Timelines, video screen capturing, live chats and more

A bunch of cool stuff has happened since my last blog, so this will be a bit scatterbrained.

First off, The Tribune made a major improvement to its photo viewer, which has been extremely successful by early indications. I made a video to show readers all the new features:

Whereas past videos I’ve done have been shot with an HD digital video camera and edited on Final Cut Pro X, this one required a different approach. Shooting a video screen of any type is likely to lead to blotches of pixels showing up in your video, which is distracting to say the least. I looked at several free options for screen capture software and came across screencast-o-matic.com.

While the name is horrible, the software is not. The free version lets you save up to 15 minutes of video per clip, which of course it watermarks with a logo in the corner. But get this, the pro version is only $12 for a year! No watermark, no limit. You can video capture your screen quickly and easily from a web-based client (meaning multiple people at the paper can use the same $12 account) and save directly to a variety of places, including YouTube, or to a file on your desktop.

I also used this software to convert a proprietary video for close-circuit TV to a universal format. I just set the screen capture tool to the size of the video as it played on the screen and then saved it out to a file on my desktop. That’s useful for police or jail videos that may be based on older systems.

Next, we’ve done a few live chats lately. We’ve done them before with various technologies, and varying degrees of success. One was a Twitter-based live chat about home-schooling and polygamous communities. It was pretty successful, and the two reporters who worked on the story both answered questions in a text-only Twitter chat for more than an hour.

Then I did a video chat regarding comments moderation on sltrib.com. This one was using Ustream for video and CoverItLive for the text portion. That worked well, although we learned that when you set up CoverItLive you have to set “guest comments allowed” before you go live, otherwise it won’t allow them later. So that chat I think could have been more successful had we not boxed out people who didn’t want to sign in using Twitter or Facebook. We have since done several of these chats with our Jazz beat reporter, who has done a fantastic job with them. The beauty of the video chat vs. a text chat is you can convey so much more over video than you ever could in text. Brian Smith can really crack open his wealth of knowledge when he can freely speak, whereas if he had to type all of it he would only get through two questions in an hour. The question by text / answer by video format is, for me, the smartest use of the medium.

The third option, and one I think has a lot of promise for other applications, is Spreecast. I was the producer for a Spreecast chat with Kim McDaniel of @sltrib, Trey Fitz-Gerald of @RealSaltLake and Tauni Everett of @RideUTA. Spreecast allows you to have multiple video participants appear on screen at the same time. You can have up to four people appear on camera at a time (and who appears is determined by the producer), and it also includes text chat for viewers, the ability to pop questions up on the video screen for participants and speakers to see, and a chance for viewers who want to appear on camera to do so. The chats are automatically archived (though you can tell it not to show up for anyone) so they can be seen later. There’s a whole host of great ways you can use this technology, and all that’s required for speakers is a webcam and maybe some earbuds. You can bring together speakers from different areas easily into one seamless chat. Really, really cool. (Note: This is Flash-based, which knocks out iPad and iPhone viewers, and we tried to add someone from a mobile phone connection, and that just wasn’t happening. However, Ustream has a great mobile app for embedding video from the field.)

Another feature we’ve always wanted was a good interactive timeline builder. I’ve looked at dozens of them online, and the best one I could find was Dipity. But to really use Dipity hard-core was expensive, and it can be buggy. Plus, it’s not like interactive timelines are necessary for every story. They’re really a big-project sort of item, and not something we would use more than a handful of times a year. So paying hundreds of dollars for a relatively little-used, online-only feature is a tough sell. Enter Verite.

This timeline is way better than the vast majority of tools I had found, and comes pretty close to Dipity for overall elegance. It’s still in its infant stages, I believe, but it works great and IT’S FREE. There’s a little bit that has to happen on the back end of your site if you want to host your own timelines, but we’ve managed to get it up and working with little trouble. The whole timeline is built in a Google Spreadsheet with a specific format, then you publish the Google Doc to the web and plug in the ID. You can use the embed generator if you don’t care about hosting the timelines yourself.

These tools are way cool, way useful and way cheap or better. I can’t wait to start getting more out of them in the very near future.