The AV Club


One of the best things to happen to me since I became The Spokesman-Review’s multimedia editor was that I finally got an office with a window. Being stuck in a windowless cave for three years editing video had me looking downright pasty.

Shortly after I was promoted, I was able to make my first hire for an open multimedia producer position. Luckily I didn’t have to look far. Brian Immel had just graduating from Washington State University when I offered him the job. Now Immel and I share a small office crammed with cool technology. Some newsroom smart aleck taped a sign on the our office door proclaiming us members of the “AV Club.”  In a way the high school label fits. It’s just us two geeks talking none-stop about geeky things.

Before I was gifted the office, I was first assigned to the what many of us salt mine workers affectingly call the Death Star– a cluster of six desks that make up the universal assignment desk. My three-months on station there were tough. Nothing sucks the creativity out of you faster than having to listen to a city editor talk endlessly on the phone with angry readers who object to something published in the newspaper. During that dark time, I seriously thought about slinking back to the photo department to ask for my old job and dark edit cave back.

Now in the confines of my sunlit office, I feel reenergized. I am supervisor to three people in online who are wicked smart. They all know their jobs so well that I don’t have to supervise them much. That has left time for me to meddle in other areas like, oh I don’t know—the rest of the newsroom.

One of my longtime mantras has been that there can be no more “just photographers” or “just reporters.” Everyone now needs to be multimedia producers. That’s my story and I’ve been sticking to it. My goal is not to change the newsroom en masse, but to empower one person at a time with the multimedia tools and training that will allow them to be successful in producing content for online. I thought it would be a tough task, but in reality I find the S-R newsroom incredibly receptive.

Over time, I have asked a lot of people, including:

  1. Reporters to not only to write narrative scripts for videos, but also to voice them
  2. Reporters to gather audio to layer with their online stories
  3. Web producers to shoot and edit video
  4. Photographers to add video to their storytelling toolbox
  5. Photographers to gather audio and produce audio slideshows
  6. Editors to help identify and pass on multimedia possibilities quickly

All this has meant that Brian and me spend a lot of time making people in the newsroom feel comfortable with new technology like digital recorders and small video cameras.

If we give someone the multimedia tools they want, I’ve found they will do most of the heavy lifting themselves. Brian and me do a lot of demonstrating of technology to the rest of the newsroom. Every paper should have a Brian Immel on staff. He is the young demographics perfect storm– smart, Internet savvy; a person who searches out and uses all the online tools available. He understands more than anyone else at my newspaper the nuances of the Internet.  He can shoot and edit a video, is photojournalist and he can write code, such as high-level Flash Action Script, to build online tools and content. Yet, he is personable and patient enough to teach technology to the rest of the newsroom. 

I think many other newspapers probably have a Brain Immel on staff. Unfortunately, they are seen as having too little journalism experience to be taken seriously. You just have to peruse The Angry Journalist website to realize how this young generation of journalists are being ignored by newsroom management. Seeing little opportunity, they are fleeing newspapers just when they are needed most. I won’t let that happen to Brian.

What I’ve come to realize in my geeky discussions with Immel, is how little I really know about how his generation uses, shares and connects with information online. I think for newspapers to survive in this rapidly changing digital world, they will need to start listening more to the young people hired fresh out of college like Immel. Let them come to planning meetings with senior staff. Give them a voice and let them use it. If newspapers are ever going to make their online sites successful, then they’ll need to listen to the generation that is actually using the medium to it fullest.

A creativity crisis

Today I am having a creativity crisis. Last night I watched and judged all the videos entered in this month’s NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest. My crisis stems from the feeling of déjà vu. My entries looked and sounded like everyone else’s. So off I went for inspiration over to TV. There are some really strong stories here. But after an hour of browsing TV news videos, I left feeling disheartened. To me, the television reporter driven voice-overs were all started to sound the same. 

Someone once described the TV news narrative as sounding plastic. I’d like to add the word cookie cutter to that. TV news shooters must cringe when their well-shot stories are chopped up with frantic one sentence reporter narration that intrudes between almost every video clip. Watching this style of video just confuses me as to what is the best way to tell an effective video story.

I was raised on the Platypus Workshop model of storytelling. A-roll + B-roll = Story. This is the traditional way to tell video story. Do your talking head interview, then cover it with b-roll of whatever the subject talks about. After several years of telling stories this way, I feel like I am in the movie Groundhog Day. I just keep telling the same formula story over and over.

I don’t know what my reprieve from this loop will be. Some photojournalist-turned-videojournalists have found a stylized storytelling niche for themselves such a Dai Sugano at the San Jose Mercury News. Many have emulated his work. When I watch one of these time-lapse or stop-action stories, the visual sensation delights me, but not always the substance of the message. Often, when I get to the end of these push the creative envelope presentations, I ask: “What did this story really tell me?” Other than being a cool creative exercise to watch, I am often left feeling unfulfilled.

Part of my dilemma is that I am sensitive to the fact viewership for my own video stories has a broad range of ages and visual literacy. Get too creative and you get the “huh?” factor from viewers who just hit the back button. Get too literal and the over-simulated younger set gets bored fast. Somewhere, there’s got to be a happy medium. It is tough trying to be all things to all viewers and maybe I shouldn’t worry about such matters.

My ultimate goal every time I produce a video is to tell a compelling and informative story. Sometimes I fail. Unfortunately, not all stories are barnburners. After four years of shooting news video, I reflectively have to ask: “What am I missing in my storytelling toolbox that could help me be a better storyteller?” There are not many resources to help me in my quest. So what to do?

I sometimes forget that most everyone who shoots video for newspapers is new to the craft. We’re all looking for mentors. The reality is there are only a few with experience to lean on. I think the one thing newspaper video shooters have all agreed on is we should break free of the TV news model. We will tell our video stories in a different way thank you. But one has to wonder– is tossing out the fundamentals of good video storytelling and production that has been refined for decades on TV news the way to go? I hope not. So for now, I wait.

It will be interesting to see how video storytelling at newspapers will define and refine itself over time. There are lots of smart and creative people entering the newspaper video arena. Once they master the fundamentals, hopefully a fresh approach to video storytelling will soon take shape. Until then, there is old reliable– A + B = Story.