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.

RIP Multimedia Shooter.com

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 Richard Koci Hernandez who created and maintained Multimediashooter.com has announced that someone has hacked his site. Richard writes:

I write this with a very heavy heart:

I am sorry to report that this website is down for the count. The site was recently hacked several times this weekend and severe damage was done. I do not have the time or resources at this time to

continue. I wish you all the best. I only wish this hadn’t happened.

[To the ‘hacker’ I hope it makes you happy to destroy something that people put their heart and soul into for years, for the sole purpose of learning and creating a small community

on the web. Just to have you destroy it for no reason. You win. There is a special place in hell for you.]

To those of you who supported the site over the years, THANK YOU! THANK YOU!

I don’t know what more to say, except, remember, it’s all about the STORY, not the TOOLS.

-r

Richard, my jaw dropped to the floor after reading the above. Multimedia Shooter has been a constant inspiration to me a countless other newspaper photojournalists turned videographers. I know it took way too much of your time busy schedule to produce. Yet you did, and you shared what you learned with everyone. So thank you. The entire multimedia community mourns Multimedia Shooter’s loss with you. I am hoping, in time, you will rebuild.

And to the hacker… A curse upon your house…  

  

Team Multimedia

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 One thing I’ve learned from my early forays into video journalism is that there are a lot of talented writers in my newsroom that can help make my videos more compelling than if I produced them alone.

Some of my first videos I shot included Spokesman-Review police reporter Thomas Clouse doing stand-ups from the scenes of breaking news events. Yes, they were rough. I hadn’t quite figured out that I didn’t need to be like TV and show the reporter on camera. Clouse would be the first to admit he didn’t have that certain blow-dry helmet hair look that is needed to be considered in same league as our TV reporter comrades. 

Voice-over work scared me early on. Like most people, I hated the sound of my recorded voice ( I got over that quickly). Writing a script was also unfamiliar to me, so I turned to people who could help me out. I was amazed at how open print reporters were to doing voice-over and script writing for a video or audio slideshow that I was working on. Only a few times did I have to twist an arm gently.

Everyone in the Spokesman-Review newsroom knows they need to eventually have multimedia skills. Most reporters are most open to the idea of doing multimedia, yet they seem lost as to what skills they should be acquiring.

When I look at the big picture, I see that multimedia production doesn’t have to be an island unto itself. We can use the traditional newsroom structure of: A reporter writes and photographer handles the visuals. Except now it is: The reporter writes scripts and does voiceovers, and photographer (or multimedia producer) shoots and edits the video. In the end, the production has more depth because it plays to the strengths of each person’s talent.

I watch a lot of newspaper-produced video from around the country. I’m surprised how few people use the writing talents of their newsrooms to add objective narration in their videos.

I have my favorite writer in the S-R newsroom. Kevin Graman is the most open to working with me as team. He can bang out a script in a short amount of time. Best of all, he has a killer low voice that resonates confidence and truthfulness. Over time, we have worked on a half dozen or so videos, many of which I consider my best work.

We go to a story together, like a traditional reporter/photographer would. He gathers information like normal for the story he’ll write for the newspaper. I do my thing, interviewing subjects, gathering b-roll. We talk a lot about defining the video story so that it does not go off on a tangent.

Back at the office, Graman takes the time in his normal story writing workflow to come and see how my video edit is shaping up. We have a conversation about the voice-overs I need and what they should say. Usually it is something to the effect of: “I need a 20 second opener that defines what this story is about. And, “I need a lead-in to this subject’s interview.” Or my favorite: “Get me out of this video. I need an ender that sums up the story.” About twenty to thirty minutes later, with a well-written script in hand, Graman is ready to record his voiceover. It usually takes about three or four takes for him to get his cadence right. When I drop the recorded voice-overs onto the timeline in Final Cut , my video just comes to life.

My advice is to find your own Kevin Graman in your newsroom. It will instantly raise the bar in your video storytelling. Just remember, newsroom reporters don’t need to be in front of your camera. We’ll save that spot for the pretty people of broadcast news. 

Good video should connect emotionally to your viewer

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 In order for video storytelling to be effective, I believe it has to connect with viewers on an emotional level. The hardest part about my job as multimedia editor is that I have to be the “no” man.  I get lots of requests from reporters  to shoot video to go with their stories. Many of these requests are turned away because they don’t meet a threshold for good visual storytelling.

I come from a still background and have lots of experience shooting picture stories. Because of that, I am able to quickly identify whether video would work as a story. Word people don’t always approach video the same way I do. They see the sum of all the facts they’ve gathered as being the story. What they fail to understand is without strong visual components, you can’t tell a video story very well. I tell them: “If there is nothing to show, it is not a video.”

As I think about some of videos that my visual co-workers and I have produced, the most successful of these have always been the ones that connected to viewers emotionally rather than on just the facts. Don’t get me wrong; fact videos do have their place. We do a lot of breaking news videos based mostly on what the police or fire public information officers say. Those videos serve their purpose—to disseminate information quickly.

When I cruise through the story budgets, I’m always searching for that elusive emotional gem. When we package a daily video with a print story, I look for ways to tell the story a little differently then what the reporter is doing. Instead of thinking broad, I think defined. That can mean focusing on just one or two subjects out six the reporter might have talked to.

I have a self imposed “No Epics” rule. That means when I am out shooting, I try not to go off on tangents. I force myself to define my story by distilling it down to its simplest form. At the Platypus Video Workshop, before we could start shooting our final projects, we were forced to state what our story was in one sentence. It is an exercise I use to this day.

With a short focused story, it’s important to have something that people will care about as they watch. Asking the right questions of subjects becomes incredibly important. One of our MoJo reporters was jesting the other day that TV news reporters always ask the “How do you feel question?” I now understand why. When people share their feelings, it can paint a stronger picture than with words alone.

One of the greatest benefits that newspapers online sites have over TV news is that we have the ability to go deep with the facts with our writing, then give viewers a different approach to the same story with video. When the stories, photos and video are combined in to one neat package, no other media can match us for depth of information. 

The Lemonade Kid is found!

In my  “What can we learn from TV news shooter’s” post, I asked if anybody had a link to The Lemonade Kid nat sound piece I’d seen years ago. Thankfully “Thom4” came through for me and found it, other classic videos shot by master video storyteller John Goheen.  The Lemonade Kid really peaked my interest in video storytelling early in my still photojournalism career.  I believe I saw it at a NPPA Flying Short Course way back in the early 90’s. It just blew me away. Watching the Nat sound package back then, I had no concept of how it was edited together. All I knew was that it just worked brilliantly as a story. I watched it again today for the first time since I gained some video editing knowledge. What I saw was a master class in video sequencing. This is not a hard news story, or some barnburner with action. It is just a slice-of-life story, with a precocious kid as the star attraction of a street corner lemonade stand. “Thom4” writes:

 “Thanks for the respect and a chance to provide you with the link to one of my favorite TV nat sound packages “The Lemonade Kid.” It was shot by photographer John C.P. Goheen and you can watch it by going to Terranova Pictures under the television projects tab. I heard John speak and show his work at a seminar more than 12 years ago in Atlanta. I had never seen this type non-narrated story before. John does some of the most amazing television photography I’ve ever seen. I would jump at a chance to spend more time learning from him. I steal all my best ideas. By the way, I’m a TV news photographer working in Orlando, FL. I’ve been shooting video for 13 years now.”  

 Play it through once and just enjoy it. Then play it again and watch the edits carefully. Look at how they flow. Watch how effectively Goheen uses his detail shots and the sequencing of wide, medium and tight shots. The other thing that works in the piece the way the narrative is gathered. A wireless mic was all that was needed to capture the sound of the kid and the customers. This allowed Goheen to pull back and get nice long shots without missing a beat in the audio. After checking out The Lemonade Kid, click on Keith’s Lunchyet another Goheen classic. I wish the compressions on both were better, but I am just grateful as hell to see these stories again. Truly inspirational.