Wednesday, June 20, 2007

It's Not About Gear

Seems like every time I open my mouth about spending money for good gear, people get upset.

But I'm not advocating spending a bunch of money to equip reporters with good gear. Not at all. That's a waste.

I'm advocating spending a bunch of money to train some staffers to be full-time video professionals. And if you're going to do that, then equip them with decent video gear. Doesn't matter if they're photogs or reporters. Pick the visually literate people who can tell stories and who get along with technology.

It'll take at least three months to get them up to speed if you already have video pros aboard who can train them. It'll take a year if they're learning in a vacuum.

Creating compelling stories in video is hard.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Great Video Gold Rush -- a reality check.

The publishers have sighted gold in them thar video player hills.

All the newspaper people have piled into the wagons and are heading west toward Video, in the hopes of striking it rich. Imagine! Those pre-roll ads get higher rates than banners! Let's do video!!!! The rush is on!

Someone on the internet said you can do video with a point and shoot! Let's give our staffers the cheapest video cameras we can buy and send 'em out. We'll be rich!

Well, folks, circle the wagons around the campfire here and lets have a little chat.

This video stuff ain't easy nor cheap. No matter how many well-intentioned bloggers tell you all you need is a $89 camera and the will to do it, the reality is far different.

It takes good audio gear, reasonable video gear, modern computers, and most of all, time, to produce intelligible video for the web.

So many papers have staffers struggling along with antideluvian computers and too many assignments to ever cover in a day.... and now corporate says they have to do video, too! I feel for you, brothers....

Since newspaper people have apoplexy at the thought of TV budgets, where a camera costs $25,000 - not including lens or battery -- I'll try to make an analogy with something most newspapers are familiar with: photos.

Most newspapers have photographers with pro Canon or Nikon gear to shoot the majority of their display pictures. Sure, even the big papers use the reporter's point-n-shoot mug shots when necessary. And when the plane crashes into the shopping mall, I guarantee the picture you'll use will probably be some amateur's coolpix shot -- because they were there, and your photog was in south county for the garden league meeting.

But no respectable paper intentionally makes a habit of putting crappy pictures on their section fronts. They have staff photographers with $15,000 worth of still gear to go make an image out of something that's news but not really visual. That's a staff photographer's job: make something visually interesting from nothing. You're paying them to see things you don't.

And the reason you pay them weekly weakly, is that readers value good images. Pictures rule. They're what readers look at first. Photographers, for all their A.D.D. and dyslexic faults, draw readers. They're worth it.

After decades of experience with photo departments and visual professionals, here's the strange place we've landed:

The internet audience is growing and you want your staff -- from the janitor all the way up to the M.E. -- to contribute to the web product. Video! Let's do lots of video! There was some guy at the publisher's association meeting who said all you need is a point-n-shoot; let's get 'em for everyone. How 'bout the photogs? Nahhh, they care about silly quality.... we won't ask them about doing video... We'll get the web people and reporters to do video.

So the reporters start doing video. All of a sudden the story they used to be able to write blindfolded, in five minutes while doing the office football pool, takes 'em six hours of work to get the video into their computers, figure out why Movie Maker keeps crashing -- I've got 128 megs of ram, fer krissake! -- and finally re-compress the file into the right size on the third try.

And the web people? Well, they don't have a problem figuring out Movie Maker, but gee, maybe that video they just finished should have said something about the three dead or maybe included someone besides Crazy Joe who likes to pretend to be the mayor. Oh, wait, that was the managing editor's video? Oh, no problem then....

A few months of this and the landscape starts to change at papers. Gee, why don't our videos get as many hits as LonelyGirl15?

All of a sudden you're moving someone over to edit video because it takes so long and gosh, the publisher says he can't understand a word in any of those videos... maybe we need a better mic. But some corporate flunky type who was at the ANPA meeting with the boss has decided what gear you're getting... after all, his cousin does dog show videos.

Sheesh, people, get a clue!

Ok, cowboys and cowgirls, here comes the sermon:

VIDEO IS MAGIC! It's the most f'ing wonderful thing on the internet. YouTube feeds millions of videos per day to your former readers. Video is an emotional medium that grabs the viewers by the throat and makes 'em weep, laugh, and scream. Video appeals to an audience way beyond your literate readers in the 65+ demographic. The boss did say we need to capture younger readers, right?

Does your reporter video fit into that "magic" category? Does your 'random' video make you weep? (It makes me weep, but not because of the story...)

If you haven't reached this point yet with your video program, here's the important stuff you need to know:

Video storytelling is technically difficult; extremely time-consuming, and takes talented people and expensive gear. A good video story can appeal to a huge audience. And will keep appealing over time.

Video clips, on the other hand, can be done by almost anyone with a point-n-shoot. We're talking the video equivalent of a page 4B traffic accident brief. A video clip appeals to the 17 people who were affected by the wreck (unless it's a porn starlet).

Remember way up above when I was talking about your photogs doing the section front pictures while you used the reporter mug shots on page 6B? That's a concept you should be able to wrap your minds around. Hey, maybe the same philosphy applies to video.... maybe you should have a core group of video pros to do the display stories and let the reporters and citizen journalists do the potholes and car wrecks.

Here's the bottom line: to get good narrative video, with clean audio, that is engaging to the viewer, requires a full time video person, who has spent a year learning all the technical stuff about audio, cameras, and video editing programs. It takes about $10,000 in video and audio gear and another $10k in computer and software. And it takes a willingness to display that video far and wide over an extended period of time to get hits that build over time. Oh, and the technology is not stable, so you'll need to replace everything before the depreciation's done.

Who makes a good videographer? You've probably got a couple on staff. Great story-tellers with the timing of a comedian who are technically savvy, visually literate, and quick learners. Invest in them, they're worth it.

And why should you go to all this expense and trouble? Because video is magic. Oh, and also because the local TV station is finally figuring out that you're eating their lunch. They're gonna kick your butt in video soon, along with 3,472 other outlets on the web who want to come steal your local advertisers from you. You better figure this video stuff out soon.

(A bit of video magic by Candace Barbot and Ricardo Lopez / the Miami Herald)