The AP is one of what seems to be a shrinking handful of media companies continuing to invest in quality video. Many organizations have shrunk their staffs or shifted their ambitions. For example, several documentary-style video journalists who produced The Washington Post’s inauguration piece left the paper after their positions were eliminated. The Post’s video unit now consists of five full-time video journalists tasked primarily with quick-turnaround assignments. “Why does video have to pay the bills?” says Pierre Kattar, an Emmy Award-winning former Post video journalist whose position was eliminated in late 2009. “Do people look at print stories and ask, ‘How much money did that make?’ ” Kattar says wistfully. “We were building something.”
I’m wistful, too. I yearn to see more of what I’ve come to love—intimate video journalism, stories of real situations in which the characters may be aware the camera is there, but the moment is so intense that the camera is irrelevant. Technology enables this close-up storytelling at a very low cost, broadband Internet allows it to be distributed widely, and screen devices of all sizes and shapes make it a beautiful thing to watch. I have not succeeded in getting my sixteen-year-old son to read newspapers, but I hold out hope that he will engage with serious news video if the stories are compelling enough to entice him away from Collegehumor.com.
It’s especially important to capture the attention of young people. Today’s eight- to eighteen-year-olds spend an average of seven hours and thirty-eight minutes each day consuming media and actually view ten hours and forty-five minutes of it daily, because of multitasking, according to a January 2010 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Only thirty-eight minutes of that time is spent consuming print, down from forty-three minutes in 2004.
Bringing a viewer to the heart of the action, without a stand-up journalist explaining what ought to be clearly understandable through the images themselves, appeals to the raw, unfiltered ethos of the Internet. I believe that if nurtured and promoted, visual narratives could take their place alongside the social-media tools of blogs and tweets as a breakthrough form of journalism for the digital age.
When we think of online video news, we often think of harrowing incidents caught on a flip camera or cell phone that become viral sensations. Such videos represent a revolution in newsgathering, and add to our sense of the world. If a bomb goes off in an Afghan market, we want to see what happened. When Neda Agha-Soltan was shot in Tehran during the 2009 Iranian election protests, the citizen video of her death riveted millions. The anonymous individuals who recorded and uploaded it were awarded the 2009 George Polk Award for videography.
It’s almost automatic today: see something newsworthy, film it. For journalism, that’s both bad and good. The bad: hours of weak video posted online of mildly interesting events, numbing the viewer. The good: some videos are powerful by themselves, while others can be raw material for experienced journalists to build a more complete story.
Angela Grant, a freelance video journalist in Austin, recalls an incident there in February in which a man flew a plane into a building. “There were videos taken from cell phones, flip cams, and point-and-shoots, because bystanders were the only people there,” she says. Together, it provided a valuable “picture of events that otherwise wouldn’t be available.”
But breaking news is where that value often ends, says Grant, who worked as a multimedia and video journalist at the San Antonio Express-News until December 2008. “No amateur is going to sit through a city council meeting, then go read hundreds of documents on tests of environmental quality, and then head out two weeks later to interview executives at a company that may be producing a toxic substance. It’s really complicated to find a character-based narrative in all that.” Those video stories take time and skill to build—ingredients in short supply at overtaxed news organizations.