Feedback website “Finding the Frame” launches

Finding the Frame, a website dedicated to giving feedback to newspaper multimedia producers and video journalists has launched.

My post in Mastering Multimedia last month,  “Video at newspapers needs to improve,” resonated with many people. I received lots emails from producers who vented their frustration at not being able to get feedback on their multimedia stories.

After a brainstorming session over a few beers, Brian Immel, a former multimedia producer and programmer at The Spokesman-Review, graciously agreed to build a website for the sole purpose of connecting those who need feedback on their multimedia, to professionals willing to share some time and knowledge.

Here’s how it works

The plan is to have onboard as many “expert” volunteers as possible that have solid foundations in video storytelling, audio slide shows or Flash projects. This pool of reviewers will peruse the submitted links of multimedia in the “Story Pool”. If they decide to comment on a story, it will then become public on the Finding the Frame home page where anyone else is free to give added feedback.

So why do this?

While most publications have driven head first into the online world, multimedia storytelling is still in its infancy at many newspapers. Unfortunately, not all people tasked with producing multimedia received adequate training or had the financial ability to attend a multimedia storytelling workshop. Many multimedia producers are self-taught, having picked up bit and pieces of knowledge along the way.

When I judge a multimedia contest, I often get frustrated at seeing the same problems in the execution of basic video and audio production fundamentals. Many photojournalists are struggling with how to tell an effective video or audio slideshow story that is different from the traditional still picture story.

Our hope is that Finding the Frame will begin to address the need for feedback and in turn, help multimedia producers improve their storytelling. Just read some of the comments by reviewers so far–you’ll be impressed. The professionals that have signed on as reviewers are the some of the top in the industry. If they critique your story, please thank them for giving up some of their precious time to help out a fellow visual journalist.

What we need

What we need is for enough producers, multimedia editors and photojournalists who have a solid experience with multimedia storytelling to step forward and share some of their knowledge with those that are looking for constructive, honest feedback.

So if you feel you have something to offer, we would really like you to join the pool of reviewers on Finding the Frame.

So go check it out and give Brian and me some feedback. Create an account. Upload a link to a video, audio slide show or Flash project. Be patient, as it might take some time for your story to get reviewed

I am not sure how many people will upload stories, so let’s take this slow at first. It would also be helpful if non-reviewers could give some feedback to others by commenting on their work.

If you would like to be added to the reviewer pool, register your account, making sure you create a profile and upload a photo of yourself or avatar, then email me at cmulvany@findingtheframe.com with the request.

This website is for you. We would really appreciate your support and feedback.

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…

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

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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.

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.

The Digital Journalist dedicates issue to video journalism

This month’s issue of The Digital Journalist is dedicated to newspaper video journalism. Publisher Dirck Halstead called me a month ago and asked me to write a story about how I transitioned from being a still photographer to becoming a multimedia producer at my newspaper. Writing about my journey, I’ve found, has been mildly therapeutic.  My last five years as a visual journalist have been an intense and challenging. Through it all, I remain confident that video storytelling at newspapers will survive and flourish.

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This issue was guest edited by Ken Kobre and Jerry Lazar, who did  fantastic job of touching on all the video journalism bases. Stories include:  “How to Build an Emmy-Winning Videojournalism Department” by Kathy Kieliszewski of the Detroit Free Press, to a look at how Erik Olsen, a former ABC TV cameraman, transitioned to being a one-man band video journalist for The New York Times. Also check out “Ken Kobre’s 10 Tips for Dramatically Improving Your Videojournalism Stories.” Halstead also wanted me to upload about 30 of my favorite still photos I’ve taken over my career. You can check out that gallery here. This is one Digital Journalist issue you won’t want to miss.

Will dark times lead to a renaissance?

After judging the video categories in this month NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest, I am disheartened at the overall quality of the storytelling being entered. Entries are down by a third. I’m wondering if it’s because of the recent layoffs sweeping our industry? Or maybe other producers, like me, are being asked to focus on more traditional photojournalism for the newspaper.  It could also be everyone is too depressed to do good work.

These are dark times. The best and the brightest are being forced out on the street daily. But what of the rest of the journalists who, with some luck, will be the last few standing in their gutted newsrooms? I, for one, didn’t spend the last five years learning multimedia skills to just roll over and die.  I keep telling myself to look at the big picture. The media pundits have been predicting the collapse of newspapers for years. And now that it’s here, we are all feeling the pain. The key to survival is being able to make it through this slow transition from print to online.

The mass slaughter will continue for some time, but when it ends-and it will end, publishers will have to make some pretty tough decisions.  I think everyone is in agreement that the future journalism is primarily online. Great journalism is not about the delivery method, but it’s embedded in the words, pictures and videos that reach out to our communities and the world.

Beyond being terrified of my short-term future, I am also cautiously optimistic. Hopefully, I will be allowed to be a part of the reimagining of journalism.  It is still pretty fuzzy about what form it will take. Everyone left will need to be an innovator. If we can find a revenue model that works, then I hope a journalism renaissance will take place.  Freed of the legacy chains of the past, new opportunities will surely germinate.