The change: Video storytelling and the rise of the DSLR

It happened so fast. The change. One day, photojournalists were just doing their thing. Shooting daily photos for their newspapers. Maybe even an odd photo story or two. A lucky day was getting a page or a double truck on Sunday to showcase all their hard work.

Video at newspapers was out there on the fringes. A few staffers braved the online world and embraced a new way to tell a visual story. Except this time, it was on the World Wide Web. No space restrictions here. Most traditional still shooters shrugged their shoulders and continued on with the status quo. Video cameras were for “TV types,” they said.

Then the layoffs hit hard. In 2009 and onwards, photo departments at many newspapers were gutted. Hundreds of staff photographers were tossed onto the streets to fend for themselves. To freelance.

In the midst of all this chaos, a new type of still camera was quietly released by Canon. The 5D Mark II had a little secret– it could shoot kick-ass HD video. A few brave photojournalists used the new technology to produce stunning imagery. Images unlike anything ever seen in the video camera world. Shallow depth-of-field shots and cinematic looks that mimicked film dropped many jaws along the way. The smart ones ran with it. Reinvented themselves and in doing so, reinvented the genre of documentary filmmaking. Overnight the doc film industry changed. Shooting with Film stock was done. Former still photojournalists, once resistant to shooting video, now embraced it.

The commercial still photography market tanked as a “billion of photojournalists” raised their iPhones and posted their snaps on Flickr.

Because the DSLR camera was familiar, still photojournalists could buy in without judgment. The taint of video, hidden in a tiny package of a pro DSLR camera gave courage to those that once scoffed at the idea. It did not matter that the DSLR was much harder to shoot with than a traditional video camera. What did they know? They had never shot with a Sony or Panasonic video camera with built-in stabilization and pro audio inputs.

The aftermarket kicked in with a plethora of accessories to make the 5D Mark II easier to focus and improve the bad audio the camera outputted.

Soon the former photojournalists were now calling themselves filmmakers. The old ideas of us (still) vs. them (TV) dissipated. “Us” became “them,” but in a different way.

Video storytelling changed. The entry point into the documentary film world flattened. An army of new filmmakers, not confined by the limitations and cost of film, were unleashed. Stories, some short, some long (most too long,) gave rise to publishing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. No longer did you need a TV to showcase your vision. Shoot and edit your story yourself, then post it to the Web. Maybe even enter a film festival or two.

Former photojournalists, the ones newspapers turned their backs on, were the most creative with the new DSLR video medium. They brought a keen sense of composition, moment and storytelling to the table. But sometimes that was not enough. They needed to understand that great imagery did not a great story make. Each failure was a learning opportunity.

The unfortunate ones were the Nikon shooters. The Nikon D90 was the first DSLR to have video capabilities. But Nikon took a nap after that release. Canon became the de facto standard for DSLR video. The release of the Nikon D800 and D4 played catch up and now a lost generation of Nikon users are joining the fray of filmmaking.

I sit here now stewing, one of the first still photojournalists that embraced digital video storytelling at a newspaper. I was a change agent; embracing the idea that video was an important path to enhancing our online content. In those early days of 2004, our website was mostly text-based with a few postage stamp-sized photos sprinkled about.  I evangelized, I shared, and I taught video sequencing to anyone who wanted to learn. I produced hundreds of video and multimedia stories. I even survived 11 rounds of layoffs at my newspaper. But now I feel like the old man talking about the good old days. Many of my photojournalists friends who left newspapers unwillingly are doing incredible documentary video stories now.

Video storytelling is hard. It takes commitment to keep learning. To keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the tools available.

In the blink of an eye, things change. It comes down to how you respond to that change. Give up and you stagnate. Embrace and you risk failure. Fear is the great equalizer. I keep telling myself  “no fear, no fear.”

I really love video storytelling. Though now I feel the cool kids have taken the torch and somehow passed me by. I tell myself I still have knowledge and experience on my side.

Inside me is a storytelling machine waiting to be unleashed. My Nikon D4 beckons. The world is full of stories. The only one that keeps me from telling them is fear.  No fear. No fear. No fear.

Time to move to DSLR video

Being a Nikon shooter in a multimedia world has some disadvantages. In 2008, Nikon launched the D90, which was the first DSLR with the ability to shoot video as well as stills. The camera was rife with limitations. Without an audio mic jack, you could not use an external microphone to gather quality sound.  The Motion JPEG codec the D90 recorded in was a nightmare for Final Cut Pro to deal with. My newspaper bought two of these cameras on release. I played around with one, shrugged my shoulders, and went back to my Sony XDCAM EX1.

Then the shockwave hit a short time later when Canon released the 5D Mk II. With its full-frame sensor, 1920 x 1280p resolution and, hallelujah, a mic jack, photojournalists who resisted shooting video, were now intrigued. Shooters like Vincent LaForet have since built their careers promoting filmmaking with the 5D Mk II. Whole ecosystems of accessories to outfit the camera have blossomed. So what happened to Nikon’s response? Did their engineers shrug their shoulders like I did and move on to only service the consumer market? Over time, Nikon has added video capabilities to many of their cameras, but none have been able to meet or exceed the specifications of the Canon 5D Mk II.
During the last several years, I have sat on the sidelines, preferring to use my traditional video camera.  I kept telling myself that I would jump in when Nikon launched its 5D killer. I’m still waiting. Last year, I talked my editor into buying me the Nikon D3s. This amazing camera is unfortunately saddled with the same video 720 x 1280p resolution and Motion JPEG codec of the D90 and the Nikon D300s.

I have stewed as the newspaper photojournalism world embraced the entire Canon line with its superior video capabilities. Last year, Brian Immel and I founded Finding the Frame, a video critique website for multimedia storytellers. I started noticing something right away. Most of the videos uploaded had been shot with Canon DSLRs. I’ve noticed something else. The visual storytelling is way better than it was just two or three years ago. I attribute that to talented still photographers taking their composition, moment, and visual creativity with them in to the realm of DSLR video storytelling.

When I started this blog in January of 2008, video storytelling at newspapers was in full swing. It was a time when video cameras were being handed out to newsroom staff like candy. Little training and cameras in the hands of non-visual word folk led to some sad results.

The implosion at newspaper newsrooms over the last three years has showcased new realities when it comes to video. I think management finally understood that video storytelling takes time; so most of the consumer-level cameras given to reporters have gone into some drawer never to be seen again.  Photo staffs have been decimated too, but not the amount of work expected from them.  Video is still alive and well at newspapers. The transition from videotape cameras to DSLR based video has upped the expectations for photojournalists. One camera that can do it all has made the job of visual storytelling more exciting, but infinitely more complicated and challenging.

My time to stew is over. My time to wait for Nikon to up its game is over too. No, I’m not jumping to Canon. What I plan to do is to make the DSLR technology I do have work for me. Yesterday I put in a request that was approved to purchase accessories to will allow my Nikon D3s it function as a video camera better.  In the coming weeks and months I will explore on this blog my experiences as I make this transition to shooting video with a DSLR. Stayed Tuned!

I do have the coolest job ever!

A slap upside the head always comes when you least expect it.

“You have the coolest job ever,” said a hockey fan standing behind me admiring one of my photos at the Spokane Arena last night.  I was on deadline preparing to transmit my pictures of a blowout Spokane Chiefs hockey game back to the paper when those six words stopped me cold.

“You have the coolest job ever.”

Up until that utterance, I’d beg to differ.  It had been a long 14-hour day and I was tired. I started in the morning shooting a freelance job. I take extra work now whenever I can.  It helps make up for the furlough days and pay cuts I have endured over the past year.

The economic trauma and turmoil facing my and every other newspaper in the country weighs heavily on my shoulders at times. When someone asks me why I entered the newspaper biz, I tell them it’s because I have a passion for telling stories.  Like any good photojournalist, I see the world a bit differently from most people. There is a creative energy that burns inside me.  When I put a camera up to my eye, life becomes my palette.  I felt it when I bought my first professional camera in high school and I still feel it today…well most days.

“You have the coolest job ever.”

As I sat there hunched over my laptop, awareness washed over me. Here I was at a hockey game that I didn’t have to pay to get in, surrounded by the best cameras, lenses and laptop that I didn’t have to buy. The only thing missing was a cold beer by my side.

Looking back over the past seven days at some of what I have produced for the readers of my newspaper and viewers of our website, I realize that I can’t let the uncertainty of the future kill my creativity. Today, I put a sticky note on my computer monitor that simply says, “Try Harder.” It is my little reminder  that  (slap upside the head)  I do have the coolest job ever!

These are some of the highlights of my past week– a mix of multimedia and stills.

Several dozen great blue herons were perched on pilings in the Pend Oreille River at Usk, Washington Tuesday, March 2, 2010. Area birding enthusiasts said this is the time of year large groups of the giant birds can be seen migrating and resting in certain areas, such as the Pack River Delta along Lake Pend Oreille. Soon they will disperse in smaller groups to nesting rookeries in cottonwoods or other woodlands near water.COLIN MULVANY colinm@spokesman.com

Tim Michaels, who lost part of his leg in a grain elevator accident holds a wooden foot carving a relative brought him during his stay at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash.

Videos: Click image to view.

The king of Cat Tales Zoological Training Center gets a root canal.

In the Kalispel Tribal Language Program, new Salish speakers immerse themselves in daily conversation with elders and then teach what they have learned in nearby public schools.

Photojournalism in the age of the Internet

I’ve been working on a presentation I will give next month called “Photojournalism in the age of the Internet.” In the process, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much photojournalism has changed for newspaper photojournalists.

With the rise of the  Internet, traditional photojournalists have been faced with a dilemma. Stay a purist to the craft by clinging to their still cameras or embrace the change by venturing out into the online world by adding video and audio to their storytelling toolboxes.

Back in 2006, I was invited to speak about newspaper multimedia at The Southern Short Course in News Photography conference. During some free time, I dropped in on a panel discussion about the future of photojournalism. The panel was made up of a stellar group of veteran, but mostly old-school photojournalists.  The room was packed, so I stood in the side-shadows taking in the conversation.

An audience member asked whether video was something she needed to learn. After a pause, one panel member said, “I don’t know, why don’t you ask Colin? He’s standing over there.”  All 200 heads turned and looked at me.

My answer made many people squirm in their seats. “Yes,” I said. “You need to learn video. You need to add audio to your pictures and yes you’ll need to embrace change.”

I felt a little uneasy as the questions kept coming at me and not the panel. I could sense that many people thought I was crazy. I started to see the panic in some people’s eyes. One woman volunteered that her editor at a small newspaper was requiring her on a single story to write it, take the photographs and produce a video. An uneasy murmur rose in the room. I could tell, my belief that video was important to the future of online journalism, was  a tough sell in this room of die-hard  photojournalists.

Flash-forward some four years. Whereas, in 2006 I was an anomaly, now most newspaper photojournalists produce some sort of multimedia, be it  audio slideshows or video. J-school programs have finally stopped wallowing in the past and are junking old curriculums for new ones that are multimedia focused.

Looking at the troubling position newspapers are in, one must wonder if all this talk of multimedia storytelling really matters. After all the rounds of layoffs, who has time to shoot video?

There are some days I wonder myself, but I quickly shake off the feeling. I have to remind myself that newspapers are awash in transition. As we near rock bottom, the economy is starting to show some life. I can only hope for some stability to return to the newspaper industry.

Today, if I faced a similar crowd like the one in 2006, I would say the same thing. Learn video storytelling, master audio gathering and editing. Embrace change. The future, I would tell them, is not in the printed-paper, but in the digital delivery that will eventually replace it.

Photojournalists are a curious lot. They are independent, visual thinkers. Most take photographs because they love to shoot and share their work. They know they’ll never get rich on this career choice, but instead find happiness in the people they meet and photograph along the way.

The disruption that online journalism has placed on the photojournalist, whose career choice was based solely on taking still photos for newspapers, has been gut wrenching. “That’s not what I signed up for,” is what I often see posted in forums dealing with the changes facing photojournalists today.

The technology being deployed is slowly changing the definition of what photojournalism is. Newspaper photojournalists are becoming multifaceted visual journalists who can now use a variety of formats to tell a story.

As lean as newspapers are running these days, I think we’re about to get a dose of “oh shit” real soon. Circulation is not coming back. Just look at the downward trend of the last forty years as proof of that. Our readership is dying off and screenagers are just not interested in buying the dead trees we’re selling. I think the last transition will be the messiest. More talented journalists will leave the profession. More photojournalists will become freelance wedding photographers.

What awaits those few who make it across the proverbial burning bridge is anyone’s guess. If I could flash forward four years, I can visualize in my crystal ball a world where newspapers have transitioned most of their subscriber base to the touch screen tablet platform that has suddenly gone white-hot with advertisers.  I predict these multimedia centric devices will need a steady stream of visual content.  And guess what?  Visual journalists, who honed their multimedia skills during newspapers darkest hours, will be there to gladly step up and help feed the daily digital beast.

Looking back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2009

It’s been a challenging year on the multimedia front. Many newspapers retrenched by refocusing their limited resources back on traditional print products and away from online innovation. This is in sharp contrast to the rush to develop online products so prevalent in 2008. Disturbing as it’s been, this trend is not wholly unexpected. Business model disruptions are historically messy. As publishers resisted the unfathomable idea that the era of the printing press is fading, precious time was wasted in preparing for their inevitable digital future. For the employees of these publications, the stress has been excruciating. Mass newspaper layoffs have hit visual and online staffs hard this year. Word people still control the tempo of most newsrooms. Seeing Washington Post master video storyteller Travis Fox shown the door is an example of this shortsighted trend.

Newspaper-produced video, once seen for its potential as an online revenue generator, was scaled back at many publications in 2009. Layoffs in photo departments left too few visual journalists with the time to do effective volume video storytelling. Just when the training curve knowledge was kicking in, many talented video journalists/photojournalists were sliced away from newspaper payrolls.

Newsroom innovation (beyond talk of pay walls) slowed too. Fear and uncertainty ruled many  newsrooms in 2009. A brain drain has left the few remaining innovators reluctant to stick their necks out for fear of having them cut off.

Still, multimedia workshops like the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion, Platypus and Knight Digital Media Center’s Multimedia Training continue to fill up with reporters, photojournalists and online folk who, many on their own dime, continue seeking out digital storytelling training.

Social media kicked in big time in 2009. The rise of Facebook and Twitter allowed everyone, including newspapers, to propagate their online content in the social media universe. Many, including myself, found new viewers for multimedia projects by posting links to social media sites.

University journalism programs got the multimedia religion in 2009. Curriculums are finally being rewritten in ways that reflect the new digital future of journalism. Students, hopefully, will now graduate with a skill set that will better prepare them for a multitasking future. As I’ve said many times before: “There can no longer be  ‘just reporters’ or ‘just photojournalists.’ We all need to be multimedia, multi-platform savvy.”

Video technology took a big leap forward with the introduction of  DSLR cameras capable of shooting high–def video. A visual journalist needs only one camera now to shoot stills and video. Though the technology and its clunky editing workflows are still in its infancy, the era of large, bulky video cameras for newspaper visual journalists is coming to an end.

Video delivery at newspapers improved dramatically in 2009. Many publications added full-screen modes to their players and improved video compression for stutter free viewing. Still, video seems like an afterthought at many newspaper websites.

In 2009, newspaper video storyteller’s experience and understanding of the craft improved, but a troubling gap in understanding basic video fundamentals, weakens the majority of videos produced at newspapers. The art of good storytelling is missing in many videos I’ve watched this year. I continue to gather inspiration from a few in TV journalism that are allowed the time to tell a great story. Learning to script and voice narration should be a goal for most newspaper video storytellers in the coming year.

For 2010, I see a bumpy road ahead as publishers continue working to bring expenses and revenues back in line. While they’re doing that, some interesting changes will begin to disrupt their plans and the print industry big time. Tablet computers will be released this year by not only Apple, but by a half-dozen other big manufactures. Digital content, expressly made for these devices, will start putting pressure on print products late in 2010. It will take some time for these enhanced digital readers to gain traction, but when they do, my prediction is that it might be game over for many struggling print newspapers. Whether the content these publications produce survives in a digital form will be dictated by how much publishers invest in transitioning advertisers and subscribers to digital delivery.

Whatever happens, 2010 is going to be an interesting year. Hold on tight…

Will the touch tablet save professional journalism?

Someone should just put a deadbolt on my laptop lid. When I peruse my Twitter feed I see nothing but scary newspaper industry news, which flows like a river of red ink across my pixels. Reading too much of it makes me think a prescription for Prozac might be in my future. I’ve begun to notice even journalism pundits have started to turn on each other by criticizing the need for yet another conference on “Envisioning the Newspaper of Future.”

Truth be told, no one really knows when printing presses will grind to a halt and news delivery boys and girls will be forced to hang up their logoed paper bags for good.

I had to laugh,  last week in Portland, Oregon, my former newspaper editor Steve A. Smith was the keynote speaker at “We Make the Media“A conference held to develop real-world plans for new media organizations to fill the journalism gaps left by shrinking news staffs at legacy media organizations.” As Smith was speaking about the need to save “professional” journalism, back in the corner of the room were a bunch of self-proclaimed snarky bloggers and citizen journalists who took offense to the notion professional journalism should be saved. Of course they twittered their opinions of Smith’s speech in real time. This, I guess, is the new digital divide, where any journalist older than thirty is viewed with mistrust. Hmmm, where have I heard that before?

It does seem the pace of handwringing is accelerating. The print folk, locked in their silos, are defending their turf as they make their last stand. Online departments are taking the brunt of the next wave of job cuts. If newspapers can’t hold the line on circulation and revenue, it will soon be curtains for the rest of us still drawing a paycheck. Or so I’m told. I hope I can last a bit longer, only because I truly believe, if we can make this digital transition, the future will not be as dismal as I was once led to believe.

Here’s my vision of how I see it playing out in the near future:

  • A new breed of touch tablet readers hits the market in 2010-2011. Newspaper publishers at first shun the devices. Then one gutsy newspaper chain embraces them. They form a partnership with the tablet maker to subsidize the cost for the consumer. The more publications a consumer subscribes to, the less they have to pay for the reader. Others soon follow…
  • A newspaper’s survival will be based on how many current subscribers can be converted to the digital replica of the newspaper. Replica is the key here. A newspaper’s digital future starts with making the transition simple (familiar) for  print consumers to make. It’s the newspaper, only better…
  • What will sell the tablet service is all the new things subscribers will be able to do with their wireless digital newspapers. Pictures will come alive with video and audio, graphics become interactive with a tap of a finger, Text can be set to be read aloud. Subscribers should easily be able to customize the paper to fit their needs. Want the sports page as your front page? No problem. Want more stories about your favorite pro baseball team? You bet!
  • The value to the tablet subscriber has to be so huge that they be crazy not to plunk down their cash.  The same goes for advertisers, whose ads will now have added value. Tap on an ad for a big-screen TV at Best Buy and get more info about the product. Tap a grocery store coupon to print it out.
  • Advertisers should be allowed to update their ads in real-time. Think about it. Let’s say you’re a local shoe store looking to move 1000 pairs of shoes. You place the ad in the morning showing the shoes at 20% off. By 2 p.m. you have 500 left and you want to sell them faster, you log into your account and update the ad yourself, dropping the price to 30% off. Don’t you think a whole bunch of those types of ads would draw traffic to a digital newspaper?  How about subscriber-only deals? Advertising will be targeted to subscriber’s tastes and talents.
  • Everyone talks about how they can’t make any money in online. The simple truth is most newspaper Web sites are not easy to navigate. They can’t display ads as effectively as a print newspaper. If newspapers are going to make this digital transition successful, then making the viewing experience for former print subscribers and advertisers as elegant as possible is paramount.

Finally, a few words about content. Our journalism is what’s most important and will no doubt have to be upgraded. Words and multimedia will need to work better together. The strength in the touch tablet is in its multimedia capabilities. Visuals like photo galleries, graphics, and hi-def video, will add value. Like your current Web site, the front page of the digital newspaper will change as stories are updated throughout the day. The page design will slowly change to integrate new content features.

Once this happens,  the true digital media revolution will begin to take place. Yes, the presses will eventually stop, which will only strengthen digital media’s position. Freed of the cost of printing and distribution, more resources will go to content creators. This is when the fun really starts. True innovation will kick in with each new tablet version. New types of devices will drive even more innovation and hopefully a super-renaissance of journalism. My vision may be utopia to some, but the internal optimist in me really believes there is a future in professional journalism.

The death of newspapers doesn’t mean the end of journalism

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Last week I stood in front of a convention of high school journalists and told them a career in journalism was still a solid prospect. I bit neither my lip nor tongue as I said this. For most in the room, it will be 5-7 years until they complete college.  In that amount of time, newspapers are going to experience a lot of change.

In this month’s Digital Journalist, an essay called “Circling the Drain,” by Mark Loundy summed up the present state of newspapers perfectly:

“Newspapers are trapped between two worlds. They can’t offer a viable online service because they can’t spend enough on staffing. Meanwhile, they’ve lashed themselves to a sinking ship that they’re bailing out by tossing journalists overboard. Of course, this drives readers away, causing the ship to sink faster.”

As many printed newspapers sink into irrelevance in their communities, the big question left hanging is what will replace them? Will newspaper publishers wake-up and invest in their online news sites, while also finding the courage to cut away their failing print products? Can they find a way to make the boatloads of profits online they once had in print?

In some ways, I don’t think it matters whether newspaper online websites survive either. When I looked out at that room full of high school journalism students, I realized they are going to be the ones that will define the revival of journalism in the digital age. This is a group that rarely reads the printed newspaper. When I ask them why? I get answers ranging from: “It’s not searchable,” and “The newspaper limits my ability to connect with multiple points of view,” to “I’m online all the time, so I sometimes will read it there.”

As I anguish over the present state of print newspapers, I’m likewise excited to see the future of online journalism begin to take form. Hyper-local sites are starting to claim ground where traditional journalism fails to defend.

Angela Grant, a former San Antonio Express multimedia producer who now works for a hyper-local news website instantnewsWestU.com writes in her popular News Videographer blog:

“Here’s the most awesome things about my new job: I’m now a TRUE multimedia journalist. On any given day, I will write a story, take pictures, produce videos, or create maps to illustrate stories. I’m learning a lot of new skills dealing with beat reporting and developing sources.”

It will be young people like Grant who will be the ones to shape digital journalism’s future. Many of these online experiments will fail, but in time, some formula will stick.

And don’t discount the castoffs from newspapers. They will also have an effect. There are a lot of talented former print reporters and visual journalists that are looking for online palettes to display their talents. Smart people don’t wallow in the past for long.

I know newspaper publishers understand that as their print product flounder, they need to be in a solid position to compete with their websites. The movement to online-only news websites will open up the conduit for new jobs in journalism. So for high school students interested in a career in journalism, I say: Come forth, be passionate, be curious and most important, be innovative.