Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Making the Leap from Print to Video

Making the transition from photojournalism to videojournalism is a tough challenge. But making the leap from print to video -- now that's a big mountain to climb. Especially when your newspaper still expects you to keep churning out news and feature text stories.

And yet that's exactly what's been happening in newsrooms across the nation for the past few years. The assumption is that vidcam technology is sufficiently cheap and ubiquitous, and instinctive to use, that any reporter can point and shoot some footage while on assignment ... and then stitch together something in Final Cut that flickers and talks to go along with the story.

Lost in the equation is any notion that videos must constitute a) good journalism, and b) good storytelling.

Ian Shapira is a veteran Washington Post journalist who pursued a master's degree in "interactive journalism" at American University, nights and weekends, while still hammering away at his day job.

In the newspaper's Story Lab blog, he posted his first video effort online, and invited his readers to assess his progress. It's a four-minute profile of a DC-based DJ. But what caught our attention was his candid assessment of what it entails to bridge that chasm between print and video.


My transition from writer to video journalist has not been comfortable. I constantly fumbled with the tripod -- right in front of my subject -- which was about as embarrassing as getting caught with one's fly open. And I spent so many hours late into the evening with the video editing software Final Cut Express that I wondered whether I was even doing journalism anymore, or computer science.

More important, I discovered that making a compelling video for a website such as The Post's requires a fundamentally different kind of journalistic skill. As a writer with a pen and notepad, I have several logistical advantages over the video folks: I can reconstruct scenes that I am physically not able to witness; I don't need to lug around heavy equipment to film or record every tiny yet important atmospheric nuance; and, perhaps most obvious, I can persuade people in sensitive situations -- often, the very people who make the essence of a story -- to be quoted in an article, while those same people might scram when you utter the words "Can I mic you up?"
As fate would have it, his colleague Whitney Shefte, an accomplished Post videojournalist, concurrently made the reverse transition -- penning her first-ever article, a profile of a blues musician (for which she shot an accompanying video). Here's what she had to say:

[W]riting is telling and not showing. A written story asks for more of my own voice. It requires me to verbalize my observations instead of just piecing together what the camera captures. I can allow the subject to tell their own story from beginning to end in video. Sure, I edit out a lot of material, inevitably inserting my voice with each cut I make. But I’m never adding anything that wasn’t there. Video feels more true to me, more objective...

Unless the video has a narrator, old photographs or reenactments, history can’t really be shown on the screen. I had to do a lot more research than I do for video to uncover that history. At the same time, subjects open up more when a camera isn’t present. There are nuggets in written stories that no photographer or video journalist has access to. And while writing, I was also able to focus in a new way.
Both Shapira and Shefte's observations are noteworthy, and offer insight into the bigger picture, as publications plunge headlong into multimedia journalism.

Does it even make sense for writers to learn how to shoot and edit video? For video journalists to become writers? Shouldn't news organizations such as The Post invest in more specialists? Or, given our industry's financial upheaval, is a more versatile staff better?
Check out Shapira's video, and Shefte's text story, and see what you think.

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