The times they are a changing

Thursday was kind of a milestone here at The Spokesman-Review. It was a busy day for everyone. Our MoJo (mobile journalist) Thomas Clouse called me over to his desk. He was working on a video he’d just shot of a railroad crossing emphasis patrol by local police. He was ready to export his movie, but before he did, he wanted me to view it. Clouse made the classic error of burying the lede of his video. A quick reedit made his story a 100% better. As I stepped back from his desk, I was taken aback by what I saw. Two web producers were all working in Final Cut Express producing their own videos.

Andrew Zahler was editing a piece he shot on a new local restaurant, which used unusual works of art in their decor. Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen was editing a story shot by an entertainment writer on the strange Juggalo hip-hop subculture. Both Thuy and Andrew have only been using Final Cut Express since January, but they’ve taken to it with no fear.

A few minutes later I ventured back to the photo department. In my old editing cave sat photojournalist Dan Pelle engrossed in his dual monitor setup working on a story about a high school student who is painting a mural on large fiberglass cow for a national art competition. Four people, working simultaneously, editing video for Spokesmanreview.com. I just had to smile.

For the longest time I was a videographer of one. An anomaly at my paper. Now, I’ve pretty much put myself out of the shooting business. I can no longer cherry pick the assignments that have good video potential. There are now eight people in our newsroom able to use a video camera to tell a story. It is a number that is growing–one person at a time.

A year ago, I looked out in the newsroom and asked myself what would it be like if everyone, not only had the ability to shoot and edit video, but also do it well? What would be the impact? As our website grows in reach and content, I know that multimedia will play a bigger role in how we tell stories. Mojo Thomas Clouse remarked the other day how his news video communicated the story much better than anything he could have written. This from a former word-only reporter—wow.

The next item on my plate is to reinforce the training these budding videographers already have. I need to show them ways they can be more efficient in Final Cut. How they can learn to edit in-camera so the video they shoot can be quickly edited into an engaging sequence of images. The video religion is spreading. Three more photographers are now learning Final Cut. We have capital budget for 4 more Mojo setups this year that include a laptop, video camera, and Final Cut Express.

With a coming redesign and a growing cadre of multimedia journalists, the newsroom at The Spokesman-Review is becoming a very different place from what it was just a year ago.

The rise of the mobile Internet browser

The other day, I was using Google Analytics to paw through website stats for  Spokesmanreview.com. I love looking for usage trends such as: How many people have converted to Flash 9 player? (89%) How many use Macs to access our site? (7.98%)

There was one statistic that caught my eye. In the last month, over 2300 people have accessed the S-R site using an iPhone with the Safari web browser. Three months ago it was about 1000. Granted, this was only 0.20% of our overall visitors, but as other manufacturers, besides Apple, release wireless browsing devices, I believe these hits will really start to track up. For years, technology wonks having been telling us pocket-sized wireless devices will change the paradigm of how we receive and send information. With last year’s iPhone and iPod Touch releases, I think the hardware has finally caught up with the hype.

In the next few years, newspaper websites will have an opportunity to connect with mobile users in ways infinitely better than how they do now.

I have a Palm Treo mobile phone running Microsoft software. A day doesn’t go by that I’d rather throw the device under a moving bus than continue using it. Clunky, unintuitive, fussy and damn right annoying are words to describe my company issued cell phone. Connecting to the web is a joke. Because it uses a touch screen and a real web browser, the iPhone fixes most these usability issues. It also brings game to a constipated wireless phone industry (at least in the U.S. market) in need of real innovation.

Touch screens, are finally starting to trickle down to other cell phone consumers. These larger screen devices, meshed with wireless high-speed data networks, will only move us further away from our reliance on desktop and laptops computers.

This will be a huge opportunity for newspapers to connect their online products to a whole new generation of Internet savvy users. We can begin by creating content that takes advantage of the strength of these browser-enabled devices. Websites will need simplified designs. The 300-link homepage just won’t do anymore. Shorter stories and more multimedia like video will rule the day. The iPhone was just the opening bell in a long 15 round bout. Competition is going to drive innovation rapidly. One day soon, everyone with a cell phone will have full access to our newspapers and the web. When that happens, I wonder what effect it will have on the traditional print product?

The AV Club

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One of the best things to happen to me since I became The Spokesman-Review’s multimedia editor was that I finally got an office with a window. Being stuck in a windowless cave for three years editing video had me looking downright pasty.

Shortly after I was promoted, I was able to make my first hire for an open multimedia producer position. Luckily I didn’t have to look far. Brian Immel had just graduating from Washington State University when I offered him the job. Now Immel and I share a small office crammed with cool technology. Some newsroom smart aleck taped a sign on the our office door proclaiming us members of the “AV Club.”  In a way the high school label fits. It’s just us two geeks talking none-stop about geeky things.

Before I was gifted the office, I was first assigned to the what many of us salt mine workers affectingly call the Death Star– a cluster of six desks that make up the universal assignment desk. My three-months on station there were tough. Nothing sucks the creativity out of you faster than having to listen to a city editor talk endlessly on the phone with angry readers who object to something published in the newspaper. During that dark time, I seriously thought about slinking back to the photo department to ask for my old job and dark edit cave back.

Now in the confines of my sunlit office, I feel reenergized. I am supervisor to three people in online who are wicked smart. They all know their jobs so well that I don’t have to supervise them much. That has left time for me to meddle in other areas like, oh I don’t know—the rest of the newsroom.

One of my longtime mantras has been that there can be no more “just photographers” or “just reporters.” Everyone now needs to be multimedia producers. That’s my story and I’ve been sticking to it. My goal is not to change the newsroom en masse, but to empower one person at a time with the multimedia tools and training that will allow them to be successful in producing content for online. I thought it would be a tough task, but in reality I find the S-R newsroom incredibly receptive.

Over time, I have asked a lot of people, including:

  1. Reporters to not only to write narrative scripts for videos, but also to voice them
  2. Reporters to gather audio to layer with their online stories
  3. Web producers to shoot and edit video
  4. Photographers to add video to their storytelling toolbox
  5. Photographers to gather audio and produce audio slideshows
  6. Editors to help identify and pass on multimedia possibilities quickly

All this has meant that Brian and me spend a lot of time making people in the newsroom feel comfortable with new technology like digital recorders and small video cameras.

If we give someone the multimedia tools they want, I’ve found they will do most of the heavy lifting themselves. Brian and me do a lot of demonstrating of technology to the rest of the newsroom. Every paper should have a Brian Immel on staff. He is the young demographics perfect storm– smart, Internet savvy; a person who searches out and uses all the online tools available. He understands more than anyone else at my newspaper the nuances of the Internet.  He can shoot and edit a video, is photojournalist and he can write code, such as high-level Flash Action Script, to build online tools and content. Yet, he is personable and patient enough to teach technology to the rest of the newsroom. 

I think many other newspapers probably have a Brain Immel on staff. Unfortunately, they are seen as having too little journalism experience to be taken seriously. You just have to peruse The Angry Journalist website to realize how this young generation of journalists are being ignored by newsroom management. Seeing little opportunity, they are fleeing newspapers just when they are needed most. I won’t let that happen to Brian.

What I’ve come to realize in my geeky discussions with Immel, is how little I really know about how his generation uses, shares and connects with information online. I think for newspapers to survive in this rapidly changing digital world, they will need to start listening more to the young people hired fresh out of college like Immel. Let them come to planning meetings with senior staff. Give them a voice and let them use it. If newspapers are ever going to make their online sites successful, then they’ll need to listen to the generation that is actually using the medium to it fullest.

It’s called Final Cut for a reason

Want your videos to have that polished professional look to them? Of course you do. When I view a video produced by someone inexperienced, I see all the little things they could have fixed before they exported. Since I seem to be fond of top ten lists, here is my How to final cut your video before you compress.

It really is the final small fixes that can make or break a video. I often find myself, after posting a video, going back several times to fix things that bug me. A dissolve that’s too long, an audio level that’s too low or high. It is a perfectionist curse that I live with. It’s best, though, to fix your video before they’re posted.

  • Start by listening to your completed project with your eyes closed. Hit pause when you come to something that doesn’t sound right and fix it. I find, by not looking at my time line, I’m much more able to spot (hear) audio issues.
  • When you’re listening with your eyes closed, do it twice, once with headphones and once with your computer speakers. You’ll be amazed at the difference in the subtleties of what can be heard between the two. Music is a case in point. A subtle music sound bed might sound great with cheap speakers, but be overpowering with headphones on. You have to find a balance for both ways the viewer will be listening to your video.
  • Watch your audiometers— Yes, with your eyes open now. You want each edited clip to peak between –12db and –6db. Adjust accordingly.
  • Have an audio clip that has really low levels? Don’t jack the audio levels up to the point of hearing hiss. Instead highlight the clip and duplicate it, several times if necessary, until it builds the sound back up to a decent level. Try it! It really works.
  • Use lots of audio cross fades. I can always tell the iMovie productions because the bumps in audio between clips. Cross-fades work much like an video dissolve does by blending the outgoing clip with the incoming clip. Fades work best between clips that have consistent audio sound. An example would be an outgoing clip of traffic noise transitioning to a clip of crowd noise. Because you can get cross talk, be careful of cross fading dialogue.
  • Always use split edits. The split edit separate the professional editor from the amateur. The way I define a split edit is that you want to hear the person before you see them. Split edits, also called L-cuts really make your video flow smoothly between a-roll and b-roll. Just watch a video where a person appears and starts to talk. It can be jarring to the viewer. You can fix it by unlinking the video and audio track, roll the talking head video back about four seconds, then tuck the exposed audio on a separate track under the outgoing b-roll clip. You now have a smooth transition viewers will hardly notice. There are a half a dozen ways to do a split edit. Find the way that works best for you.
  • Using photographs in your video? Try to fill the canvas window so there isn’t any black bars above the and below the image. It just looks better, especially if you’re adding motion on the photo. What I do is drop the photo onto my timeline and load it into the canvas. With wire frame enabled, I hold my option key down (to constrain proportions) and grab a corner of the wire frame and scale up the photo until it fills the frame.
  • My personal preference is to fade up a video at the beginning and to fade out at the end. Many videos I see just start, which I find jarring. I like to use Final Cut’s video transparency feature. This is that black line on the top edge of video clip. You can key frame it just like audio. If not, just use a cross dissolve. Also, try an audio cross fade on the opening audio clip and have it fade up with the video. It will be smooooth as butter.
  • Speaking of cross dissolves, ask yourself if you really need one. I find editors who use too many dissolves are the ones who failed to sequence their video with wide, medium and tight shots. Remember, a dissolve is best used for transitions of time or place.
  • Color correct your video. It’s really simple to do in a professional video editor like Final Cut Express or Pro. It is the last thing I do before I export my video out of Final Cut. The easiest thing to do with the color correction filter is to use the highlight eyedropper. Click a neutral white in your video and presto instant colorcast correction. Usually that is all I have to do to a clip. It’s a great way to take a cool color balance and instantly warm it up. Bad color in your video makes it look like a You Tube production.
Any other tips? Please share…

RIP Multimedia Shooter.com

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 Richard Koci Hernandez who created and maintained Multimediashooter.com has announced that someone has hacked his site. Richard writes:

I write this with a very heavy heart:

I am sorry to report that this website is down for the count. The site was recently hacked several times this weekend and severe damage was done. I do not have the time or resources at this time to

continue. I wish you all the best. I only wish this hadn’t happened.

[To the ‘hacker’ I hope it makes you happy to destroy something that people put their heart and soul into for years, for the sole purpose of learning and creating a small community

on the web. Just to have you destroy it for no reason. You win. There is a special place in hell for you.]

To those of you who supported the site over the years, THANK YOU! THANK YOU!

I don’t know what more to say, except, remember, it’s all about the STORY, not the TOOLS.

-r

Richard, my jaw dropped to the floor after reading the above. Multimedia Shooter has been a constant inspiration to me a countless other newspaper photojournalists turned videographers. I know it took way too much of your time busy schedule to produce. Yet you did, and you shared what you learned with everyone. So thank you. The entire multimedia community mourns Multimedia Shooter’s loss with you. I am hoping, in time, you will rebuild.

And to the hacker… A curse upon your house…  

  

NPPA BOP winners!

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The web video winners in the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contest have been announced. Washingtonpost.com video master Travis Fox, kicked butt as well as Getty Images Rick Gershon. You can view the winner’s list and videos here. Also check out the BOP TV winners. Lots of great video storytelling by our brothers and sisters in TV news. Congrats and high-fives to Angela Grant over at Newsvideographer.com for her honorable mention in the New Feature Web category. Way to go Angela! 

The Apocalypse is upon us…video is dead!

Over at Multimediashooter.com , Richard Koci Hernandez dropped a cluster bomb with this post called: Say NO to video: Conversations with the Video God.

But seriously folks, I think we’ve taken the video thing too far. At first I believed it was the right approach, because I believed there was gold in those hills. I love journalism and would’ve done anything to save the profession (and MY job). There WAS gold in the hills for some and maybe there’s some left, but not for most newspapers.

 

OK, it’s time to talk Koci off the ledge. For christ sake, most newspapers have been doing video for only a year or two at best. Journalists are still learning the fundamentals of how to shoot video. This is a huge transition and it will take years to make it work.

Like Koci, I have invested four years of my life into to making video work for my newspaper. I moved from up from a long-time position as a still photojournalist to multimedia producer and eventually transitioning to multimedia editor. When I look out on my newsroom now, I gotta smile. More and more people are starting to produce quality video stories. Thankfully, I’m no longer an island. I have spread the video Kool-aid (through training) at my newspaper and now only a few are complaining about the taste.

I, like the rest of  journalists and editors working in this industry, know we need to improve how we capture, produce and deliver multimedia content. The problem is media companies have been slow to embrace the Internet. The fact is, they all talk a great line, but still struggle to understand this rapidly evolving medium. Sixty-year-old executives in suits still don’t have MySpace pages or blogs. This makes it hard for them to really understand the importance of using social media sites as a distribution network. 

As early adopters of newspaper multimedia, Koci and I, knew damn well that our websites were not equipped to handle this growing medium. So we found ways to make it work through the use of video blogs. But in four years, have our companies come up with something that will showcase video better? Nope. But that will change. It has to.

Note: The Mercury News modern video player is better than The Spokesman-Reviews. But it crashed my Safari browser twice and failed to load most of their videos when I clicked “More videos.” 

I still believe video will be an important part of how newspapers deliver news content over the web. But until media companies make an investment in their websites, nothing is going make video turn into gold. Here is my list of what needs to change:

 

  1. Fix the players. Too may newspaper websites have crappy video players that take too long to load, don’t work with all browsers, have no full screen mode, don’t allow you to embed code or share with social media sites. Video need to be tagged so search engines can find them.
  2. Invest in decent compression software like Sorenson Squeeze. Then test until you find the best setting for your audience.
  3. Use in-house distribution servers. Brightcove is fine, but I think having to wait for a video player to load is a deal breaker. Video players should be easily embedded in the page and should start up almost instantly.
  4. If people can’t find your video, then it’s not worth the time or effort to produce. There have been lots of discussions about how video has a long shelf life. I can attest to this. In my Video Journal blog, many of the posted stories continue to receive hits over time. Some videos or slideshows take off and become viral months or years after they are produced. Why? Because they are findable in my blog archive. Too many newspapers post a video for a day or two and then it drops of the radar. That is death for hits. 
  5. Invest in a decent content management system. Too many websites, like mine, have been cobbled together with legacy code that doesn’t allow you to use Web 2.0 tools to enhance media distribution. At The Spokesman-Review, we are in the process of installing a new Ellington CMS and we will have a ground up redesign in the coming months. This will allow us to showcase our video in new ways.
  6. Propagate your video. It doesn’t have to live just on the “multimedia page.” Embed it in your newspaper’s blogs, stories and home page. Upload it to You Tube, iTunes.
  7. Invest in technology that will speed up the editing process. There’s a whole new generation of video cameras coming out that are tapeless and allow you to cut the capture time by 90 percent.
  8. Train, train and train some more. Multimedia quality won’t improve if producers don’t know how to do it better.
  9. Find a better model than pre-roll, which just makes your viewers hit the back button. If you’re going to continue to use pre roll ads, then make them less than seven seconds. Thirty-second ads are for TV. Web users are not that passive. I know there is a way to monetize video, it just hasn’t been discovered yet.
  10. Finally, as multimedia content producers, we shouldn’t give up on innovation. We are the one’s who took the risk and made the jump to video. Yes, we are fatigued from the fight, but we need to press on. The industry is changing and we need to be better prepared for when digital distribution becomes the standard. It’s a long road ahead.

Now Koci, get off the damn ledge before I push you off!