The Ivory tower dispatch: defining multimedia journalism

This week in the ivory tower I’ve mostly been looking at multimedia.

I’ve been building on the idea that, regardless of the approach you take (the fast/slow journalism split I created last week) , chunks of multimedia are going to be you building blocks.

Of course there are the practicalities to consider, but I spent a bit of time thinking about the broader context and what that meant in terms of roles within a digital newsroom.

Something that’s become clear in my pondering and looking around is that there is a belief in two distinct forms of journalism – audio journalism and video journalism.  These are not just variations on a broadcast theme. The rhetoric being used clearly indicates a belief that they are new forms of journalism and that was all a bit worrying.

Audio Journalism

Even though a large part of the audio on the web is produced in much the same way as broadcast (a kind of pre-medium specifics is you like) proponents of Audio Journalism  identify two forms of content as core to the definition:

  • Podcasts
  • Audio Slideshows

The form of podcasts is pretty flexible and there is no one clear format – short, scripted and snappy or round table – that’s been agreed on. In fact the development of the different styles suggests that the form has outgrown it’s platform-derived title. They are different from broadcast in a number of ways not least in the business model. The big challenges now are metrics and return on investment. The battle ground is tablets where app delivered podcasts can be monitored more effectively   So, podcasts clearly provide the established framework – the mode and form – that helps set audio journalism as a definition.

In that sense podcasts are the solid, practical output. So it would all be a little technologically deterministic if it wasn’t for the intellectual weight that Audio slideshows  add to the definition.

Benjamin Chesterton’s take on Audio slideshows (as reported by Kevin Marsh) in response to the question “Why would you choose a slideshow when you could use video?”

with moving video, the viewers eye is centred – broadly, locked to the framing of the video camera. With still images, the eye roams. It stops and moves and stops and moves. Frozen gestures and expressions kick off a cognitive process – thinking – that moving images simply never do.


Something similar is true of good audio. The best audio blends reportage (‘being me, being here’) with the kind of aural cues that make audiences think and wander off down their own pathways while still engaging with the sound.

Put the two together – great audio documentary and great still images – and you have something that is potentially MORE than great storytelling.

It works on a whole different cognitive level to video.

It’s a take on audio slideshows that I’ve seen echoed around the audio journalism community. The claim of a more cerebral and deeply cognitive experience is quite seductive and calls on much of the deeply long-lived and traditional practices of photojournalism and image editors; the power of an image. But am I being cynical in seeing a reading of video as shallow and surface? Are we seeing a similar rhetoric to the slow/longform journalism? Video is surface and temporal. Pictures are deep and connected.

It’s a hard position for me to feel any real affinity for and one that often feels laboured (not by duckrabbit I might add). When I see advice on the five shots that make great slideshows I see a version of the 5 shots you need to make a good video package. In my view neither is better or worse, but with more in common than the broad demarcations suggest.

The discourse that’s used to define audio journalism is one that’s familiar to me as someone who has had more than a passing interest in online video.

Video Journalism

I’ve watched the concept of video journalism shift from a technical revelation, a rush to embrace a new platform, all the way through a new business model, via snake oil, to be a kind of new wave of film making.  It’s clear that it’s supporters feel it’s something different from broadcast.

The films are often authored, they are commonly open about a bias or particular viewpoint, they often cover stories away from the mainstream. But in form they are often best defined by their difference from standard broadcast fair than any general innovation.

That’s not to say there isn’t some compelling, editorially excellent, important and often, downright beautiful stuff going on out there. But beyond experiments with the form – none linear narratives and presentation – there’s little innovation. Maybe a good deal of disruption, but not innovation; using afterFX in a documentary is not innovative. It makes the claim for a new form of journalism a little hollow especially when a lot of it reflects such good journalism.

I know that the biggest regret of many VJ’s (unless your selling the dream not living it) seems to be that it isn’t taken seriously by broadcast journalism. I can see their point. The shocking lack of strands for documentary has pushed the good stuff online – it was only a matter of time.

Things are changing for VJ’s in that respect; without mainstream broadcast (which is their loss). But in my travels I still found pockets of identity crisis and concerns about a lack of recognition – why is that so important if there is a new (and better) form of video journalism I wonder.

Multimedia journalism

The concern over recognition is one that spreads beyond audio and video to those who prefer the title multimedia journalist (they chose the title rather than it being their job description).I was genuinely saddened to read Mark Kelly’s blog about his experiences of trying to do video in a newspaper context, bemoaning the ‘sea of crap’ he has to work with

I believe we’re about to see a huge surge in mobile phone footage shot by print journalists. And we all know what happens next, multimedia producers like you and I get given the footage and asked to turn it into something usable. But you can’t polish a turd can you?

It’s clear Mark has a deep commitment to producing quality stuff, but In another post he explains the exit route and maybe reveals the problem all in one:

Interestingly the majority of multimedia journalists are actually broadcast journalists who’ve ve set their sights on a future in TV and are working for online platforms as a way of gaining experience, a good plan given the growing number of channels and the lack of quality content available.

I suppose there’s nothing worse than being a frustrated broadcast journalist having to lower yourself to working with newspapers, apart from maybe being the newspaper journalist in that equation.

One commentator thinks the world of broadcast will have more respect for his skills:

Fortunately I’m leaving newspapers for the world of broadcast. There, they seem to recognise the breadth of talent, creativity and man hours that go into something worth watching. Maybe newspapers will learn that one day too.

The people who march under the video journalism banner would maybe have some different advice for them.


So why was all that worrying. For me it’s encapsulated in the plight of multimedia journalists. In trying to define themselves as different from the (traditional) norm they exclude themselves from all the groups. Perhaps it’s the environment that doesn’t respect the skills that pushes that banding together – maybe one day there will be a union!

But mostly all of the debates and definitions around multimedia (and you can use what term you like here – audio, video, multimedia, visual journalist) reminded me a lot of a section from Life of Brian (some bad language here)



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Does journalism need a fail whale?

I thought about the title of this post as I was reading around how the recent update to twitter has caused a flurry of posts outlining what it will mean for journalists.

Over at the Nieman Lab Megan Garber ponders what the new twitter might mean for networked journalism. She makes a good point about how this might be effected by “Twitterers, end-user innovation-style”.

But she ultimately concludes that:

The of today, as compared to the of yesterday, is much more about information that’s meaningful and contextual and impactful. Which is to say, it’s much more about journalism.

You could take a view that she means Twitter has now become more useful to journalism. But I have to ask how much journalism is ready to take advantage of what it has to offer.

In amongst the early comment I particularly liked Laura Olivers pondering on what the new features could offer:

I can also see clever journalists using the embedded feature to tease stories with video snippets and by giving their Twitter audience more content encourage those followers to visit a news site and engage there too

I love that idea. But how many newsrooms are ready to take advantage of it?

It’s easy to dismiss putting time in to getting your multimedia on twitter as a waste of time. Like the ipad, it’s easy to dismiss things like twitters new features as gadgets and technology that get in the way of proper journalism.

But experimenting with getting a video on to twitter is not about video on twitter. That’s the easy (now easier bit). It’s about exploring if you have the capacity to do video at all. Just like exploring delivery of content to the ipad is a way to experiment with html5. Hell, if nothing else it’s a convenient excuse to try.

If you don’t take the opportunity to experiment then you will find that you have less of a capacity to produce the content your audience will want and no ability to chase them as they migrate to platforms that do.

When they come to you, you may as well have the newsroom fail whale up: “Sorry we are over capacity”

Real capacity

Maybe we should be more honest about what we can and can’t do. Be more bullish about what we do well. Perhaps we should get over wanting to chase them everywhere (or corral them in one place behind a paywall).

Or maybe we should take advantage of the free, open and engaged platforms to see just what capacity we really have.

Original image: iwona_kellie on Flickr Multimedia review site

News reaches me via the newspaper video group about  me about an excellent new project called Findingtheframe by  Colin Mulvany,  multimedia producer at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington.

According to Colin the site was set up as a website

for the sole purpose of connecting those who need feedback on their multimedia, to professionals willing to share some time and knowledge.

It came off the back of a post on his (excellent) blog Mastering Multimedia where he voiced his disappointment at the quality of the video being submitted to the NPPA Best of Photojournalism Multimedia Contest

The plan is to have onboard as many “expert” volunteers as possible that have solid foundations in video storytelling, audio slide shows or Flash projects. This pool of reviewers will peruse the submitted links of multimedia in the “Story Pool”. If they decide to comment on a story, it will then become public on theFinding the Frame home page where anyone else is free to give added feedback.

The site has already drawn in some great content and some lively debate. Well worth a look and if you are in that game then sign up to help review.

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How the Broadsheets use video : The Indepenedent

Over the last week I’ve been blogging about how the UK broadsheet newspapers use video. One broadsheet was (not so) conspicuous by its absence – The Independent. I promised I would explain why. So here, a little later than promised, is why I didn’t include the Indy. ( a day late, sorry)

The last time I did a round-up of newspaper video I had nothing to say as there was literally nothing to see. But if I gave the impression that was still the case then, dear reader, I have mislead you.

The Independent announced in January that video would play a bigger part of their site as part of their Sound&Vision section and I’ve been keeping a eye on the developments. The result? Well, progress has been slow to say the least but there are  signs of growth.

The Indy sound&vision section
The Indy sound&vision section

There is no jukebox or player set up on the Indy’s web site. Instead they use an embedded flash player to serve their video with the content with related video is grouped in a kind of drop down play list style. The main sections of the site will often have their own ‘sub’ pages for video but the navigation to these pages varies depending where you are. Go to Arts&Entertainment and you have to click on Multimedia to get the video. Go to Travel and its Sound&Vision, the papers umbrella brand for multimedia.  I think this needs to be more consistent. Perhaps using Multimedia as the link in the sections and keeping Sound&Vision as defined gathering point.

The fairly limited implementation means that is none of the fancy embedding of the player in articles you see in other papers. In fact there is little or no attempt to tie any of the video content back to the main site. Where there is some video in an article it’s done with embedded quicktime.

The Sound&Vision brand has its base in the  extras section, where the emphasis is on showcasing content from the papers new ‘documentary’ partner joiningthedots is an online venture from Mercury Media international, an uber-production and distribution company, and it shows. The style and production values really show their background. Not that it’s bad, some of it is jolly good. The subject matter is often the kind of stuff that wouldn’t hit the mainstream.

Joiningthedots.TV - the indy does guardian films?
Joiningthedots.TV - the indy does guardian films?

The environment section is also populated with content from a third party – GreenTV, though the branding is more obvious. There are also the odd one or two videos that are branded as ‘in association’ videos which are essentially third-party. The Saab sponsored video is a good example of this.  But the content isn’t all produced out-house even if it does follow the focus on feature style content – don’t expect to find any breaking news stuff on the Indy.

It was encouraging that the majority of video I watched was branded as Independent video.  This seems to produced by a small in-house set-up with Indy Writer Cathy Packe in the producers chair. Packe and a small team seem to producing an awful lot of content. Man, she must be busy!

How to de-bone a goose in varying lighting conditions
How to de-bone a goose in varying lighting conditions

There are travel shows with the Indy’s very own travel personality Simon Calder. There is a cooking spot which features the hands and disembodied voice of Mark Hix. Watch the video on how to de-bone a goose (haven’t we all struggled with that some time) and you will also learn why you should avoid shooting in front of a window.

The production values are high which makes some of the more basic stuff stand out. The piece by Richard Prince from the Serpentine gallery starts well, the camera move from the blank wall after the title was nice, but then is a 30-40 second ramble round the gallery before we get a stilted interview. Get the story started fast.

Too much like TV

I know I get narky when people use the phrase, but the problem I have with the Indy is it’s too much like TV. But let me explain why.

The decision to stay away from breaking news and focus on feature based stuff certainly fits with the Indy brand. But maybe Packe’s TV roots show too much to truly add a unique stamp to the content. There was very little I saw on the site that was less than 10 minutes long and they all had little title sequences and end, credits. One Simon Calder film even had a bloopers reel. Nice touch, but no thanks. And  one video that featured interviews with Music Producer John Ronsen and Calder . It was a video ringer – two programmes stitched together with an ad to hide the gap. But just like TV it had an ad break. An ad break!

Whilst the Telegraph TV felt like a TV channel the Indy video felt like a showreel for a production company.  At times I often felt like the video I was watching was like a promo for a series they wanted to get commissioned. So it all fell in to ‘we have this idea for a series’ video. We had a strand called Poise – no I’m none the wiser either – and Work, Rest and play. I can see the supporting pitch to a commissioning editor even as I type.

Maybe these would feel less obvious if the presentation on the site supported the brands but it doesn’t. The lack of integration means that any effort to brand the video was lost and just cemented that impression of being pitched at.

The same lack of integration could be said to hamper the effort to pull documentary in the fold with its collaboration.  The execution feels a little bit like the digital equivalent of taping a DVD to the front of your paper and I’m not sure if the Independent thinks it’s buying in to a bit of a Guardian Films vibe or looking at online video sales – a kind of Blockbusters for the liberati.  To be fair they obviously want to support Documentary – funding a doco festival sees to that. But this feels like an add-on


I left the Independent out of my recent round up because it’s something that’s growing. It has growing pains but it’s also got a lot of ground to catch up on. There is no comparison to the position the other players are in. Even with the worst mistakes of the other broadsheets at least they are all at around the same mark with implementation – embedded video, search etc.  The Indy is dabbling.

I was never a fan of former editor Simon Kelner’s wait and see approach and, when it comes to video, the Indy might have waited too long. This really is a standing start. That might sound pretty fatal and my critique picky, so saying that there is a lot of potential here might sound hollow, but there is. It just needs to get its act together.

The Indy has always wanted to do things differently, as their use of the print front page shows. Perhaps they could really break out of the mould with video in the same way. They may be late to the game but the raw material is good and it could work if someone pulled their finger out and integrate it in to the site more. Make it part of the Indy brand rather than hoping it will define itself from the content.

That way they can drop some of the TV pretense and make the good stuff work for them.

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Slideshows from photo archive

Colin Mulvany has a great post (and nice examples) on his blog highlighting the benefits of using your archive pictures for slideshows. It came off the back of a comment commending the Spokane Review for a piece looking back at 40 years of snow.

Colin points out how easy these things are and how popular they can become. And he’s so right.

It’s one of the first things I tell editors when we are looking at multimedia. You have loads of archive. Stuff that no-one else has and it’s easy to get online.

There are two key things to note with archive slideshows

  • They don’t need to be flash or soundlsides.
    The Spokane Review use Final cut pro and deliver in flash video. You could just as easily use Windows movie maker or Imovie. The content is still a slideshow.
  • They don’t need narration
    But text and music is a good idea. This is especially important if you use a video delivery as you don’t get the non-linear navigation you do with soundslides.

If you are looking for a first stage of training then what about this:

  • Check your diary and see what anniversaries are coming up
  • Go through the archive
  • If you are on a PC fire up Windows movie maker or imovie on a mac
  • Create a slideshow of your best images.
  • Link it to a follow up in the paper

As a follow up try another story but record an audio interview with someone associated with the story. It may even be the reporter, photographer or editor at the time.

Video training: Avoid the training rollercoaster

the training rollercoaster

Stress and time are reduced if training has a long tail

Life seems very busy at the moment, busy good, but busy none the less so slow posting I’m afraid (no cheering at the back).

One of the busy things I did last week was spend a day(ish) with a group of editors from UK newspaper group Trinity Mirror. TM are really ramping up their online presence at the moment. Their hyperlocal sites in particular are picking up a lot of notice in the UK.

Anyway, as part of that digital thing the editors where doing a course called  ‘Creating Effective content’ and I had them for a session that fell under the broad heading of ‘multimedia’.

I spent a good part of the morning showing them Windows Movie Maker. Not because it’s what they use –  they have a mix of things – or what I think they should use,  but because it’s such a quick and user friendly way to illustrate the process. Within half-an-hour they where happily plugging away at creating a picture slideshow.

This is one of the most instantly popular things I do. The genuine excitement that comes back at just how easy it all is is very nice to see. Suddenly this multimedia stuff is not so hard and if video is part of the plan, perhaps it doesn’t look so out of reach. Baby steps

But I’m not telling you this to relive the warm fluffy feeling.

That evening the eds went out and used N95’s to shoot some interviews with the public about the way they consume sports news. They came back the next day with a brief to put together a kind of multimedia ‘report’.

What I noticed as I flitted round the room was that the flush of excitement they had with the technology had lost a little of its shine. As they battled with the limits of movie maker, for some, the frustrations and fears came back.

The training rollercoaster

I see the same thing with my students and the practical training I deliver. A basic overview of a bit of software or kit can give people enough of a taste to get them fired up. But give them a project to go out and try it and the fear factor is ramped up again. Of course the value is in using the experience of that first project and incorporate that in to follow up training. The stress can be very quickly reduced and people move much faster. We all know that’s how we learn – guided experience.

But it’s surprising how much training in the new digital skills forgets that last bit. A lot of the time it deals with it in a FOFO way – You’ve had your training now F*** off and find out yourself.

So if you are thinking about the training for your journos ( and no, there is no other way to get it right other than training) here are a few things to think about:

  • Define and test your workflow
    Training isn’t an opportunity to define a working process. Get someone who knows what they are doing to make sure your workflow is fit for purpose. It doesn’t need to be tested to breaking point. Most importantly make sure that it is as consistent as it can be across all centers in your org.  Training isn’t fault finding.

I’ll mea culpa here. When showed WMM to the TM eds a I completely missed a problem with the MP4 video that the N95’s produced – not directly compatible. So I needed to source a bit of software to sort it out*. An easy solution but introducing the new software shifted things back in to feeling ‘technical’

  • Get kit in place
    Many orgs still buy in training before all of the centers have kit in place. Ideally they should be taking their kit to the training. Yes, skills will be transferable – you can busk your way round most cameras having used one – but there is a level of confidence gained in knowing you are working with the same kit you will use day in, day out.
  • Split your training in to two parts:
    The first part should be quick, directed and aimed at confidence building – simple, directed examples. Avoid letting the training simply be about serving the workflow. Remember this isn’t the chance to define things. It should end with a definite project to work on. The second part should be based on a review of the project. More specific skills can be introduced. This stops that first ‘hump’ of stress from being too steep a mountain to climb.
  • Build in mutual support
    Support the training with an online component – a blog or forum. Keep the forum private for delegates only. The forum should be moderated by the trainer or by a qualified member of staff who can answer questions quickly but more importantly push information and ideas out. Better still, if you are all under one roof, assign mentors or buddies (I hate that word but you know what I mean). If you’re the boss, maybe even spring for coffee for them so that they can meet once in a while.
  • Permission to fail.
    A long with the idea of playtime (think of it like googles 20% time), permission to fail is a really important concept in training terms for me. I hear a lot of talk of editors demanding content from people the day after a course – no pressure – and of course it hardly ever works out. The school of hard knocks is a romantic throwback. It is not a good model for encouraging staff in what may already be a sensitive working environment.

Feedback always welcome.

*A neat little bit of windows shareware called WM Converter