Navigating the Knight Lab

Even a crusty old sports writer knows that a news website has an obligation to engage its audience in a different way than a print publication.

The Knight Lab, devised by Northwestern University’s journalism department, provides tools for you to do just that.

The Knight Lab features four different products — Juxtapose, Timeline, Soundcite, and StoryMap. Each offers a unique embeddable “interactive” (yes, some use that as a noun nowadays in the biz) to complement a story… or even to be used as the primary element of the story.

This lesson is designed for student journalists to explore these programs and then apply one of them to their own work at our publication, The Smoke Signal.

I also recorded a Camtasia screencast showing some of the basics. Suffice it to say that the crusty old sports writer isn’t as digitally engaging as the Knight Lab suite… but I had fun messing around with the program. It’s actually a little similar in functionality to iMovie. I even used some copyright-free music and figured out how to fade it in at the beginning and end.

Here is the lesson plan. Please note that the homework assignment with rubric are linked from it.

Bill Rawson

Pascack Valley High School

Hillsdale, NJ  

Title: Lesson Plan — Knight Lab Suite

Overview and Rationale:

A news website has an obligation to engage its audience in different and unique ways compared to a print newspaper. The Knight Lab website was created by Northwestern’s journalism department. This lesson provides students with an introduction to the four digital storytelling tools at Knight Lab suite that create embeddable interactives, which they can use to enhance their digital storytelling.

Goals for Understanding

Essential Questions:

  • How does print engagement differ from online engagement?
  • How can a journalist use the tools at Knight Lab to heighten digital engagement?
  • What types of stories pair well with Knight Lab tools?

Overviews and Timeline:

Activity 1 (One 50-minute class)

Students will be placed into four “focus groups.” Each will be assigned one of the four Knight Lab tools and will analyze its usage using this graphic organizer.

The sampling that each group will explore:


Berlin 1945-2015

Her Name is Juli

NBA’s oldest players then and now

Two iconic Chicago theaters

Parting questions for PV teacher


Hockey, hip hop, and other Green Line highlights

How the Islamic State is carving out a new country

From 0-89 pounds: The most expensive transfers in football history

Arya’s Journey

The Garden of earthly delights


What happened in Ottawa

The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie

Chance the Rapper paints a giddy yet profound picture of South Side life

Treasured Tangier Island

Nerd or Jock?

Grisly Montreal murder sparks international manhunt

A history of British director Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman

A history of Ghana

APOEL Champions League season

Kentucky Derby hats
Activity 2 (One 50-minute class)

Each group will present/explain its assigned Knight Lab tool in detail, show examples, and share its analysis. The presentations will be used to foster class discussion.


This is the homework assignment and rubric.


Throwing darts: The crusty old sports writer tries his hand at videography

Steve Hartman once embarked on a recurring video storytelling series where he threw a dart over his shoulder at a map of the U.S. He would head to wherever the dart landed, pick a name randomly from a phone book, and find a story to tell about that person.

I wasn’t exactly going to be that daring — or “darting”? — for my video story idea, but I’ve always been inspired by Hartman and the program he now contributes to, “CBS Sunday Morning.” It’s some of the best storytelling out there. I wanted to try to tell a story that would be worthy of that show.

I had three solid ideas, and all of them local by nature. I decided on Alysa’s story. I have her in class, and she had told me about how she took one of those genealogy tests by mail. She has also opened up to me about being adopted by her mother from an orphanage in China, and I figured all of this could coalesce into an interesting story.

I was thrilled that Alysa and her mother, Iris, were receptive to the idea, and they invited me to drop by their home to shoot. I showed up with my tripod and camera on a Tuesday evening for the interviewing. Alysa was a little nervous and isn’t the most comfortable on camera, but she pulled through like a champ. Iris said she would probably cry, and she did, but it was heartfelt and worked.

Probably the most difficult part of the shoot was the B roll. They were self conscious, and I can understand why. It’s hard to act natural when there’s a camera trained on you for 10 seconds as you sift through pictures or walk by with your cat in your arms.  I was there for about an hour.

I used iMovie, with which I have some distant familiarity, to edit the segment. I found that the latest version of iMovie to be pleasingly user-friendly. I hadn’t used the program much over the last six years or more, and I remember trying more recent versions and finding them difficult to figure out. Not at all with this version.

The great challenge was with the storytelling. One of the parameters of this assignment was that there would be no voiceover, so I would have to tell the story using nothing but the interviewees’ comments. As I went back over them, I found a couple instances where I should have asked them to rearticulate their comments due to little problematic nuances, such as their use of pronouns that wouldn’t make sense without the absent antecedents.

I also had to decide how to order the sound bytes to tell the story most effectively. Students always seem to want to tell stories chronologically, and I’m always imploring them to fight those instincts and choose the most compelling way to tell it. I ordered the clips so that Alysa first told about the DNA testing before she and her mother spoke about her adoption from China.

As I suspected all along, I probably could have shot more B roll, but I made it work with what I had. I also used still childhood still photos of Alysa for when they expanded a little on her backstory.

I originally didn’t intend to use music but felt the clip felt weirdly quiet without it. I hit up a resource list I knew I had tucked away somewhere with copyright-free music sites. I found something at that I felt was tasteful and fit the mood.

One of the most unexpected sources of aggravation was creating a title slide and end credits. Perhaps my one big annoyance with iMovie is that the title (and credit) slides tend to look amateurish. I really didn’t want these slides to employ gimmicky effects, but it was super hard to find a style that was simple and visually appealing. Finally I found a candidate, and after much travail, I was able to edit the slides in such a way that they didn’t feel so tacky.

The last piece of the puzzle is one of the most important for me — Alysa’s approval. Although it’s been finished for several days, I haven’t shared the segment with her yet, and I’m really crossing my fingers that she and her mom like it.

So in a manner of speaking, hopefully my dart hits the mark.

Working with interactives (or, the ‘timeline’ of a crusty old sports writer losing his sanity)

So this time around, the crusty old sports writer was attacking some interactive programs.

Nbd, I thought to myself. Although these three particular programs are new to me, I’ve used similar ones before.

What started out so promising quickly devolved into a test of my patience and sanity.

First it was Google Maps. Although I’ve never worked with it personally, our journalists at The Smoke Signal have used it a few times to go along with stories.

One such case was when our sports writers depicted the locations of the schools in our wrestling team’s realigned playoff district. It was real effective in showing how far-flung a few of the schools were.

I chose a similar subject and decided to plot out the locations of the other schools in our school’s athletic conference. I needed a quick Google search or two to fill in the gaps of my knowledge, but Google Maps really wasn’t hard to figure out at all. I chose what I wanted the pin to look like, chose a different color for each school, and it was ready to embed.

Next, Polldaddy. I usually use Google Forms to create surveys and polls, and I think I’ve used Survey Monkey once or twice. This was my first go-around with Polldaddy, but I found it to be entirely user friendly and easy to figure out. I piggybacked off the recent walkouts and protests, created a poll related to that topic, and embedded it on the site.

No problem.

Last, the timeline.


So I started with Tiki-Toki. I found it tricky to figure out. I felt my way through it the best I could, Googled and found tutorials, and messed around with it some more, but I couldn’t figure out how to add items to the timeline.

After a couple hours of travail, I finally gleaned that the an event on the timeline was called a “story,” and the “stories” tab in the little admin’s window was where you added elements to the timeline.

Once you click on the stories tab, there are places to add media — pictures, videos, etc. — as well as a title for the story, text to explain it, and a link to another site.

Now I was cooking with gas.

I opted to create a timeline based on my school publication’s history. I spent a couple hours gathering the resources and putting everything into place. I ended up with a total of nine stories, and when everything was set, I looked around for the embed code.

I spotted the embed tab at the bottom of the admin window and clicked on it. Up sprang three pricing options.

Pricing options???

I headed back to Google, and a quick search revealed that you’re not allowed to embed your timeline with the free version. You need to pay for an upgrade.

Really??? Pay???

That wasn’t going to happen. I grunted and growled and resigned myself to my fate — I had essentially just wasted hours of my time.

I took a couple days to to recollect my sanity (or what’s left of it) before deciding to give the Timeline program at Knight Lab a whirl. Knight Lab is a package of four programs created by the Journalism Department at Northwestern University.

I’ve used a couple of the other Knight Lab programs, but never Timeline. It felt a little strange, as when you click on it, it opens up a Google Sheet, and that’s where the magic happens. So I reentered all of the information, tinkered with it a little more and added an extra event to up the total to 10.

I followed the instructions on how to get the embed code. First I had to go to File and Publish to Web. Then you take the URL and enter it into a box on the website, and it generates an embed code.

I took the code and embedded it below… and it only showed up as a link. I tried about five other adjustments, did more Google searching, and still the same. The best result I could get was not an embedded timeline but a link on which you click to take you to it.

To which I say….

Good enough. We’ll cut our losses and accept it as done.

Return of the ‘Crustycast’: Episode 2 features Smoke Signal sports editors

Good news and bad news with this week’s podcast.

The good news? I had a couple poised young men as interview subjects — our two sports editors at The Smoke Signal, the student publication at Pascack Valley High School, Josh DeLuca and Noah Schwartz.

The bad news? My thin, high-pitched voice was in it again… although it played a much lesser role, this time as its facilitator rather than its primary vehicle.

Josh and Noah were predictably thoughtful and engaging. I chose not to share the questions with them ahead of time for the same reason that we typically don’t do it with interview subjects for journalism stories. I wanted their answers to be fresh and in the moment rather than prepared and canned. And they were.

The three of us spend a considerable amount of time talking shop, and our interview felt as organic as our ordinary daily conversations. I was most interested in trying to get them talking and sharing their experiences… and staying out of it myself. Due to time considerations — and because it was the least interesting part of the conversation — I omitted just the last question I asked them, which was, “So what do you think about me?” It was my attempt — albeit a lame one — to provide a lighter moment, figuring their responses might be funny. To my surprise, their words were nice and not so wacky, and it didn’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the podcast.

The technical side was much easier this time, since I didn’t have to figure out Audacity like I did last week. I picked up a few tricks to make my life easier — zooming in on the tracks was the biggest one. Such a basic concept that never entered my mind last week, and It made it SO much easier to make finer edits.

I also figured out a way to boost some of the audio, which was necessary because my voice was louder than my interviewees’ voices (I used a hand-held microphone that we maneuvered between us). It’s still not perfect, but I’m satisfied.

I’m considering moving forward with this podcast in some fashion. After initially ridiculing me for my first podcast title idea — Crustycast — DeLuca and Schwartz are now suggesting I use it. Make up my mind, already, guys!

And so it shall be. Crustycast is born.

Our crusty old sports writer finds his voice

Do you love to hear the sound of your own voice on a recording?

Funny, me neither. It doesn’t seem like anyone does, for that matter.

And thus, as I launch into the podcastosphere (is that a word? If not, I’m making it one), I have that to contend with, and so much more.

Beyond the aesthetics of my nasally, high-pitched voice (or so it sounds to me), I found there were three main elements to creating my first podcast — the technology, the content, and the execution of the content… which calls to mind one of my favorite quotes from former NFL coach John McVay, whose Tampa Bay Buccaneers were winless for an entire season. After one of those games, a reporter asked McVay what he thought of his team’s execution.

“I’m all for it,” McKay said.

My situation of course is not nearly as deserving of such gallows humor, but I found myself facing a few challenges.

First, the content. I didn’t have too much trouble landing on an idea. After all, my blog is called Musings of a Crusty Old Sports Writer, so why not live up to the promise with some musings about sports writing? This fit in well, too, because I figured I could include some crusty old tales and also bring in my more current experiences as a journalism teacher and adviser. Plus, next week’s podcast needs to be an interview format, so I can bring in our two sports editors for a chat.

Writing the script for this week’s podcast was not too daunting, reading it was trickier than I anticipated it would be. I’m a fairly comfortable public speaker, but reading a script with my most immediate audience a computer was not easy. I found myself regularly rushing, or stumbling, or fouling up a line. It took quite a bit of doing to push through and get all of my audio into four files.

It wasn’t immediately clear to me which program I should use to record, either. I had forgotten that I had created a SoundCloud account a couple years ago and was surprised to find one file there that I’d forgotten about. I actually made it to share with our editor in chief two years ago. We had a lot to communicate about but couldn’t see each other, so I figured it would be quicker to record my thoughts.

I thought I recalled recording this message right in SoundCloud, but I looked and Googled and looked some more and Googled some more, and best I could tell, this option does not exist other than on its smartphone app. So I resorted to a program on my Mac called GarageBand, which I knew of but had never really used before. I was able to feel my way through it and figure it out well enough to record.

When I uploaded my files into Audacity, it appeared as though you can record right in that program, if so desired. Oh well. GarageBand will work just fine, I’m sure.

The editing process was the most challenging part of all this. First, I found that my podcast was about four minutes long (!!!), so I started to make cuts. The bigger cuts were easier to execute, but the really fine ones were a pain! In retrospect, I might have been better off to just cut the script and re-record those parts. It took a real long time to get the edits to the point where they were passable.

So I survived the first one, and the second one should be better… except for having to listen to my voice over and over and over during editing. Ugh.

Our ‘crusty old sports writer’ tinkers with photo composition techniques

“The difference between a good photographer and a bad photographer,” photojournalist Travis Dove once said, “is that a good photographer has taken more bad pictures.”

If that’s true, I might be the most awesome photographer to ever live. Because bad pictures? I’m practically drowning in them.

In all seriousness, I’ve been told by photographer friends that I have a good eye for photography (which goes well with my great face for radio, I suppose). They might be right. But having the eye will only get you so far.

So it’s with excitement, and trepidation, and confusion, and frustration, that I’ve started my more formal photojournalism training.

I learned the basics composition about two and a half years ago — rule of thirds, framing, leading lines, bird’s eye/worm’s eye view, etc. Easy enough. But learning the ins and outs of the camera and how it works has been more daunting.

Really it all boils down to the exposure. If you don’t grasp that, you’ve got nothing, and the first step is simply to conceptualize how the Big Three — ISO, aperture, and shutter speed — work and how to read their measurements. Aperture was the toughest. So many times I asked myself, “OK, so a lower aperture means… a bigger opening and more light… No, no, a smaller opening and less light… no, no, more light…”

So getting that straight enabled me to start gaining a basic command of still photography. Getting a feel for the nuances of the Big Three and how they play off each other is necessary for the trickier shots, especially when motion is involved.

Through trial and error, playing around with the Big Three and experimenting with their interrelationships, was the key, and it was actually kind of fun. I figured out that some of the funkier motion shots came out best with a slow shutter speed and a high f-stop, including the mother of the funky action shots, the panned action.

For that matter, a few of the still photos were funky, too, and a few of my student photojournalists helped me figure them out. The silhouette took a lot of messing around, as did the extreme lighting. Good thing I had my creepy Santa head as subject to inspire me.

The silhouette, extreme lighting, and panned action shots still didn’t turn out just as I would’ve liked them to. I have a zillion bad photos to show for it.

Just like a “good photographer.”


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The ‘crusty old sports writer’ tackles multimedia

Roger Gafke sat in the back of the horseshoe-shaped lecture hall keenly focused on the discussion. Every couple minutes he chimed in, offering insight about such topics as Twitter use or digital photography.

A faculty member at the University of Missouri’s journalism school since 1968 — a year before I was born — and a lifelong journalist, Gaffke has embraced various twists and turns in the media landscape, including the emergence of multimedia the last couple of decades, which he has embraced.

At the 2015 Reynolds Institute, Gafke and the other facilitators emphasized to journalism teachers and advisers from across the country, including me, how multimedia can engage your audience. I saw that it was important that I embrace this and impress it upon my students. I also realized that as an ex-journalist (or a “crusty old sports writer,” as I often refer to myself) during largely pre-multimedia times, I need to school myself on the topic.

In the back of my head I’ve always wondered exactly what the term “multimedia” encompasses. I was interested to find out in the article “Defining Multimedia” on The Multimedia Journalist that multimedia is a nebulous term that can cover a variety of content and skills. “(Re)defining multimedia journalism” by Mindy McAdams also mentions this.

In our multimedia course, I hope to add more digital storytelling skill and tools to my arsenal, and I suppose I’m not alone in this sentiment. According to a study cited in the McAdams piece, “One of the most pressing needs mentioned by journalists in various countries was the acquisition of new multimedia skills.”

I was sad to find out recently that  Storify, which weaves social media posts into attractive narratives, is shutting down in a couple months. I’m interested in hearing about other storytelling platforms my classmates use and enjoy.

I hope is to pass this on to my students and require that all stories we publish on our website incorporate at least one multimedia element. I have perused many student publication websites which have won Online Pacemaker Awards, and they inspired to nudge my own publication in this direction. In fact, last summer I judged the online excellence category for Nevada’s state contest, and there was one outstanding site, The Southwest Shadow, which I presented to our journalists as a standard of excellence and something we should shoot for. It uses complementary multimedia elements with every story. Coincidentally, its adviser, Matt LaPorte, is now my mentor in this class.

I also want to publish more content that is multimedia in and of itself. Although we have one podcaster on our staff, and I have a basic working knowledge of Soundcloud, podcasting is new to me, and while I know basic composition techniques, my video experience is also limited.

By the end of this course, I’m hoping to find that even a crusty old sports writer can have an arsenal of digital tricks up his sleeve.