Five tips for video stories

Let’s say you’re already pretty good at the fundamentals of visual storytelling. You’ve mastered the camera, you understand lighting, and you’re capable of shooting sequences and capturing crisp natural sound. What else do you need to know to tell great visual stories?

Consider these suggestions:

Focus. Decide what your story is really about. If you don’t have a clear focus when you start shooting, figure it out as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’re liable to wind up with far too much video–a lot of which may be really nice but doesn’t add up to a story.

Variety. Shooting wide, medium and tight is a good start, but you can elevate your game by changing your perspective. Colin Mulvany, multimedia producer at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, says that when he’s shooting he reminds himself to be more creative. “Get your camera low or high,” he says. Award-winning photojournalist Mark Anderson advises: “Zoom with your feet, not with your lens.”

Structure. Video is linear. Think beginning, middle and end and avoid tangents that take your story off track. Don’t leave a shoot without an opening and closing shot. Make sure you capture shots you can use to transition from one story segment to another. For example, if you’re going from an outside location to an inside one, you might want a shot of someone walking in the door.

Matching. The visuals in your story should match up with the words. KARE-TV photojournalist Jonathan Malat likes to use the phrase, “Say it, prove it.” What he means is that if a sound bite or a line of narration describes an action or mood, you should use video to reinforce it. As Mulvaney puts it, “When the fire chief says: ‘We gave mouth-to-mouth to six kittens’– I don’t want to see his face, I want to see the kittens.”

Pacing. Shots and sound bites that run on too long risk boring the viewer. That doesn’t mean you need an edit every one or two seconds. Rapid cuts are great for drawing attention but they can also overwhelm your content. If you’re dealing with a complex story and you don’t want viewers to miss the meaning in the narration or sound bites, keep the editing pace moderate to slow. If your content is primarily visual, like on a breaking news story, feel free to speed up the edits.

Read more tips for video storytelling at Mulvaney’s blog, Mastering Multimedia, which inspired this post. Thanks, Colin!


Multimedia portfolio creation

We keep telling everyone that it’s important to create a new kind of resume that showcases multimedia skills.  The best way to do that, of course, is online, but what should your Web portfolio look like?

At Arizona State University, Prof. Serena Carpenter requires students in her Online Media classes to create their own multimedia resumes.  In her blog, she describes the tools used to build the sites.

The sites were created using HTML/CSS, Photoshop, and Dreamweaver. During this exercise, students are given the freedom to express their creativity by designing their own sites and producing their own content for their online resumes.

Viewing all the examples should give you some ideas on what works and what doesn’t, but here are a few you should definitely check out:

  • Maxine Park – visually appealing and though she does feature a photo of herself, it doesn’t shout, “All about me!” as some student sites tend to.
  • Carleen McGillick – a simpler site designed for a public relations student – it’s clean and easy to navigate.
  • Mark Crudup – this site is quite plain, but it showcases a unique element about the journalist – his interest in science and medical writing.  In today’s environment, you have to sell the employer on what’s special about you.

TV news producing tips

What does it take to be a successful newscast producer? More than you might think. There’s a lot more to producing than just stacking a show. The decisions a producer makes about what stories to run and in what order are important, of course, but only a small part of the job.

Holly Edgell, executive producer at KOMU-TV, says a producer must be a journalist first, but also a coach, timekeeper, ethics watchdog and shoulder to cry on, among other things.

The newscast producer must be meticulous to a fault; a micro-manager to a degree; patient; cool under pressure AND a quick, confident decision maker.  It’s a pretty tall order, and no producer gets everything right all the time.

Edgell oversees producers at the NBC affiliate owned by the University of Missouri. On her News You Can Use blog, she says one of the hardest things for many producers to learn is how to take responsibility for the entire newscast, “even those parts that are not directly your job.”

Basically, that means a producer must connect with everyone on staff who has anything to do with the newscast, from the live truck operators to the meteorologists. But connecting doesn’t mean nagging or giving orders.  Here’s Edgell’s advice for dealing with reporters:

Keep in touch (even if they don’t call you, you call them); provide encouragement; ask if a story angle has changed; remind them of deadlines; ask if they need graphics.  The more your reporters know you are part of their team, the more they’ll be on yours.

In today’s newsrooms, producers have to be leaders. Good leaders know that if you model what you want from others, you just might get it. And if you ask, “How can I help you?” you just might get some help in return.

Tweeting the news

CNN’s Rick Sanchez has almost 90,000 followers on Twitter, making him one of the top TV news Tweeters in the US. His frequent posts are a mix of requests for feedback on the news, commentary and personal observations like this one yesterday:

i got to go slap on some make-up. be back in a jiff. hate this part.

I follow Rick, but I confess that I rarely read what he posts. Maybe that’s because there’s so little actual news in his feed. CBS’s Mark Knoller, on the other hand, is an essential read for me, providing a quick update on what’s happening at the White House every day.

It’s easy to find other national journalists who use Twitter by checking MuckRack, but many local stations are using the service, too.

Allison Watts, executive producer at WHAM-TV in Rochester, N.Y., calls herself a “Twittering Twit.”  She posts updates on breaking news and says she often gets tips and feedback from Twitter users in her community.

Reporters at the station use Twitter from the field. Last week, Watts says that reporter Rachel Barnhart Tweeted from court on the sentencing of a former police officer convicted of hit-and-run.

In a span of 30 minutes and 40 tweets, she painted a detailed picture of what it was like in the courtroom. It included everything from emotional statements from family members to the judge’s decision.

Other local TV journalists using Twitter include reporter Jason DeRusha from WCCO-TV in Minneapolis and assignment editor Misty Montano from KCNC-TV in Denver.  Who would you add to the list?

By the way, if there’s an online directory of local TV Tweeters, I haven’t found it yet. Let us know if you know of one.

Writing better news stories

Tom Hallman, Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who conducts narrative writing seminars for the Society of Professional Journalism and writes a column for SPJ’s Quill magazine.  This month he wrote about what separates a great story from a good one, and though they’re geared primarily to print reporters, most of his comments make a lot of sense for those writing online and for TV stories, too.

1.  Distance – According to Hallman, stories suffer if your audience is kept at arm’s length by your writing.  “If you look at your notebook and have nothing but quotes, then you have a problem,”  says Hallman.  He believes you need to bring the reader in close with descriptions — of sound, gestures, perhaps the look of a room.  By focusing on all the senses “writers give the reader the chance to know the character, and that makes those good quotes even better because they’re placed in context.”

2.  Stories about things – Hallman says the best stories are built around people, not a spokesperson.

3.  Direction – Hallman says great stories give readers a sense “that the story is headed someplace, that something is about to unfold.”  He suggests you should know “what emotion you want your reader to experience.”

4.  Pacing – Don’t get locked into the two-sentence paragraph.  “Sentence length and paragraph blocking are two important ways we can slow a story, or speed it up.  A long paragraph followed by a short one draws attention to the short one.”

5.  Theme -” The best stories touch the universal.”

6.  Voice –  This doesn’t mean first person, rather Hallman says you strive to give your audience “a sense of the narrator behind the story.”

7.  Strong middles and powerful endings – Though openings are important, Hallman says, “The body of the story is where we keep the reader interested.  The ending is the payoff.”

Make your Web story count

Most television Web sites have left the age of shovelware behind, thank goodness. It took a while, but stations finally figured out that simply posting TV scripts online wouldn’t entice anyone to visit a site twice. That said, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. TV stories don’t just need to be rewritten for the Web, they need to be rethought.

Reporter Jason DeRusha of WCCO-TV in Minneapolis says writing for online publication may be the “most important and least appreciated” part of his job. At his station, reporters don’t hand off their stories to a Web producer for rewriting; they’re expected to write their own Web versions and to understand how Web writing is different.

Online readers expect you to get to the point right away. On-air, you might build your story to a climactic point. Online readers expect you to cite your sources, specifically. Online readers expect you to link to source material.

DeRusha admits that when he first started writing Web stories, he hated the extra work. But he’s figured out how to make it count:

I love adding the extra information that I had to leave out because of time. I love the challenge of coming up with a provocative headline to attract viewers. And I’m proud of the fact that when people link to my stories, they get a well-written story, under my name, and under my station’s brand.

DeRusha’s multimedia duties don’t stop there, by the way. He also blogsTweets and has a live Webcam at his desk.

Student journalism taken seriously

The fact that the Web gives almost anyone a publishing platform has created significant opportunity for student journalists.  Instead of producing class work for an audience of one – the instructor – students now have the opportunity to create their own Web sites and blogs or post to online video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo.

Just ask Tracy Kennedy.  The VCU freshman was covering the Virginia legislature for one of her classes when she noticed that many lawmakers appeared to be surfing the Web during a session.  She checked out one of the school’s cameras and shot a story, which she then posted on YouTube.

The story caught the attention of the Washington Posts’s Amy Gardner, and she posted a link to the video on her blog.   The post elicited comments from one of the legislators included in the piece, as well as a number of additional remarks from readers.  Later that day, the Virginia Politics blog expanded on the reaction from legislators who were critical of Kennedy’s reporting.  The local CBS affiliate in Richmond also produced a story about the impact of Kennedy’s work in which she told the station that she was “surprised” by all the attention.

In an email, Kennedy said she wishes some of the critics had read the text-based article she wrote to accompany the video, and said she’s proud of work.

I only wish that I had included a note at the end of the video clarifying some facts about my report, like that all but one of the delegates refused to comment on my story and that those pictures were taken on a break-less Ash Wednesday session, but otherwise, I wouldn’t change a thing if I could.

Whatever you think of her story, Kennedy is getting a feel for the power of journalism that just couldn’t be replicated in the classroom alone.  

At first, I wasn’t sure whether or not I had the mettle to be a journalist and I had a paralyzing fear that I wouldn’t be able to get a job after graduation. Since the delegates report, I’ve become much more confident in my ability to withstand criticism, and I’ve even received several internship offers. I still have a lot to learn before I can become a better journalist, but I’m definitely up to the challenge.

Writing great Web headlines

If you aren’t already reading any of Jakob Nielsen’s work about online writing, you should start.  Just recently he published his pick for the news organization with the best Web headlines. And the winner is….the BBC.

According to Nielsen, good headlines should have these characteristics:

  • short (because people don’t read much online);
  • rich in information scent, clearly summarizing the target article;
  • front-loaded with the most important keywords (because users often scan only the beginning of list items);
  • understandable out of context (because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results); and
  • predictable, so users know whether they’ll like the full article before they click (because people don’t return to sites that promise more than they deliver).

In speaking about the BBC’s work in particular, Nielsen provided a list of strong headlines from the site and  noted “the average headline consumed a mere 5 words and 34 characters. The amount of meaning they squeezed into this brief space is incredible.”

Each headline conveys the gist of the story on its own, without requiring you to click. Even better, each gives you a very good idea of what you’ll get if you do click and lets you judge — with a high degree of confidence — whether you’ll be interested in the full article.

So, who needs to know all this?  Anybody who wants people to see their work.  As individual journalists become more and more responsible for the presentation of their own work online, it’s going to become increasingly important that they know and understand how headlines drive traffic and how to write the most effective headlines possible.

How TV news reports audience decline

Joe Flint of the Los Angeles Times posted a very short, but interesting tidbit yesterday.

A study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication found that over the last nine years, newspapers and wire services wrote more than two thousand stories about the woes of print and television. Leading the way were the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Television, meanwhile, carried a total of 22 stories about the decline in news audiences.

Maybe TV has learned a thing or two from those sales guys who always say business is good – it’s certainly tough to foster confidence in an industry that’s routinely predicting its own demise.

Yes, the audience is changing its habits.  But what would be interesting to know is how much reporting has been focused on those changes and analysis of how traditional media can adapt. 

The more we can learn about serving today’s audience needs, the faster journalism organizations can rise to the challenge.  Let’s see more than 2,000 stories on that!

There will be jobs

Optimism doesn’t exactly rule in newsrooms today, but the AP’s Micah Gelman is bucking the trend. He’s just been named executive producer for domestic video, a job that didn’t exist when he got into the  business a decade ago as a local TV news producer. Gelman believes more new jobs will be created and they’ll require new skills in addition to many of the same skills a TV producer needs now: