With coming redesign, a new era begins

Last week hell froze over at The Spokesman-Review. The long awaited redesign of our website is finally underway. Meetings are being held, code is being written and timelines have been set in stone.

One of my longtime frustrations as a multimedia producer is that my newspaper’s website is, well, a tad bit outdated. My only saving grace has been my vlog called Video Journal where I have been able to showcase the multimedia being done at my newspaper. It has not been an ideal solution though. So much has changed in the four years that I have been producing video and multimedia. The rise of social media sites like blogs, You Tube and MySpace have reinvigorated the Web by changing the way multimedia is distributed. Sharing, embedding, tagging, ranking, commenting — that Web 2.0 renaissance party pretty much passed Spokemanreview.com by.

But now that the seas have parted and everyone has got that old-time redesign religion, life is again full of possibilities. Our blank website canvas is being painted with broad strokes. Tattered notebooks full of cool ideas are now being put to code. A recently purchased content management system called Ellington has mostly been ditched in favor of writing a better CMS built on a newer version of the high-level Python Web framework called Django.

The first part of our new site to go live will be a brand spankin’ new multimedia container where, video, photos, audio slideshows, and other visual media will be showcased. The best part is we will provide all the cool tools for viewers to find share and redistribute most of the multimedia content we produce. Many people may yawn at my excitement, but for me this redesign has been nine years in the making. It will launch a new era for my newspaper that already has made the transition to being web-centric in the newsroom.

I think the success of our web team’s redesign effort will be judged by how well they implement the dozens of little features they plan to build in.

Our video player, built by Brian Immel, is going through its final tweaking and is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Check out the database driven menu at the end of the video. When it is hooked up the new media database it will really rock. The player is going through one more design version that will give it floating controls, and added hardware acceleration. Our video will soon be served out over brand new Flash Media 3 servers. Bottlenecks and stutters will hopefully be a thing of the past. The new custom CMS, affectingly called Cannonball, will allow us to embed videos into stories and blogs throughout the site with ease. The search feature should be the best in the industry.

A lot of work needs to be done over the next several months. For now I’ll keep my head down and let the folks with 10-pound brains pound out code… 

Improving the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest

Angela Grant at Newsvideographer.com has started a conversation about how to improve the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest. As contest chairman, my co-worker Brian Immel and me are tasked with coming up with an update that will improve judging and allow people to give feedback on the entries.

I posted this reply over at newsvideographer.com that started from a conversation about updating the contest:

Commenting on winners has always been available–if you’re logged in. Hence the reason few ever add feedback on the winners. That feature will be improved with the coming update. I am toying with the idea of allowing comments during the entry and judging period. I think that is when most folks feel the need to give feedback. Many times when I’m judging, I wish I could leave a suggestion to help improve a person’s story. I know this is a risky. I’d probably have to moderate it closely to make sure it doesn’t descend into a flame war.

Angela, from your suggestions list that you emailed me… Yes on all accounts. Categories are something we all need to address. That discussion should start right now, right here. As it stands, you can enter three entries per category. If the contest continues to grow, limiting the entries will have to take place. You mentioned dual entries and slideshows entered in the wrong categories. Yes, this is a problem that will be addressed. Brian and I have asked the NPPA to give us access to parts of their servers so we can update the contest quickly and fix errors. Right now, if there is a problem, I have to ask the NPPA webmaster to fix it. Some things slip by and that is not acceptable. It will be fixed soon. Point tallies and a new ranking system will be implemented with the update.

Finally, I like to address the “what wins” discussion. We started this contest at a time when video was just starting to take hold at newspapers. Video continues to evolve as more producers learn and improve their storytelling fundamentals. For now, I believe this contest should be more about leaning and less about receiving some certificate. It should be a contest geared to give rapid feedback that will help us improve our craft. If I am wrong, I will step down and let someone else manage the contest. My point here is that this contest is for members of the NPPA. If it is to succeed, then it needs be a conversation contest built on user participation. The more people who log in and help judge, the better the results will be.

So let’s start this conversation. How can the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest be improved?

For non-NPPA members, you can still view the entries. It is a great way to see what newspaper video producers are up to.  For people who use the NPPA Monthly Multimedia contest, please head to Angela’s blog and give suggestions on what you would like improved.  

How to make your video editing easier

Every time I start a new project in Final Cut Pro, I get an anxious feeling as I stare at that blank timeline. This is a critical time for all editors, because it means you have to finally commit to the story you want to tell. Unlike video editors working on long-term documentaries, newspaper videojournalists have to turn and burn pretty quickly. Most of the video projects I produce, I have less than one or two days to shoot and edit. That means I’d better have the story structure sketched out in my brain even before I put the tape in my camera. Here are some of the things I do to make my video edit easier later:

  • When I am shooting a story, I’m always asking myself: “How am I going to get into my story (opener), and how am I going to get out (ender.)” The way you shoot your story will either lead to an efficient edit, or a nightmare, where time falls through the rabbit hole, as you try to create a story from a mishmash of clips.
  • I’ve written about this ad nauseam, but will continue to preach it–Define your story before you start to shoot. Simplify your grand plans. If you’re not doing some definitive documentary, then you will only have one to three minutes to get in and out of your story. Beware of tangents that can lead you off on a different path.
  • Identify your subjects early. I ask myself: “Who is going to help me tell this story?” The person that becomes the narrative thread needs to be compelling. I look for characters first–people who ooze personality. When I’m at an event, I start asking people, “Who has the biggest mouth?” Usually all fingers point to one person. That bigmouth is where I start first.
  • How you interview a subject is critical. Being a one-man band, I don’t have the luxury of having a reporter to do the interview for me. That means I need to get the narrative I will need to construct my story later. Long, rambling interviews, will slow you down when you start to edit. Ask the right questions that elicit tight answers full of information and passion. It’s important to keep eye contact with your subjects. If they stare at the lens, they will have that deer in headlights look. I like to give exaggerated facial cues to my subjects to let them know what they are saying is right on. Getting a subject to open up quickly will only help you later when you do your edit.
  • Shoot video of what your subject talked about. This is hugely important. When you can connect related video with the narrative, your video edit will crackle. Don’t forget to shoot b-roll of the people you interview. This will help you cover the talking head later.
  • Shoot more b-roll than you think you will need. As I learn more and more about story pacing, I realize that 5 to 8 second video clips are just too long. Editing shorter sequences of wide, medium and tight will really help keep your viewer engaged in the story. Don’t give them a chance to be bored. I have to remind myself at this point to be creative. Your b-roll is where your vision comes into play. Get your knees dirty, think in layers, shoot lots of tight details.  Put your camera on a tripod and shoot long telephoto shots that fill the frame. Doing so will help you craft an edit with lots of visual variety. Finally, make sure you have a couple of wide establishing shots. You will use them in your edit later.
  • Shoot the action, but don’t forget to shoot the reaction. Let’s say I am shooting someone making a widget. I would shoot a wide shot of them in the room, then move in and shoot a medium shot of them working on the widget. Then I would capture a tight shot of the hands working on the widget. The next shot is what many inexperienced video shooters fail to get. Turn the camera up and shoot the face (reaction.) Later, when you’re assembling this sequence, you’ll have that face shot that will rock on your timeline.
  • Shoot lots of nat sound pops. This TV term is something newspaper videojournalists need to master. A nat sound pop is a short video clip—maybe a second or two long–that has a compelling burst of sound. It can be someone’s reaction to a fire, a cheer at a football game or a quick blast of natural sound like a train whistle. Be on the lookout for these pops. Trust me, they will help your edit later.
  • Finally, look for transitional pictures that will help you deal with changes in time. Going from day to night in your story? A sunset shot will help your viewers make that leap in time. 

Rosenblumtv.com: Rabble-rousing at its finest

You gotta love Michael Rosemblum over at Rosenblumtv.com The man knows how to make the media cogs squirm in their seats. 

The web offers not just another platform for distribution of product, but rather an entirely new calculus for how an online media company can be run. By its very nature, it changes the construct of most media businesses. Migrate your newspaper to the web completely and you suddenly lose the cost of ink, paper, presses, pressmen, delivery trucks, distribution and paperboys. Tell your writers to work from home and you can lose the building, the desks, the lights, the cleaning services and most of the management as well. Cut all those costs, and suddenly your ad based web revenue can look pretty good in comparison. Its the overhead that is killing you. Lose it. You don’t need it.

Heavy words, but alas, I think this is what will eventually befall our industry. Thankfully we’re not there yet. But if traditional newspaper advertising continues its year-after-year declines, you have to wonder when that line will be crossed–that it becomes more economically viable for publishers to cut the overhead and just publish on the web.

For this transition to happen though, a lot of blood has to be let. It will be gut wrenching for the truck drivers, paperboys, pressmen and others who will lose their jobs. But after this transition, what happens next? Will a journalism renaissance take place or will the brand names of newspaper mastheads fade into the noise of the web? 

If you haven’t perused Rosenblum’s blog you should. He pulls a lot of weight in the media industry. Rosenblum and his VNI (Video News International) colleagues of the mid-nineties were the first to push the idea of using the video journalist concept. Small digital video cameras in lieu of big broadcast betacams, One man bands. Produce from the field not from an edit suite. This new workflow has encountered a wall of resistance from traditional TV news shooters, who for some reason, are uncomfortable with losing all that weight they lug around.

The interesting thing here, is that the VJ model has been embraced by us newspaper video shooters who know nothing of lugging twenty pound tripod around or editing tape to tape. Rosenblum is a rabble-rouser, a square peg trying to change an industry one TV news station at a time. He loves to pick on Katie Couric and the whole TV news anchor paradigm:

Perhaps the last gasp of a defunct and completely out of touch management was Katie Couric’s pornographic $15 million a year salary – to work 22 minutes a night reading what someone else had written. The sheer stupidity of this, the sheer short-sightedness of it now becomes obvious to everyone. For Couric’s reported $15 million, CBS could have (could have) hired and fielded an astonishing 150 Videojournalists worldwide, paying them a quite honorable $100,000 a year to report for CBS News. CBS News could have (could have) placed itself on the cutting edge of the digital news revolution. Instead they opted to become the dinosaur poster child of the end of old media. Goodbye Tiffany Network. You blew it.

Rosenblum is moving forward with his vision. His ongoing Travel Channel Academy video workshops are full of people wanting to learn to produce video for TV and the web. He is helping newspapers integrate video storytelling into their websites. The momentum is in his favor. As the hinges on the foundations of traditional media start to break away, those of us that have embraced the VJ model will hopefully be left standing long after Ivory towers have come crumbling down.


Contest season leaves an impression

In the last month or so I have judged four multimedia contests. After watching a bushel newspaper-produced video, I began to see a lot of patterns in the productions. Unfortunately, not all of it was good. From the entries, I could tell that a majority of the video producers were just starting their journey into multimedia storytelling, while others were veterans of the craft. Here are my overall impressions of what I judged:

  • Too many news videos are epics. If your story goes 5 or more minutes, it better be a barnburner. Most of these long videos could have been edited down by a third or half. Many video producers struggle with basic storytelling in this medium. Video is all about compressing time. Compare TV news video to newspaper produced video and you will see a wide gap in story pacing. TV news can be frantic, with clips of a second or two in length. Newspaper productions tend to be slow and more revealing, with longer clips and slower pace. I think there’s a happy medium here where a bit faster pacing would help many newspaper productions.
  • When watching a video, if I don’t understand what the story is about in less than 20 seconds, I lose interest fast. This is a huge problem with many newspaper videos I watched. The first thing you have to do when you start laying down video clips on the timeline is DEFINE YOUR STORY. That means using a voiceover, or a narrative sequence to pull the viewer into your story. When I work with video producers at my newspaper, defining the story is always the first thing I discuss with them.  The one thing Dirck Halstead taught me at the Platypus Workshop is to distill the story you want to tell down to one sentence. “Your story is not about an event, it is about a person,” says Halstead. Going off on tangents will kill your story, so stay on track.
  • Try to lead with your best or second best video clip. Too many video producers think way too linearly. It’s ok to lead with the middle or end of your story and then transition to a linear storyline. This is a classic storytelling device, so use it. Leading with strong video (visuals) will grab the attention of the viewer and keep them watching. Now don’t forget to define your story next!
  • Many videos I reviewed started with a talking head or voiceover in the first second. Instead, try letting natural sound be the first thing the viewer hears when opening your video–hence the “start you video with a strong video clip” suggestion.
  • There is too much zooming and panning going on out their in newspaper videoland. Stop. All that zooming and swishing is making me seasick. Say after me: “Wide, medium and tight, wide, medium and tight.”  Remember to hold each shot of at least ten seconds. Zoom with your feet, not your finger. If you shoot sequences correctly, you won’t need to use a zoom or a pan. Only occasionally will a zoom or pan be effective. Use it sparingly.
  • Start using your wireless mics. If you don’t have any, then get some. A wireless mic will improve the audio quality of your interviews. When you wire up a subject and turn them lose, audio magic can only happen.
  • I can’t stress this enough, so I will say it again. Create a nat/narrative weave in your videos. Many stories I viewed had just one person narrating the entire time with few breaks for natural sound. You should start your video with natural sound, then bring your narrative in for a time, then transition back to natural sound etc. In and out, in and out. Doing this will allow time for the viewer to process what the subject is saying. If you think about it, video asks a lot from the viewer. Listening to narrative and watching moving images at the same time can max out the brain– so give them a break.
  • Watch for wind noise. Nothing can kill a video production faster than hearing wind distortion during an interview or on your b-roll. Invest in good windscreens for your external and wireless mics.
  • Be as creative with your video camera as you are with a still camera. When I was first starting out in video, I was so consumed by all the other thing I was doing—monitoring my audio, white balancing, sequencing—that I mostly forgot the be creative in my shooting. The one thing I tell my Intro to Photojournalism students at a community college where I teach, is to get on your knees or climb a tree. Low and high angles give your video more visual variety. Your b-roll should be a creative exercise. You just have to remind yourself when shooting to try new angles and perspectives.
  • Edit surprises into your stories. Al Tompkins at Poynter calls these surprises gold coins. By sprinkling gold coins into your production, your viewer will stay with the story. It can be a great moment, or a turn in your story that is unexpected.
  • Finally, get out of your story in a way that makes the viewer feel fulfilled. Next to the opener, the ender in a video story is probably the hardest to conceive and execute. Don’t leave your viewer with that huh? feeling. A strong resolution to the storyline is best, but ending with a summary or powerful anecdote is effective too.