It’s an increasingly common story in the news business: Young journalist roars out of graduate school at Berkeley, gets a great job at a magazine in New York, works like mad, gets laid off when the economy tanks, turns to his blog and Twitter to brand himself a rock star in his field, publishes a book packed with the tips, tricks, and tutorials he’s been blogging about, then gets a great gig with a non-profit news startup back in California.
Okay, so maybe it’s not all that common a career path, but it’s the way things have unfolded for Mark Luckie. These days, Mark is a multimedia producer at California Watch — but you might know him best as the voice behind 10,000 Words. Now he’s also the author of The Digital Journalist’s Handbook. I recently spoke with him about how he turned his blog into a book.
Ryan Sholin: Mark, I’ve been following you on Twitter and on your blog for some time now, and you make a habit of sharing what seems like all your secrets, from tools to tips to tutorials. When did you decide to wrap all that together in a book, and how did you start gathering all the right pieces up?
Mark Luckie: I decided to start writing a book in the summer of 2009 when I was unemployed and had lots of free time. I spent weeks in the public library reading through old posts from the blog and reading what others had written about online journalism.
RS: How hard was it to make sure everything that landed in the print edition was evergreen?
ML: It was probably the hardest part… weeding out technologies and topics that could possibly be obsolete right after the book was printed. Twitter lists, for example, are a great tool for journalism, but they just debuted and it would be unwise to include them in a book when they’re still so new and journalists are still finding ways to use them.
RS: Right, so instead of cataloging apps and widgets that could vanish next week, you took the approach of building what you call “a comprehensive guide to the fundamentals of digital journalism.” But it’s more than Photoshop and Final Cut tutorials, right? How do you take a common tool and explain the best practices for journalists armed with it?
ML: Absolutely… there’s more to digital journalism than photos and video. There’s slideshows, databases, maps and more. When I write, I try to break the topic down as simply as possible and try to omit technical jargon that it’s easy to get intimidated by. I try to find real world examples that people can look to and say, ‘Oh, that’s what that is.’
Many professionals who teach online journalism use terms and examples that the beginning journalist isn’t familiar with. It’s all about making it as simple as possible.
RS: Let’s rewind a bit here — you wrote the book in the summer of 2009 while you were unemployed and had lots of time. What happened before that? When did you pick up multimedia and online journalism as a passion? (Michele McClellan wants to know if it was after spending time at the Knight Digital Media Center at Berkeley.)
ML: I didn’t know there was such a thing as multimedia journalism until I attended grad school at UC Berkeley. I had known how to use the tools like video, photo and computer programming, but didn’t know I could combine them with my love for journalism.
It was when I started teaching multimedia skills to other journalists through the Knight Digital Media Center that I realized how much I loved the craft and the ability to tell stories using many different media.
(Editor’s Note: The Knight Digital Media Center is a sponsor of MediaShift and Idea Lab.)
RS: It seems natural now, of course, that you can move from teaching in person to your blog to your book. Not sure how many people would have seen that coming five or seven years ago. What do you think might be the next platform for journalists like Mark Luckie that want to share their knowledge with their peers?
ML: Good question. I still think there’s a platform for blogging, but I’d like to see people take advantage of the various kinds of blogging like video blogging or live blogging.
And that I think is the future for journalism, too.
RS: Speaking of tools, what’s your general advice when it comes to free web-based applications vs. full-featured software?
ML: I rarely ever feature software on the blog, not only because there is a lot of sketchy software out there that can do damage to your computer, but also because it’s hard to convince people to download, install, and try full-fledged programs.
I love web-based applications because it’s an opportunity to try a new tool without investing too much time and effort into it. If you like it, you can keep using it and if not, you can just kinda move on. Also, if you really like a web-based tool you can always upgrade and grab professional software that offers more features.
RS: Do you think of yourself as someone who practices a degree of radical transparency? What secrets are you keeping for your next book?
ML: I think journalists often ask people some of the deepest, probing, and most personal questions they’ll ever be asked, yet journalists are notorious for keeping their professional and personal lives under wraps. I don’t see the harm in sharing personal information if it helps someone else out. I’m actually a very private person but I know that ultimately what I do share can potentially help someone else having the same kind of issues.
As for the next book, I never try to think too far ahead. When I went to undergrad I had no idea I’d become a journalist, and when I went to grad school I had no idea I’d leave a multimedia journalist. And I certainly had no idea I would ever write a book. So who knows what the future holds?
RS: Let’s rephrase that question about the next book, then. What was the last thing you decided to leave out of ‘The Digital Journalist’s Handbook’?
ML: The one major thing I purposely left out was detailed tutorials for specific programs (they all exist online). Maybe the next step is a ‘…for Dummies’ series of books, but I focused on what aspects of the programs journalists should use …
But my next project, whatever it is, will definitely be based on the response and feedback from this first book, and whatever journalists’ needs are.
RS: Sounds like a great idea. Here’s the last question: What’s the one tip you’d give to journalists that are still behind when it comes to building their multimedia and online skills?
ML: Besides buy the book? … I’d say don’t wait for someone to come around and teach you multimedia skills. If you really want a future in journalism you have to start using online tutorials to start learning some of the programs and then start practicing on your own.
A couple of years ago, there was a huge barrier to learning new technology because of the expense, but nowadays multimedia tools are incredibly inexpensive and the Internet is a free platform where anyone can experiment with various media.
RS: Mark, thanks for taking the time to do this. I hope your book helps out lots of journalists, whether they’re freelancers trying to string together gigs into something full-time, or veteran editors looking to learn something new.
ML: Thanks Ryan. I’m excited to see where journalism is headed.