I do have the coolest job ever!

A slap upside the head always comes when you least expect it.

“You have the coolest job ever,” said a hockey fan standing behind me admiring one of my photos at the Spokane Arena last night.  I was on deadline preparing to transmit my pictures of a blowout Spokane Chiefs hockey game back to the paper when those six words stopped me cold.

“You have the coolest job ever.”

Up until that utterance, I’d beg to differ.  It had been a long 14-hour day and I was tired. I started in the morning shooting a freelance job. I take extra work now whenever I can.  It helps make up for the furlough days and pay cuts I have endured over the past year.

The economic trauma and turmoil facing my and every other newspaper in the country weighs heavily on my shoulders at times. When someone asks me why I entered the newspaper biz, I tell them it’s because I have a passion for telling stories.  Like any good photojournalist, I see the world a bit differently from most people. There is a creative energy that burns inside me.  When I put a camera up to my eye, life becomes my palette.  I felt it when I bought my first professional camera in high school and I still feel it today…well most days.

“You have the coolest job ever.”

As I sat there hunched over my laptop, awareness washed over me. Here I was at a hockey game that I didn’t have to pay to get in, surrounded by the best cameras, lenses and laptop that I didn’t have to buy. The only thing missing was a cold beer by my side.

Looking back over the past seven days at some of what I have produced for the readers of my newspaper and viewers of our website, I realize that I can’t let the uncertainty of the future kill my creativity. Today, I put a sticky note on my computer monitor that simply says, “Try Harder.” It is my little reminder  that  (slap upside the head)  I do have the coolest job ever!

These are some of the highlights of my past week– a mix of multimedia and stills.

Several dozen great blue herons were perched on pilings in the Pend Oreille River at Usk, Washington Tuesday, March 2, 2010. Area birding enthusiasts said this is the time of year large groups of the giant birds can be seen migrating and resting in certain areas, such as the Pack River Delta along Lake Pend Oreille. Soon they will disperse in smaller groups to nesting rookeries in cottonwoods or other woodlands near water.COLIN MULVANY colinm@spokesman.com

Tim Michaels, who lost part of his leg in a grain elevator accident holds a wooden foot carving a relative brought him during his stay at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash.

Videos: Click image to view.

The king of Cat Tales Zoological Training Center gets a root canal.

In the Kalispel Tribal Language Program, new Salish speakers immerse themselves in daily conversation with elders and then teach what they have learned in nearby public schools.

Layoffs hit The Spokesman-Review hard

It has been a trying week at my newspaper The Spokesman-Review. It didn’t start out that way. Last weekend, co-worker, Multimedia Producer Brian Immel and I drove down to Portland, Oregon to give a couple of presentations on multimedia storytelling and editing at the NPPA’s Flying Short Course. On the six-hour drive home, conversation turned to innovative ideas about how we could improve our new website that was just about to launch. As the sun set in my rearview mirror, Brian said to me, “Attending a conference like the Flying Short Course makes me appreciate our situation at The Spokesman Review even more.” That workshop glow didn’t last long. By Monday there were rumors and rumors of rumors regarding layoffs.

Like every newspaper in the country, the economic fundamentals are in freefall. On Wednesday, my editor Steve Smith gathered the entire newsroom together and read off the names of twenty-one of my co-workers, which including Brian Immel, to be laid off. Audible gasps could be heard with each name called. Then Smith promptly resigned. He said he simply had had enough.

Four to six managers are also going to get the axe in the next two weeks. Until someone tells me for sure, I could be one. By my best guesstamate, we will have lost roughly 35 percent of our total newsroom staff in the last twelve months. This is the forth round of layoffs in seven years. I have to wonder if it will ever stop. I am beginning to feel like that frog in the slowly heating pot. Will I get out before boiling myself to death?

I am trying to understand the economic reasons for continued layoffs within our industry. Blame happens. That is a constant. We are one of the only industries I know that believes it can get away with giving the customers less while at the same time charging them more for a diminished product. That model, my friends, is so broken.

Most newspapers are clamoring to change their newsrooms from a print centric model to a web centric workflow. In the past year, with support of a sizable capital budget, I trained and outfitted a dozen newsroom personal with video cameras, computers and audio recorders. All learned to edit video in Final Cut. A newsroom reorganization plan was just put in place. A brand new multimedia centric website was ready to launch this week. Then the layoffs hit. A sizable portion of those new reporter/video uber journalists ended up on the layoff list. Most were twenty-somethings who had little seniority.

Now faced with this new newsroom reality, I personally plan to refocus my creative energy on what I do best. Telling compelling stories for our readers and viewers of our website and newspaper. If needed, I will train the next wave of video journalists—god knows there will be lots of spare computers and video cameras available. Still, I just have to think of the lost opportunity of what could have been. I grieve the lost of these young co-workers who were not given the chance to make a full impact with their video storytelling skills or innovative ideas. Even sadder, many say they will never return to newspapers. The bitter pill of their short newspaper experience has left such a bad taste that most have rinsed and are mentally ready to move on.

Nothin’ but blue skies from now on…

I just got done reading the Newspaper Association of America’s report on newspaper video. What struck me most is how many newspapers are making video storytelling a priority on their websites. Four years ago, when I started shooting video for my newspaper’s website, I felt like actor Will Smith in the movie “I am Legend”—alone in the world, with no one to talk to. There were few resources for newspaper video journalists like me to turn to in those early days. I spent a good parcel of my time with my nose in Final Cut Pro manuals. I look back on those days with fondness. It was just me and my video camera looking for interesting stories to shoot.

I had been getting away with that gig for about three years when suddenly everything changed. A queasy feeling hit me the day Gary Graham, my managing editor showed up in the doorway of my photo department video editing cave. He asked if I could come to his office for a chat. My first thought was, “oh god, what did I do?” As I headed to my fate, I kind of knew what I was going to be asked to do. Long story short, I moved out of the photo department and became my newspapers first multimedia editor. 

Last year, multimedia was really starting to expand in the Spokesman’s newsroom. Former multimedia producer, Joe Barrentine had been training newsroom reporters to shoot video with point and shoot cameras. There became a urgent need to manage this sudden surge of multimedia. Word editors had begun assigning video without really understanding what made a good video story. To them, press conferences and talking head interviews were fair game. Also, a lack of understanding of how much time a video takes to produce, created tension with the visual staff.

It was all a bit daunting for the first few months I was a manager. I had never managed anyone, let alone wanted to manage anyone. I was assigned a desk on what is called the Death Star– a pentagon of desks filled with assignment editors and online producers.

What struck me first about my new desk was how bright it was where I sat. Two large florescent grids of light reflected off my desk, through my eyeballs and directly into the dark corners of my brain. You have to understand; I came from four years in a darkened editing cave. I felt like I had entered cubical hell—and then the layoffs hit.

Like most newspapers across the U.S., downsizing came to the Spokesman last October. I had two online producers move on to other jobs, and a third was laid off. For about two months I had no one to manage. The newsroom was an emotional wreck and I, for a just a moment, wanted to ask if I could PLEASE HAVE MY OLD JOB BACK!

Twenty-Six people took buyouts or were laid off. When things calmed down, I was quietly told to be patient. As senior management started to reconfigure the newsroom, the online department came back to life in a big way. Andrew Zahler, a former copy editor, moved into one of the online producer positions. Laid off online producer Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen, was called back to work. I got to make my first hire for a multimedia producer. I only had to look south of Spokane about ninety miles to find Brian Immel, a wiz-kid who just happened to graduate from Washington State University the week we offered him the job.

Because our newsroom shrank, in personnel,  an office with a two windows opened up. Immel and I moved in before anyone else could lay claim to it. Since January 1st of this year, things have pretty much settled down. Our newsroom is becoming more focused on what is important. There is not a lot of room for fluff and filler, so every story and photo has to be good. The same goes for multimedia. I slowly moved away from the idea that every reporter in the newsroom needed to learn how to shoot video. The early results of reporter driven video were not very pretty. Instead, I started to move to a model of finding people that really wanted to learn to shoot video, then give them the proper tools and training to be successful. We have a ways to go, but I am beginning to see the video seeds begin to germinate around the newsroom.

The next big push is figuring out how to spend a sizeable amount of capital money to equip mobile journalists and online producers with the best tools to do their jobs. Hi-def tapeless cameras, that allow faster edit times are first on my list to deploy. Training is next with a continuing strengthening of core video shooting and editing skills. The one great thing I’ve noticed lately is that photojournalist Dan Pelle is starting to train some of his fellow photographers how to shoot and edit video. Pelle, like me, is a graduate of the Platypus Video Workshop. He’s a hell of a video storyteller and a great teacher. I find when you allow people to share what they know it is a morale booster for everyone.

The next half of this year is going to be great. I have learned to stop looking back over my shoulder at the way things used to be. Instead it is nothing but blue skies and a video camera in front of me now.

 

Finding the Frame

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Here’s another easy way to add multimedia to your newspaper website. 

Shortly after the program Soundslides came out in August of 2005, I looked for an interesting way to use this Flash-based audio slideshow tool to tell different kinds of stories. One day in the photo department, as I passed the intern’s desk, I spotted a cool print of a guy reading a fashion magazine in a coffee shop. The way the top of the subject’s head matched up with the head on the magazine cover was eye-catching.  I asked photographer Kathryn Stevens how she got the shot. She launched into this passionate narrative about seeing this great moment lining up in front of her. How she rushed up to the subject and fired off a few frames on her digital camera just before the fleeting moment passed.

That’s when the light bulb went on above my head. I asked Kathryn to come into editing cave where I sat her down and recorded her telling me the story behind her photo. I edited the audio into a thirty-second clip. I then uploaded it and the photo into Soundslides and voilà – a great little piece of multimedia that took less than one hour to produce.

I called this audio slideshow feature Finding the Frame. It got an instant response from viewers who wanted more. Since then, when I see a great photo produced by the Spokesman-Review photo staff, I whip up a Finding the Frame. They have gotten a little more advanced over time as I’ve added other photos and a .pdf of the newspaper page that the photo ran on.

My other ulterior motive for doing these was that I wanted to educate readers and viewers about the creative process that a photojournalist goes through when making an exceptional image. Too many of our readers, in this age of Photoshop, think photographers alter the pictures that appear in the paper. This is my way of helping change that perspective. Finding the frames also go a long way in helping non-visual people understand that newspaper photojournalists are not button pushers as some have called them, but skilled journalists and storytellers who have a unique view of the world around them. 

Here are some of my favorite Finding the Frames:

Looff Carrousel, Chasing a Comet, Airmen Return, Tired Fireman, Demolition