Feedback website “Finding the Frame” launches

Finding the Frame, a website dedicated to giving feedback to newspaper multimedia producers and video journalists has launched.

My post in Mastering Multimedia last month,  “Video at newspapers needs to improve,” resonated with many people. I received lots emails from producers who vented their frustration at not being able to get feedback on their multimedia stories.

After a brainstorming session over a few beers, Brian Immel, a former multimedia producer and programmer at The Spokesman-Review, graciously agreed to build a website for the sole purpose of connecting those who need feedback on their multimedia, to professionals willing to share some time and knowledge.

Here’s how it works

The plan is to have onboard as many “expert” volunteers as possible that have solid foundations in video storytelling, audio slide shows or Flash projects. This pool of reviewers will peruse the submitted links of multimedia in the “Story Pool”. If they decide to comment on a story, it will then become public on the Finding the Frame home page where anyone else is free to give added feedback.

So why do this?

While most publications have driven head first into the online world, multimedia storytelling is still in its infancy at many newspapers. Unfortunately, not all people tasked with producing multimedia received adequate training or had the financial ability to attend a multimedia storytelling workshop. Many multimedia producers are self-taught, having picked up bit and pieces of knowledge along the way.

When I judge a multimedia contest, I often get frustrated at seeing the same problems in the execution of basic video and audio production fundamentals. Many photojournalists are struggling with how to tell an effective video or audio slideshow story that is different from the traditional still picture story.

Our hope is that Finding the Frame will begin to address the need for feedback and in turn, help multimedia producers improve their storytelling. Just read some of the comments by reviewers so far–you’ll be impressed. The professionals that have signed on as reviewers are the some of the top in the industry. If they critique your story, please thank them for giving up some of their precious time to help out a fellow visual journalist.

What we need

What we need is for enough producers, multimedia editors and photojournalists who have a solid experience with multimedia storytelling to step forward and share some of their knowledge with those that are looking for constructive, honest feedback.

So if you feel you have something to offer, we would really like you to join the pool of reviewers on Finding the Frame.

So go check it out and give Brian and me some feedback. Create an account. Upload a link to a video, audio slide show or Flash project. Be patient, as it might take some time for your story to get reviewed

I am not sure how many people will upload stories, so let’s take this slow at first. It would also be helpful if non-reviewers could give some feedback to others by commenting on their work.

If you would like to be added to the reviewer pool, register your account, making sure you create a profile and upload a photo of yourself or avatar, then email me at cmulvany@findingtheframe.com with the request.

This website is for you. We would really appreciate your support and feedback.

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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.

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.

Improving the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest

Angela Grant at Newsvideographer.com has started a conversation about how to improve the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest. As contest chairman, my co-worker Brian Immel and me are tasked with coming up with an update that will improve judging and allow people to give feedback on the entries.

I posted this reply over at newsvideographer.com that started from a conversation about updating the contest:

Commenting on winners has always been available–if you’re logged in. Hence the reason few ever add feedback on the winners. That feature will be improved with the coming update. I am toying with the idea of allowing comments during the entry and judging period. I think that is when most folks feel the need to give feedback. Many times when I’m judging, I wish I could leave a suggestion to help improve a person’s story. I know this is a risky. I’d probably have to moderate it closely to make sure it doesn’t descend into a flame war.

Angela, from your suggestions list that you emailed me… Yes on all accounts. Categories are something we all need to address. That discussion should start right now, right here. As it stands, you can enter three entries per category. If the contest continues to grow, limiting the entries will have to take place. You mentioned dual entries and slideshows entered in the wrong categories. Yes, this is a problem that will be addressed. Brian and I have asked the NPPA to give us access to parts of their servers so we can update the contest quickly and fix errors. Right now, if there is a problem, I have to ask the NPPA webmaster to fix it. Some things slip by and that is not acceptable. It will be fixed soon. Point tallies and a new ranking system will be implemented with the update.

Finally, I like to address the “what wins” discussion. We started this contest at a time when video was just starting to take hold at newspapers. Video continues to evolve as more producers learn and improve their storytelling fundamentals. For now, I believe this contest should be more about leaning and less about receiving some certificate. It should be a contest geared to give rapid feedback that will help us improve our craft. If I am wrong, I will step down and let someone else manage the contest. My point here is that this contest is for members of the NPPA. If it is to succeed, then it needs be a conversation contest built on user participation. The more people who log in and help judge, the better the results will be.

So let’s start this conversation. How can the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest be improved?

For non-NPPA members, you can still view the entries. It is a great way to see what newspaper video producers are up to.  For people who use the NPPA Monthly Multimedia contest, please head to Angela’s blog and give suggestions on what you would like improved.  

Rosenblumtv.com: Rabble-rousing at its finest

You gotta love Michael Rosemblum over at Rosenblumtv.com The man knows how to make the media cogs squirm in their seats. 

The web offers not just another platform for distribution of product, but rather an entirely new calculus for how an online media company can be run. By its very nature, it changes the construct of most media businesses. Migrate your newspaper to the web completely and you suddenly lose the cost of ink, paper, presses, pressmen, delivery trucks, distribution and paperboys. Tell your writers to work from home and you can lose the building, the desks, the lights, the cleaning services and most of the management as well. Cut all those costs, and suddenly your ad based web revenue can look pretty good in comparison. Its the overhead that is killing you. Lose it. You don’t need it.

Heavy words, but alas, I think this is what will eventually befall our industry. Thankfully we’re not there yet. But if traditional newspaper advertising continues its year-after-year declines, you have to wonder when that line will be crossed–that it becomes more economically viable for publishers to cut the overhead and just publish on the web.

For this transition to happen though, a lot of blood has to be let. It will be gut wrenching for the truck drivers, paperboys, pressmen and others who will lose their jobs. But after this transition, what happens next? Will a journalism renaissance take place or will the brand names of newspaper mastheads fade into the noise of the web? 

If you haven’t perused Rosenblum’s blog you should. He pulls a lot of weight in the media industry. Rosenblum and his VNI (Video News International) colleagues of the mid-nineties were the first to push the idea of using the video journalist concept. Small digital video cameras in lieu of big broadcast betacams, One man bands. Produce from the field not from an edit suite. This new workflow has encountered a wall of resistance from traditional TV news shooters, who for some reason, are uncomfortable with losing all that weight they lug around.

The interesting thing here, is that the VJ model has been embraced by us newspaper video shooters who know nothing of lugging twenty pound tripod around or editing tape to tape. Rosenblum is a rabble-rouser, a square peg trying to change an industry one TV news station at a time. He loves to pick on Katie Couric and the whole TV news anchor paradigm:

Perhaps the last gasp of a defunct and completely out of touch management was Katie Couric’s pornographic $15 million a year salary – to work 22 minutes a night reading what someone else had written. The sheer stupidity of this, the sheer short-sightedness of it now becomes obvious to everyone. For Couric’s reported $15 million, CBS could have (could have) hired and fielded an astonishing 150 Videojournalists worldwide, paying them a quite honorable $100,000 a year to report for CBS News. CBS News could have (could have) placed itself on the cutting edge of the digital news revolution. Instead they opted to become the dinosaur poster child of the end of old media. Goodbye Tiffany Network. You blew it.

Rosenblum is moving forward with his vision. His ongoing Travel Channel Academy video workshops are full of people wanting to learn to produce video for TV and the web. He is helping newspapers integrate video storytelling into their websites. The momentum is in his favor. As the hinges on the foundations of traditional media start to break away, those of us that have embraced the VJ model will hopefully be left standing long after Ivory towers have come crumbling down.

 

The times they are a changing

Thursday was kind of a milestone here at The Spokesman-Review. It was a busy day for everyone. Our MoJo (mobile journalist) Thomas Clouse called me over to his desk. He was working on a video he’d just shot of a railroad crossing emphasis patrol by local police. He was ready to export his movie, but before he did, he wanted me to view it. Clouse made the classic error of burying the lede of his video. A quick reedit made his story a 100% better. As I stepped back from his desk, I was taken aback by what I saw. Two web producers were all working in Final Cut Express producing their own videos.

Andrew Zahler was editing a piece he shot on a new local restaurant, which used unusual works of art in their decor. Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen was editing a story shot by an entertainment writer on the strange Juggalo hip-hop subculture. Both Thuy and Andrew have only been using Final Cut Express since January, but they’ve taken to it with no fear.

A few minutes later I ventured back to the photo department. In my old editing cave sat photojournalist Dan Pelle engrossed in his dual monitor setup working on a story about a high school student who is painting a mural on large fiberglass cow for a national art competition. Four people, working simultaneously, editing video for Spokesmanreview.com. I just had to smile.

For the longest time I was a videographer of one. An anomaly at my paper. Now, I’ve pretty much put myself out of the shooting business. I can no longer cherry pick the assignments that have good video potential. There are now eight people in our newsroom able to use a video camera to tell a story. It is a number that is growing–one person at a time.

A year ago, I looked out in the newsroom and asked myself what would it be like if everyone, not only had the ability to shoot and edit video, but also do it well? What would be the impact? As our website grows in reach and content, I know that multimedia will play a bigger role in how we tell stories. Mojo Thomas Clouse remarked the other day how his news video communicated the story much better than anything he could have written. This from a former word-only reporter—wow.

The next item on my plate is to reinforce the training these budding videographers already have. I need to show them ways they can be more efficient in Final Cut. How they can learn to edit in-camera so the video they shoot can be quickly edited into an engaging sequence of images. The video religion is spreading. Three more photographers are now learning Final Cut. We have capital budget for 4 more Mojo setups this year that include a laptop, video camera, and Final Cut Express.

With a coming redesign and a growing cadre of multimedia journalists, the newsroom at The Spokesman-Review is becoming a very different place from what it was just a year ago.

It’s called Final Cut for a reason

Want your videos to have that polished professional look to them? Of course you do. When I view a video produced by someone inexperienced, I see all the little things they could have fixed before they exported. Since I seem to be fond of top ten lists, here is my How to final cut your video before you compress.

It really is the final small fixes that can make or break a video. I often find myself, after posting a video, going back several times to fix things that bug me. A dissolve that’s too long, an audio level that’s too low or high. It is a perfectionist curse that I live with. It’s best, though, to fix your video before they’re posted.

  • Start by listening to your completed project with your eyes closed. Hit pause when you come to something that doesn’t sound right and fix it. I find, by not looking at my time line, I’m much more able to spot (hear) audio issues.
  • When you’re listening with your eyes closed, do it twice, once with headphones and once with your computer speakers. You’ll be amazed at the difference in the subtleties of what can be heard between the two. Music is a case in point. A subtle music sound bed might sound great with cheap speakers, but be overpowering with headphones on. You have to find a balance for both ways the viewer will be listening to your video.
  • Watch your audiometers— Yes, with your eyes open now. You want each edited clip to peak between –12db and –6db. Adjust accordingly.
  • Have an audio clip that has really low levels? Don’t jack the audio levels up to the point of hearing hiss. Instead highlight the clip and duplicate it, several times if necessary, until it builds the sound back up to a decent level. Try it! It really works.
  • Use lots of audio cross fades. I can always tell the iMovie productions because the bumps in audio between clips. Cross-fades work much like an video dissolve does by blending the outgoing clip with the incoming clip. Fades work best between clips that have consistent audio sound. An example would be an outgoing clip of traffic noise transitioning to a clip of crowd noise. Because you can get cross talk, be careful of cross fading dialogue.
  • Always use split edits. The split edit separate the professional editor from the amateur. The way I define a split edit is that you want to hear the person before you see them. Split edits, also called L-cuts really make your video flow smoothly between a-roll and b-roll. Just watch a video where a person appears and starts to talk. It can be jarring to the viewer. You can fix it by unlinking the video and audio track, roll the talking head video back about four seconds, then tuck the exposed audio on a separate track under the outgoing b-roll clip. You now have a smooth transition viewers will hardly notice. There are a half a dozen ways to do a split edit. Find the way that works best for you.
  • Using photographs in your video? Try to fill the canvas window so there isn’t any black bars above the and below the image. It just looks better, especially if you’re adding motion on the photo. What I do is drop the photo onto my timeline and load it into the canvas. With wire frame enabled, I hold my option key down (to constrain proportions) and grab a corner of the wire frame and scale up the photo until it fills the frame.
  • My personal preference is to fade up a video at the beginning and to fade out at the end. Many videos I see just start, which I find jarring. I like to use Final Cut’s video transparency feature. This is that black line on the top edge of video clip. You can key frame it just like audio. If not, just use a cross dissolve. Also, try an audio cross fade on the opening audio clip and have it fade up with the video. It will be smooooth as butter.
  • Speaking of cross dissolves, ask yourself if you really need one. I find editors who use too many dissolves are the ones who failed to sequence their video with wide, medium and tight shots. Remember, a dissolve is best used for transitions of time or place.
  • Color correct your video. It’s really simple to do in a professional video editor like Final Cut Express or Pro. It is the last thing I do before I export my video out of Final Cut. The easiest thing to do with the color correction filter is to use the highlight eyedropper. Click a neutral white in your video and presto instant colorcast correction. Usually that is all I have to do to a clip. It’s a great way to take a cool color balance and instantly warm it up. Bad color in your video makes it look like a You Tube production.
Any other tips? Please share…