Drumming my fingers as I try to figure it all out

As I sit on my back deck gazing out at the setting sun, I feel its warmth diminish as the golden glow slowly fades below the horizon. Sadly, I can think of nothing but bad “newspapers are dying” metaphors right now. I have struggled these last few weeks to find the inspiration to write something compelling about multimedia. Truth is, I’ve temporarily have lost my creative spark at work and here in print. I could blame it on my Sony EX-1 video camera being in the shop for the last couple of weeks, but that would  be scapegoating on my part.

Anyway, taking a break from being the multimedia evangelist at my paper is probably healthy for me. In my mental absence, other multimedia producers that I helped train have stepped up and continue to hold the torch for video and audio slideshows at my newspaper.

In my moment of reflection, I have come to realize that telling stories with video, or still photos and audio is hard. Damn hard. Yes, you can do it half-assed and call it good enough, but to do multimedia exceptionally well is creatively and technologically demanding, I’ve reached a point where I just need to do something outstanding with visual journalism. I’m just not sure what that is yet.

Last March, as part of my story “From stills to Video” for Digital Journalist Magazine, I was asked to put together a portfolio of my favorite still photographs I’ve taken over my 21-year career at The Spokesman-Review. I spent a few days digging through piles of yellowed special sections of projects I worked on in the ‘90s. It was depressing really. I had some incredible opportunities to tell intimate documentary-style stories back then. It seems like a distant memory now. My newspaper, like every other in the county, has turned the screws on space, staffing and design.  I can’t say I didn’t see this coming. When the first (of six) rounds of layoffs in came to in 2001, I knew the end of the golden age of photojournalism at the S-R was pretty much a done deal. Oh sure, we still produce great photojournalism from time-to-time, but most of that mojo has moved on.

During this transition, I tried to motivate our photo staff to turn to online as their creative salvation. “It is a blank canvas with no space limitations,” I would trumpet. I was usually met with: “Our site sucks for photos and nobody looks at it anyway.” They did have a point. Of course Soundslides helped change all of that. This one genius computer program gave rise to a new era of online visual storytelling at newspapers.

Still, I can’t help but see the missed opportunities that my and most newspapers made here. Visuals on the web have skyrocketed as broadband Internet connections grew. Problem is, most newspapers failed to capitalize on this transition from being a primarily text-based web to a more visual web. Most newspapers still cling to the notion that making their photos big will slow down page downloads or, heaven forbid, lead to people swiping images to pin on their office cubicle walls and home refrigerators. You just have to look at Boston.com’s “Big Picture” blog to see what we all have been missing. Seeing powerful photos in all there 950 pixel-wide glory is inspiring. From what I’ve read the hits are staggering and reading the hundreds of comments that each photo gets, well, what’s everyone waiting for? Next month, The Spokesman-Review will join the growing legions of newspapers that have transitioned to the narrow web. One my co-workers duly noted that photos online will actually be bigger than in the print edition. While I’m drumming my fingers, trying to figure it all out, I hope the ebb in my flow of creativity will soon have an uptick. I’m getting mighty tired of feeling hopeless in an industry that can’t fix what ails it.

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