Video at newspapers needs to improve

I was disappointed after this year’s NPPA Best of Photojournalism Multimedia Contest results were posted . In the News Video category, I won an honorable mention. Great! That’s until I realized  my video was the only award given in the category. What gives? This is the second year in a row I’ve placed in this News Video category. Last year I received a second place, but no third was given.  This troubles  me. Not because I didn’t place higher, but because the judges didn’t see a video that reached a high enough level of excellence to place.

During an online chat on the Poynter Institute’s website, I asked the judges:

“Why didn’t you award first through third in news video?”

The Response:

1:27 theresa: @Colin – this was a real struggle for us. Many were full of technical errors and ignored the basic principles of photojournalism. We saw lots of evidence of urgency, however we really couldn’t award anything that had technical or fundamental errors.

I stewed about this for a time. Then after helping judge the NPPA’s Monthly Multimedia Contest last week, I began to understand the BOP judge’s dilemma.

Bottom line: Video at newspapers needs to improve. Dramatically.

The problems I continually see:


Many still photographers have not transitioned their storytelling skills effectively to video. Editing a video story is different from editing still photos for a newspaper picture story. With video, you have to master the fundamentals of sequencing and audio before you can tell an effective story in video. Too many still photojournalists have dipped their toes in the video world with limited training and it shows.

Bland Videos

Many newspaper-produced video stories are boring. The best stories have surprises sprinkled throughout the timeline, which helps keep the viewer engaged. This is mature storytelling that most newspaper video producers have failed to master.


A great video story is one that pulls you in from the opening sequence and never let’s go of your attention until it fades out at the end. Weak video jars you out of the moment, whether it’s from a technical issue like distorted audio, or from a narrative that fails to captivate the viewer. So many things can go wrong with a video story. Understanding these pitfalls is the first step to avoiding them.


You can have great raw video, but fail miserably in the edit. Pacing, narration, use of transitions, sequencing, layering and mixing audio all have to come together like an orchestra to make a  video story work. Fail at any one of these and your house of cards comes a tumblin’ down.


Lots of newspaper-produced video is weak in basic journalism. Many videos I’ve watched only have one person as the subject. How many print news stories would get past an editor with only one source?


For the longest time I told myself that I didn’t want my videos to be like TV. I worked hard at telling a story by using only the subjects as my narrative spine. What you risk, doing it this way, is a story that rambles along and is not defined until long after the viewer has hit the back button. Get past the idea that narration is a bad thing. Good scripting moves a story along and serves as an objective voice for facts.


So you say you hate the sound of your voice and you don’t feel comfortable writing a script. Then get out into your newsroom and find a writer with a great voice and collaborate. I like to voice my own videos, but I also know my limitations. Some of my best work has been when I’ve worked with a reporter on a video story. I shoot and edit the story; he or she scripts and does the voiceover. We play to each other strengths. The final product, in the end, is better than if I tried to do it all myself.


When I started this blog, I wrote a post called “What we can learn from TV news shooters.” The crux of that post : TV news shooters have done video storytelling decades longer than us newbie’s in the newspaper biz, and we can learn a lot from their successes. If you are lucky enough to go to a TV video workshop, you’ll get the fundamentals drilled into your head–Shoot wide, medium tight, super tight. Shoot action, then reaction. Get that camera on sticks! Use a wireless mic. Gather natural sound. What’s your opener? Closer? And, for Christ sake, white balance your video!

These are the just the basics of video news production. Yet many newspaper video producers are still unaware of these fundamentals.

If you can, my advise is enroll in a video production workshop like the Platypus, or the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Workshop that is coming in May. Until you know what you are doing wrong you can’t improve your video storytelling.

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…

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

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.

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.