Institutional Videojournalism
As mainstream online publications shrink and evaporate, there's a growing market for videojournalism on organization and association Web sites. Case in point:
April 2009

by Nicole Shea
AARP Bulletin Today

AARP Bulletin Today launched online in May 2008 as the daily-news counterpart to the AARP Bulletin, a monthly print newspaper sent to all 24 million AARP member households. In an era when newspaper circulation is nose-diving and the very existence of print newspapers seems imperiled, organizations such as AARP – a nonprofit association dedicated to helping people 50+ improve the quality of their lives – are discovering that the best way to serve their members is to approach core issues journalistically.

For AARP, that increasingly involves this new beast called videojournalism. Indeed, in the near future I think we will see nonprofits and mission-based organizations become de facto champions of investigative and long-form journalism. Just as newspapers inform and give a voice to their readers, membership organizations inform and give a voice to their members, so this evolution will not be that much of a stretch. More importantly, members receive the benefit of high-quality, credible, and useful information.

So, what kind of videos are we looking for? We strive to produce videos that capture how our members live their lives and reflect what they think and feel about the issues they face. Although we are currently ramping up our video presence to include more types of coverage, our videos currently fall into two main categories:

1) man-on-the-street interviews; and

2) short feature documentaries

Our man-on-the-street interviews, hosted by newly "converted" print journalist Allan Fallow, are clearly "constructed situations." Fallow introduces a topic such as rising food prices, the presidential election, or New Year's resolutions, and then goes out and asks people in our core demographic what's on their minds about it. The goal is to share information on a showcased topic while taking the pulse of a cross-section of everyday people.

A World of Words: For AARP’s short feature documentaries, multimedia producer Nicole Shea strives for “exceptional storytelling, real characters who inspire others to action, and a theme that speaks directly to the AARP demographic. I approach these features as the videojournalism equivalent of environmental portraiture.” Example: video story about 70-year-old Alferd Williams learning how to read in Ms. Hamilton’s first-grade class. (
With our short feature documentaries, we strive for exceptional storytelling, real characters who inspire others to action, and a theme that speaks directly to the AARP demographic. I approach these features as the videojournalism equivalent of environmental portraiture. The intentional reality of an environmental portrait is by no means breaking news photography, but it is well within the realm of photojournalism. The successful environmental portrait tells a real story about the person in the photo. It has a point of view. It captures the subject's personality.

"World of Words", a video about 70-year-old Alferd Williams learning how to read in Mr. Hamilton's first-grade class, is an example of video as environmental portrait. "Marathon Woman" is another example. Margaret Hagerty decided to quit smoking at 64 and, on the advice of a clinic, took up running. She ran a marathon within a year and is a Guinness World Record holder as the oldest person to run a marathon on all seven continents.

We also look to introduce issues central to our members through compelling characters and stories. What Will Happen to Andy? presents an increasingly common issue faced by older parents of adult children with special needs: How do these parents plan for their children, both financially and in terms of lifestyle, when they are gone? To provide useful information rather than simply raising questions, we also assigned a companion article on planning for the future needs of adult children with special needs, which featured resources and advice.

Because our audience (and thus our subject matter) is defined by age rather than geography, and because we are a multimedia staff of two, we use freelance video journalists for almost all of our feature pieces. This has enabled us to work with some of the best people in this emerging field. It also challenges us to constantly recruit talented new freelancers, and it forces us to be disciplined in communicating the unique parameters of creating features for a specialized organization such as ours.

Two forces that shaped my view of storytelling are my training as a photo editor and my immersion in photography during my six years at National Geographic magazine. These forces have likewise influenced the way we work with videojournalists. Collaboration is essential. We work hard to ensure that the finished piece is not just a moving story, but one that makes thematic sense for our Web site – and thus for our members.

Although we aim to make our stories platform-neutral, we are a daily-news Web site; for that reason, each piece comes across as what it is – videojournalism, not traditional broadcast television. The intent is for each segment to display the authenticity and intimacy that are critical on the Web, where people are particularly sensitive to something that claims to be real, but runs the risk of feeling over-produced.

Organizationally, AARP is moving in the direction of creating a single user experience for site visitors, which will probably entail looking anew at the distribution and branding of all AARP-generated video content. (AARP currently produces two original TV programs: "My Generation" and "Inside E Street," both of which air on Retirement Living Television.) This is a sensible move, but the key will be creating an overarching user experience where different video genres work well together while remaining distinct. I would compare this to The New York Times business section vs. The New York Times Magazine, or NBC's "Today Show" vs. "Dateline."

I've been known to describe our approach as "guerrilla-style, ethnographically inspired documentary." No one can figure out what I'm talking about, of course, but that description is honestly the closest I have come to accurately nailing this new rapidly-morphing but ever-growing beast.

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© Nicole Shea

Nicole Shea is multimedia producer of AARP's daily-news Web site, "AARP Bulletin Today." Previously, she was the director of photography for the "AARP Bulletin," a monthly newspaper with a circulation of more than 22 million. Shea has also served as a senior photo editor at Getty Images in New York City, where she launched the Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography program. From 1998 to 2004, Shea worked at National Geographic Magazine, conducting photo research and assisting the senior editor for story development. She is a 1998 communications graduate of Villanova University in Philadelphia.