Looking back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008

Looking back at this year’s highs and lows in newspaper multimedia, I find much to be excited about. My excitement is tempered by the growing layoffs that have affected many multimedia producers at U.S. newspapers– including my own. A year ago I would have said video storytellers were untouchable. In these challenging economic times, many newspapers have backtracked into full retrench mode as they prepare to make their final stand to save the traditional print product from extinction. This last year, online and photo departments got hit harder than expected. I lost seven of the 12 people I trained to shoot video. Other papers disbanded entire photo departments. For those left to carry on, I would say to hang tough. The need for quality multimedia storytelling is not going away. We will make it through this dark tunnel in time, so keep your video cameras and audio recorder held high. Here’s my look back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008.

  • Video at newspapers began to mature in 2008, as visual journalists became more proficient video storytellers. Though they’re beginning to master the basics of shooting and editing, there’s still much room for improvement. Tightening edits, writing better voiceovers and improving pacing and sequencing, should be on every newspaper video producer’s to-do list for the New Year.
  • Full screen video has finally arrived on many newspaper websites. Better compression algorithms (VP6 and H.264) and improved Internet bandwidth is allowing newspapers to provide decent looking full-screen video. At my newspaper, we built a video player that uses the latest Adobe Flash Player technology. Having hardware acceleration (player uses the computer’s GPU) and the ability to embed video anywhere on our new website adds up to a better user experience for all.
  • Video cameras are improving in both cost and features. Shooting HD video should be the norm now. It compresses better than standard def and looks stellar when played back on a hi-def monitor. But the big technology leap this year is the transition to shooting with tapeless video cameras. While most video producers are still shooting DV tape, a new breed of tapeless cameras is starting to make inroads. Canon’s entry level AVCHD format based HF-10 on the low end and the pro-based Sony XDCAM EX-1 on the high end, will soon make tape seem as dated a LP vinyl albums and Tri-X film.
  • Many newspaper websites have received redesigns that better showcase their multimedia. Unfortunately on many of these sites, multimedia is still considered an ugly stepchild to the word-driven content. Too many websites are not taking advantage of their growing video archives. Search on most newspaper websites is still an exercise in frustration.  Modern content management systems fix this by allowing tagging for all content. After a recent massive snowstorm last week in Spokane, we tagged all related content–stories, videos, photos and audio– with “Winter Storm 2008.” Click that tag on our Django based site and you’ll only get content related to that tag (way cool). On another front, most newspaper websites continue to be mostly shovelware sites for traditional newspaper stories. Their web-only content, like video and audio slideshows and database journalism is buried in a sea of links. Not getting the hits on multimedia? It’s probably because people can’t find it, and when they do, the player is crappy and the video compression sucks.
  • Audio slideshows have matured this year. Most newspaper photojournalists have become adept at gathering and editing audio. But many shows being produced seem lifeless and predicable. Deeper storytelling, better ambient audio, tighter photo and audio edits could help most audio slideshows. The Soundslides program went through a solid upgrade this year with the addition of a full-screen mode, but I am beginning to see people transition to producing audio slideshows in their video editing programs like Final Cut Pro.

Let’s hope 2009 has more highs then lows for you. I have had one hell of a year. I floated into and out of management, trained many in my newsroom to shoot and edit video, lived to see the long delayed Spokesman.com site launch. I said goodbye to two-dozen talented newsroom coworkers lost to layoffs. I found myself back behind a still camera for the first time in three years. Looking ahead, I have a strong set of multimedia goals I want to accomplish in 2009. I’m keeping my chin up–no matter what the future brings.

New Spokesman.com launches

New Spokesman.com

New Spokesman.com

It’s been a long time coming, but today we launched the brand spankin’ new Spokesman.com cue angelic music.) This often-delayed website forced us poor multimedia content producers to use an antiquated CMS that was held together for way too long with bailing wire and twine. So what arrives in its place? Let’s just say the proof is in the code. This may be the most modern content management system deployed at newspaper today. Built from the ground up using the latest version of Django, our new CMS will allow us to display, create, and search content in ways we never could before.

My last year as multimedia editor allowed me to give input into how video and multimedia is showcased on the site. All I can say is WOW. One of my long time beefs with newspaper websites is that they hide their best web-only content in a sea of links on their homepages. The new Spokesman.com uses an innovative way to get to any content quickly. Ryan Pitts, Spokesman.com’s managing editor and uber-developer, explains it better than me:

“Goal No. 1 in the redesign was to make the Web site cleaner and easier to use. Our top-level navigation reflects a fundamental move in that direction. Our print newspaper is organized into sections, based on geography (the Northwest) or general topic (Sports). People seek information online differently, though, so the navigation at Spokesman.com is different. You’ll have quick access to information based on not only what it’s about (Topics), but also when it happened (Times), where it happened (Places), and what kind of storytelling was used (Media). Switching among the browsing systems should be seamless. You can click on Times > Today to check out a “day page”; click on the calendar icon to find any day in our archive; toggle among media types; click on an item to view it; click on that item’s tags to see related content, and much more. No matter what you’re looking for or how you’re looking for it, we’ve made navigation – and exploration – easier.”


The multimedia capabilities of this site are stellar. Former S-R developer Brian Immel built a new in-house video player that takes advantage of Adobe Flash Player’s built in hardware acceleration. Video, audio slideshows, photography is accessible on almost every page of our website. On the Media>Video page, you can search for content by tag, producers, time, indexed search,related content or category. This, I hope, will really drive the viewing numbers up on our videos and slideshows.

Now that the CMS is done, the fun stuff will begin to roll out over time. We’ll add geographic capabilities to Spokesman.com that will let you map the news – and see everything going on down to individual neighborhoods. We will increase the visual content with more photos built into a “big photo” format. Other specialized mini-sites are in development.

Check it out and let me know what you think. There are still some kinks to be ironed out, but I think you will be surprised at what you see.

Cool video shot with the Canon 5D Mark II


Update: David shares his experience shooting with the Canon 5D MKII

Photojournalist David Stephenson with the Lexington Herald-Leader got a hold of a Canon 5D Mark II and shot a wonderful video with it. Said Stephenson on a Facebook post:

Here’s a first edit of a video shot with the new 5DMKII DSLR from Canon. It was a good test – crappy, low light, wireless mic. Mostly handheld (but tripod on the interviews) and shot all with the kit lens, 24-105mm f/4 IS. I’m sold. Goodbye XH-A1.

What I want  know David is how easy was it to edit the files? Was framing and handling easy? How about focusing? I really like the shallow depth-of-field–it gives the video a film-like feel. Nice work! Also kudos to the narrator Amy Wilson.

I’m feeling lucky

harryI’m feeling lucky. I still have a job. I’ve ditched the management title and have returned to the photo department as a still shooter. My video camera sits idle on a shelf—at least for now. The couple of years away from my still cameras have left me a bit rusty, but I coming around. Still photojournalism has always been my calling. It’s really what I’m best at.

The Spokesman-Review photo department has changed dramatically in the last eight years.  S-R shooters were rockin’ in the 1990’s. It was like the golden age of photojournalism at The Spokesman-Review. We did lots long-term documentary projects that were supported by an enlightened photo-friendly management. I worked with a group of really talented photographers that made coming to work (a least most days) worthwhile.  But even then, I knew the good times could not last forever.

The first round of layoffs hit in 2001, which started a downward spiral that still never seems to end. By 2003, I knew the space devoted to documentary photojournalism was never going to return. I turned to the web and with a video camera in hand and set out to reinvent myself as a videojournalist. I was thankful for the support I received from a new team of management who seemed hell-bent on making our newsroom web-centric. Back then, talk of innovation just scared the shit out of everyone in the newsroom. But as time passed, the idea that we were scooping ourselves by publishing to the web first had started to feel kind of ridiculous. The increase of broadband penetration in 2004 gave me hope for a future where my 320 pixel wide video stories would someday be able to be seen full screen.

In the last three years, I’ve put lot of energy into sharing what I have learned with other S-R staffers and journalists from all over the country.  I’ve made it a point to not guard my gift, but instead share what learned with anybody that wanted to learn web-based video storytelling.

This last year was going to be my crescendo of sorts. I was promoted to multimedia editor. I trained and outfitted 12 reporters, photographers and web producers with top-notch video cameras and MacBook Pros loaded with Final Cut.  A new Spokemsan.com website was conceived and developed with multimedia in mind.  Within days of launching this video/web initiative, the economic house of cards came tumbling down. Seven of the twelve young journalists I trained soon joined the legions of other out-of-work reporters, web producers and photographers. Two senior managers who pushed all this web innovation also resigned.

As a much smaller organization, I am not sure what the strategic vision for my newspaper is now. Losing half the newsroom staff to layoffs and buyouts changes things. No longer can we devote as much time to stories. I’ve seen this in the few short weeks I have been back in the photo department. We used to have the luxury of hanging out with our subjects or choosing the best time to shot a documentary style photo. Now it is run and gun, just get it done. Where we used to have 13 shooters, now we have 6. Three of us are multimedia willing and able. I am putting most of my chips on us to carry on the multimedia tradition. But I got to tell you, I not feeling very creative right now. With the recent layoffs, the spirit of innovation has left the building. Retrenching is the order of the day.

What I have to remember is that the work I did this past year was important. We truly were moving toward a multi-platform, multimedia centric newsroom. That is still the recipe I believe will save newspapers. What coming challenges the new year brings is anybody’s guess. Short-term, I have to stop staring at my unused video camera and get the hell out of the building. There are too many good stories out there that aren’t being told.