Monday, August 10, 2009

Why We Admire 'Shockwaves'

On Friday, KobreGuide showcased the New York Times video story, "Shockwaves Through My Soul," and we promised to share with you today why we admire it -- and what qualities distinguish it as first-rate videojournalism.

Naturally, everything we feature on KobreGuide is meritorious -- and adheres to our stringent criteria. But at the same time, we also realize that, with deadline pressures and limited resources, even the best stories won't excel in every category.

What we like about this particular story -- the tragic tale of Sgt. Jacob Blaylock, by Erica Goode and Rob Harris -- helps point out the deficiencies in so many other video stories we find on the Web.

So if you haven't already seen it, do so now; reading our comments first will only ruin your appreciation of it.

First, though the video is more than 15 minutes long, it feels like five -- not a wasted frame. And it hooks you instantly. Too many stories take way too long to capture your attention. Remember, when someone is watching a feature film, they've already purchased their ticket, and have settled into their seats with their popcorn and beverage. They're already a captive audience, willing to be patient if the story takes a few minutes to develop. Not so for Internet audiences, who are just a click away from the next distraction, and demand instant engagement.

At the same time, the opening of "Shockwaves" does not give away the story. Too many newspaper Websites are still offering videos that are structured like the fabled "inverted pyramid" that we all learned from wire service stylebooks -- they encapsulate the most important info at the top, and then provide details in decreasing order of importance. Imagine if Hollywood adhered to that formula!

Visually, the story blends stills, video, and official documents in creative ways. Unlike many stories that rely on a single narrator, this one draws upon multiple narrators and perspectives -- including Blaylock himself (via his video diary and songs), his military buddies, even Blaylock's girlfriend who was with him at the end.

Similarly, the audio employs a variety of narrators -- including the reporter's own spare yet insightful voiceover. Most powerfully, Blaylock's own haunting music tastefully provides the soundtrack for much of the piece.

Above all, we appreciate the story's narrative arc. It never gives away the tragic ending, but your sense of dread grows as you watch. Because Blaylock is referred to in the past tense throughout, you know it's going to end badly, but you're not sure how or why. As the outcome gradually becomes apparent, the story builds dramatically to that final denouement. In other words, it unfolds like a movie, not a news report. You'll notice the ending is deliberately not tipped in the headline, the subhead, nor the text description of the story.

What makes this story rise high above others like it is that it paints a much bigger; it dramatizes a much bigger issue. One man's sad story emblemizes a shocking trend. (In Blaylock's own relatively small unit, incredibly three others met his same sad fate.)

Finally, "Shockwaves Through My Soul" accomplishes the most difficult storytelling task of all. It packs a huge emotional wallop. It moves us. It makes us care. Once you watch the unsettling story of Sgt. Jacob Blaylock, you will never forget it.

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