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:

Storytelling

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.

Structure

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.

Editing

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.

Journalism

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?

Narration

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.

Collaboration

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.

Solutions?

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.

Stretching the roles of traditional journalists

fairygirlsMM

Sunday’s Spokesman-Review was a bit like the newspaper of old. Writer, Kevin Graman’s story and my photos of the Fairy and Human Relation Congress, took up most of the front-page as well as two color pages inside. What was different about this story for us two veterans—one visual and one word oriented—was how we each stretched into the new roles of being modern newspaper journalists.

My visual multitasking role has been pretty much set in stone for some time. On this story, I not only shot the still photos for the newspaper, but I captured, edited and produced a video for online.

srx-fairymm3

Graman moved out of his traditional role of being a print reporter to now stretching into the multimedia world of writing words for video and doing voice-over work.

When I heard about this story of 200 people gathering in the wilds to worship fairies, I could think of no better journalist than Graman to do the story with.  We have worked on several other videos together. His innate ability to write to my video brings an authentic voice the story.

Most times I am fine with doing my own voiceover work. But on great stories like this one, having someone that can write and voice powerful words (check out the last minute of the fairy video) just makes all the difference.

In the end, I think we hit a grand slam. We gave the readers of our newspaper a great print story, with strong photos—and we gave our online viewers all that and more with the added value of the video that told a different story than print. This, to me, is the future of newspaper journalism, where traditional roles are stretched but not devalued.

In the Realm of Fairies

fairymm

My week (and brain) has been filled with fairies, orbs, healers, telepaths and more fairies. Last week, Spokesman-Review writer Kevin Graman and I, headed to a scenic meadow nestled at the foothills of the North Cascades Mountains in Washington state. Here, 250 people gathered for the 9th Annual Fairy and Human Relations Congress—a workshop driven event—dedicated to connecting the human world to the fairy realm. OK, before you scoff, I was amazed at the dedication these people have towards their new age beliefs. Over four days, Graman and I kept an open mind as we attend workshops on “Getting in touch with the fairy mind,” and another on how to telepathically communicate with animals. The best part though, was the festival atmosphere. On Saturday night a grand fairy costumed parade made its way through the meadow. It ended at a bonfire with participants dancing and chanting: “Release, release, release your sexy beast.” God, I love my job sometimes.

The congress gave me the creative release I’ve been looking for. I only had two days to turn my four hours of raw video into a story. Graman wrote and voiced the narration. He has such a great voice. I keep telling him he should do voiceover work professionally. You can see the finished video here.

Two approaches to daily newspaper video

 

Reflections Med Spas of Spokane host Botox parties to entice woman to use their cosmetic services.

Reflections Med Spas of Spokane host Botox parties to entice woman to use their cosmetic services.

The great thing about shooting video for newspapers is that you don’t have to fit the storytelling in a confined format like TV news does. The last two videos I have produced for Spokesman.com were done with totally different  storytelling approaches. The first video I did was on a local day spa that hosted a Botox party for women. Here, I let the subjects at the party tell the story. I shot it in one evening and then futzed around with the edit for couple of days in between daily still photo assignments. The other video was on a snowboarding competition held at a local college.  I tried a totally different approach with this video. A daily story planned for the page one, so I didn’t see the need to do the same print story in video. Time was tight and I really wanted to get home in time for dinner.

rail

Watch the thrills and the spills as snowboarders and skiers from around the region participate in the Cricket Wireless Campus Rail Jam Tour

 

The Botox story was all about people. Getting them to tell me why they felt the need to get Botox injections was key to my story. I did interviews with a doctor and the director of the spa, which gave me the narrative framework for my story. Then I just filled in my timeline with other quick-hit interviews. From a low angle, I did a fun interview with a woman who was face down in a chair getting a massage. With my raw video, I edited a story that was fairly linear. I opened with women socializing with wine and hors d’oeuvres as my beginning. Then moved on to them getting free massages and facials for the middle. Finally, I shot copious amounts of footage of several people getting facial Botox injections to lead me out of the story.

With the snowboarder story, I ditched all my normal storytelling conventions. My Sony EX-1 video camera has the ability to over crank video for ultra smooth slow motion. This was the first time I have experimented with this feature and I am mesmerized by it.  My video is two minutes of snowboarders riding the rails. A music track is my only audio. Many boarders fell on their butts and heads, which the slow motion effect made it fun to watch. I think there is lots of room left to experiment with different storytelling methods. My two daily videos will probably not win any awards, but I hopw the viewers, who took the time to watch, were at least entertained by what they saw.

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.

Peter Huoppi video’s are a slice of heaven

I recently ran across this blog by multimedia journalist Peter Huoppi who works at the newspaper The Day in New London, Connecticut. Two of Huoppi’s more recent video stories show where I believe the best in newspaper video storytelling is heading. The videos “Vampires in Connecticut” and “Mystic Pizza” are based in solid journalism and feature a strong use of voice-overs. The video editing is well-paced and you can tell the b-roll was shot by someone with a photographer’s eye.

What I like best about these two stories is that they are told well. Both are a bit long by newspaper website standards, but I found I watched them to the end because they were compelling. I think what works best in both of these pieces is the use of voice-overs that help move the story along. This is where I feel newspaper videographers need to start developing more.

Last week, a post in the B-roll.net forum, showcased my last blog post about the video meltdown at my newspaper. The tone of some of the comments said basically that newspapers shouldn’t do video because we suck at it. All I have to say to that is look at what Peter Huoppi is producing. His stories are better produced than most of the ambulance chasing stories I see on my local TV news each day. And he didn’t need a fleet of reporters, producers, video editors and engineers to publish it. Newspaper video storytelling on the web will only improve with time.  Having video storytellers like Peter Huoppi to inspire us will only make us better.

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.

Canadian video journalist John Lehmann’s star is rising

I first met John Lehmann in Vancouver, Canada after he invited me to speak about multimedia at last year’s Western Canadian Photojournalism Conference. Lehmann works for the Globe and Mail newspaper and is the consummate photojournalist. A sharp eye for visuals and a keen sense of story, Lehmann ranks up there with the best shooters in Canada. When I showed my video work to the gathered hoard of Canadian photojournalists, the new world of multimedia was still pretty foreign to most in attendance. My talk was well received. I know this because I never bought another beer while I was across the border.

Flash forward three months later and Lehmann was visiting my town of  Spokane, Wash. to shoot a story on the oldest living Canadian World War I veteran. That month he had received a 1st place in the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest with an incredible video documentary on conjoined twin babies. The meat of his video was shot mostly in stunning stills. His video and editing skills were still in their infancy.

After his Spokane shoot, Lehmann spent a day hanging out in my video-editing cave at The Spokesman-Review. He asked a lot of questions about how video is sequenced. I showed him my Loose Moose video and told him how I edited it. He was still having a hard time grasping what I did. “Show me your raw video,” said Lehmann. After viewing the 30-minute tape and then replaying the 2 minute edited story he just smiled. “I get it now, he said.

Flash-forward again to last months 1st place win in the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest. His video, Flowers for Food, is a wonderful story that connects to the viewer emotionally. I was amazed at how far Lehmann had come in his video production and editing abilities. The depth of his storytelling and the thoughtful editing are truly inspiring. Now I see two more strong videos he’s produced in the last few months—this guy is on a roll.  Check out his story on nude bowling (a hoot) and this somber Katrina aftermath story.

The one thing I noticed about John is that he treats his video camera like he does his still camera. Lehman’s videos should be a reminder to all of us still shooters making the transition to new media–not to forget our visual roots. Many first time video shooters are overwhelmed by all the distractions. Remembering to monitor your audio (yes with headphones), to sequencing your video (wide, medium, tight) and to keep the bloody tripod out of your shots (try using it). My advice: Take a breath when you are shooting a story and remind yourself to be creative. Thanks John for reminding me think and see like a still shooter again.

The Digital Journalist puts newspaper video in perspective

There is a great editorial on video storytelling in this month’s TheDigitalJouranlist.org that echos everything I believe in. If you shoot video for a newspaper, you’ll want to  pass this editoral on to your supervisors. A snippet of wisdom:

Newspaper video should carry the imprint of the parent. It should represent the editorial image of the newspaper. Remember, any piece of shoddy, amateurish video on your site is how the audience will think of the paper. Would you have photographers with no experience replace your staff? Would you have high school students writing your editorials? Video should carry the same weight of competence and professionalism as anything else in the paper.

Contest season leaves an impression

In the last month or so I have judged four multimedia contests. After watching a bushel newspaper-produced video, I began to see a lot of patterns in the productions. Unfortunately, not all of it was good. From the entries, I could tell that a majority of the video producers were just starting their journey into multimedia storytelling, while others were veterans of the craft. Here are my overall impressions of what I judged:

  • Too many news videos are epics. If your story goes 5 or more minutes, it better be a barnburner. Most of these long videos could have been edited down by a third or half. Many video producers struggle with basic storytelling in this medium. Video is all about compressing time. Compare TV news video to newspaper produced video and you will see a wide gap in story pacing. TV news can be frantic, with clips of a second or two in length. Newspaper productions tend to be slow and more revealing, with longer clips and slower pace. I think there’s a happy medium here where a bit faster pacing would help many newspaper productions.
  • When watching a video, if I don’t understand what the story is about in less than 20 seconds, I lose interest fast. This is a huge problem with many newspaper videos I watched. The first thing you have to do when you start laying down video clips on the timeline is DEFINE YOUR STORY. That means using a voiceover, or a narrative sequence to pull the viewer into your story. When I work with video producers at my newspaper, defining the story is always the first thing I discuss with them.  The one thing Dirck Halstead taught me at the Platypus Workshop is to distill the story you want to tell down to one sentence. “Your story is not about an event, it is about a person,” says Halstead. Going off on tangents will kill your story, so stay on track.
  • Try to lead with your best or second best video clip. Too many video producers think way too linearly. It’s ok to lead with the middle or end of your story and then transition to a linear storyline. This is a classic storytelling device, so use it. Leading with strong video (visuals) will grab the attention of the viewer and keep them watching. Now don’t forget to define your story next!
  • Many videos I reviewed started with a talking head or voiceover in the first second. Instead, try letting natural sound be the first thing the viewer hears when opening your video–hence the “start you video with a strong video clip” suggestion.
  • There is too much zooming and panning going on out their in newspaper videoland. Stop. All that zooming and swishing is making me seasick. Say after me: “Wide, medium and tight, wide, medium and tight.”  Remember to hold each shot of at least ten seconds. Zoom with your feet, not your finger. If you shoot sequences correctly, you won’t need to use a zoom or a pan. Only occasionally will a zoom or pan be effective. Use it sparingly.
  • Start using your wireless mics. If you don’t have any, then get some. A wireless mic will improve the audio quality of your interviews. When you wire up a subject and turn them lose, audio magic can only happen.
  • I can’t stress this enough, so I will say it again. Create a nat/narrative weave in your videos. Many stories I viewed had just one person narrating the entire time with few breaks for natural sound. You should start your video with natural sound, then bring your narrative in for a time, then transition back to natural sound etc. In and out, in and out. Doing this will allow time for the viewer to process what the subject is saying. If you think about it, video asks a lot from the viewer. Listening to narrative and watching moving images at the same time can max out the brain– so give them a break.
  • Watch for wind noise. Nothing can kill a video production faster than hearing wind distortion during an interview or on your b-roll. Invest in good windscreens for your external and wireless mics.
  • Be as creative with your video camera as you are with a still camera. When I was first starting out in video, I was so consumed by all the other thing I was doing—monitoring my audio, white balancing, sequencing—that I mostly forgot the be creative in my shooting. The one thing I tell my Intro to Photojournalism students at a community college where I teach, is to get on your knees or climb a tree. Low and high angles give your video more visual variety. Your b-roll should be a creative exercise. You just have to remind yourself when shooting to try new angles and perspectives.
  • Edit surprises into your stories. Al Tompkins at Poynter calls these surprises gold coins. By sprinkling gold coins into your production, your viewer will stay with the story. It can be a great moment, or a turn in your story that is unexpected.
  • Finally, get out of your story in a way that makes the viewer feel fulfilled. Next to the opener, the ender in a video story is probably the hardest to conceive and execute. Don’t leave your viewer with that huh? feeling. A strong resolution to the storyline is best, but ending with a summary or powerful anecdote is effective too.