Police funeral video: A video storytelling challenge

 

My assignment was to cover a police officer’s funeral.

Ok. I think about how a funeral unfolds. I arrive at the high school gym an hour early and score a decent parking spot. I set up my Nikon D4 DSLR camera on the mezzanine level of a high school gym with a 200-400mm f/4 lens and a wireless mic to capture video of the speakers. I also shoot b-roll of the mourners and crowd shots. Now what?

This is what I faced as I formulated my plan to cover the funeral service of Coeur d’Alene Police Officer Greg Moore who was killed in the line of duty in May.

And this is where three local TV news stations covering the funeral and my newspaper produced video diverged. We had two still photojournalists, Dan Pelle and Kathy Plonka, covering the funeral. I decided ( at the last minute)  my job was to find the gold coins from the speakers and then create a narrative spine to hang the still photos on. I also made sure to shoot video b-roll of the police car procession mixed with citizens lining the funeral route.

An hour after the event was over,  I was staring at a blank timeline with a ton of raw video in my Final Cut Pro X browser waiting to be edited. I began to panic. How can I tell this story in a short amount of time, but still connect emotionally to what was happening?  Where do I start?

It took me a few minutes, but my simple solution was to start with a music track.  I headed over to Preminumbeat.com and purchased a simple piano-based track that had a slow beat. Once I laid the music down in the Final Cut Pro X timeline, it was just a matter of meshing the one speaker, who defined the communities response to the tragedy, with the still photos, which I edited the beat of the music. I realize this not the type of video story TV news could or would want to tell (stand ups and anchor tosses are the norm.) The newspaper benefited from also having a wonderfully fact-filled print story for online readers, but this video allowed them to feel the emotion of the event in ways the printed word can rarely do.

Video storytelling is a wide-open genre. I’ve learned over time there is no right or wrong way to approach a story. I just try to make sure to connect with the emotion of my subjects. If I do, I know my video story will be good as gold.

Producing Audio Slideshows with Final Cut Pro

One of a Kind in the World Museum

In 2005, Joe Weiss released Soundslides, a killer audio slideshow production program that helped transition many newspaper photojournalists into the world of online multimedia. Audio slideshows soon flooded newspaper websites. Its simple interface and even simpler learning curve proved a perfect match for anyone wanting to add an audio narrative to their online picture stories.

But times have changed. Many of those same photojournalists moved on to add video to their storytelling toolboxes. As they began to master video editing programs like Apple’s Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro, it seemed like a no brainer to use them to produce audioslide shows. I cannot say building an audio slideshow is easier with a video editing program, but it does afford you some added features that are hard, if not impossible, to replicate in Soundslides.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned when making an audio slideshow using Apple’s Final Cut Pro:

  • Soundslides is great at taking all the tedious production out of the process. It grabs all your photos in a file and automatically sizes them for the web. When producing in a video editor, you have to do all this image prep yourself. But it’s not too bad if you create a Photoshop action to automate the process.  I create a one-click action to reduce the image dpi to 72 and size to each photo to a width of 2500 pixels. This size makes the images large enough to use motion on later if needed.
  • Before you start to edit, it is important to set up your timeline as an HD project. It makes the photos look so much better, even after you compress the hell out of them later for the web. I generally pick Apple Intermediate Codec 720p30 from the “Easy Setup” menu. I think progressive timelines without the interlacing work best for photos. I’ve even used the XDCAM 1080p30 setting with great results.
  • As I assemble my story, I tend to build as I go. I start editing at the beginning with audio, then layer on my photos. I use the voiceover tool in Final Cut Pro to record my script narrative direct to the timeline. This is just how I do it. There are many ways to edit. You may like to have the whole project storyboarded out before you start your edit. Do whatever works best for you.
  • I try to scale up each photo to fill my Canvas viewer. This looks so much better than having black bars showing above and below the image.
  • One of the nice things about producing audio slideshows in a video editor is the ability to display multiple photos at once in the Canvas viewer. This solves the vertical photo issue of trying fill a horizontal space with a vertical rectangle. I like to fade in my vertical photos on the far left or right of my frame then fade in another image to fill the rest of the frame. Click image below to see and example of using multiple photos in one window.

 

Mount St. Helens comes to town

  • In Soundslides the default is to add a cross-fade to every image. I see a trend away from this as more people edit in video programs.  Most of the time I just use quick cut between photos. It took me awhile to break the cross fade habit, but now I see how much better a show flows without all that cross fading. It also makes it easier to edit to a beat in the audio.
  • I tend to edit an audio slide show like I edit a video story. I try to use sequences of images that help move the story through time and place. I try to mix up the photo selection by using a mix of wide, medium and tight shots just like I do with video.
  • Use motion on photos with caution. Most of the time, slower is better. You don’t want to make the viewer seasick. Try not to zigzag all over the place. Use motion on a photo to reveal or isolate something that pertains to the story. I like to put a very slow pull or push on a photo that is almost not noticeable. It adds just a little kick to a static photo. One last suggestion on using motion with photos; If you are pulling out on a photo and your next image has motion too, make that one zoom in; otherwise it makes the viewer feel like they are heading through a tunnel.
  • Finally, the other added benefit of producing audio slide shows in a video editor is that it brings all your multimedia under one player for your website. If your video player has embed ability, it makes it easier for viewers to share your story and make it go viral.

Photojournalism in the age of the Internet

I’ve been working on a presentation I will give next month called “Photojournalism in the age of the Internet.” In the process, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much photojournalism has changed for newspaper photojournalists.

With the rise of the  Internet, traditional photojournalists have been faced with a dilemma. Stay a purist to the craft by clinging to their still cameras or embrace the change by venturing out into the online world by adding video and audio to their storytelling toolboxes.

Back in 2006, I was invited to speak about newspaper multimedia at The Southern Short Course in News Photography conference. During some free time, I dropped in on a panel discussion about the future of photojournalism. The panel was made up of a stellar group of veteran, but mostly old-school photojournalists.  The room was packed, so I stood in the side-shadows taking in the conversation.

An audience member asked whether video was something she needed to learn. After a pause, one panel member said, “I don’t know, why don’t you ask Colin? He’s standing over there.”  All 200 heads turned and looked at me.

My answer made many people squirm in their seats. “Yes,” I said. “You need to learn video. You need to add audio to your pictures and yes you’ll need to embrace change.”

I felt a little uneasy as the questions kept coming at me and not the panel. I could sense that many people thought I was crazy. I started to see the panic in some people’s eyes. One woman volunteered that her editor at a small newspaper was requiring her on a single story to write it, take the photographs and produce a video. An uneasy murmur rose in the room. I could tell, my belief that video was important to the future of online journalism, was  a tough sell in this room of die-hard  photojournalists.

Flash-forward some four years. Whereas, in 2006 I was an anomaly, now most newspaper photojournalists produce some sort of multimedia, be it  audio slideshows or video. J-school programs have finally stopped wallowing in the past and are junking old curriculums for new ones that are multimedia focused.

Looking at the troubling position newspapers are in, one must wonder if all this talk of multimedia storytelling really matters. After all the rounds of layoffs, who has time to shoot video?

There are some days I wonder myself, but I quickly shake off the feeling. I have to remind myself that newspapers are awash in transition. As we near rock bottom, the economy is starting to show some life. I can only hope for some stability to return to the newspaper industry.

Today, if I faced a similar crowd like the one in 2006, I would say the same thing. Learn video storytelling, master audio gathering and editing. Embrace change. The future, I would tell them, is not in the printed-paper, but in the digital delivery that will eventually replace it.

Photojournalists are a curious lot. They are independent, visual thinkers. Most take photographs because they love to shoot and share their work. They know they’ll never get rich on this career choice, but instead find happiness in the people they meet and photograph along the way.

The disruption that online journalism has placed on the photojournalist, whose career choice was based solely on taking still photos for newspapers, has been gut wrenching. “That’s not what I signed up for,” is what I often see posted in forums dealing with the changes facing photojournalists today.

The technology being deployed is slowly changing the definition of what photojournalism is. Newspaper photojournalists are becoming multifaceted visual journalists who can now use a variety of formats to tell a story.

As lean as newspapers are running these days, I think we’re about to get a dose of “oh shit” real soon. Circulation is not coming back. Just look at the downward trend of the last forty years as proof of that. Our readership is dying off and screenagers are just not interested in buying the dead trees we’re selling. I think the last transition will be the messiest. More talented journalists will leave the profession. More photojournalists will become freelance wedding photographers.

What awaits those few who make it across the proverbial burning bridge is anyone’s guess. If I could flash forward four years, I can visualize in my crystal ball a world where newspapers have transitioned most of their subscriber base to the touch screen tablet platform that has suddenly gone white-hot with advertisers.  I predict these multimedia centric devices will need a steady stream of visual content.  And guess what?  Visual journalists, who honed their multimedia skills during newspapers darkest hours, will be there to gladly step up and help feed the daily digital beast.

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…

Will the touch tablet save professional journalism?

Someone should just put a deadbolt on my laptop lid. When I peruse my Twitter feed I see nothing but scary newspaper industry news, which flows like a river of red ink across my pixels. Reading too much of it makes me think a prescription for Prozac might be in my future. I’ve begun to notice even journalism pundits have started to turn on each other by criticizing the need for yet another conference on “Envisioning the Newspaper of Future.”

Truth be told, no one really knows when printing presses will grind to a halt and news delivery boys and girls will be forced to hang up their logoed paper bags for good.

I had to laugh,  last week in Portland, Oregon, my former newspaper editor Steve A. Smith was the keynote speaker at “We Make the Media“A conference held to develop real-world plans for new media organizations to fill the journalism gaps left by shrinking news staffs at legacy media organizations.” As Smith was speaking about the need to save “professional” journalism, back in the corner of the room were a bunch of self-proclaimed snarky bloggers and citizen journalists who took offense to the notion professional journalism should be saved. Of course they twittered their opinions of Smith’s speech in real time. This, I guess, is the new digital divide, where any journalist older than thirty is viewed with mistrust. Hmmm, where have I heard that before?

It does seem the pace of handwringing is accelerating. The print folk, locked in their silos, are defending their turf as they make their last stand. Online departments are taking the brunt of the next wave of job cuts. If newspapers can’t hold the line on circulation and revenue, it will soon be curtains for the rest of us still drawing a paycheck. Or so I’m told. I hope I can last a bit longer, only because I truly believe, if we can make this digital transition, the future will not be as dismal as I was once led to believe.

Here’s my vision of how I see it playing out in the near future:

  • A new breed of touch tablet readers hits the market in 2010-2011. Newspaper publishers at first shun the devices. Then one gutsy newspaper chain embraces them. They form a partnership with the tablet maker to subsidize the cost for the consumer. The more publications a consumer subscribes to, the less they have to pay for the reader. Others soon follow…
  • A newspaper’s survival will be based on how many current subscribers can be converted to the digital replica of the newspaper. Replica is the key here. A newspaper’s digital future starts with making the transition simple (familiar) for  print consumers to make. It’s the newspaper, only better…
  • What will sell the tablet service is all the new things subscribers will be able to do with their wireless digital newspapers. Pictures will come alive with video and audio, graphics become interactive with a tap of a finger, Text can be set to be read aloud. Subscribers should easily be able to customize the paper to fit their needs. Want the sports page as your front page? No problem. Want more stories about your favorite pro baseball team? You bet!
  • The value to the tablet subscriber has to be so huge that they be crazy not to plunk down their cash.  The same goes for advertisers, whose ads will now have added value. Tap on an ad for a big-screen TV at Best Buy and get more info about the product. Tap a grocery store coupon to print it out.
  • Advertisers should be allowed to update their ads in real-time. Think about it. Let’s say you’re a local shoe store looking to move 1000 pairs of shoes. You place the ad in the morning showing the shoes at 20% off. By 2 p.m. you have 500 left and you want to sell them faster, you log into your account and update the ad yourself, dropping the price to 30% off. Don’t you think a whole bunch of those types of ads would draw traffic to a digital newspaper?  How about subscriber-only deals? Advertising will be targeted to subscriber’s tastes and talents.
  • Everyone talks about how they can’t make any money in online. The simple truth is most newspaper Web sites are not easy to navigate. They can’t display ads as effectively as a print newspaper. If newspapers are going to make this digital transition successful, then making the viewing experience for former print subscribers and advertisers as elegant as possible is paramount.

Finally, a few words about content. Our journalism is what’s most important and will no doubt have to be upgraded. Words and multimedia will need to work better together. The strength in the touch tablet is in its multimedia capabilities. Visuals like photo galleries, graphics, and hi-def video, will add value. Like your current Web site, the front page of the digital newspaper will change as stories are updated throughout the day. The page design will slowly change to integrate new content features.

Once this happens,  the true digital media revolution will begin to take place. Yes, the presses will eventually stop, which will only strengthen digital media’s position. Freed of the cost of printing and distribution, more resources will go to content creators. This is when the fun really starts. True innovation will kick in with each new tablet version. New types of devices will drive even more innovation and hopefully a super-renaissance of journalism. My vision may be utopia to some, but the internal optimist in me really believes there is a future in professional journalism.

The death of newspapers doesn’t mean the end of journalism

tub

Last week I stood in front of a convention of high school journalists and told them a career in journalism was still a solid prospect. I bit neither my lip nor tongue as I said this. For most in the room, it will be 5-7 years until they complete college.  In that amount of time, newspapers are going to experience a lot of change.

In this month’s Digital Journalist, an essay called “Circling the Drain,” by Mark Loundy summed up the present state of newspapers perfectly:

“Newspapers are trapped between two worlds. They can’t offer a viable online service because they can’t spend enough on staffing. Meanwhile, they’ve lashed themselves to a sinking ship that they’re bailing out by tossing journalists overboard. Of course, this drives readers away, causing the ship to sink faster.”

As many printed newspapers sink into irrelevance in their communities, the big question left hanging is what will replace them? Will newspaper publishers wake-up and invest in their online news sites, while also finding the courage to cut away their failing print products? Can they find a way to make the boatloads of profits online they once had in print?

In some ways, I don’t think it matters whether newspaper online websites survive either. When I looked out at that room full of high school journalism students, I realized they are going to be the ones that will define the revival of journalism in the digital age. This is a group that rarely reads the printed newspaper. When I ask them why? I get answers ranging from: “It’s not searchable,” and “The newspaper limits my ability to connect with multiple points of view,” to “I’m online all the time, so I sometimes will read it there.”

As I anguish over the present state of print newspapers, I’m likewise excited to see the future of online journalism begin to take form. Hyper-local sites are starting to claim ground where traditional journalism fails to defend.

Angela Grant, a former San Antonio Express multimedia producer who now works for a hyper-local news website instantnewsWestU.com writes in her popular News Videographer blog:

“Here’s the most awesome things about my new job: I’m now a TRUE multimedia journalist. On any given day, I will write a story, take pictures, produce videos, or create maps to illustrate stories. I’m learning a lot of new skills dealing with beat reporting and developing sources.”

It will be young people like Grant who will be the ones to shape digital journalism’s future. Many of these online experiments will fail, but in time, some formula will stick.

And don’t discount the castoffs from newspapers. They will also have an effect. There are a lot of talented former print reporters and visual journalists that are looking for online palettes to display their talents. Smart people don’t wallow in the past for long.

I know newspaper publishers understand that as their print product flounder, they need to be in a solid position to compete with their websites. The movement to online-only news websites will open up the conduit for new jobs in journalism. So for high school students interested in a career in journalism, I say: Come forth, be passionate, be curious and most important, be innovative.

Digital journalism and the rise of the touch tablet

166090-crunchpad_original

The old business model of newspapers is toast. We all know it. Its just some can’t quite fathom it yet. You see it daily at most newspapers–where classified, real estate and auto advertising has been sucked in to the black hole of the Internet. In response, massive cost cutting and layoffs have created print publications that are shells of their former selves.

For years, newspaper industry bloggers have been documenting this ongoing tragedy–one layoff announcement after another. They have debated incessantly who’s to blame, where the future of journalism is going and who will be left to pick up the pieces. The hand wringing has been intense. I admit my sweaty palms have been there with the best of them.

Stepping away from the scrum, I am starting to see the big picture of where the  future of digital journalism is heading.

I consider myself a keen people observer. I used to love sitting in a coffee shop and watch how somebody read the newspaper. How long did they look at my front-page photo? What? Only three seconds! Damn.

Lately, I’m not seeing many people reading newspapers in coffee shops or anywhere else for that matter. What I am seeing, is the screenager generation–now grown up—typing into their cell phones, texting incessantly to “friends.”  Look around you. Go to anyplace where there are a lot of people. How many have a phone to their ear, or are walking and texting?  Cell phones have become a necessity of life now. The handset makers are all too aware of this. Feature creep is accelerating. As cell phones grow smarter, users are fawning all over the new technology.

Smartphone sales have gone white hot. iPhones, Palm Pre’s and Android devices with the added value of applications and web browsers are changing how we use our cell phones.

I am a recent convert to the iPhone 3GS. Where on most days I wanted to throw my old Palm Treo against a brick wall, I now enjoy using my iPhone. It is not just a phone to me; it is a place where I get most of my news. I check my twitter feed application constantly. If there is breaking news in my community, I will know it. I have a dozen mobile news apps—AP, USA Today, BBC, New York Times, etc. My iPhone has become my connection with what’s going on in the world—and it’s all in my pocket.

How we get our news is changing. It’s subtle, but it is happening. News consumers are slowly turning away from print and TV and are now moving toward web enabled mobile devices. The smart phone is only the start. Amazon’s Kindle reader is the forerunner to future tablet web devices.  These touch enabled tablets could seal the deal by forcing print journalism to go mostly digital.

Some cool prototypes have been making the rounds. But the rumor of the mythical Apple tablet is what makes me wonder if this will be the disruptive technology that sends print newspapers down the black hole for good.

Stay with me here. I had some time to kill at a photo assignment yesterday. For an hour I browsed the Internet on my iPhone. My 47-year-old eyes struggled to read the text. If only my iPhone was 2 or 3 times the size. I would be able the browse with out squinting. A touch enabled tablet, with an unlimited data plan would allow me to view text, multimedia and video in ways the smart phone struggles with today. I think of the applications of a tablet for photojournalists. Being able to download photos from their cameras to a tablet, then quickly tone, caption and send them back to the newspaper would be great. Having to lug a laptop in the field is  true pain. This is a market segment that is only getting started.  It has the strong potential to disrupt not only newspapers, but magazines as well.

Consumers, if they embrace these new touch-tablets, will have their news pushed to them at lightening speed. They will be connected to everyone and everything. They will choose how to shape their digital lives by deciding what news feeds and publications to subscribe to.

So where does that leave present day print journalism? It will soon be vastly different than it is today. Where mainstream media outlets have shed their most talented people, those same workers are going to be the ones that will build the new journalism of the future. My guess is that it will be built around these new web tablets and handset devices. Monetizing the content will be foremost on the minds of these new digital publishers. Freed from the cost of presses, ink and newsprint, a new publishing model will develop.

News content is going to change too. Web tablets are not just text readers, but will be multimedia hubs. Music, video, photos, animation, and interactive graphics and yes , games,  are going to be what consumers will gravitate to. New high-speed 4G cell phone networks are now being rolled out. Soon the pipes for all this future multimedia content will open wide. It will change how journalists tell their stories. For many of today’s journalists, this new paradigm will be the deal breaker. For others, these new opportunities will present unique challenges that will drive the future of digital journalism to new and exciting heights.