Wednesday, March 07, 2007

And the Winner Ain't...

There's a simply delicious brouhaha currently swirling in some newspaper circles and frankly, it's none of my business. But doggone it, it's an issue that I plan to address during my ConvergeSouth session in the Fall. Since that's still a good seven or so months away, I hereby offer the following heartfelt retort. First though, let me break it all down for those of you not playing at home...

For some time now forward-thinking newspapers have sought to include video in the ever important on-line presentations. Some of those encapsulated efforts have been downright groundbreaking, but much of it remains abysmal. Why shouldn't it? Advanced video skills aren't as easy to score as that discount handycam down at Best Buy. Just ask your local TV news photog - the one who's worked for years to master a craft most folk wisely take for granted. They'll tell you it takes time to hone the many disciplines required; from shot selection to microphone placement to the art of harboring found light. Grasp those fundamentals and the palette is yours. Eschew these principals and you'll find yourself scribbling on-screen.

All of which explains the mind-set of a group of television news shooters who recently sat down to judge a new category of NPPA Photojournalism contest: Web Video. Despite the many entries from newspapers far and wide, the judges decided not to name a first prize winner - blaming subpar work that failed to meet their criteria. Yes, they called the newspaper's video baby 'Ug-LEE'. One of the judges, KING-TV's Mark Morache, details why:
We saw some good journalism -- journalism with a big 'J.'But what caught me was that so many of these stories had an emotional disconnect. When you are watching a great story, you see it, you know it, you feel it in your gut. It sticks with you, and when it is over, you say, 'Re-rack it and play it again.'
The reasons they cited seem simple enough: jittery camerawork, poor lighting, endings that were way too oblique. It was all too much for an organization that's not above taking itself too seriously. (Full disclosure: I've been an intinerant critic of NPPA contests for years. Something about posturing for trinkets always left me feeling a little cheap.) Still, I applaud their latest stance - and not just because it hacks off the smuggest of the ink-stained set. No, I support their decision because it seeks to establish a standard of visual storytelling that transcends outlet, medium or format. Today's consumers want their news now, and their getting it on a staggering arrays of new gadgets. But whether they're nodding in front of their living room plasma or leaning over their laptop out by the pool, they don't want to struggle to understand anything - not in a 500 channel, infinite website world.

None of this of course, is what newspaper folk wanted to hear. Leery of merely reproducing what they see as a deeply flawed TV product, the Print Contingent know they're on the precipice of a new video age. By continuing to feed the ambitions of their more than able photography staffs, they'll no doubt forge new methods in visual storytelling. But before they can conquer new frontiers, they must come to grips with the basics. And a little humility wouldn't hurt. Having long held broadcasters in low regard, many inkslingers are now telling us they can do our medium better. To that I issue a hearty 'Up Yours'. Were I to saunter into your Editor's office, slam my midnight prose down on his desk and pronounce it far superior to anything in-house, you'd rightfully laugh me out of the room. Just ask Howard Owens, who simply cannot fathom how the current crop of newspaper video failed to measure up:
It’s hard to believe that all the entries in a national contest were so fatally flawed by basic shooting and editing mistakes that they weren’t worthy of honor. I suspect, more to the point, is that the judges were unwilling or unable to come to terms with the changing face of video news. The flaws were not necessarily in frames of the video, but in the eyes of the judges.
Not so, Howie. Most TV news photogs are rabid fans of all storytelling and are more than ready to be bowled over by something new and different. But like the audience we now share, our standards are too well-placed to endure shoddy work for very long. With fewer time restrictions and a ubiquitous delivery method, the newspaper industry can indeed rewrite the book on video news. No one's demanding your fare be as slick (and vapid) as what we churn out on the evening news, but it must be clear, clean and easy to follow. Otherwise, no number of grand proclamations about new frontiers will make up for garbled audio, distracting backlight and meandering narration. Just ask your news consumer, the one nodding off at the family computer.


Mark Hamilton said...

Another great piece and I agree with almost everything, except for the idea that newspapers are doing video differently because they think TV video is deeply flawed. At least some of them are doing it differently because they're exploring a new (for them) form of storytelling. Anyone doing who ignores the lessons learned by you TV folk is plain foolish. All this does raise a question, though: TV stations have web sites, too. Where's the new journalism from the TV shooters, given they now have the space and time to tell the stories outside the constraints of the tightly-timed newscast? As much as I appreciate a well-told story on the local news, I find it hard to believe that's the height of the possibility for video journalism.

Anonymous said...

Hey Stew, its Mark Morache, not Mike Morache

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate we are not seeing unlimited storytelling from tv shooters on station websites.

But that sort of creativity is squashed by many corporate owners that want all of their station websites to be cookie cutter.

They would rather fill websites with advertisers than storytelling.

Newspapers seem more in tune to media convergence, something which many station owners fail to see.

That, or they don't believe it is cost effective. It's cheaper to do nothing at all for some.

Brian Cubbison said...

I'm an admitted discount handycam newspaper guy who is intent on improving my results every time I try another video. And I'm far from where I want to be. But the TV pros complaining about the quality of newspaper videos remind me of the newspaper pros complaining about the bloggers. The amateurs are disrupting the assumptions of the pros. In this case, online video seems to be a whole different medium from television news, just as a blog posting is different from a 20-inch inverted-pyramid newspaper story.

I think there will be many kinds of newspaper video (and video reporters) ... the general assignment reporter who grabs some video on the scene, the amateurish YouTube-quality moment, and the highly skilled long-form project. I just hope they actually load quickly and smoothly so I can see them.

My guiding principle is... give it the best you've got. There are visual stories worth telling that won't wait for a videographer with thousands of dollars in equipment and hours to spend with the editing software. If you can get the story, go for it.

It's probably too early to turn this experiment into a quest for prizes, and having TV journalists judge it would be like having newspaper reporters judge the TV news.

HockeyPat said...

I'd love to be a judge of this stuff.

Since I'm not talented at anything, logic would dictate I am a great judge.

Lenslinger said...

Mark: Thanks as always for the guidance. As to why you're not seeing more extended versions of Tv stories on-line, it's because most stations can barely fill the h-o-u-r-s of airtime they've created for themselves. Having said that my station (a Fox O&O)puts 8 out of 10 of my heavily-edited stand-alone pieces on their website - from the 90 second daily turn to the 5 minute series opus. We do put extra footage on-line as well, but rarely are they extended mix-master versions. If we're gonna put much more original content on the web, we better cancel a few newscasts. That or hire more crews...

Brian: EXCELLENT analysis. It seems I need to add you to my blogroll. You don't need high dollar gear or decade old tripod callouses to make good video. You do need to embrace the fundamentals, keep your viewer's interest and find an emotional hook to hang your story off of. Bombast aside, that's the point I was trying to make in my earlier post. Truly, I'm all for newspaper video. As a TV cameraman who spends alot of time writing, I am all for learning new mediums. What I cannot abide is the pompous attitude of some smarmy print type who wants to reel off a list of video sins I've been committing all these many years. I think your closing line says it all

"It's probably too early to turn this experiment into a quest for prizes, and having TV journalists judge it would be like having newspaper reporters judge the TV news. "

Pat: You had me at hello.

in-gun-ear said...

Brian sez: "But the TV pros complaining about the quality of newspaper videos remind me of the newspaper pros complaining about the bloggers. The amateurs are disrupting the assumptions of the pros."

I must admit I never really looked at the paper videos before and had no opinion on their quality. After reading this blog, I have and I must admit, many of the paper video I have seen is not as good as some of the web amateur news stuff.

My biggest complaint with the paper video is about the time they get to the "good stuff," they cut to something that really doesn't matter, like people walking around that do not advance the story in pictures or they don't stay on a cut for more than a second or two. It is almost like a cut for a cut's sake and 50% of the pictures have no real value to the overall story.

I realize the paper guys strength is not in the moving picture but the still pictures and you don't always need a moving picture of 90 seconds to tell a story when one still picture does the job. But these VJ's need to work really hard on techic if they want to be taken seriously and those that do, I salute you and wish you nothing but the best but it doesn't come overnight. You will have a few years of looking at your work and going, what the hey?

If what I have seen the last few days on different paper sites is what the judges saw, I can completely understand their attitude.