Video at newspapers needs to improve


I was disappointed after this year’s NPPA Best of Photojournalism Multimedia Contest results were posted . In the News Video category, I won an honorable mention. Great! That’s until I realized  my video was the only award given in the category. What gives? This is the second year in a row I’ve placed in this News Video category. Last year I received a second place, but no third was given.  This troubles  me. Not because I didn’t place higher, but because the judges didn’t see a video that reached a high enough level of excellence to place.

During an online chat on the Poynter Institute’s website, I asked the judges:

“Why didn’t you award first through third in news video?”

The Response:

1:27 theresa: @Colin – this was a real struggle for us. Many were full of technical errors and ignored the basic principles of photojournalism. We saw lots of evidence of urgency, however we really couldn’t award anything that had technical or fundamental errors.

I stewed about this for a time. Then after helping judge the NPPA’s Monthly Multimedia Contest last week, I began to understand the BOP judge’s dilemma.

Bottom line: Video at newspapers needs to improve. Dramatically.

The problems I continually see:

Storytelling

Many still photographers have not transitioned their storytelling skills effectively to video. Editing a video story is different from editing still photos for a newspaper picture story. With video, you have to master the fundamentals of sequencing and audio before you can tell an effective story in video. Too many still photojournalists have dipped their toes in the video world with limited training and it shows.

Bland Videos

Many newspaper-produced video stories are boring. The best stories have surprises sprinkled throughout the timeline, which helps keep the viewer engaged. This is mature storytelling that most newspaper video producers have failed to master.

Structure

A great video story is one that pulls you in from the opening sequence and never let’s go of your attention until it fades out at the end. Weak video jars you out of the moment, whether it’s from a technical issue like distorted audio, or from a narrative that fails to captivate the viewer. So many things can go wrong with a video story. Understanding these pitfalls is the first step to avoiding them.

Editing

You can have great raw video, but fail miserably in the edit. Pacing, narration, use of transitions, sequencing, layering and mixing audio all have to come together like an orchestra to make a  video story work. Fail at any one of these and your house of cards comes a tumblin’ down.

Journalism

Lots of newspaper-produced video is weak in basic journalism. Many videos I’ve watched only have one person as the subject. How many print news stories would get past an editor with only one source?

Narration

For the longest time I told myself that I didn’t want my videos to be like TV. I worked hard at telling a story by using only the subjects as my narrative spine. What you risk, doing it this way, is a story that rambles along and is not defined until long after the viewer has hit the back button. Get past the idea that narration is a bad thing. Good scripting moves a story along and serves as an objective voice for facts.

Collaboration

So you say you hate the sound of your voice and you don’t feel comfortable writing a script. Then get out into your newsroom and find a writer with a great voice and collaborate. I like to voice my own videos, but I also know my limitations. Some of my best work has been when I’ve worked with a reporter on a video story. I shoot and edit the story; he or she scripts and does the voiceover. We play to each other strengths. The final product, in the end, is better than if I tried to do it all myself.

Solutions?

When I started this blog, I wrote a post called “What we can learn from TV news shooters.” The crux of that post : TV news shooters have done video storytelling decades longer than us newbie’s in the newspaper biz, and we can learn a lot from their successes. If you are lucky enough to go to a TV video workshop, you’ll get the fundamentals drilled into your head–Shoot wide, medium tight, super tight. Shoot action, then reaction. Get that camera on sticks! Use a wireless mic. Gather natural sound. What’s your opener? Closer? And, for Christ sake, white balance your video!

These are the just the basics of video news production. Yet many newspaper video producers are still unaware of these fundamentals.

If you can, my advise is enroll in a video production workshop like the Platypus, or the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Workshop that is coming in May. Until you know what you are doing wrong you can’t improve your video storytelling.

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33 thoughts on “Video at newspapers needs to improve

  1. Great comments and outline for improving.

    I am bookmarking this post and hope to use it as a reminder as I create corporate videos. I want them to have that news feel as opposed to the sterile corporate look.

    Thanks for this and other posts/info regarding multimedia.

    Mike

  2. Very interesting post. I wonder how much longer competitions will continue to separate “Web video” from “TV video”? It’s like separating online writing from newspaper writing. That never made sense to me. For NPPA’s awards, it judges Web video based on whether it “takes advantage of the strengths of the medium and manages its weaknesses,” but it seems like a cultural difference more than anything else. I would be interested to see how effective Web video is different from effective TV video. I’m assuming that most of NPPA’s TV winners would have made great online videos and vice versa.

    If anything, it seems like TV video would do a better job at effectively using the online medium by producing short (90 – 120 second) videos that are uploaded quickly to the Web. However, it seems like the greatest difference is the photo and written content associated with the story. How do you differentiate the story with strong multimedia elements in a photojournalism competition? You can’t. The online category seems like an attempt to incorporate “newspaper video” and then turn it away because it’s not good enough.

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  4. “Many videos I’ve watched have only one person as the subject. How many print news stories would get past an editor with only one source?”

    True – but how many print stories would make great video stories? Let’s not make the newbie mistake of comparing apples and oranges. If one interesting, compelling character is great on video, why introduce bland ones for the sake of doing so?

  5. I don’t think Colin is saying to incorporate boring characters for the sake of having more than one voice. I think his point is that nearly every newspaper video I see today has a single source talking through the whole thing. Adding a mix of voices is just good journalism.
    And Steve, you are right. If you find a great character, make them the focus of your piece.

  6. Steve, Tony is right. I’m not saying add boring characters. What I see time and again are boring videos because there is only one character in them. All that is needed many times is a couple of quick soundbites from someone else to give balance to the story.

    Auto slideshows are also a big offender. The easy production is interview a subject and drop the photos over the interview clip with little or no natural sound breaks. That’s not storytelling.

    When I teach video storytelling, I alway stress the technique of weaving your narrative interviews with of natural sound breaks and pops. Adding a voiceover can also help break up the monotone feel of a one-subject video by making it more informative. It also helps move the story along.

  7. As a film-maker who’s migrated into photography, I couldn’t agree more that photographers must grasp the technical basic’s of video to make the awards. As the Canon 5D (and similar) have suddenly offered a new freebie HD camera to photographers, the internet has suddenly been flooded by fairly poor films shot on what remains at heart a ‘stills’ camera. Presented with the dilemma of a SLR with free HD vs a HD video camera (with video stills) I was lucky enough to have the budget for both. I bought the Sony Z7 and a Canon 7D because I wanted to differentiate between what they do in my mind and not what they can do in my hands. I won’t be taking them out together on the same day. I said to a friend that I don’t want to spend the day in constant dilemma – should I shoot a still or should I shoot video? and I think this is where things are going wrong – trying to be an expert and to do far to many jobs in one day -interviewer/photographer/video cameraman/editor/web person. Better to do one job properly than to do many at an average quality or below. Multi tasking is fine if you have the skills, but not if your work begins to suffer.

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  9. There are still spots left for the immersion Colin will will be there!

    Seth

  10. Colin,

    Nice wrap up of how we need to improve. Now I just need four hours to edit instead of the usual hour and a half mixed in with all the other assignments. This is such a tough call balancing the time needed to do a decent shoot and edit and doing the rest of the still work required of the job. Add in staffs that have been cut and you can understand why the videos suck. As a multimedia editor with a staff of three and 25 web sites and 20 newspapers to shoot for you can imagine the days when we just say, enough! We do the best we can with the time given and we have to live with it because it’s not getting any better. That being said we have had some awards for audio slideshows and video. Good video equals time, time and more time. Sorry for the rant but in our situation time is at a premium not a luxury.

    Kirk

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  15. “Get past the idea that narration is a bad thing. Good scripting moves a story along and serves as an objective voice for facts.” – Amen, Colin, Amen.

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  17. You’re right Colin, but newspapers need to be committed to allowing their video producers to improve. TV shooters are good at what they do because that’s all they do every day.

    Who is producing video at newspapers? At mine, it’s reporters and photographers who are used to spending an hour at an assignment and then an hour, tops back at the office to file their story or photos. Now they’re coming back, opening up Final Cut for the first time in a month, and then spending four plus hours to edit, compress, upload and publish to our CMS. They’re producing one-source stories because it’s a heck of a lot easier to grab 90 seconds of audio from one subject and lay some B-roll over it than it is to weave together multiple subjects and then write narration to tie it all together.

    I’m at a paper where video is considered a priority, and I produced maybe 80 pieces last year, and a quarter of those were sports highlight packages. I used to shoot 80 still assignments in a month and a half. My greatest improvement as a still shooter occurred in my first year as a staffer, when that was all I had to do.

    I think it’s going to be a hard road to improvement when video is considered an additional job duty, not a primary one.

  18. Peter,

    All great points Peter. After all the layoffs of the last two years, the assignment load pressures on staff photojournalists and reporters have increased. How and when you add video to your workflow is a management issue that needs to be addressed.

    From the day I started shooting video, I tried to educate management about the equipment, time, and workflow issues that come with producing video. That has really helped me over time. I understand you’re not alone in dealing with the daily challenges of quality vs. quantity. My advice is pick your best stories and knockem’ out of the park. The quick hit videos are a necessary evil right now. You just have to do the best you can with them.

    I’m sure you do this already, but be a mentor to your other video producers at your newspaper. Show them the keyboard shortcuts to help shorten their edit time. Sit with them and do the final cut of their videos to show them the little things to smooth out their timelines. Give them feedback on what they can do better next time. The only way that video storytelling at newspapers is ever going to improve is if we all help each other out.

    Peter, you are one of the best newspaper video storytellers working today. Your work is an inspiration to others and me. Keep the faith brother.

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  20. Thank you for this post. I found out the importance of well edited videos in my online journalism class and have been taking classes to improve on that. I hope other students like me will read this post.

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  24. Interesting points by Colin. My number one observation would be that still photojournalists were forced into video from the get-go and never wanted to be video journalists in the first place. Thus the reason we don’t work in television. Additionally, there has been virtually no training afforded. Yet somehow we think this formula will breed success?

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  27. As an online journalism student, I think about the biggest newspaper website video of the year: The Man with the Golden Voice: Ted William by the Columbus Dispatch.

    This technically flawed, one source, phone cam looking video was a huge hit on the blogger-face-tube and the story was picked up by major news media sources.

    It must have left the paper wanting more of these far from award winning viral videos.

    “Get me the next Golden Voice,” I imagine the 100’s of newspaper website editors screaming.

    I feel that newspaper websites can/should compete with TV for high quality, award winning journalism. Like theColin suggests, that will take talent, commitment and training in video.

    Handing a print journalist a flip cam is not enough, but it was enough for the Golden Voice.

    So what is the answer? I am still trying to get my head around this.

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  29. I think it’s better to spend more time on a few nicely produced pieces than try to throw together a bunch of bad videos to fill a spot. Good video storytelling is hard and takes some time. I think newspapers are in a position where they can afford to be picky about what they invest their time into, while a TV station is forced to turn around daily video for several broadcasts (morning, noon, midday, evening). I see a lot of forced newspaper stories on subjects that don’t make good video. Before you leave the office you really need to ask if the story warrants the time and if the story has the parts to make a good video. Would you want to watch it? If you wouldn’t, why would anyone else?

    I don’t think narration is a bad thing, I just think we are scared of it. I know I am. It takes practice and writing for broadcast is very different than writing for newspapers. I just started reading Al Tompkin’s Aim for the Heart where he talks about how to write for multimedia packages. So far I have found it to be filled we a lot of great info. Well worth picking up. NPR has a book as well about writing for broadcast. It’s mostly for radio but a lot of the same principles seem to apply.

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