Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Summer multimedia lessons: coming full circle

It's really been an incredible summer.

Amid 10 days of triple-digit heat in Kansas, I've received a few signs that maybe I'm starting to do things right.

Like video.

When I started this blog in 2007, there were few places to learn how to add multimedia to your work day. I searched the web to learn video and found Angela Grant's News Videographer blog. I sent Angela my videos and she critiqued them. I read her tips and followed them.

Then this summer Angela, now Morris, emailed me. She wanted to ask me how I was doing video. It was kind of a shock.

I had started looking at video, because I wanted to capture the raw emotion of my court beat. There were times when witnesses broke down on the stand, talking about the crimes committed against them. When I was strictly a print reporter, I never felt like I actually captured that. I wanted to add video to my arsenal of tools, so I could combine those snippets with my stories. Angela introduced me to video storytelling and how to edit complete stories that could stand alone or augment my articles. I dove in.

Now, Angela covers courts herself and came to me asking what I'd learned in doing legal videos. We did an email Q&A and she posted some examples of what I thought I'd done right.

Angela then posted a recommendation on my LinkedIn profile:

“Ron and I became Internet buddies when I was writing regularly for my blog, News Videographer. Ron was teaching himself to shoot and edit videos at the time and he would email me questions and links to videos for critiques. Ron is eager to learn new skills and humble enough to ask questions and listen to advice. From his progress to date, I can see he truly implements the lessons in the real world. Now, I am turning to him with my own questions and appeals for advice!”

The real lesson for me here reminds me of what I've learned as a reporter. I've always followed a personal goal when working on major projects that I knew I was ready to write when I started giving sources information they didn't know. I don't mean that to sound arrogant. But it's happened. I start reporting and keep reporting and eventually I'll contact a source who I have talked to a dozen times with a bit of information, and they'll reply, "I didn't know that." Then I know I'm finished.

It was the same with Angela's post. I could never have gotten through my first year of shooting video without her tutorials, lessons and tips. Now that she's asking me questions, I feel I must have learned something.

And I must be doing something right.

It's been four years since I started this blog. Multimedia is not something you learn overnight. It's like writing. It takes years. But if you keep at it, eventually you start to get a feel for it

Journalism has suffered mightily in the past several years. I've watched good friends walk out the door -- and not by choice. I've heard doomsday predictions for a profession I love.

But it's these little steps, and my belief that we provide our communities with valuable information, that keeps me eager to go into work every day.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What to do when your boss hands you a flip cam

It’s going to happen eventually, if it hasn’t already. Newsrooms are going to start handing out flip cameras to reporters.

It doesn’t have to be an actual Flip cam. Hopefully, it will be a Kodak Zi8 or something else with an audio input, where you can connect a microphone and get decent sound.

There will be snickers from some in what was formerly known as the photo department. People will expect you to fail, because you’re a reporter.

Prepare to blow them away.

See, as reporters, we know how to interview people, get good quotes, take them and put them together in stories. For years, we used audio recorders. Now, we can use these small video recorders. The one thing you can do is killer interviews. That already puts you ahead.

We’ve been over the basics before, but brush up on them. It would help if you have a friend in the photo department. They’ve been through the painful transitions. They should empathize.

I have received encouragement, support and valuable advice from our photo/ video department – the people who really know what they’re doing. They like that I can do some of this on my own. It lessens their workload in a time of dwindling staffs.

Really, I bug the hell out of them for advice. They can attest just how much of a pain in the butt I am. But they also take the time to answer my lame questions, even when they’re crazy busy. I’ve even had a couple of photogs come to me and say, “show me how you did that.”

But in many newsrooms, I’m hearing of reporters getting handed these video cams, then being sent out with no training. Terrible.

Here are a few tips I’ve learned that can make the difference in giving you confidence and competence with video reporting:

  • The camera fits in your pocket. Carry it with you everywhere. In case news breaks, you can whip it out and capture it. This will also guarantee news won’t break out around you. Meanwhile, you can finish the following steps.
  • If your editors are smart enough to buy a camera with an audeo input, hit them up for a microphone, too. You can buy an “L” bracket to attach it all, and it still won’t be that much bigger than a notebook. You can get a whole outfit for less than $200.
  • Just as you read great writers to get inspiration for writing well, find great videos to watch.
  • Watch as many documentaries as your Netflix queue will hold. Even if someone else will be editing the final product, you’ll know what kinds of shots work to go with the interview of your main subjects.
  • Don’t have Netflix? Watch “Independent Lens” or “Frontline” on PBS. By seeing how it’s done right, and you’ll get pick up some techniques you could use. Ira Glass of “This American Life” says when we start learning a new skill our level of expertise is never up to our level of good taste. But if we know what good looks like, we can strive for that. Oh, and listen to “This American Life” to learn how to put together interviews into great stories that aren’t text.
  • Can’t take pretty pictures like your photo counterparts? Use the stills that the photog on the assignment got – but who often doesn’t have time to do the video. You can help with that. I did that on this breaking news story.
  • Mine your archives or the AP photos your news org pays for to get good illustrations for B-roll. See if your interviewee has family pictures or other stills you can use. Take some stills on your flip cam. Crime scene photos that are used in court can be great, too.
  • Subscribe to this group. Yes, you’ll hear a lot of moaning about how bad it is to give reporters video cameras. But occasionally, you’ll see a post about technique or workload, which will help you. And frequently you’ll see great examples of how it’s supposed to be done and what you should be aiming for in your own work. You can also post your videos and get feedback from real pros.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Planning an investigative project for the home page, not just the front page

At 3 a.m. last Sunday, I put the final touches on the multimedia project I’d been working on for months, squeezing it between daily assignments.

Presumed Guilty,” was live on the web. It’s about Ronnie Rhodes, who’s spent 30 years in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit, and the disturbing nationwide exposure of wrongful convictions.

For the first time, I had spent more than a year planning how a story would look on the home page of, instead of just the front page of The Wichita Eagle.

Used to be, you’d work on a project for months, and end up with a story in the Sunday paper. That was it.

Rob Curley inspired me to change the way I thought about that process, after visiting him in Las Vegas during the SPJ National Convention.

What Curley told me in Vegas didn’t stay there.

“Every project we plan, we plan for the web,” he said. Then the stories go to print.

That was my goal.

I’d begun blogging the report the previous summer. That would become more valuable than I ever imagined. When the blog needed a post, I dug deeper to create a current entry. Video posts became rough cuts for the final multimedia.

As I collected documents, I threw them up on Document Cloud. As I came across web resources, I posted them to Publish2, so I could easily compile link lists.

The story was done a week before I’d normally turn in a Sunday piece. I spent the last week doing the final cuts of videos.

By then, we’d had more layoffs. This time they hit the copy desk. We left on Friday the stories still awaiting a final edit.

Consequently, the stories hit the desk like every Sunday piece for print – that Saturday night.

So Eba Hamid, our online producer, and I waited until the stories went live at midnight. We got on our home computers, fired up the Gmail chat and worked furiously into the wee hours of the morning.

It was finished -- a piece I’m as proud of as anything I’ve ever done.

Then we waited for reaction. We offered several avenues for community communication.

For months, people commented on the blog posts, and I listened, letting them point me to addtional reporting they wanted, such as Rhodes’ disciplinary reports in prison.

For the final piece, we set up a live chat on Monday with the law professor whose students had helped research the case. Although we’d done those chats about weather and sports, I’d never done one with a crime story. We added a Twitter hashtag in case people wanted to comment there, instead of on the stories. I posted a link on my Facebook profile to provide more opportunities for interaction.

On Sunday, I made sure to check out the comments on the stories, respond and answer questions.

Later that day, Curley tweeted about the package and then posted a comment on my Facebook page:

“This is how it's done folks: great text/real journalism. multimedia/video/photo galleries. reader access to documents used in reporting. audience interaction via twitter and chats. blog entries from throughout reporting process. great background info provided for readers. not afraid to link off newspaper's site.”

“Wow, check this out,” I said to my wife.

The phone rang.

“Maybe that’s Rob Curley,” Gaye said with a laugh.

And it was.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Creating video out of little more than audio

Over at my work blog, I've been working on this investigative report of a 30-year-old murder that has sent a man to prison for a crime he claims he didn't commit.

In the course of those posts, I've been using multimedia to tell the story, but it's produced its own particular challenges. There aren't a lot of visuals left from a crime that happened in 1981. But I did land a phone interview from prison with Ronnie Rhodes, whose case we've been looking into with students from a Kansas law school.

I wanted to produce an audio story to let people hear Rhodes speak.

Katie, our online content developer, shook her head, "no."

At least I just got the shake of the head. The online team says you're really in trouble when Katie gives you a shake of the head and roll of the eyes. The eyes didn't roll this time.

"No one listens to audio on our site," she said. I had to come up with something visual -- anything but a blank screen.

Not having much video or visuals, we decided to create a timeline of what Rhodes said happened the night of the crime. We ended up with this video.

I created the timeline using PowerPoint. I saved the slides as .jpgs, then imported them into Final Cut Express. You work with what you've got, after all.

The "video" was really the audio story I'd wanted to create with something for people to watch while they listened to it. It worked. It continued to get a number of views for weeks after I originally posted it, and the three-part series, ranked among our most-watched videos that first week. I'm still getting views on them months later.

So what do you think? Do people listen to straight audio stories on your site? What can you do to help create video with a lack of visuals?