Multimedia journalism misunderstood
Newspapers are now turning to visual reporters to create video content, but are editors really using them the right way?
By Marissa Dederer
Ryan Jackson’s rig looks more like a Grade 6 science project than a 360-degree video machine. Using elastic bands and red gaffer tape, he’s bound four GoPro cameras and a digital recorder to a square plastic patio-table leg—and mounted it on a tripod with the same tape-will-fix-all attitude. The finishing touch: two Edmonton Journalstickers, lest the dodgeball players mistake the gadget for the enemy. He presses record on the mic: Scene one.” He turns on the first camera: “Camera one.” Then he repeats the steps for the next three cameras.
The whistle blows, and there’s a scramble from both sides of the University of Alberta gymnasium as 2,012 players—a 2011Guinness World Record—rush for the more than 1,000 foam balls poised on the centre line. Jackson kneels in the middle of the melee, clutching the tripod to keep it stable. People tell him, “You’re crazy for putting your camera in a dodgeball game like that!” But after Gizmodo picks up Jackson’s four-minute-and-40-second 360-degree video, it goes viral, and the hits fly in—10,000 in an hour. “It’s not about the camera; it’s about the end result,” he says. “Never let your camera get in the way of a good photo.”
Jackson isn’t the only Canadian journalist putting out creative videos and multimedia. Randy Risling of the Toronto Star has made a name for himself as a talented videographer. The Globe and Mail’s Moe Doiron headed the Globe Docs projects (two of which won Emmys) and is now the paper’s photo editor. Toronto freelancer Pawel Dwulit is setting the standard for artful news videos. These journalists use their skills for storytelling—to shoot stills, take video, record audio, edit seamlessly, do it quickly and make it look like a million bucks. They are the newest breed of reporter: the visual journalist. Too bad news organizations still don’t know how best to use them.
In 1994, when a woman trekked across Australia with four camels and a dog, American photographer Rick Smolan chronicled the journey. From Alice to Ocean: Alone Across the Outback, the resulting photobook, came with a CD-ROM that featured the audio-visual part of the project. Since then, the evolution of multimedia journalism has mostly followed the trajectory of technological advances. According to a multimedia search on The New York Times’s website, in 2000, the publication displayed fewer than 100 videos online; in 2002, it branched out, adding interactive features, video and audio. By 2008, the paper had published nearly 7,000 increasingly sophisticated multimedia packages after a few unsuccessful attempts.
Most Canadian newsrooms were slower to take multimedia seriously. Editors gave journalists video cameras and sent them out. Unsurprisingly, it was initially a disaster. Photographers weren’t comfortable when their subjects didn’t freeze in the viewfinder.
Even worse, writers suddenly had to take video. Shaky footage and horrible audio made most of what writers shot unpublishable. But a few years ago, the National Postmoved to the forefront of the Canadian multimedia revolution, with documentary-style work by staff photographers like Brent Foster and Tyler Anderson, after the photo department received training in the new approach.
In 2008, the Nikon D90 revolutionized photography; for about $1,000, a journalist could capture still images and high-definition video with the same device. Since then, GoPros (a point-of-view and sport camera) and other new devices have made visual stories easier to tell. When used properly—with a mini-tripod and microphone—video from current iPhone models is barely distinguishable from that shot with cameras worth thousands of dollars.
To reporters, a Storify post or a live blog could be considered multimedia. To photographers, the term usually means a mix of audio, stills and video. But as soon as an article has a photo, it’s technically multimedia.
Dwulit arrives with his camera gear at Toronto’s Don Jail on a rainy morning in May 2012. He meets Star reporter Peter Edwards and the subject of their story, Andrea Roussel—the only corrections officer in Ontario to undergo a sex reassignment surgery and remain on the job. Edwards has already interviewed Roussel, but Dwulit is here to shoot video and stills. He starts with close-ups of the belt and tie of Roussel’s uniform and stages B-roll shots of her preparing for work.
For the interview, Dwulit quickly changes lenses, selecting one that’s good at close quarters. Using a wireless mic that feeds sound into his handheld recorder, he listens with headphones. Sound adds an extra, immersive dimension to the piece, but clean audio is a fine art. Ambient noise—clothes rustling, air ducts, refrigerators, cars—and reporters speaking out of turn threaten good sound. “There’s a saying that if you have bad video and good audio, you have a documentary,” says Eric Maierson, a producer with MediaStorm, a New York- based production company. “But if you have good video and bad audio, you don’t have anything.”
The last thing Dwulit shoots inside is a still portrait, the image that will accompany Edwards’s article. The story is destined for the front page of the Star’s GTA section.
More than an hour after arriving, Dwulit and Edwards leave the building a few steps ahead of Roussel. It’s still raining, and Dwulit hunches over his camera to protect it. “I’ve had one go down in the rain before. Not cool.” He films Roussel descending the steps and walking away. He’ll use these clips to end the finished product—two minutes and 25 seconds of video.
The optimal length for Internet video has been the subject of debate among photographers and editors. “The next interesting thing is only a click away,” says Maierson, “but if you have a good story, people will stick around.” Canadians certainly have an appetite for video—they watch approximately 25 hours online every month. The majority fall into an entertainment category. The next-most-watched ones are news or information.
Dwulit checks in with the visuals desk. He edits on a Star computer and hands a USB stick to his editor in time for the 3 p.m. editorial meeting. The video runs with the article online.
It’s still early when Doiron turns up at Toronto City Hall: he’s the first photographer to arrive. He grabs himself an Americano and heads upstairs, settling into a baby-blue-upholstered armchair outside the mayor’s office. He’s dressed the part of the photojournalist, with a black shirt, black fleece sweater, blue jeans and black Nikes. It’s 9:50 a.m. on Halloween. Doiron has two cameras: his Canon 1D has a long zoom lens on it; his Canon 5D has a wide zoom lens with a flash. He’ll shoot stills. Although he may get a video assignment once a month, he rarely shoots news video.
Doiron was the Globe’s deputy managing photo editor when the paper decided to stake a claim in multimedia. He hand-picked photojournalists to produce video only. In 2009, the team had a victory: Graeme Smith’s Talking to the Taliban won a News and Documentary Emmy even though it was shot on early cellphone cameras because the interview situations were so dangerous. Another Emmy followed the next year for Jessica Leeder’s Behind the Veil, which offered an intimate look into the lives of Afghan women. But the Globe soon drifted away from long-form documentary storytelling, opting instead for shorter service videos (how-to and lifestyle pieces), and asked Doiron’s team to come up with videos that could be produced quickly for the website. But fashion, cooking and lifestyle didn’t satisfy the photojournalists, so they went back to shooting news stills and have since moved on to other jobs. In December, Doiron—who became a staff photographer around the same time—assumed the role of photo editor.
Back at city hall, a CTV cameraman streams police Chief Bill Blair’s press conference. Blair confirms the existence of the infamous video that appears to show Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack. A chorus of ohhhs ensues.
“Didn’t see that coming.”
“Okay, he’s not coming in today.”
But the mayor does come in (through the back, avoiding journalists temporarily). Doiron walks to the back window to get a view of where Ford entered.
Each month the Globe’s video department produces about 200 videos—of those, roughly 95 percent are short, and of those, about 20 percent are part of the Globe’s how-to series. The how-to videos are cheap and easy—videographers can film four in a morning—and do well on the site, says executive video producer Angela Pacienza. She believes viewers will watch a Chef Basics video over a post by a random user on YouTube because the Globe is a trusted source and chooses recipes its audience will enjoy.
Chef Basics was shortlisted for a Webby Award in “How-To & DIY” last year, a category that garners its fair share of criticism. “This isn’t journalism. This is some kind of weird lifestyle branding crap designed to sell pre-roll ads,” says Elaisha Stokes, a videographer who freelances for the Times and Monocle. She thinks Canadian publications don’t “respect multimedia journalists as journalists.” Instead, she sees newspapers wanting “to use them as technical producers or cameramen.”
A few Globe video pieces are longer—meaning they require more time and energy to produce—but these are rare. The newspaper must divert resources from quick and easy videos to do justice to a journalistic story, and this can happen only a few times a year. In the fall, for example, Doiron travelled to Lac-Mégantic to produce a multimedia piece about survivors of the July disaster.
The cost of a standard pre-roll ad for a Globe video is steep: $50 CPM (cost per thousand views). In most cases, for every person who watches the video, the paper makes five cents. The length and quality don’t matter—the money’s always the same. The Globe’s media kit boasts that 1.5 million videos are viewed every month. But let’s do the math: if each one had a pre-roll ad, the paper would make just $75,000 from video ad revenue.
At 2:12 p.m., there’s a stampede to the front door of Ford’s office. Doiron casually walks over and sets up, a few feet from the scrum. His colleagues are somewhere in the middle, and there’s no point shooting the same thing. After Ford emerges from the other side of the glass, Doiron presses his shutter down until the mayor is out of range, then checks his shots. He looks pleased. “All right,” he says, “I’m going to file some stuff.”
While sitting on the ground, he pulls out a MacBook Pro and starts sorting his photos. He types captions with two index fingers. He pulls a miniature Crispy Crunch from his backpack and sticks it whole in his mouth. “I knew these would come in handy.”
Fred Lum, another Globe photographer, sitting beside him, is also filing. “Jesus, man, you’re taking up all the bandwidth!” says Doiron. “What are you doing? Your banking?”
Photographers who had chased Ford to city hall’s garage return out of breath. Doiron smiles the smile of a guy with 30 years of experience. They didn’t get anything.
Last year, the Star’s Randy Risling travelled with sports reporter Kerry Gillespie to Malaysia to document the first successful BASE jump from a building by a person in a wheelchair. Risling took about 22 kilograms of gear with him (he’d pared down) and spent about five weeks creating One More Jump.
Taras Slawnych, the Star’s visual editor, has the uncanny ability to get people in the newsroom excited about multimedia content. He’s particularly interested in doing more complex pieces like those the Times is publishing—projects such as Snow Fall and The Jockey. “We’re trying to push as much video as possible,” he says. “All the photographers now shoot video. They edit their own, and we post it within the story.” The content they produce is short—about one to two minutes in length—but sometimes, like when a guy in a wheelchair jumps off a building in Malaysia, they dedicate more resources and go long.
On September 22, after waiting a few days for ideal conditions, Lonnie Bissonnette is ready. Because Bissonette will jump only once, Risling can’t afford to miss it. The story captures the man’s journey, but the climax has to be the jump itself.
On the roof of the 33-storey Wisma Sanyan building, Risling has three cameras ready to capture the moment. He gives Gillespie a GoPro to point at the action. He then sets up his 5D, with wireless remote, on the lip of the jerry-built ramp. Shooting from an upper roof, Risling holds a camcorder in his right hand, the remote for the 5D in his left.
Slawnych says dividing resources is the biggest challenge. If a photographer is shooting both stills and video, that takes more time. More time means fewer assignments overall. The photojournalists describe themselves as photographers first, yet they focus on video when on assignment. Star staff photographer Richard Lautens says 80 to 90 percent of his on- ssignment energy is devoted to video. “Photography is almost an afterthought.” In one case, it literally was. After leaving a venue, video in hand, he remembered that he needed a photo and rushed back. Sure, he could have grabbed a screenshot from the video, but the quality wouldn’t have been the same.
Bissonnette rolls forward. A split second after he launches from the roof, Risling holds the trigger on the remote. His 5D fires: the shot that will run at the top of the Star’s front page. He says the video would have been better had he not had to do stills—and vice versa. “Doing everything is the biggest challenge.”
There are whoops of joy. Bissonnette’s chute catches the air and he floats to the grassy field 126 metres below. The jump is a success. Risling’s video is too. The only problem is the release date—a particularly high-drama week for Mayor Ford.
In late fall, on the top floor of the Journal’s building, an old photo editor’s office has been transformed into a recording space. Jackson and Mark Suits, an assignment editor, record the narration for Oilsands, a big project that will roll out over a few weeks in November and December. On the L-shaped desk in the repurposed photo office, four microphones are clamped and taped to the wood. Once the door closes, the office is silent. “Ready?” asks Suits. Jackson: “Oh, yeah.”
Right now, the video is narrated by Jackson, but it’s only a stand-in for Suits’s clips. They finesse the script, working on pacing and emphasis. “He’s got a great radio voice,” says Jackson, who, once they finish recording, exports the audio from the laptop and brings it to his desk.
He sits in a cluster with the data journalist, the social media guy and the web programmer. Jackson swaps the narrations as he drags and drops the audio files. The project has consumed the majority of his time over the past year. His deadline for the first of seven videos is fast approaching, and he needs to finish before his vacation—his wife won’t let him take a computer to Mexico.
Jackson’s original vision for the story was of an interactive online project, designed to look like a game. He gathered material to make it happen: ambient audio, stunning stills and video, interviews, 360-degree panoramas.
But over time, the project became a series of videos and written pieces. It’s nearly impossible to tell what he shot with an iPhone from what he shot with his camera. Jackson is a firm believer in knowing his subject before filming, and his desk is full of tokens from his work. Books with titles such as Pumped and More than Oil sit stacked next to his monitors and a slouching two-pound bag filled with oil sands.
Jackson pitched the project in September 2012, in response to then-editor-in-chief Lucinda Chodin’s call for a “big, hairy, audacious goal.” She wanted a project that the newsroom could rally around. While reporters wrote long pieces for each of the sections, Jackson spent his time working on the visuals, travelling to the Fort McMurray area three times.
Margo Goodhand, the Journal’s current editor-in-chief, is a fan of multimedia, especially Jackson’s work. “He has some really creative ideas for the Oilsands project,” she says, “some of which we physically just didn’t have the resources to do.” The older computers, questionable bandwidth and inefficient work structure slowed down the process. And though he sits next to a programmer—who never got his hands on the project—Jackson would have to send an email for any sort of change to the videos’ dedicated webpage. The email would eventually end up in a programmer’s inbox at Postmedia’s online headquarters in Hamilton, where a request for the site could be addressed.
Taking a break from editing the video, Jackson pulls out a more recent project he’s been working on. Spearheaded by Journal reporter Karen Kleiss, Fatal Careinvestigates the deaths of foster children. Jackson and Kleiss drove to Warburg, about an hour southwest of Edmonton, to speak with the mother and grandmother of a dead child. It was the most emotionally charged interview the multimedia journalist ever filmed. Kleiss asked questions while Jackson was busy keeping their faces in focus. As the grandmother spoke, she would sit up and back into the couch, meaning Jackson had to keep manually altering the point of focus.
Jackson says it was as though all the “shitty little videos” he’d made before were practice for this—the most intense one he’d ever done. Released in late November 2013, it’s more than eight minutes long yet received 13,327 views the first day. But it’s an outlier—not all Journal videos are that popular.
In 2009, Doiron was hiring for the Globe’s visual team. “If I get a job application now and it doesn’t include a multimedia component,” he said at the time, “this person doesn’t really know what the hell’s going on.” Five years later, the proliferation of video hasn’t surprised anyone, but its spread has been anticlimactic. “It was going to save the industry,” says Jackson. “That’s what we all told ourselves.”
But the industry is a veritable Wild West of moving pictures and audio—video hasn’t saved it. Questionable content and shaky iPhone videos are ubiquitous in Canadian newsrooms. While there are still visual journalists honing their craft, their projects are already being replaced by citizen journalist footage and inhouse videos with equally poor quality.
The Post might have invested too much time and effort in multimedia at first, says photographer Tyler Anderson, who’s still a staffer. A few years back, projects looked like short, highly produced cinematic documentaries. But about three years ago, the bosses decided to step away from multimedia.
That’s not to say that the paper isn’t doing video—it is. But the videos are short and most footage comes from other sources such as The Canadian Press. The majority of visuals are stills shot by freelancers and staff photographers.
Freelancers, however, can’t make enough money shooting only editorial content—photo or video. Even award-winning photojournalists may need to do weddings or corporate work to make money. The Star has opted for as much video as possible from employees, while the Globe produces lifestyle content (except for the occasional big-splash item).
Once a dream model, multimedia is now an expensive reality. “What’s next?” asks Jackson. “I don’t 100 percent know—and I should be the person to know. It takes a lot of work to actually make money from video.” Some get lots of hits, and others don’t. No one has the formula yet.
The solution will come when viewers start flocking to video regularly. When the audience is consistent, papers will make money. That’s when the visual journalists get to be artists—using creative shots, compelling audio and engaging editing to assemble and share the best stories.
Marissa Dederer was the Senior Online Editor for the Spring 2014 issue of Ryerson Review of Journalism.