Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Should online video be held to TV standards?

An interesting post this morning from Al Tompkins at Poynter about the online video judging in the National Press Photographers Associaton's "Best of Television" photojournalist contest.

In commenting specifically about the "online video" category, Tompkins notes no first prize was given. First, no TV stations entered because they are not going to the Web first with their video (unlike many newspapers that are starting to break things online). Second:

"The category itself is in its infancy, and it showed," judge Erica Simpson, a photojournalist from KGTV San Diego, said. "It is obvious these were people who came mostly from newspapers and were trying to learn a craft. They were making basic mistakes in telling stories with pictures. Since we have no bar set, since this is the first year NPPA has offered these categories, we didn't want to set the bar too low and say this is what national award-winning online video looks like. We chose the best of the lot, but this is not where the bar of excellence should be." The judges said the most common mistakes they saw were backlit interviews, sound bites that lasted far too long, jump cuts that were jarring to the eye and stories that were overwritten. The judges also said some stories used too many special effects. The best surprises were sometimes buried deep in the story, and while many of the entries were heavy on useful facts and information, they lacked memorable central characters. The judges also are put off by natural sound "pops" that constantly and unnecessarily interrupt the storytelling.

While this is a photojournalism contest, the judges commented about how so many of the online stories were narrated by reporters whose delivery was flat and unemotional, and often dragged the story down.

"It's hard not to hold the writing against one of these pieces," said Regina McCombs, a veteran TV photographer and now multimedia producer/photographer at StarTribune.com, the online division of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Veteran photojournalist Mark Morache, KING-TV (Seattle), said:

We saw some good journalism -- journalism with a big 'J.' We saw a lot of work that was not fluffy and not a filler. But what caught me was that so many of these stories had an emotional disconnect.

When you are watching a great story, you see it, you know it, you feel it in your gut. It sticks with you, and when it is over, you say, 'Re-rack it and play it again.'

With the amount of time and space these stories are being given online, these online photojournalists could be doing stories that make us drool and make us want to leave our TV jobs.

This should start an interesting thread on places like the newspaper video group on Yahoo. Among the questions and observations I can see throwing into the debate (and I speak as a former broadcaster as well as print person):
  • These are in many cases newspaper people, not trained broadcasters. Should their delivery be held against them? (Probably, because you can't alienate your audience, but at what level do we cut some slack?)
  • TV and video on the Web are not the same thing, the argument goes, so should they be judged by what seem to be similar standards? What differences, if any, should there be?
  • It's clear that "print," to loosely use the term, is shifting more toward the broadcast model, which relies more on emotion to tell stories. How far should that shift go? (Sort of a corollary to the previous question.)
I take no stands on these here, but find them fascinating questions we probably need to think more about.

Over at B-Roll, Lenslinger (from the Greensboro, N.C., area) throws a bit of a verbal bomb:

But before they can conquer new frontiers, they must come to grips with the basics. And a little humility wouldn't hurt. Having long held broadcasters in low regard, many inkslingers are now telling us they can do our medium better. To that I issue a hearty 'Up Yours'. Were I to saunter into your Editor's office, slam my midnight prose down on his desk and pronounce it far superior to anything in-house, you'd rightfully laugh me out of the room.

That wasn't the original intention of my post. There were truly some things that gave me pause and that I thought needed discussion -- someone at the newspaper video group put it well in bifurcating TV standards vs. TV style. I agree wholeheartedly that if the tech standards weren't there, there shouldn't be any slack. I've written about that before here in "Web Video is Not Dumping the Notebook Into a Camera." But I was mulling over the comments from some judges about too many NAT sound "pops" or soundbites being "too long," which got me to wondering whether judges were judging against the common TV local and network news standard of 8- to 12-second bites, for instance. That, I think, is worth discussion.

So stop being so defensive, Lenslinger, and let's all talk. And while I'm happy to be labeled part of the "Print Contingent," a quick reminder that, if pressed (and they still existed in working numbers), I could probably take a shot at changing a CP 16 in a black bag in a couple of minutes (OK, I'm rusty). And I have had the joy of trying to balance a TK-76 on one shoulder and a recorder on the other. So I'm not inexperienced in such matters. Old, perhaps, but not inexperienced.

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At 3/6/07, 11:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is an interesting discussion. Still, for this year's judges to say that the work wasn't up to TV standards totally ignors what has happened in previous years and in previous contests. the washington Post has been winning awards in the NPPA TV contest for several YEARS (and not in the web category, against TV stations). Also, in the White House News Photographers contest, they also do very well. Travis Fox has won photographer of the year many times. This year, Pierre Kattar won editor of the year (against TV folks, I remind you), so it's not just Travis, it shows that web video as a craft is growing and in many ways offers an alternative to the style that we're so used to in local tv news. So yes, it should be judged differently and maybe not judged by tv news videographers and editors who have been trained only in one method.

At 3/7/07, 12:23 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Yes, that there certainly had been this ratification of success elsewhere was partly my uneasiness, and partly that the entries seemed to be judged at least a little bit under the "emotion" standards of TV.

Don't get me wrong -- video is an emotional medium, and the best video stories do leave you with a feeling that's beyond the ordinary. But there are degrees, and while TV has taken the "news as emotion" to the extreme more and more, I'm not sure newspapers are there yet or should be.

At 3/7/07, 12:42 AM, Anonymous Curt Chandler said...

I think it's important not to take offense and to listen to what the BOP judges are saying. Web videographers migrating from the newspaper side (and I count myself among them) still have something to learn about story structure and pacing. Despite what my ego was telling me at the time, it took about a decade for me to become a decent story-teller in the print environment. Now, I have a working knowledge of lighting and composition. Plus I have five years experience doing serious audio. This gives me somewhat of a heat start in the world of video. But I still find that every time I sit down and watch work by really good TV guy like Fox Baltimore's Stan Heist, I've realize I've got way more to learn. Do I want to shoot just like TV? No. Do I want TV guys to see my stuff and 'Re-rack it and play it again.'

At 3/7/07, 10:55 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Those are good points, and I hope the post doesn't come across as taking offense. I'm a former radio and TV guy from way back and know what you are saying about "rerack it." I just think it's a good time to open the conversation on what the standards should be. Just as I get a bit uneasy when "print" folks pooh-pooh broadcast work just because it's "broadcast," and they're judging it by print standards, I get uneasy at a bit of the implication that Web video should meet "TV" standards. All the different cultures bring a lot to this party, but they are different animals.

At 3/7/07, 1:23 PM, Blogger Angela Grant said...

I think it was right for the judges to point out the technical errors in the videos and to stop the bad videos from getting through.

It does worry me what they said about the storytelling though. Specifically saying that some of the soundbytes were too long. If they're judging based on the length of soundbytes, then I'm sure my work would fail that test.

I like to structure my online video stories so the source's voices tell the story, and I don't have to insert a voice over at all. I do recognize voice overs can sometimes be mandatory, and I'll use them at those times. But I don't want my work to showcase "talent" or rely so much on a reporter's voice in the story.

At 3/7/07, 7:56 PM, Blogger Weaver said...

The technical aspect and perfection of any video presentation on any medium can certainly be forgiven with the inclusion of the the "emotional connection".

That emotional connection could be as simple as one poorly shot piece of video that just happened to capture a "moment" that evokes an emotional reaction (happy, sad, glad, sad, wowed, horrified) from the viewer.

Just look at what some of the most watched and most popular videos are on YouTube and you can understand this principle. All of these popular video have captured a moment that are interesting to watch.

So it's not the quality, neccesarily, especially when you have a "moment" caught on tape.

Absent a truely spectactular moment, however, competent shooting, lighting, audio gathering, and writing sucessfully for video (which is a totally different art from writing for print) can evoke the same emotion for all of the stories that have to be produced without a frame of truely shocking, aweing, or inspiring video.

Chris Weaver

At 3/9/07, 10:48 PM, Blogger Lenslinger said...

Anyone who's shouldered a TK-7 is okay by me.

At 3/12/07, 6:45 PM, Blogger Regina said...

Doug asked me to post my comments on the Web video contest, from a judge's perspective, that I posted to the Newspaper Video list, so here goes:

Hey, all – just got back from the NPPA judging and will try to weigh in on a few things from my perspective.

First of all, a few notes: there were 87 total entries to the Web video categories, and well over half of them came from just two news organizations – less than 40 entries from other places. It was frustrating to judge knowing there was good work out there that was not entered (not to name names, but where was Roanoke? Appleton? Miami? San Jose?). We couldn't judge what wasn't entered.

I was very pleased at how thoughtful all the judges were about what it meant to be publishing video stories on the Web. There was never a sense that it needed to be more like television. In fact, if you read all the comments, along with the ones in Al's Morning Meeting note, you'll find that the judges were very excited about the possibilities of Web video.

Keep in mind that I am a newspaper video photographer, and I was an equal participant in judging the TV entries as well. Granted, I came from TV, but have been shooting video at a newspaper Web site for 10 years, so Web video people were represented not just in the online judging, but had an influence on the TV judging as well.

One of the things that we all spent a lot of time talking about was storytelling. Not, "that sound bite was 18 seconds, we would never do that in TV," but "that sound bite didn't contain useful information, and didn't advance the story." Nat sounds pops referred to gratuitous bringing up the audio levels between audio tracks, when that sound didn't add to understanding of the story. We heard it all over TV stories as well.

As to why we didn't choose a winner in every category, it's simple enough: we're not there yet. We're all trying to figure this out, and anyone who says we know what we're doing is just full of – umm – baloney. There was some good work entered, some mediocre work, and some not-so-great stuff. The judges wanted to reward the good work, not set it as a final standard, and encourage us to get better at what we're trying to do.

Let's set the bar high. Let's continue to experiment, to take risks, to be Big J journalists in a new format. Let's be proud to put our stuff up against any work that's out there for our users/viewers. I believe people read this list because they want to be good at what they do, not just good enough. Take the time to watch the winning TV entries. There truly is a lot to learn from people who have amazing skills in telling stories using video.

I'm back at Poynter next week to sit in on the still contest multimedia judging there and make suggestions to the NPPA on how to deal with the overlap in categories. If you have thoughts and suggestions, send them my way.


Regina McCombs
Multimedia producer/photographer

At 3/12/07, 8:21 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


Thanks so much for posting that. Good thoughts, good comment that adds a lot to the discussion.


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