Guest Commentary
The Future of Videojournalism:
Stay ahead of the curve by following these trends
April 2009

by Ken Kobré

At first, nobody quite knew what to call it, this new hybrid form of communications. It was a weird blend of TV news story, mini-documentary, narrated slideshow, and folksy home movie. About all you could say for sure was that it mixed audio with still photos and/or video. Sometimes that audio included the subject talking, sometimes it included voiceover narration of the reporter and/or videographer, sometimes it incorporated both.

This strange new critter appeared not on TV but on Web sites – and not TV Web sites but on newspaper Web sites. That, perhaps, was the strangest thing of all – print newspapers trying to get into the "moving image" business. It turned out to be a mixed blessing.

For the past few years, we've watched more and more newspapers leap into the deep end. Some dipped their toes, others swan-dived, many belly-flopped. For most papers, there was a nervous notion that they better get wet because, well, they could -- even if they weren't sure why they should. They looked around and saw the other guy was doing it, and they didn't want to lose ground, just in case. In case of what? There was a vague sense that buckets should be prepared in case the weather forecast called for heavy ad revenue showers. But those buckets were halfheartedly constructed and haphazardly arranged, so who knows whether they would have been sturdy enough to get filled – those showers never materialized.

The global economic crises hasn't helped matters. These days, few media institutions are willing to financially gamble on anything but a sure bet, whatever that might be, and although the cost of producing videojournalism has become significantly more affordable (hence its ubiquity), when budgets are being slashed to the bone, video rears its head as a singularly non-essential luxury item. In other words, just as more papers are getting the hang of it – and as readers/viewers are starting to tune in – videojournalism is retreating. Or perhaps, we prefer to think, retrenching and retooling.

Now we're at a curious crossroads.

We believe that those who are continuing to make the commitment to videojournalism -- who view it as essential, not lagniappe -- will reap serious rewards in viewership loyalty and, by extension, advertising revenue. But we all wonder what videojournalism will look like in five years – or even a year from now. Who will watch it? Where? On what platform? (Desktop? Laptop? Kindle? TV? Cellphone? DVD? Movie theater?) How will it be funded? (Ad revenue? Pay-per-view? Subscription? Philanthropy? University/Government grants? Corporate sponsorship?) Will it start to look and sound more like TV news, or less?

We don't pretend to have a better crystal ball than anyone else's. But we know that these are questions worth exploring. Here are a few scenarios that we're personally banking on, and recommend that you and your organizations investigate as well.

TECHNOLOGICAL OPPORTUNITIES. The trick is to figure out which advances are really improvements, or just glitzy distractions.

Animation: We're personally fascinated by the potential for using animation. As we said in our blog around the time "Waltz With Bashir" was a strong Oscar contender: "It seems like a contradiction in terms -- one connotes fantasy, the other reality -- but expect to see more animated documentaries as animation becomes more affordable and accessible, and nonfiction video becomes more experimental. Ethical and aesthetic issues abound, but videojournalists need to be attuned to animation's capabilities and limitations, so they can know if, when and how they should use it."

Multiple panels: Another nifty bit of video-enhancing technology that caught our eye was KickLight, which enables you to add synchronized visual elements (“Kicks”) in a separate field adjacent to the video itself. Wherever that video is ultimately sent or embedded, the Kicks go with it. As we blogged: "Kicks can be any form of digital information - as simple as text or a still image or another video, or as complex as a miniature application. For example, a video of the '10 Greatest Yankees Baseball Homeruns' might include a dynamic Kick that presents the up-to-the-minute score of the most recent game played and tickets to an upcoming game -- irrespective of when the video is actually viewed." Think of it as a video with one or more accompanying panels whose content is linked and synched to each other – so you can literally think outside the box!

Embedded links: Though we've seen plenty of examples of hyperlinks embedded in video images on YouTube, it's a useful technology that hasn't yet caught on in videojournalism. But it will, enabling end users to click on a video at designated points, and launch more text or images or videos on the same Web page, or in a new panel or window. Used with taste and restraint, its applications are limited only by your imagination.

Mashups: Imagine being able to "grab" specific pieces of multiple online videos (as you would "save" an online still image), and then stitch them together any way you want to create a single video. This technology already exists, but is not yet in widespread use. Once the "rights and permissions" hurdles have been cleared, and the ethical considerations resolved, it will provide an opportunity to "repurpose" moments, or segments of interviews, to create a composite story from disparate elements.

by Jerry Lazar

BETTER TRAINING. From Platypus to MediaStorm, from Columbia J-school to USC Annenberg, leading practitioners and media organizations and journalism programs are increasingly offering workshops, seminars and boot camps in videojournalism. The National Press Photographers Association's week-long annual meeting in Las Vegas this June is called Convergence '09 and will be devoted to intensive multimedia and visual journalism workshops. The problem with most initial stabs at videojournalism was complete lack of experience. Print reporters who didn't know how to frame and compose, much less think in terms of visual sequences, were handed videocameras and somehow expected to shoot and edit – surely they must have shot their kids' birthday parties, right? Similarly, still photographers were forced to overhaul their coverage – just hold the button down longer! -- and also expected to learn overnight how to conduct interviews that will elicit more than mere caption info. We've seen the dreadful results. But now we're relieved that the necessity for formal training with established pros is being recognized – even if it comes at a time when neither newspapers nor staffers can financially afford it. Our response? They can't afford NOT to get trained. It's the single best investment any journalist, or journalism institution, can make right now.

OMNI-SKILLED vs. SPECIALIST DEBATE. While we personally don’t favor the current "one-man-band" approach to videojournalism – borne of fiscal constraints, not artistic expression -- we can't deny that there are some who are doing it rather well. But they're the minority. We feel that it's best, for individuals and staffs, to be thoroughly trained in shooting, editing and producing video – so they understand the medium's strengths and weaknesses – but ultimately there will be plenty of room for those who shine solely as shooters or editors or producers. Let's face it – in the print world, reporters are trained to write and edit, and yet there are plenty of great writers who can't edit and great editors who can't write. And yet it's important that each comprehend and appreciate the tasks of the other. The same holds true in videojournalism. Even the fabled solo mavericks stress the importance of peer feedback and input. That's why we favor the team approach, provided it entails true collaboration – with brainstorming sessions, participatory planning and troubleshooting, and group ownership of the project – and not an assembly-line model where footage gets handed off to an editor to try to make sense of it.

FREELANCE VJs / ENTREPRENEURS. As newspaper staffs shrink and die, we'll be witnessing the growth of the freelance VJ community. As with writing and still photography, making a living – or even a dime – from VJ projects will require hustle, moxie, and good old-fashioned marketing and self-promotion. The entrepreneurial minded will find paying clients among online trade publications that reach niche audiences, and other Webcentric organizations that recognize the value of communicating with their members – or spreading their message to the world -- through visual storytelling. To succeed in this arena, you'll need to build your online portfolio of self-assigned pieces to use as work samples, and then become savvy at generating and pitching irresistible story ideas to appropriate outlets. As in the world of photography, industry-wide guidelines and protocols will evolve, day rates will become established, standard photography contracts will be revamped to incorporate video. The best and brightest videojournalists will develop distinctive styles and "brand-name" reputations, and command top dollar. The next logical step will be for these top guns to build teams around themselves, so expect to see "boutique" videojournalism outfits that generate their own stories, but also take on contract work "for hire." Brian Storm's MediaStorm is a seminal example of this.

ETHICAL DILEMMAS. Are music soundtracks kosher in videojournalism? We devoted an entire blog item to that topic: "There's no question that the same footage can affect your mood one way if it's accompanied by hard-driving up-tempo rock and another if it's set to lush orchestral strings. What role should music (or added sound effects) have in videojournalism? Do soundtracks compromise objectivity? Or are they another useful component of audio and visual storytelling? If so, what ethical guidelines should be followed?" That's just one of zillions of moral dilemmas facing videojournalists on a daily basis. On what occasions is it OK to speed up or slow down footage (during the editing process) – either to create a cinematic effect, or just to better synch the image to the audio? If you missed, or never had the opportunity, to shoot your subject engaged in an activity when he would normally do it, is it OK to get them to artificially re-enact it for the camera? Many of these conundrums are handed down from the world of documentary filmmaking, but we can guarantee that new technologies, and their temptations, will supply a fresh batch of ethical considerations that will separate the purists from the pioneers.

Look for longer video stories: Hulu, whose main content is network TV sitcom re-runs, experimented by posting an hour-long documentary, "Crawford," a look at the colorful residents of President Bush’s adopted hometown. Hulu has since created an entire online channel for feature-length docs, as has KobreGuide, with its “Got an Hour?” channel.
LONGER VIDEO STORIES. What's the ideal length for a video story? Our guideline is simple: say what you've got to say, then shut up. If that sounds familiar, it's because the same rule holds for print stories. And just as we've read terrific five-paragraph items AND 5,000-word New Yorker exposes, we've seen great minute-long videos AND great hour-long videos. The conventional thinking is that Web audiences can't or won't sit still long enough for anything more than three minutes. Some newspaper videos are pushing it at seven minutes. We say, if the story's strong and the material is good, go for it! People will watch. All those surveys that indicate otherwise do not take into account the video's quality. Hulu, whose main content is network TV sitcom re-runs, experimented by posting an hour-long documentary, "Crawford," a truly engaging look at the colorful residents of President Bush's adopted hometown. We proudly showcased it on KobreGuide. And it was so good that people watched the whole thing. Hulu apparently came to the same conclusion, because it has since increased its hour-long documentary offerings exponentially – and even created an entire online channel for them. Prediction: long-form videojournalism will become more prevalent and popular. We're so sure of it, we created a new KobreGuide channel: “Got an Hour?”

SHARED CONTENT. Here is one financial opportunity that we at KobreGuide are personally betting the house on. From our vantage point, surveying and showcasing the best videojournalism throughout the world, one significant value of what we do is enable viewers to look beyond their own backyard. For instance, if you happen to live in Detroit, you're likely to see the Detroit Free Press' ambitious 50-part video series celebrating the 50th anniversary of Motown Records. Similarly, if you live in San Francisco, you probably caught the San Francisco Gate's hilarious video portrait of a local air guitar champion. However, we know for a fact that folks in San Francisco would delight in seeing the Motown series, and folks in Detroit would get a good laugh out of the air guitarist – but, even with universal accessibility of Web material, what's the likelihood that either is going to look at the other's hometown newspaper Web site? Enter KobreGuide. Under one roof we've gathered the Web's best videojournalism – one-stop shopping, wherever you live. Now we're entering phase two – establishing a videojournalism consortium that will enable individual newspapers to syndicate appropriate video features to each other. The increased exposure for each market is a slam-dunk win-win. No, the world doesn't need more video – it needs better video. In the months ahead, KobreGuide will be providing an invaluable opportunity for every newspaper to improve the quality of videojournalism it offers its readers – and an exponentially bigger market for newspapers that are already producing top-quality video – all for no cost whatsoever to the newspapers. Stay tuned!

BETTER STUFF. The most heartening trend of all is that a small but significant number of videojournalism operations are starting to get it right, and are consistently producing high-quality fare. The cream is rising to the top. The more that gets posted, the more it influences and gets studied by up-and-coming videojournalists. That may be the greatest and most enduring value of KobreGuide. As we travel the country, giving presentations at seminars and workshops, we are told again and again by those in the trenches that they peruse KobreGuide daily to see what their far-flung peers are up to. They tell us that they find inspiration and ideas every day from the video stories we showcase. Because the field is still relatively small and unheralded, many practitioners feel as though they're working in a lonely vacuum, and are immensely grateful for the opportunity to see and be seen on KobreGuide. Best of all, appreciative journalism professors confess to us that, without KobreGuide, they would never be able to find sufficient examples for their students to study and learn from. We relate this, not to toot our own horn, but to demonstrate that videojournalists are hungering to sharpen their skills and, individually and collectively, improve their fledgling craft. We consider ourselves lucky to be able to watch that unfold from the best seats in the house.

blog comments powered by Disqus

© Ken Kobré

Ken Kobré heads the photojournalism program at San Francisco State University. His former students, who include winners of the Pulitzer Prize, World Press Awards, and many other prestigious honors, work on staff and as freelancers for publications and media outlets around the world. Kobré’s textbook,"Photojournalism: The Professionals' Approach," (Focal Press-Elsevier) has been the widest-selling text on photojournalism in the world since 1980. It is now in its sixth edition. He is also a co-author of the 7th and 8th editions of "Photography" (Prentice Hall) the world's leading basic photography textbook. His other books include “How to Photograph Friends and Strangers” (Curtin & London). He is the inventor of the Lightscoop, a universally acclaimed camera accessory that instantly and inexpensively  improves pop-up flash photographs.