Video at newspapers needs to improve

I was disappointed after this year’s NPPA Best of Photojournalism Multimedia Contest results were posted . In the News Video category, I won an honorable mention. Great! That’s until I realized  my video was the only award given in the category. What gives? This is the second year in a row I’ve placed in this News Video category. Last year I received a second place, but no third was given.  This troubles  me. Not because I didn’t place higher, but because the judges didn’t see a video that reached a high enough level of excellence to place.

During an online chat on the Poynter Institute’s website, I asked the judges:

“Why didn’t you award first through third in news video?”

The Response:

1:27 theresa: @Colin – this was a real struggle for us. Many were full of technical errors and ignored the basic principles of photojournalism. We saw lots of evidence of urgency, however we really couldn’t award anything that had technical or fundamental errors.

I stewed about this for a time. Then after helping judge the NPPA’s Monthly Multimedia Contest last week, I began to understand the BOP judge’s dilemma.

Bottom line: Video at newspapers needs to improve. Dramatically.

The problems I continually see:

Storytelling

Many still photographers have not transitioned their storytelling skills effectively to video. Editing a video story is different from editing still photos for a newspaper picture story. With video, you have to master the fundamentals of sequencing and audio before you can tell an effective story in video. Too many still photojournalists have dipped their toes in the video world with limited training and it shows.

Bland Videos

Many newspaper-produced video stories are boring. The best stories have surprises sprinkled throughout the timeline, which helps keep the viewer engaged. This is mature storytelling that most newspaper video producers have failed to master.

Structure

A great video story is one that pulls you in from the opening sequence and never let’s go of your attention until it fades out at the end. Weak video jars you out of the moment, whether it’s from a technical issue like distorted audio, or from a narrative that fails to captivate the viewer. So many things can go wrong with a video story. Understanding these pitfalls is the first step to avoiding them.

Editing

You can have great raw video, but fail miserably in the edit. Pacing, narration, use of transitions, sequencing, layering and mixing audio all have to come together like an orchestra to make a  video story work. Fail at any one of these and your house of cards comes a tumblin’ down.

Journalism

Lots of newspaper-produced video is weak in basic journalism. Many videos I’ve watched only have one person as the subject. How many print news stories would get past an editor with only one source?

Narration

For the longest time I told myself that I didn’t want my videos to be like TV. I worked hard at telling a story by using only the subjects as my narrative spine. What you risk, doing it this way, is a story that rambles along and is not defined until long after the viewer has hit the back button. Get past the idea that narration is a bad thing. Good scripting moves a story along and serves as an objective voice for facts.

Collaboration

So you say you hate the sound of your voice and you don’t feel comfortable writing a script. Then get out into your newsroom and find a writer with a great voice and collaborate. I like to voice my own videos, but I also know my limitations. Some of my best work has been when I’ve worked with a reporter on a video story. I shoot and edit the story; he or she scripts and does the voiceover. We play to each other strengths. The final product, in the end, is better than if I tried to do it all myself.

Solutions?

When I started this blog, I wrote a post called “What we can learn from TV news shooters.” The crux of that post : TV news shooters have done video storytelling decades longer than us newbie’s in the newspaper biz, and we can learn a lot from their successes. If you are lucky enough to go to a TV video workshop, you’ll get the fundamentals drilled into your head–Shoot wide, medium tight, super tight. Shoot action, then reaction. Get that camera on sticks! Use a wireless mic. Gather natural sound. What’s your opener? Closer? And, for Christ sake, white balance your video!

These are the just the basics of video news production. Yet many newspaper video producers are still unaware of these fundamentals.

If you can, my advise is enroll in a video production workshop like the Platypus, or the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Workshop that is coming in May. Until you know what you are doing wrong you can’t improve your video storytelling.

Colleague Dan Pelle’s videos connect emotionally to viewer

In 2005 I attended the Platypus Workshop, a nine-day intensive video boot camp in Ventura, California. The not so subtle battle cry of this workshop was to “tear down the still shooter and build you back up as a videographer.” That did not quite happen to me as I continue to covet my still camera.  I did gain some career altering video storytelling skills though. When the 2007 Platypus approached, I was asked by my newspaper’s editor who I would suggest in the newsroom to send?  Photojournalist Dan Pelle was my quick reply. I already had given it some thought. Pelle’s qualifications were perfect. He’s a strong still photographer with a great eye for composition and moment. Though Pelle is not a gear geek like me, I knew he’d take care of a video camera if given one.

A couple months before Platypus, Pelle got a shiny new Sony HVR V1U, a Sennheiser wireless mic, and a decent fluid head tripod. As he shot his first few stories, I tried to teach him the fundamentals of video. A perfectionist, Pelle agonized over every missed shot and technical glitch.  I just smiled knowing that all that fussing over edits and shots would eventually make him a better video storyteller and editor.

When Pelle arrived back from Platypus, he was tired, and a little bit shelled-shocked. They jammed so much information into his brain he did not know where to start. Slowly he began to find stories that fit his groove. His first, and one of the most popular videos of all time on Video Journal, was a story on a paraplegic dog.

Pelle has a great sense of story in that he is able to connect to the viewer on an emotional level. I helped him with the edit, but the story is all his. As time passed, the editing training wheels came off and Pelle was able to fly solo in Final Cut Pro. I now look forward to each story he does. Every one of his videos is an intimate portrayal of a subject. He took to heart Platypus instructor’s Dirck Halstead’s mantra that a video story “is not about an event, it is about a person.” My only wish is that Pelle could do video storytelling full-time. But alas, the newspaper photo grind keeps him busy. His recent story about a group of neighborhood kids that help a woman struggling with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is one of his best. It makes me miss shooting full-time. My video I just posted pales in comparison. Way to go Dan!

Can’t we all just get along?

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I’ve been looking at a lot of newspaper-produced video this month. Judging multimedia contests has been taking up of lot of my spare time lately. On my last post, “A creativity crisis,” I waxed philosophical about how everything I was shooting was starting to look the same. I also looked at what our brothers and sisters in TV news were doing and I came to the same conclusion—we’re all in a storytelling rut. Lenslinger fired back, in his usual pithy well-versed prose, with a  Feb. 28th blog post called “Yawning at the Renaissance”:

With newspapers rotting unread in our nation’s driveways, legions of print people are taking up the videocamera. But it looks like a few of them are gonna drop the damn things, if they don’t stop wringing their hands over how NOT to be like TV. Oh, I get it. Newspaper folk have long held my kind in the lowest regard. Our winking hyperbole and flashing graphics and pretty figureheads offend their sensibilities. So they openly dismiss us as clowns with spray paint and wave off even our finest efforts as graffiti that‘s beneath them. Now, however – their tune has changed slightly. No longer able to merely marginalize my craft, they’re tricking out their brightest with slimmed-down gear while boasting how their new-age toys and old school intellect will soon render the old TV News breed obsolete. So, how’s that going for ya?

Well, not too bad actually. But there is a lot of room for improvement. Lenslinger is right in that newspaper journalists have ragged on TV shooters for what seems like eons. And having big egos in this mix doesn’t help matters as both sides continue to rub salt in all those old wounds.

So let’s stop. It’s a new day and I think we should all drop the snarky talk and look for ways we can help each other out. Yes, we all know that TV news has lost its sparkle. And yes we know that many at newspapers think they invented this new fangled thing called video storytelling. So let’s move on folks. There’s nothing new to see here.

I have always looked for ways to extend the olive branch to TV journalists. Why? Because in many ways, as an online video producer, my work mirrors what TV news shooters are doing (minus the stand-ups and live shots.) We’re both storytellers and we’re all are looking for ways to be better at our craft. Wouldn’t it be great for newspaper videojournalists to reach the technical proficiency of a master TV new photog? And wouldn’t it rock if TV news shooters could ditch the standup and go back to telling community stories that weren’t weather or car accident related? Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but over time, I think we will have more in common then we see now. 

Lenslinger’s post was dead on. The only miss might have been firing a salvo at the pundits for espousing the fundamentals of shooting video:

Their various sites tout video fundamentals as new truths they’ve just wrestled from the primordial news. Jump cuts, white-balancing, sequences – I never knew how misinformed I was until some dude in a sweater vest wrote six hundred words on a concept my ’tween daughter figured out ten minutes after powering up a Sony of her owny.

I guess I fit the pundit pointy-head profile. I wonder if he was referring to my 600-word tome on sequencing video?No matter. I make no apologies for trying to spread the religion of video fundamentals to a new generation of video journalist.

The one thing I see, is that most of the videos being produced for newspaper websites, including mine, need a lot more work in the fundamentals and less on the flash of presentation. If the story content and delivery is not compelling, then no amount of lipstick is gonna make a poorly produced video look alluring to a fickle audience.

So, as Lenslinger yawns at this renaissance of newbie video shooters emerging up from the muck of ink, I ask for him to be patient. Even you Lenslinger, at one time, needed to be told to keep your camera on sticks. Err, maybe not.