Thoughts about video editing software

One of the ongoing challenges in teaching journalism nowadays concerns the choice of software for video editing. I’m going to pump out a brief overview here and hope that lots of people will weigh in with their own experiences and suggestions. The more the merrier!

First, an outline of the programs that generally dominate the conversation in most j-schools:

  1. iMovie (free)
  2. Windows Movie Maker (free)
  3. Final Cut Pro or Studio or Express (three different price tags)
  4. Anything else

Second, let me note that those who teach students aiming at television news jobs have a different list (although you’ll find the Final Cut products on that list too). Here I’m looking at the broader population of all journalism students, who might end up anywhere at all (especially online) — not necessarily in TV.

iMovie or Windows Movie Maker (WMM)

These two free programs solve a lot of problems simply because they are free, stable, and very easy to use (and to teach). However, they can also create problems because in many j-schools, some percentage of your students will have “the other one.” I think it’s a waste of the instructor’s time (and class time) to teach both, so pick the one that fits the computers in your lab. Be prepared for frustration from the students who don’t want to come to the lab on campus to do their assigned work.

Is iMovie better than WMM? I don’t think so. (I use both.) The two are decidedly different, but both will get the job done. Both have very limited capacity but do allow you to trim clips, insert cutaways, layer a second track of audio, and adjust audio volume. You can add titles and end credits easily in both. Both offer a plethora of cheesy transitions (don’t be tempted). WMM has a more traditional timeline interface. iMovie hides the timeline tracks, but you can access them via the Precision Editor (via a menu option).

A huge problem with WMM is that more and more point-and-shoot cameras save video in the MOV format, and WMM will not open MOV files. These must be converted to AVI or WMV first. Some degradation may result.

iMovie supports lots more cameras and formats (read all about it), including MPEG-4, AVCHD and H.264.

Another problem with WMM is that it has slight, annoying differences on Vista (and presumably Windows 7) vs. the previous versions of Windows. Most students can figure these out, but some get stuck and need help.

Final Cut Pro or Studio or Express

These are Apple/Mac only (unless you use an emulator, which I would not recommend). Studio includes Pro, plus a lot of other stuff. Express is like an entry-level version of Pro, but Apple has made our lives hell by making it impossible to move projects back and forth between Pro and Express. That little detail is often blissfully ignored by people who say, “Let’s buy Pro for our lab, and the students can buy Express for their MacBooks.” A road to disaster! (You can open a FCE project in FCP, but after a project has been saved in FCP, it will not open in FCE.)

Check Final Cut higher education prices at the Apple Store (search for Final Cut there). We’re talking about roughly $900 vs. $200 — nothing to sneeze at!

Now, if I had six or 10 or 15 weeks to teach Final Cut to students, that would be great. But I’m teaching an omnibus multimedia journalism course, and we have four weeks — four — to learn to shoot and edit and get it online. Don’t underestimate the learning curve of a high-end piece of software. As a colleague of mine quipped recently, most people have a simple hammer around the house — not many people go out and buy a nail gun.

It would be wonderful if every journalism student graduated with proficiency in Final Cut Pro. But the teaching resources required are not trivial.

Anything else (other editing software)

There are free Web 2.0 (all online) options for video editing (see list), and there are many other commercial packages such as Adobe Premiere and Sony Vegas and whatever little doodle-dabble came with your HP or Dell, or with your video camera. And there’s Avid and who knows what all at the high end.

What I would caution you against is allowing students to use just anything they choose. When you teach video editing, you want to get certain basics across — for the sake of storytelling — and novices find it easier to follow along if everyone in the room is clicking the same buttons. In other words, variation in software will get in the way of what you really need to teach, which is cutting together sequences, laying in the audio, lining things up neatly, adding titles and credits and lower-thirds, and exporting the file in a decent-quality format for uploading or whatever.

And for goodness’ sake — telling the story! Don’t forget, that’s what we really need to teach them.

For tutorials and other video editing links, see the Journalists’ Toolkit video section.

34 Comments on “Thoughts about video editing software

  1. I teach Final Cut Express only. It offers an interface that will prepare students better for most real-world apps (FCP, etc.) and much more control than iMovie. (iMovie 08 doesn’t have the precision editor.)

  2. I’d sriously recomend premiere for doing web video. I know it has some limitations once you start getting very serious about your editing but I have been making video for online for about three years now and I’ve only now got to the point where I’m pushing it. On the other hand the interface is so much more logical to learn (I learnt with no instruction at all) and the similarity to other adobe products is a real help. Other pluses include the fact that it is much more forgiving about video formats and it runs on pcs which are a hell of a lot cheaper for the cash strapped individual or institution

  3. Excellent overview, Mindy.

    In my Web journalism class, my aim is to teach the simple, free or mostly free tools that students will encounter at a small newspaper or website. But I don’t think there’s a huge amount of value to teaching a particular tool as though it will translate directly to the work environment. The idea is to expose them to easy-to-use programs and give them a feel of what it’s like to learn something on the fly.

    That said, I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to offer iMovie ’09 next semester, because it’s got the easiest B-roll insertion I’ve ever seen — although if students want to bring their Windows laptops to class and use WMM, they’re free to do so.

  4. I appreciate the discussion about video editing software. I, too, am concerned about the amount of time it takes to teach the software versus story content.

    We’re about to upgrade our labs to iMacs with Final Cut Pro and/or Final Cut Express. We’ll also have iMovie 09. Having taught the basics of video editing with iMovie 06, is there value in sticking with iMovie 09, especially in our 100-level classes? In terms of teaching Final Cut, is the teaching and learning curve easier with FCE versus FCP?

    Thanks for your help.

  5. @Dennis Cripe – Knowledge of iMovie ’06 probably won’t help you at all with iMovie ’09, because the application was changed radically with ’08 (and ’09 improved on that).

    If you’re going to have Final Cut in all the labs, it would be great to just start with that and ignore iMovie altogether, in my opinion. I do not think learning iMovie will help anyone transition to Final Cut.

    However, you may run into a time crunch and decide that iMovie is faster to teach.

    I have not used FCE, so I can’t answer your learning-curve question. Also, I had used Premiere a fair bit before I learned FCP, so the transition was not very hard for me. I have not taught FCP, but I used to teach Premiere.

    There’s a nice book for broadcast journalists learning FCP, by Joe Torelli: Apple Pro Training Series: Final Cut Pro for News and Sports Quick-Reference Guide (2nd edition).

  6. @Dennis: I think it all depends on the intent of the class. To prepare students who’ll be thrown into a situation where they’ll be told to use whatever free software is on their computer? Go with iMovie ’09. To give them the tools to make the best possible videos? Definitely Final Cut.

  7. Great post as usual Mindy. I just had a few thoughts I’d like to pass on.

    (It should be noted that I’ve never taken an editing class, but rather have self-taught myself Final Cut Pro, Premier and other editing programs using sites like and on-the-fly while producing projects with hard deadlines.)

    When looking at video editing I find the concept of non-liner editing is really the most important piece of the puzzle. Programs all work more or less the same, but understanding how to put together a project quickly is what makes learning one possible. For instance, when shooting a concert with multiple cameras, the trick of laying down all three video tracks to start and then cutting away adding in edits, fades, etc. is a quick way to get the project done on deadline. Once students break the liner thinking they are taught when writing, video editing and audio editing will become more fluid.

    Secondly, when learning how to edit it’s important to stress the actual skill of putting two clips together is easy, it’s when things go wrong an editor really shows their value. For instance I have several friends in grad schools that are learning Final Cut Pro and when they have a problem, they usually have someone on call to help out. But what happens when they are in the real world and the new Canon 7D doesn’t mesh with footage shot from a Sony and Panasonic? Having a high-level understanding of what video is, how it interacts with programs, and why workflows are so important, is the foundation for a solid editing career.

    As for programs, I know everyone has their personal preferences, but the fact of the matter is if the students aren’t ready for Final Cut they won’t be ready when they hit the workplace. Final Cut Pro looks tough, but if time is applied and the students work through the technological hurdles they will get a grasp on the program in a timely matter. Sure it’s not “required” all the time, but from personal experience, if you can’t use Final Cut (express included) it’s going to be tough to sell yourself as video proficient.

  8. just a quick note to start… I’ve used MovieMaker (different versions) for some quick and fun little personal movies and I found it anything but stable. Basically I was saving the projects after every step because it crashed so many times when things got a bit more complex (mind you only a title here and there, some effects and transitions).

    That said, we teach our students on Premiere Pro (CS4 currently). In a mad directive from above a while back we tried switching to all freeware and reduce cost (Ubuntu running Cinelerra, GIMP, Scribus etc) however it was a disaster. It just proved you get what you pay for.

    We use PPro CS4 (a necessary upgrade from CS3) purely because of so many different video formats coming in from a plethora of different cameras that no other software under windows can handle them (reasonably).

    Yes there are alternatives, some much cheaper (Pinnacle, Sony Vegas, Avid, GV Edius…) but in the end it comes to the whole Adobe package and being able to connect it all (since we don’t teach only video).

    That being said, if I were teaching only the basics of video editing I’d stick with the cheapest product available (perhaps even Cinelerra) since software itself is hardly relevant in creating the end product (when simple enough) and once you understand how one of them works you can use anything. Over the years I went from Pinnacle, to Premiere, Avid Newscutter, MovieMaker, iMovie, Final Cut Pro, back to Premiere… and after a short adjustment period and some playing around for practice I was ready for a serious project.

    Although once I got used to one of them I was very frustrated with certain features on another. There is no best of the best. Just different.

  9. @Jernej – Thanks so much for the informative comment! I guess maybe WMM behaves more stably when you don’t use effects or transitions (I don’t, in WMM).

    I see your point that if you are all Windows in your labs, it makes good sense to go with Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 — the school will get a great licensing deal on the full Creative Suite, and you need to have Photoshop and InDesign anyway.

  10. The problem for us all is that there’s isn’t a good cross-platform video editor with a fast learning curve.

    An Audacity for video or iMovie for PC would enable me to deliver so much greater value for journalists taking on multimedia. But since we’re stuck with what we have …

    iMovie blows WMM away, in my view. BUT – no-one should be teaching on, or learning on, iMovie 08. It’s junk compared with 09, which does the essentials, such as cutaways, very well.

    (I’ve taught with iMovie in the UK and Middle East with no stablity issues, to pick up on a previous comment)

    FC or Premiere? Not much to choose between them. I use Final Cut (Express for teaching). Outstanding application with easy transition to PRO. Having said that, I bought Premiere Elements for my last newspaper group newsrooms (PC-based) and had excellent results with minimum learning effort. At current prices, Premiere Elements is fantastic value, too.

    My real point is this:

    It’s choosing the right medium, for the right story, and being able to turn it around fast and with confidence that’s important … not the ability to operate technology.

    If you’re not editing at least one video a week, even apps like FC Express can be an inefficient use of newsroom resource. In some UK newsrooms I know, where staffs have declined by up to 50%, video production has virtually ground to a halt. That’s reality.

    I’d rather see journalists juggling shorthand with a Flip, mobile, iMovie, Audacity, Soundslides and Google Maps (etc) – until people-focused, value-added, multimedia story-telling becomes second nature and fun – than see them get bogged down by Final Cut Codecs.

  11. @Dan — Interesting and great points Dan, but I have a question. One thing I’ve noticed with audio and video in newsrooms and other media outlets, is they are considered products that must be produced quickly and without much editorial review. I constantly make the argument with journalism grads, good video is like good writing — it takes time and revisions. I wonder if we will start to see the speed of the projects tip as more people become proficient and media outlets put resources towards a dedicated team.

    That said, how is video and audio being taught in journalism classes? Is it being taught as an added value to a students portfolio or is it being taught as an art and skillset that takes years to hone? I’m not sure since when I was in college only a few years ago, one of my professors told me I was wasting my time figuring out this thing called a blog.

    @Mindy — thanks for the links and kind words. I’d love to help you in the future if you’re students have any questions or you’re looking for some real world examples and workflows.

  12. Thanks, Mindy.
    I wanted to note that as of the latest version of Final Cut Studio, FCP cannot be purchased separately. You get the full suite. I have found working with Soundtrack Pro and Compressor are very valuable complements to Final Cut and now Motion is high on some students wish lists. Of course this takes more time, not less!

    Are the applications in Final Cut Studio (2009) available for purchase individually?
    The applications in Final Cut Studio (2009) are only available for purchase as a part of Final Cut Studio (2009). The applications are:

    -Final Cut Pro 7 for video and film editing
    -Cinema Tools 4.5 for film‑based and digital intermediate–based workflows
    -Motion 4 for motion graphics and animation
    -Soundtrack Pro 3 for audio post-production
    -Color 1.5 for color grading and finishing
    -Compressor 3.5 and DVD Studio Pro 4 for digital delivery virtually anywhere, such as Apple devices, the web, and disc
    -DVD Studio Pro 4 for DVD authoring (my addition to this list)

  13. Thanks, Phil. In fact I was not clear on that point. I feel annoyed that one cannot buy FCP alone for a lower price (than Final Cut Studio) — the giant price tag of FCS makes FCE look like a super-great deal, but then you face the compatibility problem in an academic environment.

  14. I’ve used iMovie before – mostly in high school workshop settings. But the Freedom Forum multimedia training introduced me to Final Cut Express. Definitely a breeze to learn – especially for someone who is Mac proficient.

    Despite having edited only once before in high school, using FCE was natural and came quickly, and I was really proud of my clip at the end.

  15. On the PC side of things, a very popular and robust editor in strong use is Sony Vegas, and it comes in several flavours – – ranging from ‘fun at home’ up to one which to rival Premiere and Final Cut Pro –

    As for an ‘Audacity for video’, there’s the multi-platform open source Avidemux – – “for Linux, BSD, Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows under the GNU GPL license”

  16. While in journalism school a couple years ago I learned video editing using iMovie 06. I eventually upgraded to iMovie 08 and I currently use iMovie 09 at the magazine I work for.

    While FCP may offer a lot more bells and whistles, I find iMovie 09 to be efficient in editing five minute videos for the Web. I may have to use Audacity to edit the audio but the combination of iMovie 09 and one or two other programs works for me.

    FCP is a nice program to learn but I wouldn’t say it is essential for journalism students. iMovie 09 is easy, much improved over the previous version, free with a new mac and is more than capable of producing great Web videos.

  17. @Tim: At Northeastern, we teach video at two entirely different levels.

    First, we have traditional broadcast classes and an excellent student television station where students are learning Final Cut. This is rather high-end stuff, and the skills should be transferable not just to television stations, but to any news organization with a commitment to quality video.

    Second, we have my class, Reinventing the News, where I am quite frankly focusing on the low end. I never shot a video myself until less than two years ago, and I’ve been working in journalism since the 1970s. My goal is to get my students to produce a video that is somewhat better than is typical on small-organization websites. More important, I want them to feel comfortable with anything that might get thrown at them.

    I have found it to be an interesting experience, as some of my students are already far more accomplished video journalists than I will ever be, while others are terrified of the whole idea.

  18. What are you hoping the result will be for your students? A basic understanding of the concept of video storytelling? Then iMovie should be fine. But if you want them to be ready to produce something on the job, I would strongly urge you to go with Final Cut.

    I’ve seen a lot of resumes for reporter positions with “Video” listed as a skill, but on seeing their work, none of them are ready to step in and produce something on day one.

    I’m responsible for training reporters to shoot and edit, and I have them up and running on the basics of Final Cut in two days. (Obviously some continuing training is necessary). A recent college grad who has dabbled in iMovie would still need the two-day session before they wold shoot anything here. Maybe expectations are lower at other publications.

  19. Another thing to keep in mind with Final Cut Studio is that it may not be a good idea to purchase the academic version (which, I believe, is about $100 less than the regular folks’ version). Apple will not let you upgrade from the former, unlike Adobe and their academic products.

  20. Mindy,
    We started out teaching with iMovie HD, then went to FCE when iMovie ’08 crapped all over the franchise. The past few days I’ve been playing around with the iMovie ’09 interface, and it does cutaways (yah!). I’m tempted to switch back to iMovie because of the time crunch. I also don’t like how FCE has to handle the vixia HF100 files (.mts) through log and transfer.

    Another thing that I’ve had students struggle with is the file storage system in FCE. Students need to back up their folders to a server because the lab computers wipe clean whenever it is shut down, and invariably, someone doesn’t follow instructions and loses an FCE folder. with iMovie HD, the project was one huge file. I haven’t checked yet to see how iMovie ’09 does it.

  21. Thanks for all the helpful comments, everyone!

    I think one of the advantages to choosing iMovie and/or WMM when you only have a short time to spend on video editing is this: Students will continue to have access to these free programs no matter what. If you spend two or three classes on teaching Final Cut, but after the class ends the students can’t get access to Final Cut, the time was kind of wasted.

    In my j-school it is almost impossible for journalism students to get access to Final Cut because the broadcast department controls all the labs that have Final Cut, and they keep those labs locked down for the broadcast students. So the journalism students are limited to really crappy PC labs with nothing but WMM.

  22. IUPUI in Indianapolis worked a deal with Adobe and students get their CS4 editing and still suites for free (almost pays for the price of enrollment). With this deal in place I have switched from Final Cut Pro to Premier. I still prefer FCP but Premier is hard to beat when it’s free.
    The school also worked a deal with for free access to all their online tutorials. They have an amazing variety of programs. I’m slowly working my way through tutorials on many programs I’ve used but never knew the correct way to set them up or how to get the most out of them.

  23. Is Avid really that far out of the picture (so to speak) that it doesn’t even rate a mention? We have TV stations in MO that use it for editing news pkgs

  24. Ok. I guess Avid gets mentioned once on this site!

  25. @Mark Smith – Avid is of course well respected — but quite expensive. I think one of the things we confront now as journalism educators is that our students need to know how to take up a new tool and run with it. So what we do when we teach video editing (to non-TV-news students) is concentrate on principles, especially good storytelling.

  26. Tari commentd above:

    As for an ‘Audacity for video’, there’s the multi-platform open source Avidemux – – “for Linux, BSD, Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows under the GNU GPL license”

    I’ve never come across this before. Any experience, anyone?

  27. Looking only at the screenshots it looks similar (in features) to VirtualDub. Perhaps slightly more user friendly but definitely not at the same level as WMM or iMovie.

    I guess a GNU Audacity for video equivalent is Cinelerra

  28. Pingback: Video vs. Audio-Slideshow: Das Ende vom Anfang | lab

  29. I teach Final Cut, because that is the software installed in our lab (originally designed for film students). I do teach a semester-long media course, so we have more time with the software. I am intrigued by the idea of trying a shorter, more intense model.

    For FCP, I love the tutorials from the Knight Center: These are designed for journalism folks and focused on what my students need to know. Their other materials are fabulous too.

  30. I second the what Steve says about If you are unsure about picking a program, watch its beginner tutorial on It’s great way to window shop for video production software.

  31. I would argue the easier to use, the better. I learned iMovie in j-school, and it put me ahead of the curve when I got to a daily newspaper that used it as a primary tool for reporters to edit videos on deadline. It also eased me in to multimedia, allowing me to concentrate on other aspects such as shooting, interviewing and putting the story together. And the basic principles of dragging clips and working with audio made learning Final Cut and Audacity less intimidating.

    As I transition into becoming a journalism educator, I lean toward sticking with the easier programs to concentrate on teaching storytelling, while introducing students to the more complicated tprograms that they can learn on their own time if they are interested.

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