The Video Explosion  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2008

The Video Explosion   

News organizations are embracing video on their Web sites in a big way. The quality ranges from bad to basic to superb. And for some journalists, the advent of video is a terrific new career opportunity.

By Charles Layton
Charles Layton (charlesmary@hotmail.com) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.     


If you want to see a lovely, soul-satisfying piece of journalism, one that might suggest near-future possibilities for newspapers in the age of the Internet, fire up your browser and go here.

What you'll find is a narrative by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post of what occurred last January when one of the world's most esteemed classical violinists, posing as a common street performer, stood in a D.C. Metro station and played his heart out for a passing crowd of indifferent morning commuters.

Weingarten had wanted to do this story--a cultural experiment, as he saw it--for years. The idea struck him one day as, emerging from the subway, he passed a guy playing a keyboard. "He was really good," Weingarten says, "and nobody was paying any attention. And as I was walking to the office, I thought: 'You know what, I bet if Yo-Yo Ma was out there..'"

It didn't work out with Yo-Yo Ma, but a few years later Weingarten pitched the idea to Joshua Bell when the violinist was in town for a concert. Bell thought it sounded like fun.

The story ran in the paper's Sunday magazine on April 8, accompanied by still photos. It was a fine story in that format, but the Post enhanced it online by embedding small video clips in the text. By mouse-clicking one of those videos, readers could see--and hear!--exactly what Weingarten described.

It was not a gimmick, not an add-on, not forced or contrived, but a fully integrated piece of interactive, multimedia journalism, as user-friendly as a spoon, and it quickly became one of the most-viewed stories ever to appear on washingtonpost.com.

"It was kind of a perfect storm, to further abuse a cliché," Weingarten says. "First, it was about a celebrity, which always helps. Second, it was easily summarizable in one sentence: A world-class musician plays in the subway and nobody notices. But the third and probably most important reason was that there was video, so this became quickly viral. I was getting e-mail from cybercafes in Beijing."

The project left Weingarten, who is 56 years old and barely literate in matters of the Web, with a new appreciation for online video. His story, he says, "was more effective online than it was in print. I'm not sure that happens all the time, but it happens more and more now as we figure out how to use video as an adjunct to a story."

News video has been around for six or seven years on some newspaper Web sites, but in the past 12 to 18 months it has grown from a significant trend into a near stampede. Call up Web sites at random and you'll find a very large, very mixed selection, much of it disappointing, some so awful it makes you cringe, and some reasonably well executed but trivial--the cat stuck in a tree video, the "Gosh, it's hot today" video. But a small proportion is excellent by any standard--the work of David Leeson of the Dallas Morning News, for instance, or Travis Fox of washingtonpost.com. These guys are stars. To see examples of their work, go here and here.

The bulk of online news video occupies a broad, gray middle ground in terms of quality, as the industry stumbles toward a goal it cannot yet quite perceive or articulate. "We're still in the figure-it-out stage," says Chet Rhodes, washingtonpost.com's assistant managing editor for news video. "How to tell really powerful stories on the Web, nobody knows how to do that yet in what I would call a sustainable way. To do that every day is really hard. It's going to be awesome, though."

The recent rush to Internet video is difficult to quantify. Lauren Hertel, who teaches at the University of Florida and does training in newsrooms and at conferences, says that many small and medium-size papers "don't seem to think long-form videos are worth the effort." But, she adds, this is her impression based on anecdotal evidence only. "There hasn't been much research done on it."

We can say with certainty, however, that many of the papers that are going for video are going for it all-out. "We consider our newsroom pretty much a multimedia newsroom," says Jonathan Utz, multimedia visual director at the Naples Daily News, a 57,000-circulation, E.W. Scripps-owned daily in Florida. "We expect our reporters to soon be making video and collecting sound and even in some cases shooting still photos."

Rhodes says the Washington Post has been teaching a dozen reporters a month how to shoot video. As of this fall, the paper had trained more than 140 people, he says, and "we are getting about five reporter videos a week." Eventually, he says, he wants the paper "to have a hundred video cameras on the street."

The paper doesn't expect all those reporters to bring home full-fledged documentaries or TV-style packages, Rhodes says, but rather short snippets, maybe a scene or an interview with someone who is in the reporter's copy. "They're really meant to be seen in context with print stories," he says--although once in a while a reporter will turn in a video that can stand on its own.

The Media General-owned Tampa Tribune, with a total news staff of 275, has put about 60 reporters and photographers through an in-house video training program so far, and in time it expects to train "pretty much everybody in the newsroom," says Janet Coats, the executive editor.

At McClatchy's Miami Herald, according to photographer-turned-videographer Chuck Fadely, "We have four people on the photo staff doing video full time, and we're doing 15 to 18 [stand-alone] pieces a week." The Herald is also training reporters in video. "The change in the industry right now is the most dramatic I've ever seen," says Fadely. "Virtually every paper in the country is, if not diving head first, at least dipping their toes into video."

Shortly after his own baptism, which was less than two years ago, Fadely launched an e-mail group on Yahoo! where print practitioners like himself could trade tips about techniques, problems and equipment. The venture has attracted between 500 and 600 members and continues to grow, he says.

While job opportunities in nearly every other newsroom category are shrinking, jobs for videographers are opening up. Consequently, when the National Press Photographers Association offered a multimedia workshop at its annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, this year, it quickly filled all 40 available slots, with a waiting list of more than 50 other aspirants. These people were paying $650 or $850 for the workshop, plus hotel and travel costs. Seth Gitner, NPPA's multimedia committee chairman, says he hopes to double the size of that workshop in 2008. "People are clamoring for more video training," he says.

Rhodes says the first reporters the Post trained in video were foreign correspondents, because the paper lacked the resources to staff its foreign bureaus with video specialists. Every time foreign reporters would rotate back or head out, Rhodes says, he would make sure they got equipped and trained. Pretty soon, though, he was getting calls from metro reporters. "They'd say, 'Hey, I hear you're training people. I'd like to learn to do that.' So, for a while, it became this sort of stealth training," he says. "We soon realized we needed to get a program going that would be sanctioned by the paper."

Many photographers are especially eager to master the new field. Video offers them the prospect of deliverance from print-centric thinking, and perhaps a more prominent role to play in newsrooms. For more than a decade, photographers have suffered as their papers economized by cutting newshole. Squeezed for space, news editors ran fewer photos and ran them smaller. Also, given that newspaper display is nearly always driven by the written story, a photographer's best pictures have often been discarded because the right people weren't in them or they were otherwise irrelevant to the text. But now, says Josh Meltzer, a young multimedia photojournalist at the Roanoke Times, "I can go to the desk and say, 'Well, I have your picture, but I also have a video story on something else that was going on there.'"

A recent editorial on The Digital Journalist, a Web site that describes itself as a "multimedia magazine for photojournalism in the digital age," lamented that the move from newsprint to the Internet will lead to further cuts in traditional newsroom jobs. However, it said, "The good news is that photographers are no longer on the top of the 'redundant' list."

It continued: "The fact is no one is more vital to the survival of the newspaper than these new visual journalists. They are not entering a field such as television news with an established hierarchy that has been there for years.

"They are suddenly experts in a new field. They know more about it than anyone else at the newspaper."

Although some newspaper chains, notably Gannett and Tribune Co., have made top-down, corporate-wide commitments to video, the initiative at some papers has come from one or two individuals who took a strong interest, educated themselves and began urging their organizations forward. The Miami Herald wasn't doing much video at all until Fadely, among others, starting pushing for it. He had been shooting still photos at the Herald for 23 years when he decided, on his own, to attend a workshop on video journalism in February 2006. "I found religion," he says. "I got converted."

When he got home from the workshop, Fadely started putting on multimedia shows for his colleagues. "I got the publisher to watch the powerful journalism being done by other papers," he says, including videos by the St. Petersburg Times, the Dallas Morning News and the Chicago Tribune. Since the Herald's owner at the time, Knight Ridder, was in a corporate death spiral (see "Sherman's March," February/March 2006), Fadely had to pay for his first video gear out of his own pocket. Soon, though, with the support of his bosses in the photo department, he was anointed the paper's first full-time videographer.

In middle age, Fadely had found a new career.

Two years ago, the Web site of the Detroit Free Press was just a replica of the print edition. There was not much extra content of any kind, and no video. Nancy Andrews, who was then the Free Press' director of photography (her title now is managing editor/digital media), remembers the paper's new editor, Paul Anger, asking her at news meetings, "Can we get video on that?"

At the time, she says, "We didn't even own a video camera."

The first piece of video they put online was pretty simple: shots of a baby polar bear at the zoo. The sound quality was "horrible," Andrews recalls, but the video itself was good enough to be picked up by a couple of television stations.

The Free Press, a former Knight Ridder paper now owned by Gannett, has come a long way since then. Its breakthrough, high-profile story involving video was a series called "Band of Brothers," an ambitious project that followed a Michigan-based Marine battalion back from Iraq after a seven-month deployment in Fallujah. These were fully developed stories, told only partly through videos, that ran from fall 2006 into spring 2007. You can see the project here.

"Although we also told it through text and still photography, that was the first project where our audience thought of it as a video project, and commented on it that way," says Andrews. "People would specifically cite the videos: 'Thank you for the wonderful videos,' they would say."

In September, the video portion of "Band of Brothers" won a national Emmy in a new award category: news coverage for broadband media. The Free Press had won many prizes in its day, including eight Pulitzers, but it certainly hadn't won an Emmy before.

None of this could have happened just a few years back. In the first place, newspapers weren't willing to pay for $40,000 cameras and costly editing stations like the TV people use. Now, lower-priced digital video cameras and editing software have arrived. A Sony CX7 camera that shoots in high definition can be had for $700 or less. Spend another $300 for a mic and a tripod and you're in business. If you can't afford that, Chet Rhodes says he has picked up used but serviceable cameras on eBay for $129 each.

Some people argue that Internet video, which is shown mainly in small boxes on small monitors, can get by with fewer pixels and a less polished appearance than TV visuals. Some think a less smooth quality actually looks more "real" online. "It's overstatement to say the rougher the better," says the Tampa Tribune's Janet Coats, "but there is a certain veracity if you haven't spent so much time making it refined." (That Washington Post piece about the violinist in the subway is an example. It was shot surreptitiously, with a camera that was duct-taped to a ceiling; it looks more like police surveillance than professional videography, but it gets the job done.)

However, Coats touches on a controversial question. Spend some time on Web sites where photojournalists gather and you'll find much hand-wringing over what photography columnist Frank Van Riper calls the "conspicuous dumbing down" of journalism images online. In an August column, Van Riper blamed this trend on the Web's demand for "deadline-every-minute" reporting and on the "near-continuous availability of images from amateurs, cell phones and God-knows where." He also cited the new demands on newspaper photographers to multitask, i.e., to shoot both stills and video on the same assignment (about which more later).

Another early obstacle to online video was the prevalence of dial-up connections, which were simply too slow. Now, according to the Nielsen Co., 129 million Americans have access to broadband. And most of them, thanks to Web sites like YouTube, have fallen in love with online video. According to a report last July by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 57 percent of all online viewers watch or download videos. Among broadband users, that number rises to 74 percent. Advertising.com says 42 percent of consumers have forwarded a video clip to a friend.

Here is what may be most alluring: These video consumers skew younger than the population as a whole and have higher incomes and more education--exactly the demographic newspapers covet. And according to a study by the marketing research consultant Ipsos Insight, 75 percent of all Internet viewers watch video clips of news, sports or commentary.

So is this the dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Maybe not, but advertisers are at least taking note. According to eMarketer, which analyzes Internet trends, rich media and video advertising ran to $1.5 billion last year, or 9 percent of online ad spending. That number is projected to grow to $6.2 billion, or 17 percent of online spending, in the next five years. Newspapers desperately want to become significant players in that game.

Here's a sour note, though: The most expensive type of ads for online videos--the so-called "pre-roll" ads that play for a few seconds before the video starts--are unpopular with viewers. Brian Haven, a senior analyst for Forrester Research, has written that 82 percent of consumers find such ads "annoying."

Of course, the larger question--too large to consider here--is whether the Internet can ever really be a viable business model for newspapers. When I raise this question with editors, they tend to plead ignorance. "I can tell you this, the audience is there," says Coats. "The business model I can't figure out, because that's not my specialty."

Plunging into this new medium can be intimidating. "The learning curve is very steep," says Fadely. "I've been at the Miami Herald more than 24 years as a still shooter, I'm a bright guy, I'm a technology geek, and it is still very hard. It is a completely different way of thinking, to structure a video, and in addition it's technically very different."

When Nancy Andrews, as photo director, realized that the Detroit Free Press had to become video-literate, she began by teaching herself. She started with iMovie, the simple video-editing software that came with her Apple computer, and when she outgrew that she moved on to more advanced programs. She got help from online educational resources such as lynda.com, a software training site, and the BBC's tutorial site. She also called people at other papers and picked their brains. "I would call colleagues. I would call teachers or professors I had dealt with," she says. "And I went to the Poynter Institute for a week."

That's pretty much how most newspaper people are learning the technique: through word of mouth, a dash of formal workshop training and a whole lot of trial and error.

One big surprise is the crucial importance of sound. Fadely says, "There's a saying that audio is 70 percent of video." Andrews says she was a bit startled to learn that background noise--the hum of a refrigerator, the whistle of the wind, things writers and still shooters aren't trained to notice--can wreck an otherwise good video. In fact, she has learned that although most people will accept less than perfect visual images, they want the sound to be superior. "People are listening to music through really high quality headphones now," she says, "and they're used to good sound." Even if the visuals are poor, she says, good audio can often save the day.

Another revelation for the neophyte is how much time it can take to shoot and edit a short piece of video, especially when the poor photographer or reporter also has to bring home still shots or a text story. This fall, Andy Dickinson, who teaches online journalism at the University of Central Lancashire in England, did a survey on his blog to see exactly how time-consuming a newspaper video shoot is.

His findings:

The average video, after editing, is two to three minutes long.

The average production time is two to four hours.

Dickinson concluded that, typically, it takes one hour to produce one minute of video. But no sooner had he posted that result than the e-mail reactions started rolling in. One photo editor thought the survey should take into account not just editing time but also the time it takes to shoot a video on assignment.

"First of all," he wrote, "sometimes it takes as much as 2 hours to get to a job, 1-3 hours to shoot, up to two hours driving back to the office, numerous hours of editing, and then we have a 2 minute video, after about 8-10 hours of work. That comes out to 4-5 hours per 1 minute of video in our shop." The editor said he feared that Dickinson's survey might lead publishers to think a photographer could produce eight one-minute videos or four two-minute videos in a day. "Anybody think that is really possible?" he asked.

Earlier, addressing the same issue on his blog, Chuck Fadely had had this to say:

Video requires roughly 10 times more work on an assignment as [still photography] and then 100 times more work as you're editing it. Imagine filling a 16-page special section with a hundred pictures--out of a routine city hall meeting assignment. That's shooting video. You have to shoot every detail in the room, every angle, every expression--just to get a few seconds of video to put on top of the few seconds of audio that you've edited down from two hours of tape.

When I asked Fadely to elaborate on this, he said he was talking about "narrative video that stands alone as a story"--in effect, mini-documentaries. More modest videos that illustrate a text story "do not take nearly as much time to produce but can't stand by themselves," he says.

Part of the difficulty in addressing such a question is that the range of online video is so broad. It can be a big blowout project like "Band of Brothers." It can be a simple perp walk or panning shots of a fire or a collapsed bridge. It can be a modest news feature, with or without accompanying text. It can even be a television-style newscast. Or a weather report, like this from the Naples Daily News. Or it can be (God help us) this.

I interviewed David Leeson on his 50th birthday, an appropriate time for a man to review his career. Leeson was a still photographer who began shooting video for the Dallas Morning News on a regular basis in 2000, which makes him a true pioneer. He sees video as part of the natural evolution of photography, not so different from earlier innovations such as the advent of color, which also threw newspaper shooters into a tizzy. "For a few years you had to carry a camera loaded with color and a camera loaded with black and white," he recalls. "Otherwise, they'd say, 'Do you have it in color?' and you'd say, 'No, I don't.'

"I think the same thing is happening now. The question right now is, 'Do you have the video?'"

Understandably, photographers have not been happy about the prospect of double duty. How could one capture the winning touchdown simultaneously as a still shot and as a video? One couldn't. But in 2005 Leeson found an answer.

Two years earlier, on assignment in Iraq, he had carried two still cameras and one video camera. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his still pictures. The videos he edited into a documentary called "War Stories," which aired on WFAA-TV in Dallas. It won the Edward R. Murrow Award and a National Headliner Award. It was a very good year for Leeson.

By the time Hurricane Katrina came along, Leeson knew firsthand the inconvenience of trying to shoot in both formats simultaneously, but he also was aware of something else--that with a high definition camcorder it is possible to extract or "grab" individual frames from the video. These cameras shoot 30 frames per second, which is akin to having 30 still photos per second. It's like an extremely fast motor drive. So before heading off to cover Katrina, he asked for one of those HD cameras. It was delivered to his house on a Saturday, and the first thing he did was try for a frame grab.

"I got the camera, popped the tape in and went and found my dog," he says. "I shot a video of the dog, and I pulled a frame grab off of it. I uploaded it within minutes and sent it to the news-paper as a test, transmitting it just as I would be doing from Katrina, and the results were astonishing." The picture's quality was good enough for a four- or five-column photo on a news page.

So when Leeson headed for Louisiana, all he used was the video camera. Every picture he sent back to the paper for print publication was a frame grab.

The Morning News is one of a number of papers that now regularly run frame grabs in their print editions. Others include the San Jose Mercury News and the Detroit Free Press, but even a few much smaller papers--such as the Naples Daily News--have begun to experiment with frame grabs. "We think it's definitely the way we want to keep going," says multimedia visual director Utz.

At conferences and training workshops, Leeson has become perhaps the most enthusiastic advocate for this photographic technique. As he sees it, the trick is to treat your video camera like a still camera. "Every rule of photography applies to a frame grab," he says, including matters of shutter speed and focus.

As newspapers move deeper into the world of video, Leeson argues that frame grabs will keep photographers thinking and seeing just as they always have. Frame grabs, he says, will help to preserve the traditional arts and skills of great photojournalism. He thinks the day is coming soon when someone will win a Pulitzer Prize in photography from frame grabs. That would be a milestone.

Evelio Contreras is one of three video producers at the 97,000-circulation Roanoke Times, a southwestern Virginia daily owned by Landmark Communications. These producers are the grease that makes the wheels go 'round. His job is to take the raw video brought back from assignment by the paper's reporters and photographers and turn it into presentable stories.

In an ideal world, a reporter would be able to shoot his own video, bring it back, "capture" it from the camera onto the editing computer, organize all the clips in a "bin," lay out a rough assembly on a timeline of the best bits of the interviews (the A-roll), work that assembly into a coherent story, cover the interview segments with other, more illustrative images (the B-roll), get a consistent overall sound balance, fix any exposure or color balance problems, compress the finished video to make the file small enough to play on the Web, upload it to the Web site server, write the online text describing the story, give the video a name and link it to the print story that accompanies it.

But no reporter can do that and also write a story on deadline. So Contreras and his two colleagues do the bulk of this editing and production work, with the reporter or photographer checking in as time permits, either to confer or just to sit and watch and, hopefully, learn.

It's a time-consuming job, one that keeps Contreras at his computer from 8:30 a.m. until 10 some nights. In addition, he and several colleagues update the Web site each morning, on a rotating basis, from 4:30 to 7. "I go home, take a nap, then come back," he says.

When he isn't doing those things, he works on his own video projects. When I spoke with him, he was in the midst of a story about a junior high school student who plays baseball, which isn't unusual except that this boy was born with one arm. Despite that, he plays both pitcher and catcher, and does so rather well, Contreras says.

Contreras has been hanging out with the boy whenever he can, shooting video or just talking, keeping tabs. He says he's aiming to end up with a narrative account that he hopes will have "a pronounced conflict and resolution that I could be there to witness and film."

Until last April, Contreras was a print reporter. Although he'd had no previous online or video experience, he was always the kind of writer who liked to enrich stories with descriptive scenes.

"I was looking to movies, commercials, anything visual to help me write print stories," he says, so when the new video job came open, "I saw it as a way to develop my storytelling skills." He has discovered, he says, that many stories can be better told visually than in print.

And, given the increased prevalence of visual media, "I didn't want to be someone who just wrote stories and only did that because that's the only way I know how. I see a journalist being able to write, to shoot video, collect audio... Or, at a minimum, a journalist should know how this whole thing works."

Contreras is 25 years old. He could be the future.

Senior contributing writer Charles Layton (charlesmary@hotmail.com) wrote about an Associated Press contract photographer incarcerated by the U.S. in Iraq in AJR's August/September issue.

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