Wow. After a draining but fascinating week at the Knight Digital Media Center‘s multimedia journalism boot camp, I’m itching to edit the video for what will be my second InvestigateWest piece.
And you, too, can benefit from the Knight Center’s expertise — whether you’re a paid journalist or a citizen who is thinking about committing some journalism to right some wrongs. Much of what I learned, and more, is available on the center’s website in the tutorials section. For me, this stuff should prove pivotal.
Our marathon learn-while-you-do sessions, lasting from 9 a.m. at least until 9 p.m. each day, allowed teams of journalists to produce actual multimedia stories. My team* was sent out to profile the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, a non-profit formed by teachers to divert useable materials out of the waste stream. It not only helps teachers and artists find cheap stuff — it also keeps landfills from filling up so fast.
I’m grateful that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation saw fit to fund this intensive week of learning, which I’ll be putting to practical use very soon. For a 30-year veteran of the print-journalism biz bootstrapping his way into the new multimedia world of journalism, it was invaluable.
Here are some broad principles I took away from the week’s training:
- Not every story is a multimedia story. The phrase I heard was that I should let each story tell me how it should be told. Sometimes text is the best way to go. (Example: My first story for InvestigateWest, which necessarily published while I was away at the training.)
- Video is favored for stories that involve motion and action or dramatic scenes (think a hurricane plowing ashore). It’s also the go-to choice for animals, kids, humor and — of course — celebrities. It’s not a great way to get people to reflect because TV “does your thinking for you,” as the maxim goes. Video is also good for some how-to material. Keep the number of characters you include to a bare minimum and try to limit each video 1:30 or 2:00. You wouldn’t want to go much longer unless it’s just wonderful stuff.
- Photography is really popular on the web. Good thing, too, because unlike video, it’s great for leading the viewer down a path of reflection — contemplation, even. Think the aftermath of a hurricane, when people return to their ruined homes. And photography is much better if what you’re after is emotion (which is different from drama, as pointed out by Paul Grabowicz**, associate dean at the journalism graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, where the training took place).
- Audio is where you go to really put the person there, in the listener’s mind’s eye. Ambient sound lends itself to a sense of place. Audio also can communicate so much about a person’s state of mind — through the person’s voice. Audio encourages listeners to reflect. You may have noticed that these are some of the same attributes you find in photography — which is why audio slideshows go down so well on the web. A gripping example — try not to tear up while watching; try real hard — is “One Thing At A Time” by the Fairfax Times. (Notice how black-and-white can be infinitely more powerful than color?)
- Databases and map mashups are wonderful ways to inject some interactivity into the presentation of a story.
- Graphics are great for numbers, data, statistics, timelines, and many how-to elements. This is also a decent way to communicate issues, at least in brief. (See a cool site that lets you present data in a very interesting way at www.gapminder.org).
- Text. Oh, yeah — that. Well, yes, Virginia, there still is a place for text on the web. This is where we (still) go for the big picture, the context. Background, biography, analysis, synthesis, in-depth, translation of bureaucratese, complexity — all these are best covered in text. And let’s not forget lists. You don’t want those on video. Also, breaking news is best covered this way. Yeah, it’s an old delivery vehicle — but still effective.
- Games. They’re fun. Let’s try to do more of ’em. (When they make sense, of course. Not appropropriate for a story like the Fairfax Times’, for instance.)
- Above all, the best journalism, no matter the form, is all about storytelling.
Well, there’s lots more that we could explore here but it’s getting late and I’m heading home soon. Look for more pieces in the SEJournal, the quarterly publication of the Society of Environmental Journalists, where I edit the Reporter’s Toolbox section and serve as chairman of the editorial board.
— Robert McClure
* I was blessed to work closely with the frenetic and hypercaffeinated Andrea Alexander of The Record in New Jersey; the sharp, fast-on-his-feet Kwan Booth of oaklandlocal.com; the precise and indefatigable Julie Drizin of the Association of Independents in Radio; and the droll and creative David Reynolds of the Star News in Wilmington, N.C.
**I also owe a hearty word of thanks to the staff of the KDMC, especially multimedia training director Lanita Pace-Hinton, who is so skilled at putting together these sessions. Instructors Jerry Monti, Jeremy Rue, Paul Hacker, Len Degroot and Marilyn Pittman were dynamite. And we’re all indebted to Alisha Diego Klatt, who attended to the myriad details as well as getting us some really excellent chow! (Chow, with me, is not a detail.) Finally, hat’s off to the excellent graduate students who helped immensely.