October 24, 2006

On Media : New tricks for old media dogs

In July, Gannett brought some expert journalists to town to provide professional training for a handful of its reporters, photographers and editors. Not so unusual.The thing is, these experts came from the company’s television division, and their mission was to teach print reporters how to do video production. For reporters accustomed to working with no more than a pen and notebook, learning the tricks of the broadcast trade is a daunting challenge.And if you take a look at some of the video stories now available on The C-J’s Web site, you could come to the conclusion that the teachers failed the students. Production values on those video stories lack polish, there are long gaps in audio, and some video is so bumpy and choppy it could be mistaken for the sort of home videos sent in by viewers to broadcast networks during catastrophic weather events.That’s not to stay the video experiment at the paper hasn’t produced interesting, if not high quality, journalism. Reporter Chris Poynter interviewed Idea Festival creator Kris Kimel on top of the Glassworks Building. It was a good piece, but there’s a lot of audio clutter from background noise. The video cuts to still photos that illustrate the story. It’s obvious there was editing involved.“It’s all so new, we’re doing some stupid stuff,” Poynter says. “I think we can be more judicious in the stories we choose. I think it will grow, but we have to get better at it.”Other video offerings are less compelling. Though The C-J insists it wants clips of no more than two minutes, there’s an 11-minute offering of surveillance video from a gas station where murder suspects Renee Terrell and Christopher Wayne Littrell gassed up. There are stories from a machine gun shooting range, and from Iroquois Homes, where a man recently murdered his family. It looks like the B-roll normally found on an editing room floor.Poynter says he’s enjoying the new challenge, which so far has been executed in near anonymity. He said the videos, despite fairly prominent placement on The C-J’s home page, aren’t getting a whole lot of visits. On Oct. 18, for example, he said the site’s most-viewed story was a sports column by Eric Crawford, which got more than 6,000 hits. The top video watched on The C-J site that day, a feature on a woman’s struggle with breast cancer, was viewed 141 times.On the other hand, The C-J’s photo galleries, much easier for a consumer to navigate, get a lot more traffic. Poynter said a gallery from the James Blunt concert got 7,000 hits that day.“I’m finding it hard, because I’m used to doing 40-inch stories that I’ve got to get down to one-and-a-half minutes on video,” he says. “I’ve got a newfound empathy for TV journalists.”For now, those TV journalists need not feel threatened by The C-J’s new toy, says Kim Kolarik, the paper’s new media director. “We’re picking stories that we want to do for video. It’s NOT a newscast,” he said. “We’re not trying to be TV, we are what we are. This is just another way to tell a story.”From a viewer’s perspective, it’s difficult to sit and watch many of the videos in one sitting. Imagine a TV broadcast that aired a commercial between each story — and then imagine it was the same commercial every time.The C-J inserts a 15-second spot on the front end of each video story, a practice that’s also in place at the Web sites of most broadcast television stations. The day I researched The C-J’s video site, a Swope Automotive Group spot was shown before each video, and there was no way to skip it. But there is a mute button.Kolarik says that while only a handful of C-J reporters, photographers and editors went through the video training exercise (along with personnel from several other Gannett papers), anyone can suggest using video to tell a story for the newspaper. It’s a bit of creative freedom enabled by technology.The videos also take time to produce, and there are no live spots in the current plan. In other words, we won’t be subjected to promotions to “Watch it Live on The Courier-Journal Web site.”“I don’t see us buying satellite and microwave trucks,” Kolarik said.Neither do I, but when the folks at The C-J get more comfortable with using their new toys, it might be worth watching.