The Digital Journalist
The Dallas Morning News:
Leading the Way to the Platypus World
April 2007

by Dirck Halstead

These are grim days for newspapers in the United States.

The very continued existence of many majors is suddenly in doubt.

Two of the nation's largest, the Los Angeles Times and its owner, the Chicago Tribune, are fighting to survive. They are suddenly wounded behemoths, resembling the Titanic after hitting that iceberg. They, like many newspapers, have been impacted by a combination of declining readership, especially the loss of young readers, as well as mammoth losses in classified and display advertising. Like the Titanic, these are massive institutions that require millions of dollars of revenue to support their operations.

They have hit the "tipping point" in which, to use the Titanic metaphor, their holds are flooding, and sooner rather than later, they will sink.

However, at the same time, their Web sites are constantly expanding. Revenue is beginning to flow into these brands. According to a recent survey, for the first time, advertising revenue for local newspaper Web sites last month exceeded local TV advertising. One of the reasons for the improvement in Web ad dollars is the video now being produced for these sites. Video has a big advantage. It can be attached to video commercials.

For the past 8 years, The Digital Journalist has been pointing the way for photojournalists to transition to video. At our Platypus Workshops, newspapers have now provided the majority of the students. So many newspapers now want their photographers to learn the art of video storytelling, we have started to provide special two-day short courses just for them.

The Dallas Morning News has for the past year been at the forefront of transition to Web video. Of the 24 staff photographers at the paper, eleven now shoot their assignments entirely in video. Eventually all the DMN photographers will be proficient in this skill.

The Dallas Morning News has a distinguished place among U.S. newspapers. They have won many Pulitzer Prizes, including two to staff photographers David Leeson and Cheryl Diaz Meyer for their coverage of the Iraq invasion. During that battle, Leeson carried a Sony digital video camera with him in addition to his still cameras. When he returned he edited the video and his stills into an award-winning television documentary, "Dust to Dust."

Watching the success of Leeson's work with video, Publisher Jim Moroney decided that it was time to push this envelope even further and broaden the use of video for the Web site.

"In January of 2006, I issued a challenge to our organization to become proficient in shooting, editing and posting audio when it added to the storytelling. The response from our photography department was nothing short of incredible. Not only did they take all the video gear we could give them and immediately begin training both photographers and reporters to shoot video, they came back in September and asked for additional capital to purchase more equipment with a promise they would train even more photographers and reporters to shoot video. We delivered the capital and they delivered the training. I am confident very few, if any, newspapers in the US are posting as much video to their website as our team is doing today."

David Leeson, who had been put in charge of the paper's video operations, realized that technology had provided some important new tools, which were about to revolutionize the ways that photographers would work in the future.

The first breakthrough was the new, inexpensive (about $4,000) professional High Definition video cameras. HD was the key. By doubling the lines per inch in the video signal, twice as much information could be captured in the images. Coupled with new 24 Fps frame rate, this added information increased the file size of the video image. Leeson's 22-year-old son, who had been hired by The News as a video editor and technological guru, came up with a new "tool" that would allow a photographer using a combination of Final Cut Pro and Photoshop, to increase this still-frame size to an astonishing 68 megs. This was more than enough to provide five- and six-column pictures for the newspaper.

The Dallas Morning News is far from the only paper that has trained its photographers in the language of video. The Detroit Free Press, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Spokane Review, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Miami Herald, The Providence Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, The National Post (Toronto, Canada), Chicago Tribune, Journal-World (Lawrence, Kan.), The Republican (Springfield, Mass.), The Sacramento Bee, The Fresno Bee, The Modesto Bee and The Bakersfield Californian have all either sent photographers to the Platypus Workshops or brought in Platypus Short Courses. However, The Dallas Morning News is the only one so far to take this philosophy to the ultimate limit, which is to transition its staff to shooting exclusively in video. It is radical surgery.

At The DMN, the basic workflow for photographers has changed dramatically. A routine assignment now becomes a deep multimedia experience. A feature that previously would yield only one picture in the print edition now becomes a living video piece, where the voice of the subject, together with natural sound, allows the viewer to more fully appreciate the story.

"What I love about shooting daily assignments with video is that with shooting stills, so many of them would be boring, just one picture for the paper, maybe a portrait. But now you have a chance to see why people are passionate about what they do. It makes for much better journalism, better storytelling. It's just more interesting," says photographer Rick Gershon.

Returning from an assignment, the photographer works to first edit the story for Web use as a video, using Final Cut Pro, then using The News' new tool, selects photographs for frame grabs, and produces these images in Photoshop before sending them on to the picture editors.

Leeson emphasizes that the photographer's skills in picture-taking are never forgotten in this process. Shutter speeds, as high as 1/2000 of a second, must be selected to avoid movement in the still-frame grabs. The basic rules of composition must never be overlooked. But now the skills of a television photojournalist are added to the mix. Sequences become important. The quality of the audio is crucial.

"One reason why I am a disciple of video journalism, and why I am evangelistic about it, is because I love photojournalism," says Leeson. "I love the photojournalist's eye, and I believe in what we have done over the years. I'm not going to change that. We don't have to change it. In fact what I am doing is to preserve it. I'm going to continue to call myself a daily newspaper photographer. Because I take pride in that. That's what I do."

View The Dallas Morning News Gallery

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from