How to Build an Emmy-Winning Videojournalism Department
Here's the Detroit Free Press's formula for managing and inspiring a small but mighty staff.
April 2009

by Kathy Kieliszewski
Detroit Free Press

On the surface, it might appear that the Detroit Free Press specializes in projects -- massive, time and resource-consuming projects. We have won national and local Emmys for those projects, so that is what people tend to see and remember.

But dig deeper into our video vaults and you will find an array of stories that span the spectrum – raw video, interview clips, spot news, daily features and short-form stories that may have taken a few hours, maybe two or three days, but not months. We firmly believe that this variety brings eyeballs to all of our work. We also firmly believe that everything in that arsenal needs to reach a pretty high benchmark in both content and quality. Video for video's sake does not work.

The sum of your video will be defined by its individual parts.

We weigh the decision to do video very carefully. Even the simplest stories take time. Our staff, like many others, has been depleted over the years. We have two full-time videographers and four photographers who alternate between stills and video. We work constantly to balance the needs of the print product with the desire for video online and the time it takes to do it and do it well. It is all about front-loading the process and clearly defining what is expected from a specific assignment.

What makes a good video story? It is not an exact science, but we often go through a series of questions before we say yes to a video:

  • Would I watch it?
  • Would you (usually directed at the person asking for video)?
  • Is it a compelling story?
  • Is it visual?
  • Are there enough visuals to sustain an entire video?
  • Is it still photography with audio instead of video? Or both? Are there moments?
  • Is there movement?
  • Is there emotion to capture?
  • What's the purpose of the video? Is it a self-contained story or just a sidebar to add dimension to the written story? Will it show what something looks like? Will it tell a story?
  • Is it something our readers care about? Is it something they should care about?
  • When we decide to combine video with a story, we need to be able to answer yes to a lot of these questions or we are wasting our time -- particularly on a major project.

It's important to know that, yes, our bosses want video, lots of it. We have educated ourselves and are constantly educating them about the time commitment, the return on investment and what makes good video. The list above has been a learning curve for us. That being said, by listening, responding and executing the video needs of our bosses (and our readers), we are entrusted to do the massive projects. We sweat the small stuff: we speak up in meetings; we edit every story carefully. We're there every day for the daily grind so that when the big story comes along we're not a sudden addition to the workflow; we're an integral part of it.

Forty Years of 'Respect': Aretha Franklin's Grammy award-winning hit gets its propers in this celebratory Emmy-winning multimedia package that took four months to assemble. “For many of us,” reveals team leader Kathy Kieliszewski, “this was one of our first major video projects – talk about on-the-job training!” (Detroit Free Press/
That's what happened when we decided to commit ourselves to producing a major video package commemorating the 40th anniversary of Aretha Franklin's chart-topping classic, "Respect."

The idea started when our executive editor read an article in a magazine, noting the upcoming anniversary of the song hitting #1 on the Billboard charts. He passed it along to the entertainment editor, who passed it along to entertainment writer Kelley L. Carter, who went to newly christened videographer (and music lover) Mandi Wright about the possibility of turning this into a video.

It had a lot of the elements for a great story, but was it a video? We went through our checklist of questions and, despite some of the visual limitations, we pushed forward. Aretha is one of Detroit's most beloved residents and the song is one of the most beloved in the world. It was not only the 40th anniversary of the song, but also the 40th anniversary of the Detroit riots – a defining moment in the collective consciousness of the city and region. It was also an important part of the Civil Rights movement with roots firmly planted in Detroit. We knew it would involve a series of interviews and we would have to be creative to make the visuals come together.

For many of us, this was one of our first major video projects – talk about on-the-job training. Wright had just picked up a video camera three months prior and Carter had never done any narration. We drew on the resources we had on hand -- recent hire Brian Kaufman, who is well-versed in Final Cut Pro, and reporter Mike Wendland, who worked in television for a number of years, helped to polish the script and give Carter the coaching she needed to perfect her delivery. We also relied on our own instincts and what we liked to watch. We modeled our output on documentaries like Ken Burns' documentaries and Martin Scorsese's film on Bob Dylan, and even mimicked the style of VH-1's "Behind the Music." There is no shortage of great documentary work as inspiration for even the video we produce day-to-day.

Planning and collaboration were key. We brainstormed ways to tell this story. Was it one main documentary? Could we do a music video? What about people singing the song? Would it be divided into chapters? How many? How long? And most importantly, could we get permission to use the song?

Director of photography and video Craig Porter talked with our corporate lawyers and negotiated with the holders of the music rights (Atlantic Recording Corp. and Warner Music Group Film/TV/Commercial Licensing) to secure both synchronization and performance rights at a cost of $2,000. That allowed us to use the song in its entirety and to illustrate specific points we were trying to make about the song. We also relied on Fair Use rights for our story about the song itself.

Carter and Wright worked nonstop from late February until publication on June 3 (the anniversary of the day the song hit the #1 spot) gathering footage of interviews, people performing the song and other scenes. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it should be noted that no, Aretha is not in the video. But, yes, she was asked -- begged even -- but she declined, as divas might do. However, her son, her pastor and her choir participated in the project with her blessings.

We talked with people who knew her and worked with her, such as "Respect" producer Jerry Wexler, as well as people who could speak to the relevance of the song, culturally and musically. We asked everyone we interviewed to sing the song, organized a karaoke night where folks could win Detroit Tigers tickets for the best version, and asked folks on the street to belt it out.

All the while, picture editor Diane Weiss was coordinating the b-roll footage. On eBay, she bought the Billboard magazine from the week of June 3, 1967, the original sheet music, the 45 rpm record of both Aretha's version of the song and the original by Otis Redding, and a 1960s-era record player. The library sifted through our print archives, pulling what we had of Aretha in the turbulent Sixties. We visited the visual archives at Wayne State University looking for film footage from '60s-era Detroit and to Getty to get more images of Aretha. We used every visual we acquired.

Throughout the gathering process, Wright logged her video, pulled out the most relevant sound bytes and kept all the footage organized. Serious editing of the piece began about three weeks before publication and work went forward on multiple fronts: Carter was simultaneously working on her print stories, the script and the voiceover. Wright continued to shoot b-roll, Carter's stand-up and edit the music video. I edited the main documentary and Brian Kaufman was brought in to edit the karaoke-style video as well as for general polishing on all the videos. Many other folks were instrumental in its presentation online and they worked tirelessly to meet the deadline.

We met frequently to review the video in progress, evaluating the pacing, the narration, the scripting and what visuals were working and which were not. The committee editing was difficult at times -- lots of cooks in the kitchen -- but in the end, the package was stronger for it.

It took over four months and the constant labor of the videographer and reporter – plus, near the end, two video editors, the picture editor and countless others on the Web desk and design departments to pull this together. There was a general feeling from the upper management on down, as they viewed the work in progress, that this was going to be important. They also understand that good work takes a commitment of time and people.

Was it all worth it? The metrics for "Respect" are hard to calculate, due to some changes in the way our hits are counted, but we do know that it reached the audience we were targeting based on the feedback. One thing we learned is that you need to actively seek out the audience for your work. We sent links to dozens of Aretha and Detroit music fan sites. We shared it with hundreds of people through our own personal and professional contacts. We called NPR to alert them to the project and were featured on "Talk of the Nation" as well as our local NPR station. With all that buzz, the link was picked up on Entertainment Weekly's Pop Watch Blog as well as Winning a National Emmy didn't hurt, either!

From "Respect" we also learned that collaboration with reporters is key. I know that I can synthesize a still picture story down to its key photographs, but I am just beginning to fully realize the elements of the narrative story with quotes and scripting. We work very closely with reporters to form that narrative. It has been an education about the time commitment video requires for them, above and beyond their print story, but many have jumped in with both feet. Just like us, they see it as a way to expand their skill set, making them more valuable in this crazy, changing newspaper world.

In balancing the daily assignments with the long-term projects, we rotate the big assignments among the staff, keeping others focused on daily and shorter term needs. Whether the idea is generated within our department or from outside, we ask ourselves:

  • Who would do a good job on this?
  • Who hasn't had a major project lately? How much time do we expect to devote to this? Is that reasonable?
  • What competes with it for time and resources? If we can, we delay a project if we have too many other things bearing down on us. If not and the story is worth it, we move forward and juggle and prioritize as we go.

We started working on "Christ Child House" -- the story of boys living in a modern-day orphanage -- three years ago. Throughout the first two years, staff photographer Kathleen Galligan stopped at the house in the nooks and crannies of her day. We sometimes had special assignments for specific things, but for the most part, it was when time allowed. We struggled to find a home for the story and a commitment by the paper to publish, but that didn't stop us from pursuing it. It was one we felt was worth telling. Videographer Brian Kaufman joined the project in 2007, but really didn't commit to it until early 2008 -- about the same time the Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick scandal story was breaking. The paper also decided to commit a reporter concurrently. The next 11 months would be a constant juggling act between the daily pressure of following one of the biggest stories in Detroit's history and one of the biggest photo projects in my time at the paper. Kaufman was the lead videographer on the Kilpatrick story and when he wasn't producing daily videos off the news, he was working on "Christ Child House." This juggling is not uncommon at the paper.

In the end, we published five videos in a comprehensive multimedia package on and a 16-page special section: "The Boys of Christ Child House." The response and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Detroit is a great news town and it can really pull on our resources. But once we have committed a videojournalist to a project, we jump through hoops to make sure that person is free to get it done. We have a dedicated desk of picture editors, who reschedule, shift and coordinate assignments to make the best use of the photographers not on the project. When we decided to do "Respect," the juggling was constant and the picture desk were instrumental in that project getting done.

Even from the inside looking out, it is pretty amazing how far we have come. When we started, we knew we didn't just want to shoot video to say we do video. If the bosses wanted video, we would give it to them, but we would define what it was and what it looked like. It really boils down to making the right choices about what you spend time on. Yes, it is worth months of time to produce 50 video segments – count 'em! – commemorating the 50th anniversary of Motown Records. Crazy, yes, but worth it if you look at the hit count. Yes, it is worth sending a videographer out at 12:01 a.m. to do a clip of disgraced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick leaving jail, knowing that everything associated with him goes off the charts. Yes, it is worth doing video of the Detroit Tigers touring the Motown Museum (two Detroit institutions!), or when their coach is inspired to belt out an R & B classic and Sports Illustrated links to it from their site and refers to it in their magazine. Yes, it is worth doing an inspirational video about a man with 40 IQ who has bowled five 300 games -- bonus points for when the president makes a bad joke about his bowling and Special Olympics, and the video takes on a life of its own.

Again, it is not an exact science, but I know what type of video I would spend 3 minutes with in the middle of my day. Our successes and the type of traffic we are garnering give me hope that we are on the right track.

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© Kathy Kieliszewski

Kathy Kieliszewski is deputy director of photo and video for the Detroit Free Press, where she has won three Emmys from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Previously she served as the newspaper's picture editor, and as editor for the paper's 13 weekly community sections. In 2004, she was named Michigan Picture Editor of the Year. Prior to that, Kieliszewski worked as a staff photographer at the Lansing State Journal and The Grand Rapids Press.