We’ve been thinking a lot about drones recently at Thunderdome. Tom Meagher, our data editor, and I, his sidekick, lead a committee to establish guidelines for how and where our journalists can fly drones. The FAA is still trying to figure how to legislate drone flights so the legalities are murky. For instance, it is illegal to fly drones out in the open, but flying them inside a university gym is perfectly fine. So that’s what we did. Thanks to David Freid for producing our Drone School video.
A video that reminds me of what we should all be asking:
“…what do we want people to feel?
Then we begin to craft around our intention.”
The day we published Kitchen Pop: Four ways to make holiday magic with your microwave, our motion graphics designer Courtney also came across Serious Eats and Green Giant’s Simple Holiday Recipes site (through an ad, no less). If you watch both videos (ours above, theirs below), the similarities are stunning.
We both use stop-motion animation to illustrate easy holiday recipes, though one is considered sponsored content while the other falls under journalism. Serious Eats features recipes made with Green Giant products while we highlight microwaveable recipes created by professional chefs. Both of our videos have step-by-step instructions, GG takes more artistic license, ours are more thorough. And one of us is clearly trying to get you to buy a product… or is it both of us?
The lines are blurry. Discovering Serious Eats/GG’s site reminded me of the fuzziness between editorial and sponsored content or if there’s even a line at all. As a viewer, I enjoyed their videos. They were well produced, playful and entertaining to watch. I’m willing to bet their production budget was more than our four-person team and the few hundred dollars we spent, but would I, or anyone else, care to know the difference? Probably not.
If content is king on the web, then our competition is fierce. Advertising agencies are pouring millions of dollars a year into telling digital “stories” in equally or more effective ways. As news organizations, we need to step up our game. Regardless if it’s a feature story or an election series, we must create unique, editorial experiences that deliver the unexpected. They should excite and delight as much as they report and inform. Let’s hire talent from other industries, train staffers to collaborate with designers and developers, better understand our audience, and design thoughtful promotional strategies for projects. It takes time and resources to go beyond our day to day and re-imagine storytelling on the web. Because if we don’t, take it from me, it’s only a matter of time before companies like Green Giant will.
We spent about five months working on Firearms in the Family: the role guns play in American lives. The story moved on December 9th, less than a week before the anniversary of the shooting in Newtown. David Freid, our video journalist, and our reporter Bianca Prieto spent weeks interviewing families in California, Colorado and Michigan. On top of the days spent out in the field, each profile took about three days to edit, which isn’t surprising considering the time it takes to sift through all of the footage and to cover a delicate topic like guns and kids. Everyone was immensely proud of the final package, particularly the visual storytelling, but in hindsight would we have done it again?
Producing documentary-style videos at a news organization can be a conundrum. While the web is a natural place for these stories to live, they undoubtedly require a tremendous amount of resources to make. The best ones are a testament to the extraordinary craftsmanship in visual journalism. They’re stunning works of art. But what is the tipping point? The more time you spend with your characters, the more authentic your story becomes. But sometimes I wonder if we, as professional storytellers, pour our hearts and souls into documentary projects for ourselves or for them?
The answer should be them, but even our work for Firearms in the Family makes me think twice. Yes, we would produce these video profiles again, but could we have done them differently? Maybe feature one or two families instead of four? Strive to capture more candid moments rather than settle for talking heads? Our videos were deliberately kept under three minutes, but could we have made them more engaging? What other ways are there to put a human face to a story about American gun culture?
At the end of the day, this project was a step in the right direction. Internally, it helped us win the trust of local newsrooms and give them a taste of what we’re capable of. The videos were superb and the narratives well-written. But as editors, we need to find a balance. Web docs are only one way to tell a story. Sometimes they work magnificently, other times, it’s a term we’ve unintentionally made synonymous with quality. It’s never too late to check our work and ask ourselves why we decide to do what we do, and, most importantly, to what end.
Decoding the Kennedy Assassination was published on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death in Dealey Plaza. Our motion graphics designer Courtney Wells produced a teaser (above) about the five most popular conspiracy theories surrounding JFK’s death. We didn’t use any talking heads or historical footage. Instead, we captured the tone, style and mood of an iconic era with imagery, text and music. We initially considered narration, but decided the “voice of God” would take viewers out of the immersive experience. The intent was to make it feel cinematic, to transport people to a time when conspiracy theories ruled the day. If we didn’t, why would they care? In many ways, this was a visual interpretation, but can it be considered visual journalism? In my opinion, yes. Is it what you would expect from a newspaper organization? Probably not. But that’s what makes it great.
It’s been in the back of my mind for awhile, but I decided to give a five-minute
rant lightning talk at this year’s ONA conference about one of my pet peeves in video journalism. The slides don’t offer much context, but my preso was called “Death of the Talking Head.”
For those who aren’t familiar with the phrase, “talking heads” is a traditional broadcast television term, where the camera only shows the upper half of a reporter’s body so it looks like they’re a “talking head.” It’s also a style of reporting that has dominated broadcast television news since its inception in 1930. Why do organizations, regardless if it’s a television network, newspaper, HuffPo Live, or YouTube channel, continue to deliver the news the same way it has been done for decades?
The dirty, little secret? Talking head videos are easy, fast and inexpensive to produce. Imagine taking a one-hour live stream of reporters talking about the hottest topics of the day, chopping that livestream into two-minute segments to create thirty videos and splattering them across relevant articles. All of a sudden, top traffic-driving stories are also driving views to accompanying videos, and, as a result, publishers can charge higher CPM rates to advertisers. Does video of a talking head really add more context, value and information to a story? Maybe, but probably not (see slide 12). It’s visual clickbait, and we can do better.
There are a number of new and traditional media organizations that are redefining visual journalism (NFB, NPR, Conde Nast Digital Video Network). It takes time and resources to chart a new path, but sometimes it just requires thinking outside of the box. Why can’t news organizations produce music videos, animations or motion graphic videos to tell a story? The medium is vast. The stories are infinite. With an ounce of creativity and fun, video journalism can seize this incredible moment and realize what it has always been– limitless.
“When you put yourself in somebody else’s space, you involve yourself in someone else’s world. I think that to try to turn off those experiences after the fact would be wrong. You have a responsibility both to yourself and to your subjects to remember them.”
~ An interview with Tyler Hicks, New York Times photographer