Teaching Examples

Behind the scenes: Making multimedia journalism
June 13, 2007, 8:30 pm
Filed under: journalism, multimedia, online, video

After I had viewed this multimedia package (which was reported, shot, designed and programmed by Jerry Wolford, staff photographer for 20 years), I had to ask Jerry some questions about how he managed to get it done.

Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record
The Dragon and the G-Man

If you look at a lot of the journalism multimedia out there, such as the excellent St. Louis Blues package I linked yesterday, you’ll see a long list of names in the credits. This makes perfect sense, because these packages take time to produce, and usually a broad range of skill sets is required. But Jerry produced this package as a solo effort, working closely with one editor and pretty much no one else except a copy editor (always a good move).

Jerry works for the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record, which laid off 41 people last week (in news: 11 full-time, six part-time), with declining ad revenues as the reason given.

What goes into it

“I spent at least 60 hours programming, but I was learning,” Jerry wrote in e-mail. It wouldn’t take as long if he did it again, he noted. “I am really a hack programmer. Not a scratch of training. I am pretty slow at this. Stubborn enough to not give up, I guess.”

He estimated he put about 20 hours into the video. “Again, I was learning. I did more hours than I want to admit on my own time.” It would have gone a lot faster if he wasn’t running Final Cut Pro on a three-year-old Apple PowerBook.

Jerry’s description of how he got the work done echoes the stories I hear from a lot of the new multimedia journalists.

“I was given time on this, in part, as a training exercise,” he wrote. Greensboro’s director of photography, Rob Brown, supports “where my paper and the industry need to go with video and multimedia”; Jerry said Brown protected him from getting too many “print side” assignments while he was producing this project.

While editing, he worked with a Life section editor, Mike Kernels. “He was a natural,” Jerry said. “I tapped him for the job because he is so rounded and easy to work with. I knew I would need an editor’s help navigating the minefield of working on a Klan documentary. He had many good ideas, did storyboarding. Very unlike me to do that. He … helped shape the intro clip, pull the best quotes and heads. I sort of work solo and in a vacuum, so having a partner to give feedback was good…. We will work together again.”

That was my favorite thing in all that Jerry told me — the idea of the print editor working side-by-side with the photographer – turned – multimedia – journalist. That’s where we are headed, where we need to go. I don’t mean it always has to be a photographer, but rather that we need to get this kind of collaboration working for our newsrooms.

How he did the interviews

With minor edits, this is what Jerry wrote:

I interviewed the Klan guy once before. I knew the whole story and ended up not using any of it in the end. I did use some outdoor footage and the “tight” thumbnail videos from the first shoot.

I interviewed the FBI guy and then knew how to really get under the skin of the Klansman. The second interview with the Klan guy was the charm.

I spent about an hour on each interview. 15 minutes or more setting up. I use a Sony HDR-SR1 camera set to record at 720 x 404 pixels with MPEG2 files. [The HDR-SR1 saves directly to a hard disk. Video later sampled down to 480 x 269 for online.] Hoping for a real camera soon. Sennheiser G2 wireless lapel for audio.

I asked all the questions and shaped the interview. I had a reporter with me at the FBI interview. A couple of his questions may have made it into my piece. I am very controlling at that phase. You can’t do a traditional Q&A. In general, reporters don’t get how this has to be done. I basically have a subject refine their response to my questions. Most things are just live, but I ask them to insert names and dates, etc., when they talk about things. I ask them to go over things once, twice, or more to get them to clarify and condense. I let them tell their story, but I ask them to help shorten, or lengthen with details.

I thought the lighting was really good, so I asked Jerry about that too. I have no clue what most of this means:

The lighting set-up may be a little funny to some. I used a big photo soft box with a handful of those new compact fluorescent light bulbs. They are very bright and do not get hot. I have one with a “grid” and reflector rigged for feathered lighting that I use for a hair light. I bought the bulbs at the local hardware store for $60 — 90-watt bulbs with output at 5500K (color). I use the little cheap clamps. I can stick a strobe in there with them and shoot stills if needed. I actually did that. Not very elegant, but until I can figure out what I really want buy … I like those new LED light panels, but this is pretty easy and very flexible.

A good reporter should never repeat jargon, but I know all you PJs reading this will eat it up (smile).

How the newspaper played it

The package was part of a Sunday centerpiece with a print promo to the Web feature. The project went online Sunday, with a promo image on the front that ran until Tuesday. Then the package went to the second slot on the home page, with only a text link.

Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record
Reaction from the public? None, really, “and not really big numbers,” Jerry wrote in e-mail. But he says management at his newspaper has noticed that good online work has legs. Projects such as Jerry’s Deeds of Discrimination from a year ago still get hits every day.

Critique of content, functionality

I wouldn’t call The Dragon and the G-Man a perfect package — my biggest complaint was that you were forced to sit through a very long video before you got to choose anything for yourself. It bothered me the first time I opened it, but on second and subsequent visits, it was maddening! Multimedia packages need to be designed for repeated viewings. They need to have a nonlinear structure so that people can skip around inside. (Jerry has since fixed this, adding a Skip Intro button. Whew.)

I give Jerry a heap of credit for making the package look awesomely good. He’s clearly one of those people who loves to tweak images in Photoshop (e.g., for photo illustrations, not dishonestly), and the results are beautiful. Jerry made all the cutouts and composite images. He wrote: “The gun pic had the mug shot dropped in. I added borders and cropped the historic images. The Klan and torches [image] was a file photo. I shot the other stuff. Clips were from our archives.”

Jerry also deserves a standing ovation for making all the video and the photo zooms work so smoothly. The functionality really stands out in this package, and that’s not an easy thing to get right.

I found the story very interesting. I liked the video interviews with both men. I loved the way the interviews were intercut. Don’t underestimate the quality of the on-camera interviews. They really are exceptional. You won’t see anything better on 60 Minutes or Frontline, in my opinion.

But I really, really yearned for shorter segments and more helpful text cues. The interviews are so good, I don’t blame Jerry at all for slicing them up and offering so much video. But I need more information before I click on the individual segments.

This is something I see in lots of online journalism. Packages are constructed as if the producer thinks people will just click everything, or maybe, will be content to click randomly. Well, journalism is not YouTube. I need a hint or a hook or a tease that’s informative enough — provocative enough — to make me think, yeah, I want to know more about that. Or, hey, what is the answer to that question?

I’m not ragging on this package, though. Take some time with it, and you’ll see why I feel so much admiration for it. Sure, it could be improved. But that’s for the next one. Well done, Jerry.

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4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Jerry is a special talent, but everyone who wants to can do this. You’re right about pointing out the work with Mike Kernels. Mike would tell you that he’s never worked so closely on a project with someone who exhibited as little ego as Jerry, which brought out the best in Mike. The perfect collaboration.

Comment by John Robinson

“Everyone who wants to” is a very good way to say it, John.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

I can think of one thing I’d add — room for an ad or some sort of sponsor.

As a former N&R staffer who’s thrilled to see Jerry doing work like this, I’d like to see it pay off.

The real shame in Greensboro is that they’re doing the “right” things, and yet they’re dealing with a hostile readership that doesn’t appreciate Klan history being revisited and seems to care very little for the innovative work they’re doing.

I think the challenge we’re facing here is making quality pay. Otherwise, those four jobs listed in your earlier post about Las Vegas will be the first jobs cut.

Comment by bdure

Yeah, I admire the News & Record for tackling Klan stories in North Carolina. I know there are a lot of people in their state who don’t appreciate those stories. I think maybe it would be hard to get an advertiser to sponsor that particular package, because the Klan sympathizers might retalize against the advertiser — in subtle ways, of course.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

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