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!

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Google Maps: Answers to your questions

After buiding our Storm Stories and Help Your Neighbors maps, I’ve heard from a few people wondering about how they might build a mapping app for their own sites. I’m by no means an expert on this — but that’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed this project so much. I learned a ton while doing it. So I’m more than happy to share what I do know.
 
Our approach at the Spokesman was to use our own database and do everything ourselves, but not everyone has the server access and/or development time to tackle a mapping project that way. The nice thing is, there are definitely other ways to get the job done. Here are three:
 
You could use Google’s MyMaps feature
I’ve played around with this myself for use on a couple simple projects, and it’s a pretty slick way to allow non-technical people to get data onto a Google Map, which you can then embed on your own site. You need to have a Google account, and then when you go to maps.google.com, you’ll see a “My Maps” selection in the menu at left. This lets you create a custom map, clicking or entering addresses to add points, and typing in the description text for each. Once you save the map, you can grab the link to the KML file (which is XML describing the points you’ve created), and call that data into a simple map template on your own site. There’s a really good writeup on doing this type of project at PostNeo.
 
The downside is that this really isn’t open to the public to add their own points to the map. But it’s pretty darn easy if you’re just looking to map some information that you already have. The nice thing is, once you’ve embedded the map on a page on your own site, the KML information you’re calling in is dynamic. So if you log into Google Maps and add new points to the MyMap you’re working from, they’re automatically pulled into the map on your site.
 
You could use a combination of Google Spreadsheets and Google Maps
I don’t know how much you’ve played with Google docs, but within the past week or so, they added submit-by-form functionality to Google Spreadsheets. So you could go in, create a new spreadsheet with the fields for a mapping app (i.e. Name, Description, Street Address, City, State, ZIP, lat, lng), and then use the share via form functionality to create a web form to collect data from your reporters, users or whomever. Once the data is in, you need to 1) geocode the addresses in each record, and 2) get the data from the spreadsheet into the map. Basically if you walk through the 3-4 steps described here, you’ll see how that could work:
 
The advantage here over MyMaps is that you get the opportunity to collect data from your users. You’re adding some time and complexity to the project, definitely, and you’re signing up for some maintenance on the data (you’d end up needing to run the geocoder regularly to catch new input, for example). But depending on the product you’re shooting for, it might be worth it.
 
You could build your own database-driven map
Although we’re in the process of moving to a new framework, our current site runs on ASP and SQL Server, so that’s what our Storm Stories mapping app was built on. Getting it up and running required:
 
– building the data model and database table in SQL Server
– creating the forms for internal admin of the submissions
– creating the forms for people to submit posts to the map
– incorporating geocoding on the fly via javascript
– building map pages that pull records out of the database and plot them via the Google Maps API
 
There are plenty of scripting languages you could use to do something like this, if you have access to a server that will run a database and can write some PHP, Django, etc. Personally, I like the control you get with doing a project from beginning to end, without having to rely on external services.
 
And I’m also aware that there are a ton of people out there who are better at this mapping thing than I am, so I looked at this particular project as a good excuse to build a few skills. And I learned a TON about mapping over those couple of days. Describing the forms/admin/database work is probably beyond the scope of this writeup, but at its most basic, you need an admin page to list published/unpublished records, an admin form that displays the detail information on any given record, and a set of SQL statements to pass the form data through to handle the traditional Create-Read-Update-Delete functions. And you need a form for users to Create a new record.
 
As for the mapping, here are a couple tabs I kept open pretty much all the time:
 
Google Maps API documentation
 
Google Maps API tutorial
 
Between those two resources, you’ve got all you need to get the mapping working. But when you get stuck, the classic “view source” on a similar implementation (like this Detroit driving map for example) is also a lot of help.

A breaking news Google Map

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Last Sunday, Spokane, Wash., received a record 12 inches of snowfall. It paralyzed the city. What’s an online developer to do when faced with a breaking news event that’s spread out over a large region? If you’re Ryan Pitts, online director with my newspaper’s website Spokesmanreview.com, you whip up a Google Map and solicit viewers to send in their snow stories and photos.

Using addresses from the submissions, the Google Map’s geo code (latitude and longitude settings) plots out where the photo or story originated. On day two, Pitts added functionality to the map by adding better navigation and embedded links to staff produced video. Google maps are not new, but using them for a breaking news event is not as common. This is a great way to allow viewers to contribute and interact with your website. We promoted the map from the front page of the morning newspaper. Though the flood of submissions has yet to come (49 so far), I think an interactive map like this will take off as more viewers begin to discover it.

The Social Networking Universe and why it is important for the survival of newspapers

 

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When I get in front of a crowd, I become a whole different person. I’m kind of shy in real life, but I explode with passion when I get to talk about things that I believe are important, like multimedia. 

Today was a multimedia training day at The Spokesman-Review. A photographer, two web producers and two mobile journalists got to hear me pontificate about where I see multimedia headed in the future. They also got an in-depth tutorial on the fundamentals of video storytelling. It was a lot for people to digest in only three hours. I’m essentially taking the nine-day Platypus Workshop and condensing it into two, three-hour days. Tomorrow, my co-workers take what they learned and apply it to editing their videos with Final Cut Express 4.

As multimedia editor, I will need everyone I train to quickly start producing video. If we are to build any synergy with our video initiatives, then I need content, and not just any content. Quality video storytelling, well thought out, creatively shot, and expertly edited. It’s a high bar for sure, but I think we can get there. We have some pretty smart people at The Spokesman-Review who are up for the challenge. I am not adverse to failure either. I told my co-workers that you don’t become an expert in video storytelling overnight. You will grow from your failures as long as you strive to make each video you produce a little better than the next.

There was an open invitation to the rest of the newsroom–for anyone interested in learning about video, and video production–to come and sit in. I was happy to see a decent turnout, but it was less than I had hoped for. I started my presentation explaining how the web, with the rise of social networking sites, is drawing away readers from the traditional outlets like TV and newspapers. I told them that our readers of the newspaper are changing and so should we.

I created two graphic slides for my presentation. The first one showed the logos of a dozen social networks—You Tube, Facebook, MySpace, WordPress, etc. I explained that within these networks, people are not only socializing, but they are creating digital content. Lots of it. Video, music and photography. Many former readers of my newspaper are now content producers in a big way. And with the Web 2.0 tools (RSS feeds, tagging, commenting, embedding) at their disposal, they are sharing their content, not only within their own networks, but with other social networks as well. YouTube videos are being embedded in WordPress blogs and photo slideshows from Flickr are passed from one network to another I explained. My second slide showed connecting arrows running between all the icons of these social networks. “It is not about an individual social network anymore,” I said. “It’s about the social networking universe and we desperately need to tap this.” My final slide showed The Spokesman-Review Logo with an arrow pointed up towards this expanding web universe.

The problem I see in my newsroom, or any newsroom for that matter, is a lack of understanding of how the Web is rapidly evolving. If many of the readers who have bolted from newspaper are now creating their own multimedia content, how can we, with our focus still on text based thinking, ever hope to be apart of that visual conversation? That, I told my small audience, is why video storytelling is so important. Video speaks the universal language of the social networking universe. We talk a lot about being web-centric at my paper. But unless you are tapped into the social networking universe, I don’t believe you can really understand what being web-centric means.

I will be honest with you, until I started this blog, I barely understood the concept myself. I was shocked by how many people Mastering Multimedia has reached in such a short amount of time. But what really opened my eyes was how people are finding this blog. RSS feeds, tags, Goggle Reader, blog rolls, and links from other social networks. It’s about sharing. It’s about a conversation. It’s about Web 2.0.

I now understand. I have been a producer of web content for years on a creaky CMS that only partially takes advantage of the Web 2.0 tools available on any WordPress blog. I just didn’t see the big picture of why this is important for all of us in the newspaper industry to grasp. If I didn’t get it, then how will my non-blogging co-workers, who are already apprehensive about change, ever understand?

If you haven’t already, my advice is to get an education in Web 2.0. Start a blog. Feed it. Share it. Our very survival as an industry will be predicated on how well we interface with this expanding social networking universe.