Colin Mulvany:
From Stills to Video in the Newsroom
An award-winning Platypus alum charts the long and winding road from photojournalist to videojournalist
April 2009

by Colin Mulvany
The Spokesman-Review

Last month brought yet another round of layoffs – the third in 18 months. The layoff demons, having picked away the flesh, are now gnawing at the bone. In the 21 years I have worked as a visual journalist for The Spokesman-Review, never have I felt more unnerved about my job security.

The Spokesman-Review newsroom used to crackle with an electrified energy that would build throughout the day as the cacophony of journalists worked toward deadline. It has become quieter now -- much like a library, or a morgue, as one newsroom journalist put it. Vacant, sterile desks, once filled with working reporters and editors, checkerboard the newsroom making it seem larger than it is. Fear, anger, and a sense of loss keeps everyone off balance.

This wasn't what I anticipated when I chose to reinvent myself as a multimedia journalist five years ago. The Internet held promise of great things to come for visual journalism. Video storytelling would help lead my newspaper and me into the future of online journalism. But as the newspaper industry melted down and retrenched, I became uncertain as to what my future held.

I was hired at The Spokesman-Review as a staff photojournalist in 1988. The S-R was my hometown newspaper and I felt incredibly blessed to join a talented staff of shooters and photo editors.

Shortly after I was hired, The Spokesman-Review became the newspaper to work at if you wanted to do long-term photo documentary work. The addition of two great photo editors, Scott Sines and later John Sale, lifted our under-performing photo staff out of its funk. This gave us a run at the possibility of a golden age of photojournalism at my paper. With the '90s came an unlimited space to showcase our words and pictures. Photographers were given the extra time to do a story justice. A photo-friendly redesign of the newspaper helped showcase the work of 12 staff photographers.

This was the age of the special section. Our advertising department always seemed to need extra news sections to wrap the tons of ad circulars inserted into the Sunday paper. They gladly let us use up the newsprint. These four-to-10 page special sections were the envy of photojournalists at other newspapers. I cut my teeth on a half dozen of these photographic tomes. One 10-part photo-driven project I worked on, about the milestones in children's lives, consumed 72 pages of newsprint over its five-week run. I was taken out of the photo rotation for months at a time to work on projects. Stories such as "Living and Dying With Crack," "City of Second Chances," and "Key Moments" helped define me as a documentary still photojournalist.

Then the Twin Towers came down in 2001. Space dried up. Management had changed and so did the newspaper industry. I was back to doing the daily work that most newspaper photojournalists do--community and breaking news, sports and features. Now in my early 40s, I was wondering if the most productive and creative period of my career had passed. I became restless.

At the 2002 NPPA Flying Short Course, Travis Fox, a Washington Post photojournalist, took the stage. Instead of talking about still photojournalism, he showed a documentary video. It told an emotional story of a sheet metal worker who lost his son in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. The grieving, alcoholic father had come to Washington D.C., to work on the building's reconstruction. This video stayed with me long after the lights came back up.

I sat there stunned by what I'd just seen. In that full room of 200 photojournalists, Fox sowed the seeds of the newspaper Web-video movement. Fox made me understand that you didn't need to be on TV to tell a powerful visual story with a video camera. Inexpensive editing software like Apple's Final Cut Pro, small digital video cameras, laptop computers and broadband Internet were all that was needed to level the video production playing field.

I went home and bought a consumer digital video camera. At first, I did not understand much about technical stuff like editing, audio, or video production fundamentals. As an experiment, I shot video of my daughter's 8th birthday party and edited it in iMovie.

By 2004, broadband penetration in Spokane had gained traction and I felt comfortable enough to try and shoot something for my newspaper. At first I tried to mimic what local TV news photographers and reporters did. On a breaking news story, I would grab our police reporter and ask him to do a stand-up at the scene. It was all pretty comical, but I started to grasp the fundamentals of video storytelling. Later, I realized that I could tell a pretty good yarn by letting my subjects tell the story instead of a reporter.

By the end of 2004 I was getting good at iMovie, but its limitations made me realize that I needed to move up to Final Cut Pro. I also felt that I had learned all I could from software manuals. I needed help filling in the large gaps in my video production knowledge. I went to my editor and told him about the Platypus Workshop. It was the end of the year and he had some money left over in the budget so he told me to go for it.

The Platypus Workshop in Ventura, Calif., was more challenging than I had expected. I went in with a desire to learn all I could about video production. For nine days, instructors PF Bentley and Dirck Halstead beat me up good. On one b-roll assignment, they sent me back out to shoot it three times.

As the week drew to a close, I had yet to find a final project that would showcase all that I had learned. I spent the day driving around Ventura. By late afternoon I ended up back in the parking lot of Brooks Institute of Photography, where the workshop was being held. Frustrated, I told myself I was not going to come back until I found a story. From the Brooks parking lot, I turned right and drove about 200 feet. To my left was a corrugated metal fence with its gate propped open. I spotted a sign out front that said "Moving Sale." I stopped the car and walked up to a man with a dejected look on his face. He said he lost his lease on his junkyard and had only three days to move about 30,000 items. Bingo! I quickly told him that I really needed to tell his story. Sensing my desperation, he agreed. I taped him as he took me on a tour of all his junk—rusted out cars, boxes of doodads, busted up furniture. It was all b-roll heaven.

During the tour, I asked him, what was his favorite thing in the yard? He paused and said, "That old RV in the corner. That was my dad's and we were going to fix it up together," he said. As he approached the back of the RV he broke down crying. I followed him into the RV with my camera. He talked about the loss of his dad. About how his life, like his junkyard, had grown unmanageable because he had never dealt with his grief. What started out as a story about a guy having to move a junkyard ended up being a powerful story on loss.

I wasn't quite sure how I was going to edit the story together in less than a day. But with the help of Brooks TAs, I made the midnight deadline at 11:59. On the last day of Platypus, participants had to sit in Halstead's "hot seat" and have their videos critiqued. After my video Memories in Rust played, I could hear sniffling behind me as the lights came up. I might have made some people cry with my video, but Halstead was thoroughly unimpressed. "Mulvany, what the hell were you thinking with those audio levels?" he bellowed.

Back home, I played the video for a group of senior editors. Steve Smith, former Spokesman-Review editor-in-chief, looked at me and said, "Colin, we need to cut you loose to do video full-time."

I went home that night and crawled into bed. About 3 a.m. I woke with a racing heart. I was having a panic attack. I knew what my subconscious was telling me: My life as a still photojournalist was going to change forever. Right then, I embraced the idea that I could let go of still photography and shoot video from now on. I just started saying over and over—"no fear, no fear, no fear."

The next morning, I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders. I went straight to editor Smith's office. "OK," I said. "If I'm going to do this, I'm going to need some decent gear and software." Smith told me that he didn't have any money left in his newsroom budget. He suggested I do a presentation for the publisher to make my case. A couple of days later, dressed in a freshly pressed suit and armed with a PowerPoint presentation on my laptop, I showed my publisher some of the videos I had done. I showed him some statistics about broadband and Web video growth and told him why I thought video had a great future. As I left the conference room, I handed him an itemized video equipment list – worth $21,000.

The next day I received approval to buy everything I'd asked for-- a hi-def Sony Z1U video camera, a steady tripod, tape deck, Final Cut Studio, microphones, and a tricked out 17-inch Apple PowerBook.

The first thing I had to deal with was how to get my work seen on our antiquated Web site that wasn't designed to handle video. Talking with online director Ryan Pitts, we both felt a video blog format would be the best way to publish my work. Video Journal was born in August of 2005. It allowed me to blog each story I produced. I wanted to take my viewers on the same journey I was on as I learned to shoot and edit video.

The month Video Journal launched, photojournalist Joe Weiss released a killer audio slideshow application called Soundslides. I downloaded the demo and that night I published my first audio slideshow. In addition to video, I now had a new multimedia storytelling tool in the form of audio slideshows. I felt relief that I didn't have to give up still photography in my pursuit of video storytelling. It was one of the first audio slideshows produced using Soundslides and published on a newspaper Web site.

For the next two years, I had one of the best multimedia jobs at a newspaper. I had the freedom to choose whether to produce a story in video or as an audio slideshow. The goal was to try to post two to three stories a week. I wanted to tell simple stories about people who live in my community. Sometimes I would latch on to a reporter's story and tell my own version of it on video. I'd closely watch the daily and weekly story budgets, culling them for ideas. Many of the early videos I did were self-generated. I gravitated to stories with strong central characters. I avoided creating epics by keeping most of my multimedia projects under three minutes long. Viewership on Video Journal grew, despite it being lost in a sea of links on a poorly designed homepage.

When I first started shooting video, I would get overwhelmed at all the multi-tasking I had to do--framing, sequencing, monitoring audio, keeping the camera steady. Once all these things became second nature, I learned to slow down when shooting. I constantly reminded myself to use my video camera like I would a still camera. In many ways, I think still photographers make the best videographers. They already are able to see moment, have finely honed anticipation skills and understand composition. When I train a print reporter in video, these are the skills I have to teach the most.

Learning to interview people was also a challenge. I now had to have deeper conversations with my subjects than I did as a still photojournalist. To save time on editing, I needed subjects to give me gold in a short amount of time. Asking them to describe what they do could result in long and boring footage. I found if I could get people to talk about the "why" of their story, I would get what I needed quickly. So one of my favorite questions I ask almost everyone is: "Why do you do what you do?" It seems vague, but it is a question that taps the passion button in most people.

Because my newspaper management invested in me, I made it clear to them that I would spread my multimedia knowledge with anyone on staff that wanted to learn video or audio slideshow production. Several photojournalist co-workers stepped up and soon Video Journal was brimming with stories produced by fellow photo staffers.

In September 2007, managing editor Gary Graham came to my editing cave and asked me to follow him to his office. I knew then, the gig was up. He said that because so much newsroom multimedia was being done he needed someone to help manage it all.

I became multimedia editor and moved out of the photo department and into online. The next year was crazy—in a good way. Online received about $50,000 to buy video cameras, laptops and software. My plan was to train as many people on staff as possible in video production: photojournalists, reporters and online producers. I trained 14 in all. For reporters who weren't interested in producing video, I would collaborate with them instead. I'd shoot and edit videos that reporters wrote and narrated.

With each person I trained, the culture of The Spokesman-Review newsroom began to change. No longer were we acting like a traditional print newspaper. We were now becoming a multi-platform organization that was leaning toward a Web-centric, multimedia workflow.

Two online producers I trained in video production started using their new skills to help me develop the next generation of newsroom video storytellers. Mobile journalists (mojos) covered breaking news, sports, entertainment and business, and were outfitted with video cameras and laptop editing systems. With each video they produced, I'd coach and give feedback on how they could improve their shooting and editing skills. They were empowered to make their own decisions on whether to add a video component to their print story.

I was not without critics. Rapid change tends to freak people out. Newsroom traditionalists questioned whether the time and effort to produce quality video was really worth it. Our marketing department was slow to take advantage of the growing revenue potential from Web video, which meant I couldn't claim video was helping the company's bottom line.

As I advocated for video--a complicated technology that few in the newsroom understood--I learned this quickly: What people don't understand, they tend to discount. Video was TV to them—and they scorned TV news for being shallow. Senior newsroom management, who believed the Web was the newspaper's future, was incredibly supportive of me. Still, I don't believe they totally bought into my vision that video storytelling needed to be deeply integrated throughout the newsroom. I wanted to take an offensive posture to counter local TV news' growing Web influence. From my perspective, the depth of our writing, meshed with the added value of a quality video, was a slam dunk.

Some of the best video work was starting to come out of the photo department. Photojournalist Dan Pelle, who was a 2007 Platypus graduate, used what he learned at the workshop to produce a stream of memorable stories. Many have become viewer favorites, such as the profile of a man who cares for his paraplegic dog, and a profile of a woman's struggle with ALS and the neighborhood kids that helped take care of her.

During my spare time, I worked at improving my own video storytelling skills. I found myself moving away from the newspaper model of just letting the subject tell the story. Many of our videos and audio slideshows needed to be more compelling and faster paced. Too often, when I watch a newspaper-produced video, I am left asking myself: "What is this video about?" I looked for inspiration in the best of what TV news does. I learned to write and record voiceovers for many of my video stories. Later, I pushed other producers to write to their video, which most do now.

Video was beginning to flow onto our Web site at a constant rate. A new multimedia-friendly was ready to launch. To monetize our video content, online staff built an advanced video player capable of serving pre-roll and banner ads.

But just when it was all coming together, storm clouds gathered. Layoffs began in October 2008.

Editor-in-Chief Smith gathered the newsroom together and somberly read off a list of 25 staffers to be laid off. Then Smith promptly resigned. Many of the young people I had trained in video production were on that list. Because two photographers got the axe, I was asked to return to the photo department as a still shooter and multimedia producer.

The last five years have been the best and most challenging of my career. Learning video production made me a better journalist. No longer can I go to an assignment and just be a passive presence. Interviewing my subjects, instead of just taking their picture, gives me a deeper understanding and empowers the story.

As newspaper photo staffs around the country suffer severe cuts, time invested in video production is taking a hit. Many newspapers are "retrenching" as they make their last stand. I still embrace the radical idea that video has a future at newspapers. The few remaining producers at my publication continue to carry the torch by serving up compelling multimedia for our Web site viewers. The grand experiment of video at The Spokesman-Review is not dead – it's just taking a breather. This economic downturn will end. Video's influence on the Web and at newspapers is not going away.

Now is not a time to be timid. Multimedia producers need to stand up and protect video storytelling at their newspapers. In order to stay competitive, publishers will have to refocus their efforts back on their online operations. Newspaper Web sites will not flourish if the content is just repurposed from their print products. Multimedia, in the form of Web-only video, audio slideshows, and photo galleries, is most successful when it is integrated with text. This powerful combination gives newspaper online viewers far more depth and context than they can get from any other media.

The road ahead will be rocky and rutted. I have embraced change in my newsroom by investing the time to learn video. Hopefully, these new skills will allow me to continue to be a part of an exciting new era of multimedia storytelling at newspapers—in whatever form they eventually take.

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© Colin Mulvany

After 18 years as a staff photojournalist for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, Colin Mulvany made the transition to Internet storytelling by becoming his newspaper's first multimedia producer. For the last five years, Mulvany has been producing video feature stories and audio slideshows for Mulvany is also helping his newspaper's photo and news departments' transition to a more multimedia focused workflow. In the last year, he has trained 13 of his co-workers to shoot and edit video.

As a print photojournalist, Mulvany was able to create memorable stories that captivated his community. He followed a group of Spokane volunteers to Romania as they tried to repair a decrepit orphanage. For "Living and Dying With Crack," he looked into the effects of that drug epidemic on his community. With "Key Moments," his images were made into a 10-part series that documented the life-changing events that shape young people.

Mulvany has been honored for his photography and multimedia in the Pictures of the Year International, Best of Photojournalism, Society of Newspaper Design, the National Headliners Awards and the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest. He teaches photojournalism at a local community college, is the National Press Photographers Association Monthly Multimedia Contest chairman and produces a popular industry blog called Mastering Multimedia.