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Does story telling lose in multimedia?

This will be the first time I’ve written about multimedia here. What prompts this first? I’ve judged a couple competitions lately so had to suffer through a bunch of multimedia pieces as part of the process.

Given a choice, I avoid multimedia like the plague. Why? Because most of it sucks. Even the name sucks. A newspaper or magazine or book is multi media: words, design, photography, printing. Even radio is multi media: words and music.

So the name multimedia does nothing to describe what you’ll get. Some media outlets tried using videos as the catch-all. But that falls short of being accurate, too.

What does a name matter, anyway? Just because photography and writing and film/video and radio/audio all mean fairly specific things doesn’t mean something that could include some or all of them has to have a specific name.

Why does most multimedia suck? It’s as if God wrote on stone tablets that all pieces called multimedia must follow a three-commandment formula: 1. Though shalt approach subject matter that mostly happened in the past. 2. Thou shalt point a video/audio producing machine at a person looking at said machine and ask them questions, as the primary story telling medium. (You may separate said audio from said video with papal dispensation.) 3. Thou shalt make video of something in the present tense that may or may not have anything to do with that past event and then overlay that video cleverly with the interview audio to suggest a connection between the two, without being too misleading.

And this formula, for me, is almost always uninteresting, especially when compared to the potential of engagement and story telling dynamics when using all these media. The greatest, if not only, benefit of the three-commandment approach is that you can guarantee it’ll produce something you can put online and it will take a predictable amount of time to produce.

Why is this an uninteresting approach? Because the power, the greatest story telling potential of audio and video and still photography is reached in the present tense. Watching and hearing things unfold in front of a sound gathering video/still setup can be magical. Not that present tense story telling is the only approach to telling stories but, as the primary mechanism, it’s more likely to produce engaging content if the subject matter and your way of telling a story are compelling, in some way.

The equivalent solution in still photography is the photo illustration: You’ll certainly produce a photograph that most likely will be published but chances are better than 90 percent that the photograph will suck. Fortunately, photo illustrations are being done less often. Other, less time consuming visual solutions are filling that void. Things like reader photos. Oh, goodie. Even better, reader videos. Wait, it’s called citizen journalism because when you put a name on something, that something is elevated, like multimedia.

Both this multimedia approach and most photo illustrations exist to solve a problem: The subject matter happened in the past or doesn’t make an interesting visual presentation so we have to make something up to have a visual element. This is generally but not always true. Ken Burns’ approach to telling a story being one exception. The difference is that he approaches subject matter that is best told using this story form.

Most journalism stories are driven by writers and doctrine says the written story is better told by recreating past events. Transfer this doctrine to multimedia and violá, the three commandment approach is almost the only one available in a journalistic setting.

This stuff of producing engaging content that uses all these media is complicated and not easy. Newspapers are increasingly realizing the cost vs benefit forumula of producing video pieces doesn't work for them. Too bad. The potential for story telling - if the shackles of approach are removed - is phenomenal.

I’ve been on the sidelines of multimedia so far, intentionally. But now I’ve signed up to take a weeklong workshop in May, to put my hands on these tools. I hope that I fail miserably in executing the commandments and look forward to figuring out other solutions.

References (1)

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Reader Comments (10)

Citizen Journalism - don't even get me started there. Would love to hear a nice rant from you regarding this subject.

February 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLibby

BTW I just looked at some of the POYi winners for Multimedia. That sports winner Uppercut - I couldn't even sit through it and shut it off after one minute. On the other hand, I now know the power of Wes Leonard http://www.poyi.org/69/23/02.php.

I can't even imagine sitting in a room having to judge this stuff though. I'd rather have my teeth drilled.

February 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLibby

Well put. Are you doing the Multimedia Immersion in May? See ya there. -David

February 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Ryder

Right with you on this. Can't think of a single "multimedia" piece that I've watched from start to finish of my own volition. They're so painful to sit through.

February 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterM. Scott Brauer

I think you raise some really valid points about what makes bad multimedia, but you don't bring up any examples of good multimedia--which does exist. As someone who started as a photographer and now works in the video department of a newspaper I'll readily admit that I don't watch a ton of the content produced in the realm I work in because of the reasons you bring up.

But I also wonder how much of this is because many people are being forced into working with video and audio on top of their photography without having a passion for it, or the knowledge of how to use it properly. Too many pieces exist that are ridiculously long--be they for a web audience or not (I'm looking at you, Mediastorm) and too many stories in the newspaper sphere are driven because an editor or writer thinks that video should accompany their writing. Too many times people try to take on stories visually that simply aren't suited to a visual medium, because it is easier to tell something that already happened than to go out and find it happening.

I think, at least in the newspaper field, that these problems come from both lazy multimedia reporters (or those being pushed into a field they don't want to pursue) and from editors pushing for content that they don't fully understand.

I think that, as you say at the end, multimedia and video have so much potential for proper storytelling, but it seems to get lost in the production and conception of these pieces. Certainly I am guilty of that, I think certainly everyone who has tried their hand at it is guilty of it, in the same way a photographer or writer can get lost in the "big picture" or a project, or the technology behind a frame, without realizing they are sacrificing the details that make a story strong.

But I guess my ultimate point is that I agree with your last sentiment--we as journalists need to take this into our own hands to produce work that is current and compelling, and continue to push ourselves instead of being complacent.

February 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAJ

Photojournalists interested in "multimedia" should avoid daily news & look to documentary festivals like HotDocs to see what they're actually competing against. Motion picture documentaries have existed since cinema began. Why photojournalists seem to generally avoid the existing international documentary community is beyond me.

February 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPG

For years I rallied against "citizen journalists". Then I began to realize the truth about them - while they are not true journalists (they lack the training generally and most certainly do not have the neutral stance, objectivity, or ethical training), they do add voices to the story. All too often news organizations boast that they tell both sides to the story...or three or four sides, when in reality there may be dozens if not hundreds of facets to a story. The citizen journalist can add their voice and views as a sidebar...something in addition to the main story. So long as it is recognized for what it is.

And I agree with Brauer - work done without passion is just completed work. It is elevated to art when passion comes into play.

February 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCyndy Green

Maybe it is semantics with this word "multimedia" Mike (I call it video storytelling with what I do) but I think it is the mindset of the individual and the commitment to storytelling a newspaper has at giving staff the time and resources to do it right.

You wrote above, "Why does most multimedia suck?"
If you don't have either of those two things I mentioned either on their own or better yet in working together then perhaps you have your answer.

The mindset of some photojournalists have at being given or pushed into doing video with a HDSLR or more traditional video camera could be two things (and AJ hits on this as well)

1. A rolling of the eyes while under their breath saying "Well this sucks but at least I still have a newspaper job."
2. Someone eager for something new, a challenge to work at and a new passion to grow and work on at telling a story in a different way.

It's a question of how bad do you want it? And I'm not talking about the contest wins either.

How bad are you willing to make all those mistakes then seek out others better than you at video storytelling to learn from?
Finding those people who set the bar so high for you that your eager to then latch onto them for help, advice, good constructive criticism by showing them your work or emailing links to your pieces for feedback.
If you want it bad enough then you're willing to dive in head first into self teaching, going on the internet to learn many aspects from some great sites out there, go to workshops (hopefully your paper will pay for it), watching the good documentaries (and movies) out there for how the story is weaved, paced, edited, sequenced, etc.

Of course all this above becomes very difficult if you're at a place where they always want quick turn around pieces in addition to two or three still assignments. So many balls to juggle but it can still be done it just takes a lot of fortitude to do it.

Working at a newspaper that "gets it" and understands how it works is SO key. The support one gets at a place like that even in the face of reading the metrics of hits a video gets online is something that can't be overlooked or never taken for granted.

I've been doing video storytelling at the Detroit Free Press for three years but have been a staff photojournalist there since 1999. Our editors and publisher have been great from the beginning when we as a staff slowly started to go down this new road of video storytelling back in 2006.

The time we get to work on stories is fantastic (and we also do the quick turn around pieces as well) and we never take it for granted. The Wes Leonard piece I spent 5 days on the west side of Michigan shooting, interviewing etc and came back to Detroit doing 5 days of editing. http://www.sportsshooter.com/news/2501

I like what you said Mike about "The potential for story telling - if the shackles of approach are removed - is phenomenal."

Let's hope more shackles are removed for our colleagues, some mindsets are different now and in the future so come next year after you've judged many competitions with video storytelling your blog posting will be more of the....
"Given a choice, I look forward to seeing multimedia like a kid loves going into a candy story (or insert your own analogy here)

Eric :-)

February 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric Seals

I think still photography in movie-like multimedia presentations weakens the impact of photographs that have complex compositions or are subtle in nature. I can't imagine trying to absorb an Alex Webb composition with it Ken Burns-ing across the screen or fading out after a brief moment. Or, to use a non-photographic example, I can't imagine appreciating a Matisse or Kandinsky painting or any other work of art that has any visual depth to it unless I can stop the show and study it on my own terms and in my own time. Multimedia pieces where the display time of an image can't be controlled by the viewer necessarily rewards photography that is simple and readily-digested.

Furthermore, I find it hard to absorb any visual work where I have to listen to someone talking at the same time. Visual representations are their own form of communication, one beyond words, and are their own language in this sense. So, having to listen to someone talking at the same time makes it hard for me to appreciate both the audio and what I see in front of me--If one has any complexity, it's hard to follow the other.

I love watching good movies and television--these are powerful mediums. But I'm a still photographer and not a film maker. If I wanted to make films, I'd try to do that instead, and not force my photos into a medium that undermines them.

March 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIan Martin

Processing video is one thing, but flash makes it in a proprietary, close-source way (AFAIK, correct me if i’m wrong). html5 vedio playeroffers easy way for web developers to present video or audio. When the HTML4 era ends, there will be no hacks, embed, object and other tags needed, javascript tricks to achieve this in any browser.On the other way, it will be hard for developers of browsers, BUT: it’s still better than having only one close-source technology to have video on site. There is a real concurrency between browsers, so their developers will surely try to make it the best way they can. Unlike Flash developers, in my opinion.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterhtml5 media player

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