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.

Watching, and learning from, the Alexia Grant judging

How do you learn from photojournalism contests?