S-R web producer says goodbye to the newsroom she loves

Spokesman-Review Web Producer Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen was one  of 21 young staffers laid off last week. Thuy just wrote this goodbye to the newsroom she loved working in. She posted it to her friend’s network on Facebook, but I thought I’d share it (with her permission) with everyone. Tinged with sadness, her message still finds hope for the journalism profession she leaves behind and for her co-workers left to pick up the pieces.
I cried today when my assistant managing editor, Carla Savalli, said goodbye to everyone in the newsroom.

She told about growing up in a family that subscribed to both Spokane newspapers, when she decided she would start her own neighborhood paper at the age of 10. The first page was news, and gossip about neighbors. The second page was art from coloring books. The third was filled with recipes, the first ever being her mother’s zucchini bread recipe.

Savalli’s biggest dream while growing up was to be the editor-in-chief of The Spokesman-Review. Things didn’t happen that way (she was the No. 3 position when she resigned), her resignation was her own decision, but she is not abandoning this industry.  We all know this industry is really a religion – of journalists – of storytellers.

The S-R has always housed great storytellers. I admire everybody I’ve had the honor to work with. We celebrate everyday people who do phenomenal things, as well as – like the iron sculptor making African mammals, the retired police officer caring for his paraplegic dog, the record producer multi-instrumentalist who dropped out of high school and started his own studio, the twin brothers from Hauser Lake sent to Iraq. We also witness things we never wish we’d have to witness, like the Spokane mayor recalled after a sex scandal.

But then you poke around on the inside and newsroommates are also good storytellers in-house. Christmas parties, funerals, potlucks, people bringing babies into the newsroom and sharing good news, talking about recipes, going fishing, sharing tomatoes, staying late for election night when some of our families probably think we ought to be at home. Spending all day trekking around at political conventions, forgetting to eat, excited to be witnesses to a ridiculously amazing process (or is it amazingly ridiculous?).

We spend more waking and bonding hours with our coworkers in this weird environment of nasty negative things. Bizarre murders, car crashes, house fires, building fires, Taser incidents (I remember being the producer in the hot seat when surveillance video contradicted officers’ accounts of Otto Zehm’s death. The most stressful work day), writing and posting news on deadline, relying on each other to not just be accurate and fair but to call out each other’s mistakes, of which I made many, and they forgave me.

Storytelling is then a collaborative activity, a collective consciousness, bringing formless data to a higher plane, like prayer. Ask around in a newsroom about how people feel about their job, and most of them will tell you it’s a religious calling – The way anybody would choose to be a priest or a nun, somebody chooses to be a storyteller.

Until I join another newsroom, I will miss having front-row seats to everything that happens. I will miss following the senior political reporter to events – I would follow him to the end of the world and would have missed him when he retires in several years. I will miss video training, usual staff meetings, blogging about ethics in our Transparency Initiative and explaining to the public how our news decision-making process works.

I was given a blog and was trusted to write what I saw fit about news decisions and internal affairs. I was given a camera and was trusted to shoot, to essentially invade other people’s lives at interesting times. I was trusted for journalistic sensibility, audiovisual perfectionism, trusted to capture reality and present it as realistically as could be done. They trusted me with such big responsibility and for a long time, it baffled me that they did.

I will miss the honor of being able to say to someone, “I work for The Spokesman-Review” When we got the announcement that 21+ people would be laid off, including myself, I wondered who would be without the Review. The sensible answer is that I wouldn’t change as a person – I would retain all the skills gained and life would move forward, eventually. I’d find the next thing, just like when somebody gets a divorce they (might) move on.

But that doesn’t negate the value that the S-R has in the community among its readers – A newspaper will always be a big deal, and it will always be a big deal to have that honor of reaching out to readers who wake up in the morning and get crisp warm newspapers on their doorsteps, welcoming us into their homes and exposing us to their children – or in this day and age, opening up the computer and exposing their household to our video stories on the web. I get butterflies in my stomach not just when nice guys hold my hand, but when little old ladies tell me how long they have been subscribers and how much they wait for it in the morning.

Counting this layoff round and last year’s, the newsroom is down 35 percent people. That’s 35 percent fewer content makers. This will be a smaller group, but I just like hearing people say, “Things will be better – I promise.”

I don’t want this industry to die. But I also wish I knew how to save it, immediately, instead of doing my thing and hoping it will help, wondering if I’ll “recognize” journalism in twenty years. Probably.

But for now, this is everything I have loved about what we have been doing. If the universe permits, I would like to do it again – Even if it’s somewhere else, in that newspaper in the sky where all the good journalists go when they die off.

Meanwhile I really want to cuddle and watch Cinderella.

Dog Days have me feeling verklempt

The dog days of summer have got me feeling a bit verklempt lately. Staring at this blank page for the last half hour has left me wondering if I have said all I’m going to say about my journey into multimedia storytelling. I know every blogger eventually hits that brick wall where words fail to flow and thoughts and actions turn to things more important, like spending time with family and friends.

Maybe my lack of blog ideas stem from all the uncertainty gripping my chosen profession. We’re all being asked to be more innovative. To reinvent, to change what and how we do our jobs. At the same time, the guillotine blade hangs precariously above our heads. Over 6000 journalists have been forced to leave the profession in the last year. I’m certain more will follow. Conglomerate journalism has left many newspapers in such dire financial straights that next year, I believe, we will begin to see the shuttering of some of these publications.

On the bright side, I work for one of the few family-run newspapers left in the country. Unlike the leveraged, debt-ridden gray ladies like the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune, The Spokesman-Review is on solid financial ground. We are shrinking our footprint, staff, and expenses like most newspapers, but outright panic, thankfully, is nowhere in sight.

I have read so much industry news about the plight of newspapers, that none of it really makes much sense to me anymore. It has really just become a blame game, where fingers point in all directions. Where talk of would of, should of, could of, trail off into the abyss. This talk really doesn’t solve the problem at hand, which is how do we recapture all those former readers that have moved on with their lives? Some have headed into cyberspace, while others have given up reading all together.

The biggest challenge is finding a way for newspaper websites to generate enough income to offset the staggering losses facing traditional newspapers. I know there is an answer out there; it just hasn’t been discovered yet.  Newspapers are notorious for their lack of true innovation. It really hasn’t been part of their DNA –until now.

If we are going to make it through this digital news revolution, then we need to start fostering innovation at the grass-roots level. Innovation at newspapers tends to be top heavy, always looking to executive and senior managements to come up with new and better ways to do things. Trouble is, most of these ideas have failed to stem the tide. At my own paper, I am surrounded with incredible smart co-workers, many who have innovative ideas of their own. The challenge for management, if they are willing, is to tap this mindshare and see what it will spawn. If we are to succeed, we need to start acting like a startup business and less like, well, a newspaper.

Somewhere, in some newsroom, someone has already figured it out. A spark of an idea that will lead to the disruption of the status quo, It will make other innovators smack their craniums wishing they would have thought of something so simple, yet so industry changing. The Holy Grail that saves journalism is out there. I, and a lot of other people have a lot of innovative thinking to do. The clocks ticking folks…

Get creative with your video camera

As newspaper still photographers transition to shooting more video, they can get overwhelmed by all the non-creative tasks they have to do. With white balancing, audio monitoring and sequencing chores at hand, many new videographers forget to be creative with their video cameras. Here are some of the techniques I use to add a little visual variety to my videos:

  • Get on your knees or climb a tree. Take the viewer to a place they wouldn’t normally go. I love putting the camera on the ground to get that unique perspective. The ground also serves as a decent tripod. Shooting high will give you that overall establishing shot that you know you need, but like me, sometimes forget.
  • Don’t just shoot a tight shot. Instead, go super tight–as tight as your lens can focus tight. These shots are gold because they are as visually jarring as they are visually interesting. They also make for excellent transitions between scenes. I learned this from master TV news shooter Dave Werthelmer. His favorite line is: “Don’t shoot the donut, shoot the donut hole.” I try to remember that line each time I start shooting.
  • Look for that subject perspective shot. An example of this would be a shot following the feet of a mailman trudging through snow, or following a toddler around from their low perspective. I think too much of what we shoot tends to be tripod or eye-level. You just have to anticipate when to drop the pod and move with the action.
  • Which brings me to rule number 134 from the manual of good video shooting. Let the action leave or enter your frame. Doing so allows you to compress time in your video.  You can quickly transition to a different scene after the subject leaves the frame. It also helps you with sequencing, allowing you to edit together a wide, medium and tight shot of your action.
  • Turn off your autofocus and try a manual shift-focus shot. Try starting with a blurry shot, and then quickly bring your subject into focus. Or try racking your focus from a foreground subject to a background subject. It is pretty effective when done right. Just make sure you are rock solid on a tripod!
  • Layer your shots with foreground elements, just like you would as a still shooter. They are more complex to see, but done well, they  really ratchet up the visual variety of your video.
  • I don’t do this often, but at times it can be effective. Use a slow shutter speed to blur movement. I’ve used it on people dancing and it gave the video clip an interesting romantic look, especially if I followed the action in time like a pan shot with a still camera.
  • Try speeding up the action or slowing it down either in camera or in your video editing program. Here, I am careful how I use this. Like the slow shutter shot, it has to be done for a reason. Don’t speed up the action just because it is cool. Do it because it adds something to your story such as compressing time. Over and under cranking your video is already overused, so be selective.
  • Shoot more telephoto shots. One thing I’ve learned since I got the tripod religion is that a solid, tight telephoto shot will fill your frame with intimacy. Because video cameras have so much depth of field, anytime you can make the background go soft so that our subject pops, you should do it. While tight on your subject, don’t forget to pull out and shoot a medium and wide shot. It’s an instant three shot sequence.

What do you do to get creative with your video camera? Please share.

Stand and fight!

As my restless vacation continues into its second week, my mind reels with the prospects of an uncertain future. Like most newspapers across the country, steep revenue declines are disrupting any semblance of job security for print journalists. Media companies seem to be in a race to tear down their brick and mortar operations and reinvent themselves as digitally delivered platforms. In my own newsroom, a large radio production studio has been built where hourly news broadcasts are being produced.

In September, our new modern website will debut. With it will come cutting edge tools for social media integration, an enhanced navigation that will break paradigms and a clean, airy, low-contrast design that will forever free us from our stodgy past.

The Spokesman-Review, like most newspapers, has begun to fully embrace change. The 700-pound gorilla on everyone’s back is the, “is it too late?” question.

Under the duress of a deepening recession, media companies are making rapid changes to their organizations. We are now in a war of transition, where the bodies of thousands of laid-off journalists line the road leading to their former newspaper’s digital future. The diminishing relevance of the print product, for some, relegated to the status of niche; weigh heavily on the minds of many.

At a Spokesman-Review newsroom staff meeting last week, my editor, Steve Smith, laid out the sobering facts of how far and fast our decline has been. There were lots of charts with graph arrows pointing toward the carpet. Smith’s voice, tinged with emotion, filtered through the room with a heavy cast of “this is it folks.” “I want to save everyone’s job, including my own,” said Smith.

He and everyone in the room understood that his statement comes with no guarantees. The truth is there will soon be less of us to carry on the battle. Unless. Unless we quickly build out our digital platforms in a way that they can begin to generate a potential for steady revenue growth.

For this to work, Smith says a lot of mindsets have to change. The focus on the print product will be diminished. Instead a web-centric approach will be strengthened. A new newsroom structure is being conceived, one that is vastly different from the one in place now.

For all of these changes to be successful, I believe innovation, a catch phrase of the new millennium, will have to become the new DNA that drives the reimagined newsroom. Creative ideas will need to be rewarded. Grassroots innovation is where, I believe, that one brilliant idea that saves us all will emerge.

For many in journalism, the future doesn’t seem too bright. It is hard to be innovative without having job security. Many of us wonder what our futures would be like if we cannot be storytellers anymore. To be relegated to some job as a PR flack or a wedding photographer dealing with the bridezillas of the world would be sad indeed.

Instead, how about we all stand and fight for the profession we’re passionate about? Our jobs are already hanging by a thread, so what have we got to lose? This is a unique time to be in journalism. Yes, it is changing, but now we all have a chance to shape what those changes will be. The focus now needs to be on the future, not on the past. Accept the changes that have already occurred and then find a better way to implement the changes the future holds. The failed strategies of the past need to fall away.

Yes, it is time to stand and fight. Fight for the journalism values ingrained to our core. Stand and fight for our role as watchdogs and muckrakers. Stand and fight to hold those in power accountable. Stand and fight against the tide of backlash–because new thinking is sometimes perceived as a threat to our comfort zone. The reality is there are no comfort zones left. From now on, it is survival of the fittest. Game on.

Rosenblumtv.com: Rabble-rousing at its finest

You gotta love Michael Rosemblum over at Rosenblumtv.com The man knows how to make the media cogs squirm in their seats. 

The web offers not just another platform for distribution of product, but rather an entirely new calculus for how an online media company can be run. By its very nature, it changes the construct of most media businesses. Migrate your newspaper to the web completely and you suddenly lose the cost of ink, paper, presses, pressmen, delivery trucks, distribution and paperboys. Tell your writers to work from home and you can lose the building, the desks, the lights, the cleaning services and most of the management as well. Cut all those costs, and suddenly your ad based web revenue can look pretty good in comparison. Its the overhead that is killing you. Lose it. You don’t need it.

Heavy words, but alas, I think this is what will eventually befall our industry. Thankfully we’re not there yet. But if traditional newspaper advertising continues its year-after-year declines, you have to wonder when that line will be crossed–that it becomes more economically viable for publishers to cut the overhead and just publish on the web.

For this transition to happen though, a lot of blood has to be let. It will be gut wrenching for the truck drivers, paperboys, pressmen and others who will lose their jobs. But after this transition, what happens next? Will a journalism renaissance take place or will the brand names of newspaper mastheads fade into the noise of the web? 

If you haven’t perused Rosenblum’s blog you should. He pulls a lot of weight in the media industry. Rosenblum and his VNI (Video News International) colleagues of the mid-nineties were the first to push the idea of using the video journalist concept. Small digital video cameras in lieu of big broadcast betacams, One man bands. Produce from the field not from an edit suite. This new workflow has encountered a wall of resistance from traditional TV news shooters, who for some reason, are uncomfortable with losing all that weight they lug around.

The interesting thing here, is that the VJ model has been embraced by us newspaper video shooters who know nothing of lugging twenty pound tripod around or editing tape to tape. Rosenblum is a rabble-rouser, a square peg trying to change an industry one TV news station at a time. He loves to pick on Katie Couric and the whole TV news anchor paradigm:

Perhaps the last gasp of a defunct and completely out of touch management was Katie Couric’s pornographic $15 million a year salary – to work 22 minutes a night reading what someone else had written. The sheer stupidity of this, the sheer short-sightedness of it now becomes obvious to everyone. For Couric’s reported $15 million, CBS could have (could have) hired and fielded an astonishing 150 Videojournalists worldwide, paying them a quite honorable $100,000 a year to report for CBS News. CBS News could have (could have) placed itself on the cutting edge of the digital news revolution. Instead they opted to become the dinosaur poster child of the end of old media. Goodbye Tiffany Network. You blew it.

Rosenblum is moving forward with his vision. His ongoing Travel Channel Academy video workshops are full of people wanting to learn to produce video for TV and the web. He is helping newspapers integrate video storytelling into their websites. The momentum is in his favor. As the hinges on the foundations of traditional media start to break away, those of us that have embraced the VJ model will hopefully be left standing long after Ivory towers have come crumbling down.