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.

Improving the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest

Angela Grant at Newsvideographer.com has started a conversation about how to improve the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest. As contest chairman, my co-worker Brian Immel and me are tasked with coming up with an update that will improve judging and allow people to give feedback on the entries.

I posted this reply over at newsvideographer.com that started from a conversation about updating the contest:

Commenting on winners has always been available–if you’re logged in. Hence the reason few ever add feedback on the winners. That feature will be improved with the coming update. I am toying with the idea of allowing comments during the entry and judging period. I think that is when most folks feel the need to give feedback. Many times when I’m judging, I wish I could leave a suggestion to help improve a person’s story. I know this is a risky. I’d probably have to moderate it closely to make sure it doesn’t descend into a flame war.

Angela, from your suggestions list that you emailed me… Yes on all accounts. Categories are something we all need to address. That discussion should start right now, right here. As it stands, you can enter three entries per category. If the contest continues to grow, limiting the entries will have to take place. You mentioned dual entries and slideshows entered in the wrong categories. Yes, this is a problem that will be addressed. Brian and I have asked the NPPA to give us access to parts of their servers so we can update the contest quickly and fix errors. Right now, if there is a problem, I have to ask the NPPA webmaster to fix it. Some things slip by and that is not acceptable. It will be fixed soon. Point tallies and a new ranking system will be implemented with the update.

Finally, I like to address the “what wins” discussion. We started this contest at a time when video was just starting to take hold at newspapers. Video continues to evolve as more producers learn and improve their storytelling fundamentals. For now, I believe this contest should be more about leaning and less about receiving some certificate. It should be a contest geared to give rapid feedback that will help us improve our craft. If I am wrong, I will step down and let someone else manage the contest. My point here is that this contest is for members of the NPPA. If it is to succeed, then it needs be a conversation contest built on user participation. The more people who log in and help judge, the better the results will be.

So let’s start this conversation. How can the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest be improved?

For non-NPPA members, you can still view the entries. It is a great way to see what newspaper video producers are up to.  For people who use the NPPA Monthly Multimedia contest, please head to Angela’s blog and give suggestions on what you would like improved.  

NPPA BOP winners!

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The web video winners in the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contest have been announced. Washingtonpost.com video master Travis Fox, kicked butt as well as Getty Images Rick Gershon. You can view the winner’s list and videos here. Also check out the BOP TV winners. Lots of great video storytelling by our brothers and sisters in TV news. Congrats and high-fives to Angela Grant over at Newsvideographer.com for her honorable mention in the New Feature Web category. Way to go Angela! 

Judge the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest

Just a quick reminder to all NPPA members to please log in and help judge the monthly multimedia contest by midnight EST Thursday. For non-members, you can view all the entries from around the country here.

There is a lot of inspiring work enter this month. As always, if you don’t have a lot of time to judge the whole contest, then just do a category or two. This contest depends on NPPA members to be successful.

 Disclaimer: I am the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest Chairman