Time to move on…

OK, it is time to move on…
I survived the last round of layoffs, but I will have to leave behind my grand vision and fancy job title—at least for now. I have been reassigned back to The Spokesman-Review photo department as a staff photographer. That department took a torpedo hit with two super-talented shooters being shown the door.

It’s time to get back to my roots. I was a still shooter for 18 years, so the transition will be fine. I am a bit rusty on the shutter, but I will get my rhythm back. But what of all the video and multimedia that was beginning to be unleashed at the S-R? Well, seven of the 12 people I trained to shoot and edit are gone now. The reality is three people, myself and staff photographers Dan Pelle, and Jesse Tinsley will pick up the video slack. Heaven knows there is enough gear to fill a camera store lining the supply closet shelves.

Ahh…the supply closet–my new workspace. I took one of the empty desks in the photo dept, but I haven’t spent much time there. I swear I must have some caveman gene in me, because I seem most comfortable in dark cramped spaces. Go figure. It is actually a decent space–twice the size of my last office—and I can’t complain about the lack of shelves now.

So what happen now? I am still a little fuzzy on what my newspaper wants from me other than to shoot great still photos and produce occasional videos. My new editor-in-chief has defined my job as being 60 percent shooting stills and 40 percent doing video. We’ll see how that translates in the real world of an increased still workload.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk in multimedia circles about what the true value video holds for newspapers. Questions have been raised about whether or not we are just wasting our time leaning a new craft that seems to take more resources then it gives back in hits (see Mindy McAdams excellent post.)

I believe video is still a young medium for newspapers. We have to give the people learning to shoot and edit time to master the craft. The frustrating thing for me is that I had all the parts in place. (Great) tools, ongoing training, talented motivated staff and a brand spankin’ new multimedia centric website that was ready to launch the day before the layoff announcement. I am disheartened by what happened, but somehow I think the pendulum will swing back eventually. There is this little thing called the mobile web that is about to unleash the video gods in ways we can only imagine. On the other end the spectrum is the delivery of high-def web video to the masses. I will quietly do my duty as a still shooter, but I will find ways to work at being a better video storyteller. My new Sony XDCAM EX-1 is staring at me from the supply closet shelve. That bad boy ain’t going to be collecting dust for long.

Answers to my ten questions about quality vs.quantity

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about quality video vs. quantity. In it, I asked ten questions you should ask before your newspaper dives deeply into video storytelling. Both Rob Curley of The Las Vegas Sun/Greenspun Interactive and Angela Grant with Newsvideographer.com shared their answers.

From Curley’s post:

In regard to the “quality versus quantity” video debate (which is the whole point of his post), I think we’ve thrown our support clearly in the “quality” category … but probably in a different way than the writer of the blog above probably means – but I’m totally making assumptions there.

From Grant’s post:

I think his answers give me a working definition of the type of leadership that I’ve been craving in my own position. He has a vision and plans for higher-level strategies that I believe are necessary to enjoy a successful video endeavor.

Those strategies include:

* Deploying human resources to cover the news people want and need
* Distributing the videos on multiple platforms to reach the largest possible audience
* Advertising within / around the videos to monetize them
* Marketing the videos so people know that they are there

Check out their answers here:

Anglea Grant: “Great questions, and I’m answering them”
Rob Curley: “Newspaper-produced video: quality vs. quantity?”

Thanks Rob and Angela for helping me answer my own questions!

Time to pick up the pieces

Man, times are tough. You’d think the Apocalypse has set upon newspapers. In the last year alone, my newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, has been visited by the layoff demons twice. In their wake lies a devastated a newsroom that will soon be but a shell of its former self. A parade of newsroom cakes and goodbye beer bashes will fill out my social calendar in the next few weeks. As a manager, I will find out what my own fate will be on Wednesday.

Last week was by far the hardest seven days I’ve spent in my twenty-three year journalism career. I was confused, disoriented, angry, depressed. Seven of the 21 people laid off last week were coworkers I had trained to shoot and edit video for our upcoming (now delayed) new website. They were young and talented. All understood that video was going to be an important part of our digital future. And now they will all be gone.

Maybe this was all a failed strategy on my part. I wanted nothing less than to change the culture of this newsroom. I found reporters who wanted to learn video and then I got them the gear and the training needed for them to be successful. A recent reorg of the newsroom was set to unleash all this new video storytelling potential. Then bam, in the reading of a layoff list, it was all gone.

The challenges that face every newspaper in the country are fierce. The death spiral is still in play. If we don’t stop it soon, the very foundations of a free press could crumble. That scares me even more than losing my job.  We simply need to figure out a way to keep these institutions in play long enough for the economy to bounce back.  I do not believe now that the Web will save newspapers. On the contrary, the Web will eventually transform them into something totally different from what we have today.

My video strategy was just a bit in front of this transformation. Most of the time I felt like the Pied Piper, blindly leading those who would follow me. My only solace was my editor-in-chief Steve Smith’s support of everything I did. His demand that the newsroom become web-centric and was inspiring. But where Steve tried to make change at a breakneck pace, I tried to use baby steps in my approach.  In the end, Smith resigned because he didn’t feel he could continue to lead a newsroom devastated by such egregious cuts. What he leaves behind is a group of passionate people fearful of what lies ahead. Managing Editor Gary Graham has been named the new editor-in-chief. Graham has one hell of a job ahead of him. Still, even with all the turmoil of the last week, I remain hopeful. Hopeful I can get back to my roots of just being a storyteller. Hopeful we can all pick up the pieces of what’s left and reinvent ourselves once again into something that will resonate with readers of The Spokesman-Review and viewers of our website. Video is still a core value that I will push. This time though, I will it keep it mostly in the realm of myself and the remaining visual storytellers of the photography (visuals) department.

S-R web producer says goodbye to the newsroom she loves

Spokesman-Review Web Producer Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen was one  of 21 young staffers laid off last week. Thuy just wrote this goodbye to the newsroom she loved working in. She posted it to her friend’s network on Facebook, but I thought I’d share it (with her permission) with everyone. Tinged with sadness, her message still finds hope for the journalism profession she leaves behind and for her co-workers left to pick up the pieces.
I cried today when my assistant managing editor, Carla Savalli, said goodbye to everyone in the newsroom.

She told about growing up in a family that subscribed to both Spokane newspapers, when she decided she would start her own neighborhood paper at the age of 10. The first page was news, and gossip about neighbors. The second page was art from coloring books. The third was filled with recipes, the first ever being her mother’s zucchini bread recipe.

Savalli’s biggest dream while growing up was to be the editor-in-chief of The Spokesman-Review. Things didn’t happen that way (she was the No. 3 position when she resigned), her resignation was her own decision, but she is not abandoning this industry.  We all know this industry is really a religion – of journalists – of storytellers.

The S-R has always housed great storytellers. I admire everybody I’ve had the honor to work with. We celebrate everyday people who do phenomenal things, as well as – like the iron sculptor making African mammals, the retired police officer caring for his paraplegic dog, the record producer multi-instrumentalist who dropped out of high school and started his own studio, the twin brothers from Hauser Lake sent to Iraq. We also witness things we never wish we’d have to witness, like the Spokane mayor recalled after a sex scandal.

But then you poke around on the inside and newsroommates are also good storytellers in-house. Christmas parties, funerals, potlucks, people bringing babies into the newsroom and sharing good news, talking about recipes, going fishing, sharing tomatoes, staying late for election night when some of our families probably think we ought to be at home. Spending all day trekking around at political conventions, forgetting to eat, excited to be witnesses to a ridiculously amazing process (or is it amazingly ridiculous?).

We spend more waking and bonding hours with our coworkers in this weird environment of nasty negative things. Bizarre murders, car crashes, house fires, building fires, Taser incidents (I remember being the producer in the hot seat when surveillance video contradicted officers’ accounts of Otto Zehm’s death. The most stressful work day), writing and posting news on deadline, relying on each other to not just be accurate and fair but to call out each other’s mistakes, of which I made many, and they forgave me.

Storytelling is then a collaborative activity, a collective consciousness, bringing formless data to a higher plane, like prayer. Ask around in a newsroom about how people feel about their job, and most of them will tell you it’s a religious calling – The way anybody would choose to be a priest or a nun, somebody chooses to be a storyteller.

Until I join another newsroom, I will miss having front-row seats to everything that happens. I will miss following the senior political reporter to events – I would follow him to the end of the world and would have missed him when he retires in several years. I will miss video training, usual staff meetings, blogging about ethics in our Transparency Initiative and explaining to the public how our news decision-making process works.

I was given a blog and was trusted to write what I saw fit about news decisions and internal affairs. I was given a camera and was trusted to shoot, to essentially invade other people’s lives at interesting times. I was trusted for journalistic sensibility, audiovisual perfectionism, trusted to capture reality and present it as realistically as could be done. They trusted me with such big responsibility and for a long time, it baffled me that they did.

I will miss the honor of being able to say to someone, “I work for The Spokesman-Review” When we got the announcement that 21+ people would be laid off, including myself, I wondered who would be without the Review. The sensible answer is that I wouldn’t change as a person – I would retain all the skills gained and life would move forward, eventually. I’d find the next thing, just like when somebody gets a divorce they (might) move on.

But that doesn’t negate the value that the S-R has in the community among its readers – A newspaper will always be a big deal, and it will always be a big deal to have that honor of reaching out to readers who wake up in the morning and get crisp warm newspapers on their doorsteps, welcoming us into their homes and exposing us to their children – or in this day and age, opening up the computer and exposing their household to our video stories on the web. I get butterflies in my stomach not just when nice guys hold my hand, but when little old ladies tell me how long they have been subscribers and how much they wait for it in the morning.

Counting this layoff round and last year’s, the newsroom is down 35 percent people. That’s 35 percent fewer content makers. This will be a smaller group, but I just like hearing people say, “Things will be better – I promise.”

I don’t want this industry to die. But I also wish I knew how to save it, immediately, instead of doing my thing and hoping it will help, wondering if I’ll “recognize” journalism in twenty years. Probably.

But for now, this is everything I have loved about what we have been doing. If the universe permits, I would like to do it again – Even if it’s somewhere else, in that newspaper in the sky where all the good journalists go when they die off.

Meanwhile I really want to cuddle and watch Cinderella.

Layoffs hit The Spokesman-Review hard

It has been a trying week at my newspaper The Spokesman-Review. It didn’t start out that way. Last weekend, co-worker, Multimedia Producer Brian Immel and I drove down to Portland, Oregon to give a couple of presentations on multimedia storytelling and editing at the NPPA’s Flying Short Course. On the six-hour drive home, conversation turned to innovative ideas about how we could improve our new website that was just about to launch. As the sun set in my rearview mirror, Brian said to me, “Attending a conference like the Flying Short Course makes me appreciate our situation at The Spokesman Review even more.” That workshop glow didn’t last long. By Monday there were rumors and rumors of rumors regarding layoffs.

Like every newspaper in the country, the economic fundamentals are in freefall. On Wednesday, my editor Steve Smith gathered the entire newsroom together and read off the names of twenty-one of my co-workers, which including Brian Immel, to be laid off. Audible gasps could be heard with each name called. Then Smith promptly resigned. He said he simply had had enough.

Four to six managers are also going to get the axe in the next two weeks. Until someone tells me for sure, I could be one. By my best guesstamate, we will have lost roughly 35 percent of our total newsroom staff in the last twelve months. This is the forth round of layoffs in seven years. I have to wonder if it will ever stop. I am beginning to feel like that frog in the slowly heating pot. Will I get out before boiling myself to death?

I am trying to understand the economic reasons for continued layoffs within our industry. Blame happens. That is a constant. We are one of the only industries I know that believes it can get away with giving the customers less while at the same time charging them more for a diminished product. That model, my friends, is so broken.

Most newspapers are clamoring to change their newsrooms from a print centric model to a web centric workflow. In the past year, with support of a sizable capital budget, I trained and outfitted a dozen newsroom personal with video cameras, computers and audio recorders. All learned to edit video in Final Cut. A newsroom reorganization plan was just put in place. A brand new multimedia centric website was ready to launch this week. Then the layoffs hit. A sizable portion of those new reporter/video uber journalists ended up on the layoff list. Most were twenty-somethings who had little seniority.

Now faced with this new newsroom reality, I personally plan to refocus my creative energy on what I do best. Telling compelling stories for our readers and viewers of our website and newspaper. If needed, I will train the next wave of video journalists—god knows there will be lots of spare computers and video cameras available. Still, I just have to think of the lost opportunity of what could have been. I grieve the lost of these young co-workers who were not given the chance to make a full impact with their video storytelling skills or innovative ideas. Even sadder, many say they will never return to newspapers. The bitter pill of their short newspaper experience has left such a bad taste that most have rinsed and are mentally ready to move on.