Looking back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008

Looking back at this year’s highs and lows in newspaper multimedia, I find much to be excited about. My excitement is tempered by the growing layoffs that have affected many multimedia producers at U.S. newspapers– including my own. A year ago I would have said video storytellers were untouchable. In these challenging economic times, many newspapers have backtracked into full retrench mode as they prepare to make their final stand to save the traditional print product from extinction. This last year, online and photo departments got hit harder than expected. I lost seven of the 12 people I trained to shoot video. Other papers disbanded entire photo departments. For those left to carry on, I would say to hang tough. The need for quality multimedia storytelling is not going away. We will make it through this dark tunnel in time, so keep your video cameras and audio recorder held high. Here’s my look back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008.

  • Video at newspapers began to mature in 2008, as visual journalists became more proficient video storytellers. Though they’re beginning to master the basics of shooting and editing, there’s still much room for improvement. Tightening edits, writing better voiceovers and improving pacing and sequencing, should be on every newspaper video producer’s to-do list for the New Year.
  • Full screen video has finally arrived on many newspaper websites. Better compression algorithms (VP6 and H.264) and improved Internet bandwidth is allowing newspapers to provide decent looking full-screen video. At my newspaper, we built a video player that uses the latest Adobe Flash Player technology. Having hardware acceleration (player uses the computer’s GPU) and the ability to embed video anywhere on our new website adds up to a better user experience for all.
  • Video cameras are improving in both cost and features. Shooting HD video should be the norm now. It compresses better than standard def and looks stellar when played back on a hi-def monitor. But the big technology leap this year is the transition to shooting with tapeless video cameras. While most video producers are still shooting DV tape, a new breed of tapeless cameras is starting to make inroads. Canon’s entry level AVCHD format based HF-10 on the low end and the pro-based Sony XDCAM EX-1 on the high end, will soon make tape seem as dated a LP vinyl albums and Tri-X film.
  • Many newspaper websites have received redesigns that better showcase their multimedia. Unfortunately on many of these sites, multimedia is still considered an ugly stepchild to the word-driven content. Too many websites are not taking advantage of their growing video archives. Search on most newspaper websites is still an exercise in frustration.  Modern content management systems fix this by allowing tagging for all content. After a recent massive snowstorm last week in Spokane, we tagged all related content–stories, videos, photos and audio– with “Winter Storm 2008.” Click that tag on our Django based site and you’ll only get content related to that tag (way cool). On another front, most newspaper websites continue to be mostly shovelware sites for traditional newspaper stories. Their web-only content, like video and audio slideshows and database journalism is buried in a sea of links. Not getting the hits on multimedia? It’s probably because people can’t find it, and when they do, the player is crappy and the video compression sucks.
  • Audio slideshows have matured this year. Most newspaper photojournalists have become adept at gathering and editing audio. But many shows being produced seem lifeless and predicable. Deeper storytelling, better ambient audio, tighter photo and audio edits could help most audio slideshows. The Soundslides program went through a solid upgrade this year with the addition of a full-screen mode, but I am beginning to see people transition to producing audio slideshows in their video editing programs like Final Cut Pro.

Let’s hope 2009 has more highs then lows for you. I have had one hell of a year. I floated into and out of management, trained many in my newsroom to shoot and edit video, lived to see the long delayed Spokesman.com site launch. I said goodbye to two-dozen talented newsroom coworkers lost to layoffs. I found myself back behind a still camera for the first time in three years. Looking ahead, I have a strong set of multimedia goals I want to accomplish in 2009. I’m keeping my chin up–no matter what the future brings.

The times they are a changing

Thursday was kind of a milestone here at The Spokesman-Review. It was a busy day for everyone. Our MoJo (mobile journalist) Thomas Clouse called me over to his desk. He was working on a video he’d just shot of a railroad crossing emphasis patrol by local police. He was ready to export his movie, but before he did, he wanted me to view it. Clouse made the classic error of burying the lede of his video. A quick reedit made his story a 100% better. As I stepped back from his desk, I was taken aback by what I saw. Two web producers were all working in Final Cut Express producing their own videos.

Andrew Zahler was editing a piece he shot on a new local restaurant, which used unusual works of art in their decor. Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen was editing a story shot by an entertainment writer on the strange Juggalo hip-hop subculture. Both Thuy and Andrew have only been using Final Cut Express since January, but they’ve taken to it with no fear.

A few minutes later I ventured back to the photo department. In my old editing cave sat photojournalist Dan Pelle engrossed in his dual monitor setup working on a story about a high school student who is painting a mural on large fiberglass cow for a national art competition. Four people, working simultaneously, editing video for Spokesmanreview.com. I just had to smile.

For the longest time I was a videographer of one. An anomaly at my paper. Now, I’ve pretty much put myself out of the shooting business. I can no longer cherry pick the assignments that have good video potential. There are now eight people in our newsroom able to use a video camera to tell a story. It is a number that is growing–one person at a time.

A year ago, I looked out in the newsroom and asked myself what would it be like if everyone, not only had the ability to shoot and edit video, but also do it well? What would be the impact? As our website grows in reach and content, I know that multimedia will play a bigger role in how we tell stories. Mojo Thomas Clouse remarked the other day how his news video communicated the story much better than anything he could have written. This from a former word-only reporter—wow.

The next item on my plate is to reinforce the training these budding videographers already have. I need to show them ways they can be more efficient in Final Cut. How they can learn to edit in-camera so the video they shoot can be quickly edited into an engaging sequence of images. The video religion is spreading. Three more photographers are now learning Final Cut. We have capital budget for 4 more Mojo setups this year that include a laptop, video camera, and Final Cut Express.

With a coming redesign and a growing cadre of multimedia journalists, the newsroom at The Spokesman-Review is becoming a very different place from what it was just a year ago.

The Apocalypse is upon us…video is dead!

Over at Multimediashooter.com , Richard Koci Hernandez dropped a cluster bomb with this post called: Say NO to video: Conversations with the Video God.

But seriously folks, I think we’ve taken the video thing too far. At first I believed it was the right approach, because I believed there was gold in those hills. I love journalism and would’ve done anything to save the profession (and MY job). There WAS gold in the hills for some and maybe there’s some left, but not for most newspapers.

 

OK, it’s time to talk Koci off the ledge. For christ sake, most newspapers have been doing video for only a year or two at best. Journalists are still learning the fundamentals of how to shoot video. This is a huge transition and it will take years to make it work.

Like Koci, I have invested four years of my life into to making video work for my newspaper. I moved from up from a long-time position as a still photojournalist to multimedia producer and eventually transitioning to multimedia editor. When I look out on my newsroom now, I gotta smile. More and more people are starting to produce quality video stories. Thankfully, I’m no longer an island. I have spread the video Kool-aid (through training) at my newspaper and now only a few are complaining about the taste.

I, like the rest of  journalists and editors working in this industry, know we need to improve how we capture, produce and deliver multimedia content. The problem is media companies have been slow to embrace the Internet. The fact is, they all talk a great line, but still struggle to understand this rapidly evolving medium. Sixty-year-old executives in suits still don’t have MySpace pages or blogs. This makes it hard for them to really understand the importance of using social media sites as a distribution network. 

As early adopters of newspaper multimedia, Koci and I, knew damn well that our websites were not equipped to handle this growing medium. So we found ways to make it work through the use of video blogs. But in four years, have our companies come up with something that will showcase video better? Nope. But that will change. It has to.

Note: The Mercury News modern video player is better than The Spokesman-Reviews. But it crashed my Safari browser twice and failed to load most of their videos when I clicked “More videos.” 

I still believe video will be an important part of how newspapers deliver news content over the web. But until media companies make an investment in their websites, nothing is going make video turn into gold. Here is my list of what needs to change:

 

  1. Fix the players. Too may newspaper websites have crappy video players that take too long to load, don’t work with all browsers, have no full screen mode, don’t allow you to embed code or share with social media sites. Video need to be tagged so search engines can find them.
  2. Invest in decent compression software like Sorenson Squeeze. Then test until you find the best setting for your audience.
  3. Use in-house distribution servers. Brightcove is fine, but I think having to wait for a video player to load is a deal breaker. Video players should be easily embedded in the page and should start up almost instantly.
  4. If people can’t find your video, then it’s not worth the time or effort to produce. There have been lots of discussions about how video has a long shelf life. I can attest to this. In my Video Journal blog, many of the posted stories continue to receive hits over time. Some videos or slideshows take off and become viral months or years after they are produced. Why? Because they are findable in my blog archive. Too many newspapers post a video for a day or two and then it drops of the radar. That is death for hits. 
  5. Invest in a decent content management system. Too many websites, like mine, have been cobbled together with legacy code that doesn’t allow you to use Web 2.0 tools to enhance media distribution. At The Spokesman-Review, we are in the process of installing a new Ellington CMS and we will have a ground up redesign in the coming months. This will allow us to showcase our video in new ways.
  6. Propagate your video. It doesn’t have to live just on the “multimedia page.” Embed it in your newspaper’s blogs, stories and home page. Upload it to You Tube, iTunes.
  7. Invest in technology that will speed up the editing process. There’s a whole new generation of video cameras coming out that are tapeless and allow you to cut the capture time by 90 percent.
  8. Train, train and train some more. Multimedia quality won’t improve if producers don’t know how to do it better.
  9. Find a better model than pre-roll, which just makes your viewers hit the back button. If you’re going to continue to use pre roll ads, then make them less than seven seconds. Thirty-second ads are for TV. Web users are not that passive. I know there is a way to monetize video, it just hasn’t been discovered yet.
  10. Finally, as multimedia content producers, we shouldn’t give up on innovation. We are the one’s who took the risk and made the jump to video. Yes, we are fatigued from the fight, but we need to press on. The industry is changing and we need to be better prepared for when digital distribution becomes the standard. It’s a long road ahead.

Now Koci, get off the damn ledge before I push you off!

Sequencing: The foundation of video storytelling

After judging several regional multimedia contests recently, I’m mildly discouraged by what I saw being entered in the video categories. I believe the people who shot these videos tried their best. Yet, entry after entry suffered one fatal flaw– They lacked the basic sequencing of video clips.

The sequence is the foundation of all video storytelling. Sequences compress time in a video story. Without this compression, what you’re left with are long video clips that visually bore viewers to death.

Proper sequencing gives the video editor a better way to pace a story by using a variety of wide, medium and tight shots. This helps move the viewer through a story efficiently. Unfortunately, it seems, the sequencing lesson did not stick with people after whatever training (if any) they might have had.

You can’t be great basketball player like Michael Jordan if you don’t master the fundamentals of ball handling. The same goes for video storytelling. You have to drill the fundamentals of sequencing into your head or you won’t be able to tell an effective video story.

So let’s review the basics.

Sequencing helps compress time in a video. If you videotape someone leaving their house, walking down a path, getting on their motorcycle and driving off, it might take a minute or more to show all the action in real-time. We don’t have that amount of time for our video, so we shoot a shot of the subject coming out of the house, a tight shot of his feet walking into and out of frame. A shot from behind the subject walking up the bike. Then a shot of the subject sitting on the bike, cut to a tight shot of his foot kick-starting the engine. Then another tight shot of his hand revving the throttle. Finally, we get a shot of the subject riding off in the sunrise. Whew. That was hard work. But you know what? Edited together, you can compress that one-minute real-time clip into 20 seconds or less. The cool thing is the viewer understands this sequence and buys into your compression of time. Why? Because they see time compression everyday when they watch TV or a movie.

When shooting a sequence you have to anticipate the action. Still photojournalists are skilled at this. But if you are a word person, it might be a bit foreign to you. When I’m shooting, I’m always running scenarios through my mind. I’m asking myself: Where’s the action headed? Where do I need to position myself to be in the right spot? What shots do I need to get me from point A to point B?

Try to remember to shoot a variety shots. Shoot the action and then the reaction. It’s most important to hold your shots for about 10 seconds each. Don’t pan or zoom; just let the action enter or leave the frame. I had a video editor once tell me that if a cameraperson shoots a wide, medium and tight shot of every composition, then he could edit anything.

As I have incorporated more sequencing into my video, I’ve found that I have cut down my editing time considerably. The other thing you should remember is to weight your shots to the tight and super tight end of the shooting spectrum. Tight shots make great transitions between two wide shots or two medium shots. They prevent the infamous jump cut (two shots that look the same) that annoy and confuse people viewing your video.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals of sequencing, you can begin to tell a more effective video story. The master video sequencers are our brothers in TV news. Time is tight for their stories. They compress time until it squeals.

Now for your homework assignment. Check out some of the sequencing done over at B-roll.net TV. Dissect the sequences. Look for the wide, medium and tight shots and how they move you through the story.