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.