Stretching the roles of traditional journalists

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Sunday’s Spokesman-Review was a bit like the newspaper of old. Writer, Kevin Graman’s story and my photos of the Fairy and Human Relation Congress, took up most of the front-page as well as two color pages inside. What was different about this story for us two veterans—one visual and one word oriented—was how we each stretched into the new roles of being modern newspaper journalists.

My visual multitasking role has been pretty much set in stone for some time. On this story, I not only shot the still photos for the newspaper, but I captured, edited and produced a video for online.

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Graman moved out of his traditional role of being a print reporter to now stretching into the multimedia world of writing words for video and doing voice-over work.

When I heard about this story of 200 people gathering in the wilds to worship fairies, I could think of no better journalist than Graman to do the story with.  We have worked on several other videos together. His innate ability to write to my video brings an authentic voice the story.

Most times I am fine with doing my own voiceover work. But on great stories like this one, having someone that can write and voice powerful words (check out the last minute of the fairy video) just makes all the difference.

In the end, I think we hit a grand slam. We gave the readers of our newspaper a great print story, with strong photos—and we gave our online viewers all that and more with the added value of the video that told a different story than print. This, to me, is the future of newspaper journalism, where traditional roles are stretched but not devalued.

A creativity crisis

Today I am having a creativity crisis. Last night I watched and judged all the videos entered in this month’s NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest. My crisis stems from the feeling of déjà vu. My entries looked and sounded like everyone else’s. So off I went for inspiration over to B-Roll.net TV. There are some really strong stories here. But after an hour of browsing TV news videos, I left feeling disheartened. To me, the television reporter driven voice-overs were all started to sound the same. 

Someone once described the TV news narrative as sounding plastic. I’d like to add the word cookie cutter to that. TV news shooters must cringe when their well-shot stories are chopped up with frantic one sentence reporter narration that intrudes between almost every video clip. Watching this style of video just confuses me as to what is the best way to tell an effective video story.

I was raised on the Platypus Workshop model of storytelling. A-roll + B-roll = Story. This is the traditional way to tell video story. Do your talking head interview, then cover it with b-roll of whatever the subject talks about. After several years of telling stories this way, I feel like I am in the movie Groundhog Day. I just keep telling the same formula story over and over.

I don’t know what my reprieve from this loop will be. Some photojournalist-turned-videojournalists have found a stylized storytelling niche for themselves such a Dai Sugano at the San Jose Mercury News. Many have emulated his work. When I watch one of these time-lapse or stop-action stories, the visual sensation delights me, but not always the substance of the message. Often, when I get to the end of these push the creative envelope presentations, I ask: “What did this story really tell me?” Other than being a cool creative exercise to watch, I am often left feeling unfulfilled.

Part of my dilemma is that I am sensitive to the fact viewership for my own video stories has a broad range of ages and visual literacy. Get too creative and you get the “huh?” factor from viewers who just hit the back button. Get too literal and the over-simulated younger set gets bored fast. Somewhere, there’s got to be a happy medium. It is tough trying to be all things to all viewers and maybe I shouldn’t worry about such matters.

My ultimate goal every time I produce a video is to tell a compelling and informative story. Sometimes I fail. Unfortunately, not all stories are barnburners. After four years of shooting news video, I reflectively have to ask: “What am I missing in my storytelling toolbox that could help me be a better storyteller?” There are not many resources to help me in my quest. So what to do?

I sometimes forget that most everyone who shoots video for newspapers is new to the craft. We’re all looking for mentors. The reality is there are only a few with experience to lean on. I think the one thing newspaper video shooters have all agreed on is we should break free of the TV news model. We will tell our video stories in a different way thank you. But one has to wonder– is tossing out the fundamentals of good video storytelling and production that has been refined for decades on TV news the way to go? I hope not. So for now, I wait.

It will be interesting to see how video storytelling at newspapers will define and refine itself over time. There are lots of smart and creative people entering the newspaper video arena. Once they master the fundamentals, hopefully a fresh approach to video storytelling will soon take shape. Until then, there is old reliable– A + B = Story.