Posted on April 7, 2008
Some fine examples of newspaper video
I sent my eight journalism grad students on a mission to watch and critique two newspaper videos, and they found some excellent stories (see the Blogging 1 assignment for details; find their critiques using these links). I told them they had to find the video on one of five newspaper Web sites, and they had to be able to say at least one positive thing about each video they selected (thus eliminating total garbage).
Then I had to watch 14 videos — some of them more than 5 min. long — to grade their assignment. (Note to self: For a bigger class, assign the same videos to everyone.) Thanks to my students, I got to see some excellent work I had not encountered before.
One of the best was A Bronx School Revives, by Adam B. Ellick and Elissa Gootman at The New York Times. At 7 min. 37 sec. it should be too long — but it’s not. I’d shave off the last 10 seconds, but nothing else. It tells a somewhat complex story of a middle school principal who made a positive impact on a failing school, and it really surprised me (with my attention span of close to zero) how interesting it was. Very good pacing throughout, high-quality sound and images, and a very, very strong sense of story.
A strong sense of story, combined with really nice visuals, made a far simpler vignette about two retiring barbers work well. One sees a lot of little features like this in newspaper video, but rarely are they crafted so well to maintain the dramatic interest we need — if we’re to stay with it to the end (Last Call for Haircuts, by Dan Pelle at The Spokesman-Review; 2 min. 50 sec.). Notice how the opening tells us — quickly — everything we need to know to understand the story. Notice too how the ending really feels like an ending.
For this third example, I know you’re not going to trust me. Please trust me! Even with a title like Are EPA coal emission standards strict enough?, this video is killer. The Las Vegas Sun went to a public meeting about a proposed coal plant in the town of Mesquite, Nevada. Wait, don’t stop reading! You have to watch this — for the entire 4 min. 46 sec. — because this is real reporting that tells an important story, and it does so by virtue of (a) having sent reporters to cover a meeting — in its entirety; (b) using animated information graphics wherever possible to help explain the facts — during the video; (c) writing meaningful, useful narration; (d) carefully editing what must have been hours of live testimony and comments down to a compact package under 5 min. (team: Matt Toplikar, Phoebe Sweet, Leila Navidi, and Jenna Kohler).
Not only is this about 10,000 times better than any package I have ever seen on local TV (including local TV news in New York and Washington); take a look at that video player they’re got! Check out the download options on the right! Oh, yes — this is the future of online video, right here.
Finally, a very instructive pair of videos from washingtonpost.com, both about people’s opinions of the U.S. presidential candidates — but they are different as can be. In videos where we see five or six (or more) people telling us what they think — usually at the end I think, “So what?” and feel that I have just wasted my time. I rarely get any insight from this kind of video. One of these two (A Day at the Beach with GOP Voters; Ben de la Cruz; 4 min. 55 sec.) fits that description pretty well, in my opinion, but the other (The View from the Pulpit; Ben de la Cruz, Pierre Kattar, and Hamil Harris; 5 min. 33 sec.) is surprisingly better — and thus it points the way to how this kind of video really ought to be conceived and executed.
One difference is probably (and obviously) the involvement of Hamil Harris (one of my favorite reporters when I worked on the Metro copy desk at The Post in the early 1990s). Hamil knows how to interview, how to get people to go deep and really answer a question. He takes his time. He listens well. In addition, you can tell from the settings that the Pulpit interviews were much more formal; the Beach interviews were vox pops.
For me, this gives us a chance to think about why we do vox pops, if all they do is reflect something we already thought or knew. Would our time as journalists be better spent on more serious interviews — especially for video?