English didn’t even give me something to work with. I found the same with German and Czech. All bilingual speakers say the app’s accent is great and they had no problem understanding what was said. But when they spoke in the other language, the English translation wasn’t even close.

So at this point I wouldn’t try to do a hostage negotiation with Google Translate, but I’d be very comfortable trying to tell someone who I am, why I’m there and how they might be able to help me. Even if their translation to English doesn’t seem to work, you’re at least further along in the process than you would be without the app.

Another beta feature is the ability to write characters for some languages. This has got to be the most painfully slow way to have a conversation, but at least it’s an option. You draw the characters with your finger and it converts it to text. It looks like this:

I would suggest everyone with a smartphone download this app, and then play with it — especially with someone who speaks another language as well as English — before you actually need to use it. You never know when you’ll need to be fluent in Yiddish.

Welcome to I Am Platform Agnostic

By invitation, accident or divine intervention, you have wandered to the blog of Salt Lake Tribune new media content editor Scott Sherman. I talk news. Mostly I’ll be talking about using digital tools to help tell stories.

So what’s with this platform agnostic business? Well, it goes like this: News is and always has been information passed from one person to another. For most of the history of humanity, this has been done by word of mouth, crude drawings, handwritten letters, town criers, smoke signals and the like. When the printing press came along, it gave people a new platform to share news. Same with telephone, radio, television, the Internet and more recently the mobile Internet. You’ll notice I don’t lump those together (more on that in another post).

With all the hand-wringing about how to shift newspapers from print to digital and the necessary complexities therein, many people get stuck on the wrong thing — the platform. Many print journalists have gotten so used to seeing news displayed in one way that they’ve forgotten what we really do.

We deliver news, not newspapers.

Our stock is in information. And the faster we shed the notion that putting ink to paper is the most prestigious and permanent way to deliver information, and the faster we fully embrace all of the platforms available, the more news we tell and the better off we are.

Being platform agnostic means choosing the best venue to tell the story. This digital shift isn’t fundamentally changing what we do. It’s just opening up an immense array of options for doing it.

I type these words on a certain Web site and we call them a blog. If I typed them into my paper’s content management system and pushed the publish button on we’d call them a column. If I said them aloud and recorded an mp3 we’d call it a podcast. If I added pictures it would be a photo slideshow. If I stood in front of a video camera and recited them it would be a standup. These are all platforms with which to share knowledge and ideas. Each has its pros and cons, but journalists should not be opposed to using any of them if it helps them do good journalism.

My goal with this blog is to explore how we share information in every platform. I am not an expert on these platforms. Some of them I’ve never used. And that’s the key. As I learn how to use them, I want to teach others in a way that everyone can understand — a how-to (and when and why) guide for journalists who want to tell their stories in the most effective way possible.