The Digital Journalist dedicates issue to video journalism

This month’s issue of The Digital Journalist is dedicated to newspaper video journalism. Publisher Dirck Halstead called me a month ago and asked me to write a story about how I transitioned from being a still photographer to becoming a multimedia producer at my newspaper. Writing about my journey, I’ve found, has been mildly therapeutic.  My last five years as a visual journalist have been an intense and challenging. Through it all, I remain confident that video storytelling at newspapers will survive and flourish.

hallway

This issue was guest edited by Ken Kobre and Jerry Lazar, who did  fantastic job of touching on all the video journalism bases. Stories include:  “How to Build an Emmy-Winning Videojournalism Department” by Kathy Kieliszewski of the Detroit Free Press, to a look at how Erik Olsen, a former ABC TV cameraman, transitioned to being a one-man band video journalist for The New York Times. Also check out “Ken Kobre’s 10 Tips for Dramatically Improving Your Videojournalism Stories.” Halstead also wanted me to upload about 30 of my favorite still photos I’ve taken over my career. You can check out that gallery here. This is one Digital Journalist issue you won’t want to miss.

Are newspapers losing their multimedia mojo?

Around the multimedia blogosphere, the January doldrums seem to have kicked in. My usual inspirational haunts like Newsvideographer.com, Teaching Online Journalism, Multimediashooter.com have all slowed their publishing cycles. Even my own blog is in need of a New Year’s kick-start. With all the newspaper layoffs last year, over 8,000 from one count, I’m sensing a definite decrease in the multimedia mojo I felt just a year ago. Even the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest I run had the lowest amount of entries ever this month.

I’m not saying there’s not good work being produced. There is. I just feel the recession and layoffs have forced the pace of newsroom innovation to slow to a crawl. I fear the brain drain at many newspapers, including my own, has left them frozen in place. Many papers simply do not have the staff or resources left to be competitive on two, let alone, three platforms anymore.

In the last round of layoffs at my newspaper, we lost many of the multimedia journalists who embraced the idea that the web would eventually become our main publishing platform. Talk of innovation has pretty much ceased at the grass roots level. Now, most in editorial are waiting for direction from higher powers to see what comes next.

As I sit in my supply closet video editing suite, surrounded by shelves of unused gear from laid off former co-workers, I wonder if the last five years of training myself to break the chains of legacy storytelling was all for naught. If tomorrow, I stopped shooting video, stopped being a cheerleader for multimedia, stopped asking for new features on our website, would anybody at my paper care? Would it be more of a relief to some that I was not challenging them to try new ways of storytelling? Perhaps. I’m sure some acquaint our former push to be web-centric as a cancer that has gone into remission. Me? I am constantly fighting the forces of negativity from an industry that seems to be in an endless tailspin of turmoil. I don’t brandish terms like “the printed newspaper is dead,” anymore. That just gets me eye rolls.  Most in our newsroom have retreated to focusing on our traditional print product that thankfully, for now, still pays our salaries.

I went from being part of one of the most innovative, forward thinking newsrooms in the country, to now taking a back seat in my out-of-sight supply closet. I feel frustration that mine and most other newspapers are not doing more to prepare for their digital futures. When I started this blog a year ago, I was so full of hope. Now that hope too, has been forced into unwelcome remission. Not totally gone mind you. I’m just going to wait this downturn out. You see, if I can survive the next future round of layoffs, I believe the need for innovative people and ideas will flow once again.  If not, I’m sure what ever rises from the ashes will need a visual journalist who can do it all.

A young girl’s death brings a community together

Candlelight vigil

There was something about the short news brief on our website that caught my eye.  A teenage girl had died in a two-vehicle accident on a state highway the previous day. Friends were organizing a last minute candlelight vigil in the girl’s honor. Lorissa Green, a 16-years-old Cheney, Washington resident died when the car she was driving collided with a pickup truck as she crossed a busy highway.

Usually, candlelight vigils do not interest me much. But that little voice in my head was going off: “You need to be there Colin, you need to be there.”  It was my day off, and weekends are not good for web traffic at my newspaper I countered. Still, I fidgeted about going out in the cold night air. My 13-year-old daughter Brenna finally told me to, “just go Dad”. “You need to be there with your camera,” she said. Maybe having two teenage daughters of my own was the reason I was drawn to this tragedy. They will be driving soon, which ages me to think about it.  The thought of them making a fleeting mistake–like not watching for oncoming traffic–is bone chilling.

I thought a lot on my drive to the vigil how I was going to cover this. I first thought about themes.

  • Loss
  • Community coming together
  • Shock and grief

About 100 fellow students, parents, friends and family of Lorissa Green gathered in a parking lot near where the accident occurred. I started out getting b-roll of candles being handed out.  There was emotion everywhere.  Visual moments came easy. People seemed ok with me shooting them as tears flowed and candles flickered in cold hands. The sister of the Lorissa gave a tearful thank you to the crowd gathered. I put my video  camera on a tripod and did some interviews with friends of Lorissa. 

Then something happened that made this vigil different than the dozen or so I’ve covered as a still shooter. Small groups walked the down the dark road to the intersection where Lorissa’s accident occurred. A Washington State Patrol Trooper escorted them across the highway to the median where they placed flowers and lit candles in the snow bank. It was emotional, haunting and just plain sad. These flickering lights in the median must have startled drivers as they passed the dark intersection.

As I returned to the vigil, Lorissa’s mother arrived. She lit a candle. I asked her for an interview, but her daughter said she’d rather I speak to her. I got my ender sound bite from her talking about how incredible it was to have all these people come and honor her sister.

Community.

That’s what this story was really about I decided.  On the drive home I started to write some narrative in my head. I didn’t have much of a hard news story. That had already been reported anyway. I find video storytelling is so different than the type of print stories we do at newspapers. The “just the facts” journalism that feeds the daily beast rings hollow to me sometimes. Video, many times, lacks the hard facts, but plays instead to the emotion and humanity of a person or event. In this case Lorissa Green, age sixteen, died the day before in a tragic car crash.  She is gone. But it’s the friends and family she left behind that matter now. Connecting to their grief, their loss was, I think, why I came to this vigil on my day off. I wasn’t being paid to tell their story. I guess I just wanted to honor the memory of a young girl whose time on this earth ending tragically in an intersection median now covered with melted remnants of candles and fading flowers.

 

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.

Answers to my ten questions about quality vs.quantity

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about quality video vs. quantity. In it, I asked ten questions you should ask before your newspaper dives deeply into video storytelling. Both Rob Curley of The Las Vegas Sun/Greenspun Interactive and Angela Grant with Newsvideographer.com shared their answers.

From Curley’s post:

In regard to the “quality versus quantity” video debate (which is the whole point of his post), I think we’ve thrown our support clearly in the “quality” category … but probably in a different way than the writer of the blog above probably means – but I’m totally making assumptions there.

From Grant’s post:

I think his answers give me a working definition of the type of leadership that I’ve been craving in my own position. He has a vision and plans for higher-level strategies that I believe are necessary to enjoy a successful video endeavor.

Those strategies include:

* Deploying human resources to cover the news people want and need
* Distributing the videos on multiple platforms to reach the largest possible audience
* Advertising within / around the videos to monetize them
* Marketing the videos so people know that they are there

Check out their answers here:

Anglea Grant: “Great questions, and I’m answering them”
Rob Curley: “Newspaper-produced video: quality vs. quantity?”

Thanks Rob and Angela for helping me answer my own questions!

Video: Quality vs. Quantity Debate Rages On

Over at Newsphotographer.com, Angela Grant has an excellent post about the “Value of enough time to shoot and edit.” She used one of my breaking news videos as an example of the quality vs. quantity debate. The good enough approach valued by online gurus like Howard Owens basically puts production time on a fast track for news video. Quality of storytelling, visuals, editing and camera gear, well, let’s just say it’s not high on Owens’s priority list.  In a way, this debate is beginning to sound a lot like the Canon vs. Nikon, or Mac vs. PC smack downs happening on Internet forums daily. Hey, I admit to jumping into these conversations with the best of them.

Still, this endless debate about quality vs. quantity makes me feel a bit punchy. Owens has spent the past several years pushing his rigid point of view that web video for newspapers doesn’t need to have high production or storytelling values. His mantra: Get video, and lots of it, up on your website is the shortest amount of time possible.  That has us folks who have photojournalist DNA running through our veins feelin’ a tad bit uncomfortable. Coming from said gene pool, I’ll defer to the fact that most photojournalists are a bit high on the quality horse. I don’t know many shooters who’d want to pick up their daily rag and see a bad photo they’ve taken staring back at them. The same can be said for video on their newspaper’s websites.

So, for now, we hurl points of view back and forth through blog posts and comment fields. For the most part, it’s really just wasted bandwidth. Nobody’s ever going to change Howard Owens’s mind. He has too much time invested in the theory to show that type of flexibility. Same can be said for the quality-first crowd that values their art more than news value. I think we should all just take a deep breath for a moment and ask yourselves a few questions:

  • What is the overall vision for video in your newsroom?
  • Why are you doing video in the first place?
  • Is quality video valuable to your viewers?
  • Has video gained traction on your website over time? If not, why?
  • Has your paper invested in training that empowers your video producers to be able to tell and edit a story effectively?
  • Do you have (need) a web-savvy management structure in place to filter out bad video ideas and is an advocate for video based storytelling?
  • If you are producing lots of video, do you have a website that showcases this valued web-only content?
  • Can viewers find your videos quickly if they land on a story page and not on the home page?
  • Can lower levels of video quality be acceptable if they meet a high news value bar?
  • Should small papers with dwindling resources really be adding poorly produced video to their already bleak shovelware websites?

If you can’t find a decent answer or solution to each of these questions, then maybe you shouldn’t be messing with video at this time. The newspaper industry has really changed in the last 24 months. Gone is the sense that everything is going to be OK in time. As newspapers finally begin to follow their readers to the web, I believe video is going to play an increasing role in how we keep them in our growing multi-platform family. TV news websites are beginning to kick sand in our faces. Live streaming video from breaking news scenes is the new rage. If we don’t respond soon, it might be too late to take ‘em on in earnest. So this discussion about quality vs. quantity is pretty small in the big picture scheme of things. What really matters now is that we embrace wholeheartedly in the idea that web video is a good thing for our websites and viewers. It is important to understand for video storytelling to gain viewership, it will need lots nourishment and encouragement in its infancy.

Canon HF-10 performs stellar during training

Last week’s two-day video storytelling workshop for six journalists from The Spokesman-Review newsroom went well.  On day one I pounded into them the fundamentals of shooting, sequencing and storytelling.  I then turned them lose to shoot the rest of the afternoon. This was a highly motivated group. All in the class wanted to learn how to shoot and edit video. There was no arm-twisting by their editors.

On day two, I demonstrated Final Cut Express and how to capture video from camera to computer.  Out of six journalists, three received the new flash drive based Canon HF-10 video camera. Two others had standard def. Sony SR-200 hard drive cameras and one photographer inherited my prized Sony HVR-Z1U.

Come capture time, I was a little nervous. Other than some quick tests, I hadn’t really given the Canon HF-10’s a real field test. The moment of truth came when the three cameras were connected to the laptops through Final Cut’s new Log and Transfer feature.  Two of the three camera’s video clips showed up in the clip pane immediately. The third camera crashed Final Cut. A quick look at the computer found the reporter had a half-dozen other programs open at the same time. After a restart, all was well.

The workflow with the HF-10 is really simple. Just after Log and Transfer is opened, all the video clips on the camera’s flash drive show up quickly in a window. In order for Final Cut Express to be able to read and edit these files, it needs to transcode them from AVCHD into something it can read and edit. In this case, it is Apple’s Intermediate codec (Final Cut Pro 6 uses the better ProRes 422 codec.)

The transferred files are large, but with today’s massive hard drives and fast processors, it really isn’t a problem. With my old Log and Capture workflow, I would bring in all my video as one large clip, then break it up once it was in Final Cut. Instead, Log and Transfer allows you to scrub each video clip quickly, setting  in and out points of only what you need. After giving the clip a descriptive label, you drag it to the transfer window.  While that clip is converting, you start on the next. By the time you are ready to start editing, you will have reviewed everything you had shot and the clips will waiting for you already be labeled in the browser.

I think this is a much faster workflow then spending countless minutes scrubbing through unlabeled clips. Editing is faster because you don’t have a bunch of crap video to wade through. The three reporters who shot with the Canon HF-10s were all pleased with the camera and workflow. The HD video is stunning compared with standard def. and the camera handled low light amazingly well.

Part of their final assignment was to shoot an interview using their new Sennheiser G-2 wireless mic. All came back with stellar audio. Editing time was about four hours for about a minute and half of edited video. Not bad for the first time editing in Final Cut. Music reporter Som Jordan shot and edited this piece, which is now posted on The Spokesman-Review’s website. Business reporter, Parker Howell shot this video that was a companion to a story he wrote. Howell already had some experience with Final Cut so he cranked out this video quickly.

At the end of the day I gave a final critique of the finished projects. I was pleased by what I saw. Many used techniques that took me a year to finally grasp. I kept my feedback positive. One of the last projects I critiqued was by photojournalist Rajah Bose on Mutton Bustin’ at the county fair. You could tell a photographer shot this video. The visuals stood out from the rest of the stories.  I was really impressed, considering this was only the second video Bose had ever edited in Final Cut.

My plan is get together every so often and hold critique sessions of videos these new VJ’s produce. I will also do more advanced training in Final Cut during some brown bag sessions. They all will have a hill to climb. There is so much I was not able to teach in such a short amount of time–but will get there together.

On the other end of video experience spectrum in our newsroom, my co-worker Dan Pelle today shot edited this incredible visual story on ultralight trike aircraft. It has excellent sequencing and each clip is framed like it was shot with a still camera. This is definitely not the Spokesman-Review newsroom of a just few years ago.

Lesson learned: Buy the lens filter

Ya know how the sales person always tries to sell you a lens filter for your shiny new camera?  It usually involves some pitch about how one day you’ll be glad you paid the $20 bucks to protect that front element from all sorts of freak occurrences yet unnamed. Buying all my newspaper’s video equipment online, I guess I kind of missed that lecture.  So yes, I now regret not having a filter to protect my Sony Z1U lens.

At first, I thought the out of focus spots I was getting on my last few videos were from something on the lens. Under further examination with a magnifying glass, I found small pits in the front element. I’m not one to abuse my equipment. On the contrary, I’m obsessive when it comes to protecting it. How the hell did I get a dozen mini chunks taken out of my lens? After little detective work, I just had to groan when I figured it out. I’m pretty sure it happened during this video of an artist grinding on a metal sculpture of a gorilla. The shower of sparks captivated me. The low angle shot is when little bits of molten metal struck my lens. Damn.  I packed it up and sent it to Sony service this week. I feel naked with out it…

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!

Get thee to Convergence ’08

Next week, I am heading to Louisville, Kentucky to be a coach at the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Program. This is the second year that I have participated in the four-day video boot camp. A lot has changed in the newspaper industry in the past year, and I am stoked to be able to hang with the best and brightest in the multimedia world. The Immersion Program is full, but the weekend companion program called Convergence ‘08 is still open for registrants.

Seth Gitner, who is directing the video workshop, asked me to let everyone know that this year’s Convergence ‘08 program is the bomb and if you’re a bit interested in the converging mediums of newspapers and TV news, then you best not miss it. They have a killer lineup of speakers and workshops planned May 30 and 31. This is not your daddy’s Flying Short Course, but a first class ticket to all the convergence you can handle in a weekend. If you come, track me down and say hi…