Video storytelling: We simply must do better

Second Place News Video 2009 BOP contest

Second Place News Video 2009 BOP contest

The other day I found out  I’d won second place in the News Video category in the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contest. My excitement at winning was tempered in that a third place was not awarded in my category. This left me befuddled. Judges twitters’ and Facebook posts had trickled out over the week saying they were not impressed by what had been entered. Having judged a lot of multimedia contests, I felt their pain. Weak stories dominate most multimedia contests. The cream rises fast. But for BOP judges to feel there was not enough cream to award a third place in the news video category just makes me sad. Sad because it simply says we need to do a better job with our video storytelling.

I think there are several reasons in play for all this weak newspaper video being produced:

Not enough training.

Too many newspapers, chasing a trend, handed out video cameras like candy to photojournalists and reporters. With little training, the results have been cringe-worthy. Many of these new video producers do not understand even the basic fundamentals of video storytelling and editing. They are flailing around in the dark trying to make it work. One-day training seminars just don’t cut it. Unfortunately, most newspapers are too cheap to actually send their people to real video training workshops like the nine-day Platypus or the NPPA’s five-day Multimedia Immersion workshop.

Lack of mentors

There are not enough mentors and coaches to help people improve. Most newspapers started from scratch when it came to video production. Unlike TV news, which mastered the art of video storytelling over decades, newspapers had no institutional knowledge when it came to video production. There are few video-masters in place at newspapers that can help train and mentor video storytellers.

Video storytelling basics

Many newspaper videographers are struggling with the medium. So much of what I see entered in contests are void of any storytelling arc. The videos meander along, failing to define early to the viewer what the story is about. What’s the conflict? Where’s the resolution? Why no surprises built in to keep viewers engaged in the story? Too many newspaper-produced videos are just plain boring and uninspiring.

I am hoping these early growing pains will work themselves out. In the meantime, I hope successful video producers will continue to share their knowledge with others that are learning. If we work together, we can all improve our video storytelling. Maybe then, the BOP judges will feel comfortable enough to give out third place awards.

Newspaper video: Will it survive?

Newspaper produced video is at a crossroads. As U.S. publications turn inward to focus on their traditional print products, many online producers are wondering if they should continue to invest the extra time it takes to shoot and edit video. It’s such a crazy time to be a visual journalist. Newspaper photo staffs are being slashed and devalued, as publishers try to protect what’s left of their bottom lines.

Video was hot a year ago, but now, as newspapers gut their newsrooms, the resources devoted to video storytelling are being scaled back.  Many wonder  if video storytelling has a future at newspapers.

I believe it does. In the next several years, newspapers will have to address their viability for survival. Some won’t make it. The one’s that have a life will need to make massive structural changes in order to continue to publish. Online needs to be addressed right now. Denying that online is the future is wasting everybody’s time. The excuse of, “We can’t make enough money online,” needs to be banished from the lexicon of publishers. Figure it out for Christ’s sake.

Marc Andreesen, co-founder of Netscape Communications, made a great point during this conversation with PBS’s Charlie Rose. He said, “If 90% of a publisher’s revenue comes from the newspaper, then 90% of their time is being devoted to the print product.”  If online is the future then this focus will need to gradually reverse. Andreesen advocates that newspapers need to kill their print products right now. I’m not quite there. Yet. But I do think a shifting of resources needs to be infused into newspaper online sites.

Right now, most newspapers still use their online publications as shovelware sites. They are still mostly text based. Sure, they have some photo slideshows, but the pictures are usually too small to have much impact. Video and audio slideshows are usually lost in of sea of links on the home page. The quality of video storytelling is uneven.

If the shift of resources into online happens, then proper use of video will need to be addressed. In an earlier post called “Video quality vs. quantity rages on”, I asked ten questions to ask yourself if video is right for your publication. These types of conversations need to take place now. The big problem with the growth and deployment of video on newspaper websites is that there is a huge void of people in charge that truly understand web video. It’s new. It’s complicated to learn.  Many producers I’ve talked to who invested the time to master video production, now say they just beat their heads against the wall in frustration. Newsroom structures still favor the old ways of doing things. Editors who don’t understand video tend to devalue it.

I still cling to these realities:

  • Anyone younger than 30 will probably never subscribe to newspapers.
  • The subscribers we do have are dying off everyday.
  • The consumption of web video is growing. Dramatically. If your website does not have a steady stream of quality local video, then consumers will go someplace else to find it.
  • You can monetize video– if you try.
  • As TV news stations get more web-savvy, newspapers need to compete by offering breaking news video. If not, you just gave up a whole market segment to somebody else.
  • Mobile is a disruptive tsunami that is about to hit. These second generation web-connected devices will revolutionize how we consume information. No longer will we be tied to laptops or desktop computers, now the world will be in your pocket. Video, I believe, will drive the adoption of these mobile devices.
  • The coming high-speed 4G cell phone networks will accelerate the demand for video.
  • Finally, where visual journalists are now being slashed and burned from newsrooms, I think the survivors will have a bright future in the online world. The web is becoming more visual. There will be a demand for quality visual producers.

My plan? Hold out as long as I can. I know this downturn will end. The transformation of newspapers is accelerating. Will publishers make the right choices in regards to video? Let’s hope so.

Will dark times lead to a renaissance?

After judging the video categories in this month NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest, I am disheartened at the overall quality of the storytelling being entered. Entries are down by a third. I’m wondering if it’s because of the recent layoffs sweeping our industry? Or maybe other producers, like me, are being asked to focus on more traditional photojournalism for the newspaper.  It could also be everyone is too depressed to do good work.

These are dark times. The best and the brightest are being forced out on the street daily. But what of the rest of the journalists who, with some luck, will be the last few standing in their gutted newsrooms? I, for one, didn’t spend the last five years learning multimedia skills to just roll over and die.  I keep telling myself to look at the big picture. The media pundits have been predicting the collapse of newspapers for years. And now that it’s here, we are all feeling the pain. The key to survival is being able to make it through this slow transition from print to online.

The mass slaughter will continue for some time, but when it ends-and it will end, publishers will have to make some pretty tough decisions.  I think everyone is in agreement that the future journalism is primarily online. Great journalism is not about the delivery method, but it’s embedded in the words, pictures and videos that reach out to our communities and the world.

Beyond being terrified of my short-term future, I am also cautiously optimistic. Hopefully, I will be allowed to be a part of the reimagining of journalism.  It is still pretty fuzzy about what form it will take. Everyone left will need to be an innovator. If we can find a revenue model that works, then I hope a journalism renaissance will take place.  Freed of the legacy chains of the past, new opportunities will surely germinate.