In a changing world of journalism, one where gloom often intrudes, I have found a project that gives me hope for the future.
Yes, we live in an era of failing newspapers. And because of a seriously weakened economy it is hard to be optimistic about the future of journalism in all its forms. Who will carry the necessary attributes of inquiry and curiosity for the next generation of journalists and photojournalists? Where will the young women and men come from who want to spend their days working to communicate ideas to an increasingly cynical public that seems to have less and less time for the serious pursuit of truth? TV news especially needs a spanking because it mostly works in a hurry-up offense that relies much of the time on hyperbole over depth. Many newspapers are changing their ways by inserting video onto their Web sites, realizing that static text and pictures are not compelling enough to attract and hold an audience. This is a good omen.
Just when I began to think that news in all its forms was approaching doom, along comes a multimedia project called Andaman Rising (http://www.Andamanrising.org). Produced by students at the University of North Carolina, the high-quality produced pieces are an intelligent and artistic mix of video, including interviews, still photos, and natural sound. Individually these elements complement each other well. Viewing the finished pieces is a pleasurable and informative experience.
Pat Davison, Director of Documentary Projects and Associate Professor, Visual Communications at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, is the executive producer of the project. Recently he took 14 students and five other professional coaches to Khao Lak, Thailand, to document what life was like four years after the devastating Asian Tsunami. The trip to Thailand lasted under a month, from June 21 to July 18, 2008.
I interviewed Pat Davison, via e-mail, and, with his permission, I also use some of his writings to fill in the blanks.
R.S.: Tell me about the students.
Davison: They are in the Visual Communication sequence in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Three are graduate students. The remaining 11 are undergraduate.
R.S.: What equipment did the students use? For stills? For video?
Davison: We used all Canon still digital equipment and four Sony HVR-V1U video cameras. We used Marantz 660s for audio and Sennheiser microphones. Each student had a full still kit, with a 30D or 5D body, a 16-35 f/2.8 and a 70-200 f/2.8. In addition, two coaches, Steven King and Chris Sinclair, brought their own Sony V1Us and let us use them, so we had six.
R.S.: What was the role of the coaches on the trip?
Davison: Each coach had differing responsibilities. Mike Schmidt was the Senior Producer. He was responsible for the Web site team, design and programming. He also was a multimedia coach for two stories. Associate Producer Steven King coordinated all phases of content production and logistics and coached three stories. Amy King, co-project manager, planned daily transportation, coached writing on all stories, titles, story summaries and sidebars. She also copy edited all text. Pailin Wedel was co-project manager and lead translator. She coordinated the team of local translators and van drivers, and she and her sister Jinda did all final translations and checked all subtitles for accuracy. Pailin also coached three stories. Chris Sinclair coached three stories and helped with any video lighting, shooting and editing issues. I was executive producer and made all final decisions on all aspects of the site. I planned the project, budget and assembled the team. I also coached three stories.
Multimedia coaches helped students find focus and motivation, and encouraged them daily. On occasion coaches joined students in the field to help with video interviews or offer shooting suggestions. They helped edit photos, audio, video, and text and worked with students to craft narrative. Students shot, recorded and edited all of their own content.
R.S.: How did you work?
Davison: First, each student would tell one story with still images and video interviews, and in many cases, video b-roll. We would handle the language issue with subtitles, rather than voiceovers, effectively making the site bi-lingual. We would have a team produce an animated tsunami infographic. Also, for the first time in an international project, we would involve the community in telling their own stories through pictures and words. With G-9 cameras donated by Canon, we would organize a photography project with a local school and publish the children's photos and journal excerpts. We would document the project in a featured video entitled "Nine Lenses, Nine Lives" and give the cameras to the school so they could continue to document after we were gone.
For presentation, we chose to produce a relatively simple site using html, css, php and flash elements, rather than a heavy programming site. We would employ a magazine style, featuring multiple points of entry through sidebar content and additional links for each story. We would feature 15-second previews of each story on the home page. We would utilize Web 2.0 and social networking to get the site seen. We would create branded trailers of each story and post them on YouTube, and post project images on Flickr. We would create a trailer of the entire project and feature it on our site and video sharing sites.
R.S: Did the students interact with each other about their work? Were they critical of each other?
Davison: We had nightly meetings in which coaches would project the best work from their team every day. Each coach also presented an "eye opener" of their own work to inspire students. We did critique each other, but in a positive, productive way. I would say we had a great sense of team and that students tended to be very supportive of each other. I think they knew they had a special opportunity and sought to make the most of it.
Students became so committed to their stories it was difficult to pull them off. As the deadline for content gathering passed, several students had trouble letting go. But the final days of the project were critical production time for everyone. With all the photos and video shot, and the last interview recorded, a mountain of work remained. The Web team was deep into the building of the site, its story pages, menus, graphics and design elements. The translation team was meticulously translating every interview, word for word, and checking each student's subtitles to make sure they synched exactly with the audio.
R.S.: What system did you use to edit?
Davison: We edited everything on site in Thailand, daily. We had a workroom (appropriately named "the treehouse") where we set up a "newsroom." We used 15 Macbook Pro's, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop CS3. We had the stories done and online before we left.
R.S.: How do the students intend using his or her skills?
Davsion: I think all of them want to be journalists, I think most if not all see multimedia skills as an opportunity to gain opportunity in the industry. They are hoping to land jobs with media companies that are producing multimedia--particularly photojournalistic multimedia.
R.S.: How did the students feel after the trip and after they completed their pieces?
Davison: We had two public screenings in Thailand, one at Ban Laem Kaen School for the photography service project depicted in "Nine Lenses, Nine Lives", and one for the entire site, held at the resort where we stayed and worked. Both were well attended and very well received. Students were extremely excited to invite their story subjects to the screenings. They had invested a lot into their stories and they were extremely excited about the final result. Everyone had an exceptional experience and everyone-coaches and students included-took their work to a new level.
R.S: What was the effect of the trip on the students regarding the trip to that part of the world, and on their moral compass?
Davison: Students took the opportunity very seriously. Because the area has still not fully recovered from the tsunami, we viewed the project as an opportunity to share the people's stories with the world and possibly have a positive effect in the community. Students embraced this challenge. Many bonded deeply with their subjects and are still in contact with them. It was definitely not easy, but it was eye opening for everyone to experience the beauty, strength and quiet dignity of a people who have suffered an unimaginable tragedy yet live on with dignity. I know the project impacted everyone deeply, and I don't think it is a stretch to say it was a life-changing experience for many.
On this expedition, and on those in the future, Pat Davison and his team are creating a template for others in academia to follow as a new way of teaching, learning and mastering journalism in all its forms. The skills acquired by these students are useful even now in TV news and on news Web sites run by newspapers and magazines. In coming years what the students learn will serve them even better as news providers gravitate even more to the Web. Ultimately, for students, nothing beats hands-on experience. Keep this in mind when you look at the selected videos posted here. The few I chose are representative of the good work by all the students. For a complete look at all the videos, the stills on Flickr, the stories behind the videos, and the credits please go to http://www.andamanrising.org. Enjoy.
Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.
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