Video: Quality vs. Quantity Debate Rages On

Over at, Angela Grant has an excellent post about the “Value of enough time to shoot and edit.” She used one of my breaking news videos as an example of the quality vs. quantity debate. The good enough approach valued by online gurus like Howard Owens basically puts production time on a fast track for news video. Quality of storytelling, visuals, editing and camera gear, well, let’s just say it’s not high on Owens’s priority list.  In a way, this debate is beginning to sound a lot like the Canon vs. Nikon, or Mac vs. PC smack downs happening on Internet forums daily. Hey, I admit to jumping into these conversations with the best of them.

Still, this endless debate about quality vs. quantity makes me feel a bit punchy. Owens has spent the past several years pushing his rigid point of view that web video for newspapers doesn’t need to have high production or storytelling values. His mantra: Get video, and lots of it, up on your website is the shortest amount of time possible.  That has us folks who have photojournalist DNA running through our veins feelin’ a tad bit uncomfortable. Coming from said gene pool, I’ll defer to the fact that most photojournalists are a bit high on the quality horse. I don’t know many shooters who’d want to pick up their daily rag and see a bad photo they’ve taken staring back at them. The same can be said for video on their newspaper’s websites.

So, for now, we hurl points of view back and forth through blog posts and comment fields. For the most part, it’s really just wasted bandwidth. Nobody’s ever going to change Howard Owens’s mind. He has too much time invested in the theory to show that type of flexibility. Same can be said for the quality-first crowd that values their art more than news value. I think we should all just take a deep breath for a moment and ask yourselves a few questions:

  • What is the overall vision for video in your newsroom?
  • Why are you doing video in the first place?
  • Is quality video valuable to your viewers?
  • Has video gained traction on your website over time? If not, why?
  • Has your paper invested in training that empowers your video producers to be able to tell and edit a story effectively?
  • Do you have (need) a web-savvy management structure in place to filter out bad video ideas and is an advocate for video based storytelling?
  • If you are producing lots of video, do you have a website that showcases this valued web-only content?
  • Can viewers find your videos quickly if they land on a story page and not on the home page?
  • Can lower levels of video quality be acceptable if they meet a high news value bar?
  • Should small papers with dwindling resources really be adding poorly produced video to their already bleak shovelware websites?

If you can’t find a decent answer or solution to each of these questions, then maybe you shouldn’t be messing with video at this time. The newspaper industry has really changed in the last 24 months. Gone is the sense that everything is going to be OK in time. As newspapers finally begin to follow their readers to the web, I believe video is going to play an increasing role in how we keep them in our growing multi-platform family. TV news websites are beginning to kick sand in our faces. Live streaming video from breaking news scenes is the new rage. If we don’t respond soon, it might be too late to take ‘em on in earnest. So this discussion about quality vs. quantity is pretty small in the big picture scheme of things. What really matters now is that we embrace wholeheartedly in the idea that web video is a good thing for our websites and viewers. It is important to understand for video storytelling to gain viewership, it will need lots nourishment and encouragement in its infancy.

Merlin Video archive is way cool

As more newspapers buildout their multimedia departments, a lot of discussions are taking place about the best way to archive all the video and audio they’re producing. Cost is a huge consideration, as is the long-term viability of storage formats. In fifty years will you be able to read the data on an aging DVD?

At The Spokesman-Review, we have invested heavily ( these solutions aren’t cheap) in the archiving of our digital media. Last month, we installed Merlin Video, a database-driven archive system that meshes seamlessly with our Merlin Content Manager archive. Now when I do a search for media, I can filter for video, photos, audio and stories. But that is as a feature you’d expect from a full-featured archive. What is innovative about Merlin Video, is when you ingest a video, it uses voice recognition software to transcribe the dialogue in the soundtrack. This transcribed audio becomes searchable text. To search for a video, just type in keywords and you’ll get a selection of videos that have those spoken words in them. Merlin even shows you the time code of where these keywords are located in the video’s audio track.

From Merlin Video website:

  • Audio/video searching built on our Merlin Content Manager. That means, in one go, a user can define a search and find audio/video content along with related photos, graphics, scripts and other documents.
  • Merlin is a database-driven system flexible enough to become the cornerstone to most any audio/video workflow:
  • While developing a project, you can import most any format and search, manage and share your source video, photos, scripts and audio clips.
  • In production, Merlin Video can organize all your clips and other content and have it ready for access by your NLE workstation. Web, podcasts, SD and even HD resolutions can all be handled.
  • When the project is done, Merlin Video can manage and route your video to other systems or for posting on other websites.
  • Use Merlin to create a central company resource for users to store, find, manage and share finished video products, B-reel, photos and scripts.
  • Or use Merlin to create a premium public web site where users can find and replay previously aired content powered by our unique soundtrack search.
  • Merlin makes it easy to find the clip you need, easy to eliminate wrong ones and easy to avoid re-shooting things you already have.

This coming week, we are going to start using Merlin Video newsroom wide. Video producers will have a drop box placed on their computer’s desktop. After they export their edited video out of Final Cut Express or Pro, they can simply drag it into the drop box for archiving. That’s it. Merlin does the rest. We are the first to install this new video archive in the country. Having Merlin Video up and running means one less digital headache to have to deal with.

Here is a link to a video demo: Merlin Video

New Canon 5D Mark II shoots HD video!

Update: See links to video samples at the end of this post.

Ok, the rumor mill can stop now. Just after midnight, Canon USA announced the much anticipated EOS 5D Mark II digital SLR. This is the full-frame camera that multimedia producers and photojournalists have been waiting for. Yes, it has a new 21.1 megapixel CMOS sensor with new low noise capabilities. But what sets this digital camera apart is that it shoots HD video onto CF cards. I know what you’re going to say. Nikon beat Canon to the punch with its introduction of the Nikon D90 last month. What I and a lot of other visual journalists wanted in that camera was a mic jack to plug an external microphone into. Canon engineers listened. Finally we have the full meal deal. This from the Canon press release:

Answering the question of where SLR technology is going next, the EOS 5D Mark II features 16:9 Full HD video capture at 1920 x 1080 pixels and 30 fps as well as 4:3 standard TV quality (SD) video capture at 640 x 480 pixels and 30 fps, both capabilities appearing for the first time in a Canon SLR camera. Video capture is part of the camera’s Live View function, using the Picture Style that has been set for Live View still image shooting. This allows skilled photographers and cinematographers to adjust image sharpness, contrast, color saturation and white balance, and have those settings apply to the movie image…The new camera features an input terminal for external stereo microphones as well as a built-in monaural microphone for convenience.

My question is what impact will a camera like this have on newspaper photography departments? No longer will photojournalists need to take a video and a still camera on the same assignment. Will we all become overworked, or energized by this new creative tool? As photo departments do more work for their growing online departments, this camera, I believe, and the ones that follow, will give visual journalists a new and powerful storytelling tool. Wow.

Update: Check out Vincent LaForet’s Blog. He got to spend 72 hours shooting with the Canon 5D Mark II

Here is a link to a Canon page with actual video samples

Canon HF-10 performs stellar during training

Last week’s two-day video storytelling workshop for six journalists from The Spokesman-Review newsroom went well.  On day one I pounded into them the fundamentals of shooting, sequencing and storytelling.  I then turned them lose to shoot the rest of the afternoon. This was a highly motivated group. All in the class wanted to learn how to shoot and edit video. There was no arm-twisting by their editors.

On day two, I demonstrated Final Cut Express and how to capture video from camera to computer.  Out of six journalists, three received the new flash drive based Canon HF-10 video camera. Two others had standard def. Sony SR-200 hard drive cameras and one photographer inherited my prized Sony HVR-Z1U.

Come capture time, I was a little nervous. Other than some quick tests, I hadn’t really given the Canon HF-10’s a real field test. The moment of truth came when the three cameras were connected to the laptops through Final Cut’s new Log and Transfer feature.  Two of the three camera’s video clips showed up in the clip pane immediately. The third camera crashed Final Cut. A quick look at the computer found the reporter had a half-dozen other programs open at the same time. After a restart, all was well.

The workflow with the HF-10 is really simple. Just after Log and Transfer is opened, all the video clips on the camera’s flash drive show up quickly in a window. In order for Final Cut Express to be able to read and edit these files, it needs to transcode them from AVCHD into something it can read and edit. In this case, it is Apple’s Intermediate codec (Final Cut Pro 6 uses the better ProRes 422 codec.)

The transferred files are large, but with today’s massive hard drives and fast processors, it really isn’t a problem. With my old Log and Capture workflow, I would bring in all my video as one large clip, then break it up once it was in Final Cut. Instead, Log and Transfer allows you to scrub each video clip quickly, setting  in and out points of only what you need. After giving the clip a descriptive label, you drag it to the transfer window.  While that clip is converting, you start on the next. By the time you are ready to start editing, you will have reviewed everything you had shot and the clips will waiting for you already be labeled in the browser.

I think this is a much faster workflow then spending countless minutes scrubbing through unlabeled clips. Editing is faster because you don’t have a bunch of crap video to wade through. The three reporters who shot with the Canon HF-10s were all pleased with the camera and workflow. The HD video is stunning compared with standard def. and the camera handled low light amazingly well.

Part of their final assignment was to shoot an interview using their new Sennheiser G-2 wireless mic. All came back with stellar audio. Editing time was about four hours for about a minute and half of edited video. Not bad for the first time editing in Final Cut. Music reporter Som Jordan shot and edited this piece, which is now posted on The Spokesman-Review’s website. Business reporter, Parker Howell shot this video that was a companion to a story he wrote. Howell already had some experience with Final Cut so he cranked out this video quickly.

At the end of the day I gave a final critique of the finished projects. I was pleased by what I saw. Many used techniques that took me a year to finally grasp. I kept my feedback positive. One of the last projects I critiqued was by photojournalist Rajah Bose on Mutton Bustin’ at the county fair. You could tell a photographer shot this video. The visuals stood out from the rest of the stories.  I was really impressed, considering this was only the second video Bose had ever edited in Final Cut.

My plan is get together every so often and hold critique sessions of videos these new VJ’s produce. I will also do more advanced training in Final Cut during some brown bag sessions. They all will have a hill to climb. There is so much I was not able to teach in such a short amount of time–but will get there together.

On the other end of video experience spectrum in our newsroom, my co-worker Dan Pelle today shot edited this incredible visual story on ultralight trike aircraft. It has excellent sequencing and each clip is framed like it was shot with a still camera. This is definitely not the Spokesman-Review newsroom of a just few years ago.

Early TV hurricane coverage lacks, but Meg Loucks rocks!

I’ve been watching the Hurricane Ike coverage on TV and on the Internet since daylight. I’m about to toss the remote at my TV screen. CNN has tons of reporters all over the region. They are transmitting live with small satellite units from where the devastation is. You would think their reporters would actually talk to people that rode out the storm? Nope. Just hours of talking heads telling me the same stuff over and over.  I just watched a CNN reporter in Galveston, Texas rambling on about himself. Islanders were walking past him in the background. You think he would grab a couple of people to interview? Nope. Finally an anchor asked him to stop someone. He sighed like it was a big inconvenience.  He shoved the mic at a passing family and got gold from them. But he cut the interview short because the camera was not on his face. I checked the Houston Chronicle website and found this video by Meg Loucks. I got more information from that video than anything on CNN. She had that video up before the TV reporters had ventured out.  This is a great example of how local newspaper produced video is can be better than the talking head coverage we are getting on TV. Great job Meg!

A new crop of video journalists await

Right now my office looks like a camera store warehouse. Boxes of Canon HF-10 video cameras, Sennheiser wireless kits and shotgun mics will soon be deployed into The Spokesman-Review newsroom.  Next week, seven S-R journalists will attend a two-day in-house video workshop where I will teach the basics of shooting and editing video.

Each journalist has been assigned a MacBook Pro loaded with Final Cut Express software. Their newsroom roles are diverse–a breaking news mobile journalist, a music culture writer, two business reporters, a sports reporter, a photojournalist and our state legislative reporter.

Two days. That is the amount of time I have to share what has taken me four years to learn. The reality is that what I teach in this short workshop is only the framework of what these innovative journalists will need to learn. The heavy lifting will have to come from them as they learn to master the fundamentals over time.

One of the things I’ve discovered from other video workshops I’ve taught, is the less technical I get, the better students are able to grasp the fundamentals.  Spending a week watching Final Cut demos is not an effective way to teach video editing. The more hands-on training a student has, the faster they will learn.

After the workshop, my plan is to be a coach until each new video producer feels comfortable enough to fly solo. I will give constructive criticism and editing help on each video they produce. Truth is, most of these first productions will probably suck. I’m ok with that—and so should they. Video storytelling is tough, especially for word-oriented people. But with time and feedback they will get better, their editing will become faster and their storytelling confidence will grow.

These seven journalists were chosen because each has shown a willingness to adapt to change professionally. As our website grows in importance, their videos will help enhance’s content in way words and pictures cannot do alone.