Become a Web favorite

It’s a question being asked in newsrooms around the world: How do we make our Web site “sticky?”  How to we get users to stay on it longer and return often?  Northwestern University’s Media Management Center tried to answer those questions in a recent joint study with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “What it takes to be a Web favorite.”

The research found that ease of use appears to be the key.  What matters most to users is their ability to manage the overwhelming amounts of information online.  Their favorite sites make it “easy to find what I’m looking for.”

The ability to browse and process information in a quick, manageable way was often deemed more valuable than the quantity or distinctiveness of the content…Making the information easier to sort and sift was significantly more important than having unique content.

The study also found that familiar brands still carry a lot of weight online.  Users often looked for sources they were familiar with in another context.  TV viewers tended to choose TV Web sites for the same reasons they like watching television news–personality and immediacy.

Television Web sites were seen as being more up-to-date than newspaper counterparts because “television broadcasts several times a day while the newspaper publishes only once.”

Participants in the study had strong Web habits that rarely change, with three to five “favorite” news sites they have used for at least several years.  How do they find new “favorites?”  This might surprise you–it’s not by surfing the Web, it’s old-fashioned word of mouth.

Story planning tips

If you’re using the textbook, you’re already aware that planning is an essential part of the storytelling process. It begins as soon as you have some idea of what your story is about. Having a story plan helps you find all the elements you’ll need to tell your story well.

Peter Rosen, winner of the 2008 NPPA writing award, is a meticulous story planner. As a feature reporter for KUTV in Salt Lake City, Utah, Rosen edited his own stories and developed his own writing philosophy. “Writing isn’t about words for myself,” he says. “When it comes to writing, less is so much more.”

You can see some of Rosen’s work online here.

Tips on using audio

The best TV photojournalists I know shoot with their ears.  They capture great sound and they use it throughout their stories.  KARE-TV’s Jonathan Malat is one of the best in the business, but he says it took him a while to figure out why audio matters so much.

Malat says he likes reporters to write in as much nat sound as they can, and to be specific about what sound they want where by putting time codes in their scripts.  “It helps me edit faster, and I can provide more meaningful nats to add information,” he says.

Want to hear how it all comes together?  Check out Malat’s winning news feature entry in the 2007 NPPA contest.

First job options

In the current tough economy, you may not have a lot of choices for a first job in broadcasting.  Maybe you want to work in television.  Should you take a job in radio?  And can you even afford to?  Many applicants are shocked by the small salaries being offered for entry-level jobs in both radio and television.  In some markets, reporters make so little they’re actually eligible for food stamps.

Unfortunately, low pay is not a new issue.  A few years ago, I compared my starting salary in TV to what college graduates were making in their first jobs 30 years later.  Guess what?  Today’s students are actually worse off.  Joe Schlaerth, news director at WIVB-TV in Buffalo, says that’s just reality.  “The pay is terrible. The hours are terrible,” he says.If you love it, you’re going to stay in it.

After a recent seminar at Syracuse University, CBS radio news director Tim Scheld told students it’s not that different from when he started out.  He also has some advice about how to make the most of any opportunities you get.

Video shooting tips

Sometimes great pictures don’t add up to a great video news story. That may sound absurd, but it’s true. TV stories that work aren’t just a collection of great shots, they’re narratives with visual continuity.

Scott Jensen, who just won his second NPPA TV photographer of the year award, says you can’t tell a coherent visual story without sequences. Over the years, he’s trained himself to shoot sequences in the field, which helps him edit stories much faster. “If I had to, I could edit a sequence in five minutes.”

Jensen works for KTUU-TV in Anchorage, Alaska.  We taught together last weekend at an NPPA workshop, and afterward I asked him to explain how his understanding of visual structure affects the way he shoots.

Tips on video editing

NPPA editor of the year Shawn Montano of KWGN-TV in Denver knows what it takes to craft a great visual story, even in a hurry.  “I like to milk a shot for everything it has,” he says.If I can let a shot run for 5 or 6 seconds, that’s going to save me” when there’s not much time to edit.

Montano believes in using lots of natural sound and what he calls “tight shots with meaning.”  Close-ups should either be part of a sequence or illustrate what the story’s about, he says. “If they don’t have meaning, they aren’t important to the story.”

At an NPPA workshop last weekend, Montano shared one of his editing mantras: the more the eye moves, the more information a person gathers and retains. Montano uses movement in shots to lead the viewer’s eye to a specific point, and then edits to a shot where something important is at that same place on the screen.  The technique is subtle but effective; his stories seem to flow, and that’s what he wants.  “Anything that’s jarring makes it more difficult for the viewer to comprehend,” he says.

Montano has just started a great new blog, Edit Foundry, to share tips on video editing.  Among them:

I don’t just put up any old shot.  I’m thinking about what [a person is] saying and trying to find video [that’s] relevant.  S.W.A.P – syncronize words and pictures.

Watch this story first, and then read what Montano has to say about how he put it together.

Writing opens and closes

For many TV reporters, the hardest things to write in any story are the opening and closing lines.  The result is that many of the stories you see on the air are really just middles.  They don’t get off to a good start and they seem to trail off at the end.

A few suggestions:

Think about opening lines from the minute you start reporting the story.  Look for possible opening shots all along the way.  Write possible first lines in your notebook; you should have several to choose from by the time you start writing.

But you’re still not ready to write if you don’t know where you’re going.  Have an ending in mind and know why you want to end there.  You may not have polished your last line to perfection before you begin to write, but you should know what you’re driving at and what video you’ll use.

Boyd Huppert, longtime reporter at KARE-TV in Minneapolis, is an award-winning writer who excels at opens and closes:

You can see how Huppert does it in these stories from his award-winning entry in the 2007 NPPA writing contest.  See how he uses the first sentence or two in each story to let the viewer in on the focus.  Notice the use of natural sound, and the ratio of sound to narration.  And listen to the way each closing line clearly says “the end.”

Work fast to be first

Reporter Jason Whitely of WFAA-TV in Dallas is a self-described online junkie who loves to work fast to feed the Web.  Most of what he does online is not a job requirement. “I do it on my own because I like whipping the competition as much as possible,” he says.

When he’s out on a story, Whitely says he’s often “hammering on the Blackberry,” sending in four or five paragraphs for the Web before he does anything on TV.  He’s well aware that mid-day is prime time online and looks to break stories there instead of holding them for the next television newscast.

During Hurricane Ike, Whitely and other reporters filed short videos for WFAA.com as well.  Using a simple Flip camera, Whitely recorded 30-60 second video blogs like this several times a day and sent them in from his laptop via FTP–no editing required.  These vlog entries are simply video versions of what we used to call “sceners” when I worked in radio news at CBS, and which my ABC colleagues called “ROSRs” [radio on scene reports].  They’re essentially “no pressure” live shots, done off camera in “show and tell” style.  You can knock them out in no time, keeping your Web staff happy and giving your site users a reason to come back for more.

Anthony Mirones, formerly of of WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, also believes in working fast.  In a post over at News Videographer, he explains exactly how he does it.

  • When I get to a “scene” I literally shoot a wide, medium, tight, tight, tight, wide.
  • Now consider this, each shot was held for 10 seconds and now I can use anywhere from 3-5 seconds per edit. The longer the shot holds, the less editing. This can amount to 18-30 seconds of video. All shot in one to two minutes of arriving on scene.
  • Because this is breaking news, I only need a sound bite and typically PIO’s are ready for it and can spew out all they know in about 20 seconds. Now my story is 38-50 seconds long.
  • If I’m lucky I will find a witness (someone who heard, saw, felt, smelled) something when it happened. That person will talk for 10 to 30 seconds. Done.
  • I record 20 seconds of voice over. Take 5-7 minutes to edit.

Once he’s set the story up to feed, Mirones says, he goes back to work on quality.  His rules to live by: “Don’t get fancy, don’t get creative, and don’t miss an opportunity to be first. Then be fancy, be creative, and don’t miss the opportunity to be the best.”  [Thanks, Anthony, for letting us know you are still at WCPO.]

Planning the multimedia project

Most journalists are already getting involved in multimedia storytelling on some level and a majority of them will tell you that time is their biggest enemy. In the daily crush of deadlines, it’s hard to do a great job on one media platform, let alone two or three.

But every once in awhile a journalist gets a chance to work on a long-term multimedia project. Media General’s Peter Howard is the VP of News & Content for the company’s Interactive Media Division. Speaking to a class of graduate students at Virginia Commonwealth University, Howard said that the best projects devote a good chunk of time to planning. He’s come up with a list of six steps to help insure a multimedia project’s success:

  1. Set goals. Howard says you have to ask, “What are you trying to achieve?” He suggests too many people skimp on this step, thinking the answer is obvious, but defining the goals of the project can clearly help shape the content.
  2. Collaborate. According to Howard, you have to talk extensively and often with others to determine how you can achieve your goals. Web developers, reporters, photojournalists and anyone else you might need on the project should be included in meetings from the get-go.
  3. Define the audience. This may or may not be a part of your goal-setting exercise, but it’s an important step in the planning process. Determining who you will target with the project will also have an impact on the content you gather and the way in which you present the information.
  4. Develop a timetable. Howard maintains that this step in the process is critical. “Set realistic deadlines for the collection of material, and be sure to factor in development time,” Howard says.
  5. Select tools. Think about what tools can be used to present the content most effectively and to invite audience participation – is a poll or a forum better – a slideshow or a video? “Page views shoot up for photo galleries,” says Howard. “But be aware that about half your audience won’t be able to hear an audio slideshow, so using audio plus captions is probably the best way to go.”
  6. Establish a presentation plan. Finally, you have to determine what your project will look like online. Howard suggests you start with a storyboard – sketching out what the audience will be presented with first, then the next scene and the next. “It will help you see gaps in your presentation a lot quicker, “says Howard.

Howard says project planners should also consider what they already know about their audiences and their sites. “One thing we’ve found is that a text story will get about five times more hits than a video story,” Howard says. He also pointed out that some forms of interactivity work better than others, for example, “it’s hard to get people to write, so polls may work better than forums at times.”

Howard wrapped up the discussion with a look at a couple of projects that serve as examples of what can be achieved through this planning process.

Hickory Daily Record (Hickory, NC), Sawmill Murder

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Holocaust Survivor

Shooting tips for VJs

Can you really do it all? Mark Carlson, a videojournalist for the Associated Press, has no doubt the answer is yes. “I can do anything,” Carlson says. “Tell me I can’t do something and I’ll do it for you.”

Carlson got his first job 10 years ago as a one-man-band at a local television station. Now, he travels the country and the world reporting on everything from the Olympics to hurricanes.  “I’m allowed to be creative,” he told a broadcast journalism seminar at Syracuse University.It’s not easy. It’s a lot of fun for me, but it’s not for a lot of people.

Usually working alone, Carlson shoots with a Sony HD video camera, the Z1U, and a Sennheiser ME66 shotgun microphone that “works like a rifle.” Throw in the tripod and the whole rig weighs less than 10 pounds, he says. “You can’t pay me to work with a big camera again.”

The stories Carlson showed at the conference [like this one on the Michigan economy] had rock-steady video and lots of natural sound.  How does he do that? “You learn to use the tools you have and make the most of them. You have to always be thinking.”