Videojournalism brain dump: Some advice I’ve picked up over the past few years

Poynter College Fellows win again, this time on video. Seriously, that e-mail group is inspiring me. And, yes, I was asked directly. I don’t just randomly spout off like this. Ok, not THIS much. Thanks #pcf09 kids.

This is in response to a request for advice on teaching a video workshop for high school journalists [Update: to clarify, they already have some video recording and editing experience]. One earlier point I made in the thread was about Web vs. TV. And with that...

Ok, so in general, mostly big-picture tips for videojournalism. Quick follow-up, I shouldn’t have said “Web video” before. I consider this advice more in the non-traditional broadcast style because “Web video” should scale to mobile, TV, Hulu, iPhones, pocket watches (wait, what?), whatever (h/t Chuck Fadely re scaling).

I’m biased toward a documentary-style videojournalism, so here it goes:

  • The story rules. If it’s all pretty pictures, make me a slideshow.
  • You’re making a video — not taking a video (h/t Kenny Irby, who really brought it home). It’s not yours. You’re just helping the person or people tell their story or stories (h/t Rich Beckman).
  • Lexicon is important (h/t Kenny). Just like with making vs. taking, you’re not shooting, killing, chopping anything. And you’re not a shooter. Words matter. You’re better than that.
  • Video for Web can’t suck just because it’s online. As Rich says, it should be better because it’s primarily being viewed at a smaller size, which enhances your sense of imperfections. But it can also be viewed full-screen, on TV, etc.
  • Shorter = better. But there’s no rule for length. It should be as long (really, as short) as it needs to be.
  • You’re not doing soundbites — you need to ask subjects questions so you have them telling as complete a story as possible [Update: As Eric noted in the comments, and I almost included here the first time, this includes making sure you have full sentences. Also, I’ll add that you need to the proper context. How? Awesome questions.], which leads to…
  • Avoid narration (way too many people use it as a crutch, both on Web and TV). It should be your absolute last resort. Only reason to use it, I think, is if the story suffers without it. Also, somewhat related…
  • Ditch standups. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to hear you. I’m watching your video because I care about the subject — not you. Sorry.
  • On that note, I don’t really want to see them talking either. More so if it’s just them sitting in a chair, in a boring office, with their boring talking head. The less talking head, the better. If I only see a talking head once, I’m happy.
  • Get it in the field, the first time (h/t Jim Virga). Yes, technology allows you to clean up sound and color correct video, but it’s still not going to be as good, it can be very time consuming and it’s lazy [field work]. In that vein…
  • There’s a saying that audio is 70 percent of video (h/t Miami Herald vjs). Most people are more forgiving if the visuals aren’t great, but if the audio sucks, they’re probably saying see ya. I can’t emphasize audio enough.
  • Headphones. Always. It shouldn’t even need to be on here. And they’re not your be-all-end-all. The audio meter to see levels is your bestest friend in the whole wide world.
  • Have the eye of a photojournalist making pictures when you aim the camera.
  • Get tons of b-roll. There’s an 80:20 “rule,” which basically means get a lot more footage than you need. Which ties into…
  • You may only have one chance to get everything you need. Don’t take anything for granted in terms of interviews and b-roll.
  • No canned shots or b-roll. If you ask someone to repeat something they’ve done or do something they plan to do, you’re making stuff up. Sorry. Not good journalism. Any re-enactments, simulations, etc. should, first, be avoided at all costs and, if you must, be clearly disclosed.
  • Record mostly in the range of medium and tight, but be sure to get establishing (wide) shots.
  • Record sequences.
  • Story. Just wanted to make sure you remembered.
  • There’s no formula.
  • Try interesting angles and approaches (h/t Mike Schmidt). Break outside the “safe” zone (h/t Jim). If it doesn’t work, don’t use it. If it does, cool.
  • Your goal should be to use as few (ideally, no) automatic settings as possible (go manual with exposure, white balance, sound and focus) once you’re comfortable with the gear (h/t Jim). I want you to say, “This is my camera. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” You need to explore all the buttons and menus and settings. You need to be able to troubleshoot any problem that you could possibly troubleshoot. When you’re a professional, you can’t make excuses (h/t Jim Virga). No one will want to work with you. If it’s really beyond your control, then it might not be your fault, but you still don’t have what you need. (This is more a problem on deadline.)
  • Just because you can create a video full of narrative, doesn’t mean you should. Sometimes, you just need to let the pictures do the talking. If the video can show it better than a person can describe, just leave that out.
  • There is no perfect video. It can never really be finished (h/t Jim Virga). You need to accept and embrace that it can always be better. That’s why it’s so important to knock out as much as you can as early as you can. The more time you have to edit and re-edit and re-edit again, the more time you have to get feedback, the more time you have to sleep on it, etc., the better.
  • How’s that audio? Just checking.
  • Send it to everyone who’s opinion you value or can give you constructive feedback. That’s good for several reasons; namely, it’ll will make you better and it will help get your work/name out there.
  • Show your video to the subjects. If they have e-mail, send them the link. If they don’t, go to them with your computer. Again, it’s not for you. It’s for them and your viewers. (h/t Rich)
  • There’s no magic. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s almost all skills you can learn with practice.
  • You’re doing an important job. Keep at it and kick butt.

Non-attributed parts were learned along the way on my own or by some combination of by lessons from professors Rich Beckman and Jim Virga and professionals (check out their stuff online): Chuck Fadely, Travis Fox, Brent McDonald, Garrett Hubbard, Ricardo Lopez and other people I’ve seen speak. Also from articles and blog posts. Just trying to give proper credit.

Speaking of Travis, some great advice: Ten Golden Rules of Video Journalism.

And great resources:

  • NewsVideographer (plus anything in her blogroll)
  • Newspaper Video
  • Documentaries are great sources of inspiration [we watched parts of several in Jim’s class]
  • And, of course, video journalism on news sites (NYT, WaPo, MediaStorm and the like)

That got a little out of hand again. Sorry. I wasn’t trying to be comprehensive, so there may be some points left out.

Everyone: What would you add/subtract/take the square root of?

Good luck, sir.

PS. Yeah, I’ll probably blog this one too. You guys are good, inspiring me to write!

Same question: What would you add/subtract/take the square root of?

Update: I’ve made some minor grammatical changes.

Update 2: People in the e-mail thread have added great insights, such as understanding video for different platforms at a conceptual level, how to plan, how to improvise, etc. Interviewing is huge too. After doing videojournalism for a about two years, I can say without a doubt it has made me a much better interviewer (and listener) after being primarily a text-based reporter for the five years prior.

Announcing the beta launch of Multimedia Standards

After some teasing on Twitter (with the recently neglected #multimediastandards hashtag), we’re now ready to announce the beta launch of Multimedia Standards!

The site was created by 13 undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Miami as part of Rich Beckman‘s spring 2009 Seminar in Visual Storytelling class. It’s built on WordPress using a heavily modified Branford Magazine theme. The main feature is an interactive grid, which includes audio clips from the interviews with an awesome group of multimedia professionals, built with PHP, JavaScript and Flash (for the audio player).

Multimedia Standards (Beta) - A comprehensive resource for multimedia journalists
A clean and simple home page, with The Grid front and center.

We began the project in late March and launched in private beta in May. Thanks to everyone for their feedback!

Here’s a slightly tweaked description of the site that I wrote for the School of Communication:

There are plenty of Web sites and blogs devoted to multimedia journalism, and many of them are great. But there’s no single hub to discuss, share, critique, rate and learn about the field including in-depth thoughts from industry leaders. That’s the hole Multimedia Standards aims to fill.

But what about the name: Multimedia Standards? The site offers none. Instead, we offer resources and opinions on everything from “what is multimedia” to “what is good multimedia” and beyond.

Users can listen to an international group experts in an interactive grid; submit and critique projects; find other sites on our resources pages and easily subscribe to them (we provide the RSS feeds); see upcoming events on our calendar; and read about upcoming contests and recent winners. User input, from critiquing multimedia projects to saving links in our Publish2 newsgroup (which feeds to the top-right homepage widget), is key and we plan to continue updating the site with more featured links.

The team

Each student gathered and edited audio and were involved in the planning and research of the site. The class included:

The site

We spent a good deal of time early on discussing how to best organize the site’s content because of the nature of the content. The sections/navigation include:

  • Summary – a synopsis of all our research from the interviews, including an overview of the topics discussed and thoughts on the future
  • The Grid – 10 questions and answers from our interviews; links to profiles, which feature the full interviews
  • Resources – RSS feeds featuring multimedia producers, commentators and related organizations
  • Submit/Critique – submit multimedia sites and projects for critiques and star ratings by users
  • Events – a Google calender with upcoming conferences, training events, etc.
  • Awards – information about upcoming awards and recently announced winners
  • About – credits, photos and links to individual Web sites, Twitter accounts and e-mail addresses

The Grid

Unfortunately, The Matrix was taken. So we went with The Grid, which features (A-Z):

  • Alberto Cairo
  • Leo Caobelli
  • Pamela Chen
  • Andrew DeVigal
  • David Dunkley Gyimah
  • Kim Grinfeder
  • Kenny Irby
  • Gary Kebbel
  • Tom Kennedy
  • Brian Storm
  • Will Sullivan
  • Ashley Wells

What can I do?

Your interaction is key to the site being more than just a static presentation of our work. For example, submitting and critiquing projects, adding events and more.

Let me know if you’re interested in learning anything more about the site; I’ll respond via the comments or write another post, if the questions warrant. Also, please comment with feedback. How can we make the site better?

Send comments to multimediastandards [at] gmail [dot] com

Looking forward, there’s a second round of interviews in pipeline, which will be used to create a second grid. Although I’ve graduated and won’t be directly involved with that, I’ll be sure to post an update when part deux launches.

Revenue Two Point Zero and School of Communication project in DC

I’ll be in Washington, D.C. for the next few days, courtesy the University of Miami School of Communication, so the blog will probably be quiet. I’ll be working on a couple video profiles of National Park Service employees with a fellow student (I did a similar project — but as an audio slideshow — last year at Everglades National Park).

Also, as luck would have it, I’ll be in town for this shindig on Saturday:

Revenue Two Point Zero

I’m not a big fan of the redesigning Craigslist idea, but it should be a great event. As always, I’ll be wearing my CoPress hat and looking out for any takeaways that could be useful for college media. Any thoughts in that realm will appear on the CoPress blog.

I may liveblog and/or livestream parts of the event. If I do, I’ll be sure give as much notice as I can.

PS. Yay for spring break! But it’s about a week too short.

Leaving to cover Special Olympics World Winter Games in Idaho

I’ll be off the usual radar for 10 days as one of about 30 University of Miami students participating in the 150-student webcasting team at the Special Olympics 2009 World Winter Games in Idaho.

The games run from Feb. 7-13, but we’ll be there from Feb. 5-15. Students will be split across newsrooms in Boise, McCall and Sun Valley.

(Somehow I have a knack for taking trips that require really early flights, as evinced by the post time.)

The Job

Rich Beckman, Knight Chair of Visual Journalism at UM, is the executive producer for Special Olympics Live, a site we will update with photos and videos daily. I’m on Rich’s team in Boise and will be documenting the team’s efforts with other a couple other Miami folks and a couple students from Universidad de los Andes in Chile.

In addition, I’m in charge of social media for the site, which isn’t really “live.”

I’ll post some updates on my @greglinch Twitter account, but I’ve created @soilive to handle our general webcasting team coverage.

You can follow the hashtag #soi and/or subscribe to the RSS feed for a Twitter search of #soi. If you’re interested, you can also join the official Special Olympics community, where fans post blogs, photos and videos.

The Tech

I’m bringing my Canon Rebel XT (15-55mm and 75-300mm lenses), in addition to one of the broadcast department’s Sony DSR-PD150 to use for the video work. Other UM students will use thePanasonic AG-DVX100, which are shared between the visual journalism and motion pictures programs.

I typically use the Panasonic, but have a good amount of experience with the Sony, so I’ll be ready to rock once we’re wheels down in Idaho.

The Sony kit is in a huge Pelican case and comes with:

  • It’s standard shotgun mic
  • Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun mic
  • Sony ECM-44B wired lavalier mic
  • Electro Voice EV-50 hand mic
  • Sennheiser headphones
  • 50-foot XLR cable
  • Spare battery
  • DC charger

As you may remember, I was also part of a volunteer team from the UM School of Communication that shot the Special Olympics torch run in Miami in January.

Full disclosure: Special Olympics is covering all of our travel and lodging expenses for the World Winter Games, but we are not being paid.