See It Now!

Video journalism is dying. Long live video journalism.
September 23, 2010

As the video begins, no announcer welcomes you, no headline scrolls across the computer screen. There is no need for either. You know where you are from the logic of the images. The camera lingers on the anticipatory expressions on people’s faces at Barack Obama’s inauguration; it holds steady as endless streams of people slowly fill the National Mall. Natural sound builds the excitement. Parallels between Obama’s 2009 swearing-in and Martin
Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial are subtly drawn—in the words, for example, of a man who stands to hear Obama’s oath at the spot where King once stood.

It is a lyrical narrative, produced by a team of mainly self-taught video journalists who, at the time, worked for Washingtonpost.com. In a media-saturated world, the story is unique, an eight-minute journey that lives up to its promising title, In the Moment. Like all the best journalism, it brings you right there.

Online video news can do that so well, and so much better now with advances in technology: palm-size cameras, nimble editing tools, digital formats, broadband connections. We can create candid, cinematic gems that hold the promise of luring those who grew up with the Web—young people—into serious journalism.

Of course, the Web is exploding with video of all kinds. YouTube recently announced that twenty-four hours worth of video is being posted to its site every minute. Only a small portion of that could be called news, and the overwhelming majority of even that sliver of video is not quality, documentary-style essays, but bits of breaking news.

Because the Web is so fragmented—and because search tools for visual files are so primitive—intimate news narratives are nearly impossible to find unless you know the URL or something close to it. “The challenge is to try to get them in an environment that puts them in the best light,” says Bill Burke, global director of online video products at The Associated Press, which has won several awards for its video storytelling. “We haven’t found it.”

For this and several other reasons, the promise of a new frontier of great video journalism, so palpable as recently as 2007, is receding. My personal experience is rooted in twenty-five years of print journalism, but I recognize this retreat as the absolute wrong direction. Serious journalists should not give up on video. It’s far too soon for that.

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Strong video journalism is caught in a vicious circle. Because it gets lost in the flood of other video, too few users find the high-quality, well-produced stories. So despite the higher rates publishers have been able to charge advertisers to place short video ads before news videos, total revenue for them remains disappointingly small. That, in turn, makes it tough for newsroom managers to justify investing in great video storytelling in the first place.

Meanwhile, search engines reward with higher rankings those content providers that update often and provide a robust stream of offerings. Time-pressed news staff members have difficulty keeping up with both production and quality demands: one or the other starts to slip. This leads to such practices as TV news broadcasters filling their sites with clips and outtakes, and shying away from unique visual stories tailored for the Web. Print news sites gin up regular video “shows” that draw loyal viewers and boost their numbers, but also drain resources from higher-level storytelling. The poor Web viewer swims in a sea of marginal content, convinced that online news video is a time-sink of spoofs, self-indulgent polemics, and shaky footage of car crashes.

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.

Breaking news video—regardless of quality—is building audiences for a select few sites. According to the Web research firm comScore, news is keeping pace with the explosive growth in all online video viewing. In May there were 566 million views of what comScore classifies as news video, which includes weather sites. That’s about double the 278 million views recorded for May 2009. CNN.com and MSNBC.com are the two biggest news sites in terms of video traffic, says a comScore spokesman. The two sites, plus Yahoo News, make up 70 percent of comScore’s video news category. (ComScore’s data is really just a rough approximation of news viewing online, given the difficulty in classifying what’s news. For example, everything on YouTube is considered entertainment by comScore and is not included in its figures, although YouTube does stream a lot of news uploaded by media organizations as well as individual users.)

The problem with traffic as the main measure of news video, though, is that great video stories that don’t attract big audiences are perceived to be failures. David Leeson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who began shooting video in 2000 for The Dallas Morning News, says publishers initially backed video “because they had visions of YouTube fame. But with 80,000 to 90,000 videos published every day, going viral is like winning the lottery. Good luck with that.” Leeson, who took a buyout in 2008, acknowledges that a thirty-second clip of an eighteen-wheeler that crashed and burned gets a lot of hits. But he argues that managers need to take their eyes off the number of streams and instead look at the larger, changing market for news. “Over time, people will recognize quality,” Leeson says. “People will know to go to your site for credible news and information. That’s how papers built circulation. You didn’t know if everyone read an inside story on page four of Metro, but we still covered it.”

Photographers and video journalists like Leeson are increasingly attracted to work for advocacy groups and corporations that see the value of powerful visual storytelling. With that exodus, serious journalism suffers. In journalism, “ultimately, video was viewed as window dressing, a fundamental misunderstanding of its potential,” says Tom Kennedy, a former managing editor for multimedia at Washingtonpost.com, who stepped down in early 2009 to teach and consult.

Kennedy, who will begin teaching at Syracuse University this fall, recently authored a white paper on video journalism for Bill Gentile, an independent documentary filmmaker and journalist-in-residence at American University. Gentile has launched the “Backpack Journalism” project at the school, a program to teach people to act as one-man journalism bands on video stories: report, interview, shoot, edit, narrate, and upload their files for publication.

Kennedy and Gentile make a powerful argument for this as the storytelling of the future, but the white paper adds, “Backpack journalism may afford interesting future career opportunities, albeit perhaps most strongly in fields other than journalism.” Ugh.

On July 18, I did a Google search for video of “oil spill” and “BP.” I specified “high quality” in my query, but didn’t limit the length or narrow the date range. No videos from major news organizations appeared in the top ten returns. What did appear seemed random. Search is a real problem when it comes to quality news video.

My search’s top-ranked video was from a site called Hollywoodbackstage.com: a silent, fifty-nine second montage of aerial images from an oil-slicked Gulf. Numbers two and four were entertaining, but not news: two was a Saturday Night Live skit via Hulu.com and four was a funny spoof of BP executives dealing with a coffee spill during a meeting, performed by UCBcomedy.com. Number three was an informative snippet from Al Jazeera’s English-language broadcast, with a host explaining an animated graphic of the engineering needed to cap the blown well. The other top ten picks included a couple of souped-up home videos, a couple of apocalyptic screeds, and an excerpt from ABC’s The View, with the hosts discussing BP’s apology.

Hoping for the best, I continued to search. Return number eleven was actually a pretty good video story, an excerpt from a show on the satellite and cable broadcaster G4, which targets eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds with a steady diet of video game-oriented shows. Host Kevin Pereira takes you on his tour of the Gulf, and his co-host attempts to interest viewers with this unusual lead-in: “All right, so you remember that time you spilled a Pepsi on your PS3 and you thought it was the worst spill ever? It wasn’t.” As the segment ends, the viewer knows she’s not on CNN when the camera returns to the show set and pop-up boxes helpfully inform viewers where to buy the blue jeans Pereira is wearing and what hair products he used. Hmmm.

Searching Google News and specifying video did pull up stories from mainstream media organizations, but most were print stories that referred to BP’s well cam. Nowhere in that search, or in a YouTube search for “news BP Oil Spill,” did a video story I knew about turn up: AP’s unique Web video of journalist Rich Matthews’s June 7 scuba dive into the oily Gulf.

Although it’s not a candid essay, it is pretty gutsy journalism. Matthews zipped himself into a wet suit, clutched his camera, and dropped down over the side of a boat to give viewers a first-hand look at the foul miasma beneath the waterline. The swirling, reddish ooze had the consistency of cake batter, Matthews reported, and though it quickly gunked up his goggles and smeared his camera lens, he was able to record oil in every direction, in plumes and blobs, along with what one diver called “snot balls” of oil dispersants. “It was a different take on a story that was getting tedious” to cover in constant drips of breaking news, says Kevin Roach, AP’s vice president and director of U.S. broadcast news. “The story opened up a lot of eyes.”

But the AP story wasn’t anywhere near the top of my search query returns a month after it was originally posted—though the video was widely noticed when it was first shot. It had logged more than 160,000 views on YouTube, and Matthews had been interviewed on the Today Show, CNN, Fox News, the BBC, and numerous radio stations.

Executives at both YouTube and its parent company, Google, recognize that finding and categorizing news video is still an elusive goal. “Video is a rich media type and there are added complexities to making it easily discoverable and useful,” a Google spokesman says. “While we constantly work to improve our understanding of video and other information, in the meantime we encourage video publishers to submit video sitemaps so their videos are more easily discoverable in all Google’s services.” In other words, returning relevant material for video search queries is really hard.

Search today still generally begins with text, with people like me typing “BP” and “oil spill” and “video” into a query box. Google takes that query and attempts to match my key words with documents and images online that Web folks have tagged with matching key words. Although the Google spokesman says the search should be able to sense that I’m looking for news video, there’s no easy way to tell it to do that. Google is working on at least two projects that might eventually help improve its video searches. The first is a speech-recognition process being employed at YouTube that can automatically caption audio files, creating a text transcript that could then be searched. The second is Google Goggles, an experimental application for smart phones that offers hope of enhanced visual search. I take a photo of, say, the Eiffel Tower and upload it to Google, essentially asking it to tell me about this image. Google Goggles recognizes the image and sends me information about it.

YouTube, meanwhile, hired interns this past summer to curate the best breaking-news videos from around the world, creating a feed of top stories uploaded by citizen journalists and learning more about how people find and share what they believe are important videos. “It’s an experiment to understand this ecosystem better and to make it more useful to media,” says Steve Grove, YouTube’s head of news and politics. Grove also wants to gather information to help determine what search algorithms might work best to discover news video.

A few sites aren’t waiting for search to improve, but are using their own people to find and promote what they believe to be worthy videos. For example SlateV, a video magazine for those who favor Slate’s sensibilities, both produces its own videos—an average of five a week—and curates newsworthy videos produced by others, highlighting the best under the headline, “Did You See This?”

SlateV’s videos aren’t full-blown visual essays. Often they are clever takeoffs on the news. And in the curated part of its site, SlateV highlights buzz-worthy videos from all over, most of which aren’t journalism. In the curated news and politics section, users can find parodies and political ads alongside opinion and advocacy videos. SlateV’s editor, Andy Bowers, a long-time correspondent for NPR before joining Slate in 2003, said he expects more news-related videos to be produced by organizations other than the media. The question he asks himself is less “What organizations are producing this?” he says, and more “Is this responsible or is this propaganda?” He adds: “I think more and more you’ll see these organizations produce what we call journalism.”

Colin Mulvany, a photographer and video journalist for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, is carrying the flag for superior video storytelling. Mulvany said he trained fourteen people in his newsroom to shoot video but nine of them were subsequently laid off. Now he and a handful of others attempt to produce well-crafted video features as well as news, in collaboration with print reporters. And because there is rarely anyone in newsroom management with enough expertise to critique the work of video journalists, Mulvany started a site called Findingtheframe.com to fill the void. It’s a kind of self-help organization that seeks to improve the quality of online video features. Findingtheframe.com invites news-video journalists to submit their stories for critiques by a panel of experts.

“This is going to be the future of the Internet. Video is the language online,” Mulvany says. “But video journalism is still a goat trail.”

Brian Storm formed his own multimedia production company, MediaStorm, in 2005 to prove that a business could be built around online cinematic narratives. He’s succeeding.

Storm says he takes a “disciplined” approach to his work and pursues topics that he personally cares about, with what he calls “ass-kicking storytelling.” Ultimately, he says, the video that will succeed online is either “cats spinning on a fan or the greatest story done on Darfur. No one’s gonna tweet what’s in the middle.”

In the past five years, his company has produced twenty-seven online documentaries and dozens of other projects for a variety of clients. He won’t reveal traffic, but points to a twenty-one-minute video story—following an illegal immigrant from Cameroon—that he said had a 65 percent completion rate, meaning the viewer stayed with the story for its entire length. Average time on his site was eleven and a half minutes earlier this year, before a redesign that he believes will increase the figure. At press time, MediaStorm has some 5,900 Twitter followers and 8,000 Facebook fans, 54 percent of whom are between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four. “Our entire careers as journalists they told us that eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds don’t care,” he says.

MediaStorm’s business is divided into four parts. The first is his team’s own, independent journalism projects. The second is co-productions with other journalism organizations, including the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC. MediaStorm and the partner sites co-produce the story, each posts it on its own site, and then they share the advertising revenue. The third is straight client work, which is the real moneymaker. For repeat clients like the Asia Society, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Starbucks, its one corporate client, MediaStorm produces multimedia projects with the same high-quality storytelling as its journalism. “We love to work with NGOs. We love having a mission and resources,” Storm says. “They pay five times what The New York Times would pay for the same content.”

The fourth leg of his business is training others to shoot and edit high-impact multimedia and run a business his way. The workshop films also get showcased on his site. One notable piece is Take Care, an eight-minute story of a twenty-two-year-old woman in Staten Island and her complex family life.

Storm won’t disclose revenue, but profits pay for him and his staff—and their journalism projects. He took a year to produce Intended Consequences, a multimedia story on rapes during the Rwandan genocide. It was the first Web story to win an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University award, earlier this year. The story also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the victims of Rwandan rapes. “I remember sitting in an office in 1995 and talking about Rwanda while my fifty-year-old bosses said no one would care about that story,” Storm says. “ ‘Audiences are apathetic to those issues and won’t watch it,’ they said. Well, our audience is fired up. They are telling stories every day. They have tools to promote them, on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The people who are apathetic are in newsrooms, where they’ve gone through so many layoffs. The audience is hungry for great stories.

“I’m tired of people saying we’re the future. We’re the present,” Storm says. “I have real bills to pay and I make the money to do it.”

There are other places on the Web that experiment with documentary-style storytelling. Honkytonk.fr is one that Duy Linh Tu, a multimedia expert and coordinator of the digital media program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, likes to keep an eye on. The French multimedia production house posts video stories that include many clickable boxes, giving the viewer options for which parts of the story to pursue. Its presentation is not unlike those children’s books that tell you to skip to page 53 if Sharon opens the door, or to flip to page 11 if she keeps it closed. The topics vary, from Euro rock-and-roll to oil industry practices in the Amazon. “It’s really innovative, but also really tedious,” Duy says. “It forces me to click around, so I don’t get a narrative. When I watch video, I expect you to tell me a story.”

Travis Fox, the Emmy Award-winning video producer and pioneer of online multimedia journalism, agrees. “Telling stories online is not as different as people think,” he says. “There’s a debate at the beginning of every Web production about how interactive to make it. I believe you just need to tell a good story and keep it simple.”

I had the privilege of watching Fox do just that when we traveled together as Washington Post correspondents in China’s Sichuan province, after the massive earthquake in 2008 that killed nearly 90,000 people. I wrote my own piece from the top of a rubble pile a couple of days before Travis arrived, but it is his video story from the devastated town of Beichuan that still haunts me. Fox’s position was eliminated at the Post and he’s on his own now, doing work for PBS’s Frontline.

Frontline is innovating on the Web, Fox says, but following more of a “DVD model,” by showcasing its main feature—often a full-length documentary—and then adding extras. “They’re not changing the centerpiece journalism, but adding more stuff,” he says. Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline’s senior producer, argues that “Cracking the digital narrative is our future.” With a $1 million grant from the Verizon Foundation, Frontline was able to build a first-rate site as a companion to its ninety-minute documentary, Digital Nation, which aired on PBS earlier this year. The Digital Nation site went live in March 2009, a year before the documentary was to be broadcast, and filmmaker Rachel Dretzin plunged herself into a world of unusually transparent reporting—posting rough cuts and raw footage for feedback.

“I had to take a deep breath and say I was going to trust the process,” Dretzin said. She posted fifty-one rough cuts, eighty-two interview excerpts and at least nine other Web-special pieces as she built the documentary.

After Digital Nation aired, Dretzin and her team held an online roundtable discussion to debate which was more satisfying—the Web site experience or the ninety-minute broadcast. Some, like Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation and an English professor at Emory University, wrote that the documentary “plays fair with both sides and gives ample airing of different views.” For others, the Web was the winner. Henry Jenkins, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, wrote that while he found the documentary to be “mind-numbing and relentless,” he found the Web site “to be an extraordinary resource,” largely because it is “multi-vocal, allowing many points of view.”

Dretzin and Frontline executive producer David Fanning agreed that the experiment with Digital Nation’s Web site was a step toward better understanding of how to do documentary-style journalism on the Web. While recognizing the more free-ranging nature of Web viewing, Fanning still values the conscious story-building talents of directors. “Random video is disposable,” he says. “Our interest is in creating a video that connects and stays connected to its context.”

My editor calls the story you are reading a cri de Coeur. Perhaps he’s right.

My heart is with news organizations like the Detroit Free Press, whose multimedia efforts remain strong. The paper has won four Emmys in the past three years, including one in 2010 for its unusually intimate multimedia series on Christ Child House, a foster care center for legal orphans on Detroit’s west side.

And with the Las Vegas Sun, which combined flip-cam recordings made by Las Vegas resident Tony McDew—as he bottomed out in his gambling addiction—with its own video interviews with him, for a story that runs eighteen minutes. McDew records himself after a big win, fanning out hundred dollar bills in front of the screen. He records himself climbing into his van after losing, spritzing his face with water because the vehicle has no air conditioning. He records himself as he pawns his possessions before heading back to the casino to try to claw out of a very deep hole. You go along with him as he does all the wrong things and loses some $35,000.

And with Time Inc.’s Craig Duff, who holds fast to standards as he tries to produce eight video stories a week, telling his small staff, “We can’t let it go because it’s quote-unquote just for the Web.”

And with reporters like Ian Shapira, who blogged on Washingtonpost.com’s Story Lab site about working in print but studying video journalism on the side, to try to master a form he believes in.

And with Ann Derry, editorial director of video and television for The New York Times, who has an eighteen-person staff and a goal of “making video become a storytelling and journalistic language for the Times, the way print and photographs are.” She’s experimenting with formats like TimesCast, the daily report from the Times newsroom. Though I’m not a fan of TimesCast—because it’s mainly newsroom interviews and they’re pretty boring—I’m happy Derry’s team is trying to build awareness among viewers about Times video, which can be really good. One of my recent favorites is An American at the Bolshoi, which follows a fifteen-year-old who leaves her family in Texas to learn dance at the highest level.

News-related video today is a raucous field. It’s a place where you find the number-one story on YouTube’s top news category to be a parody of Old Spice commercials. But you also find that The Associated Press’s YouTube channel has streamed more than 458 million videos since September 2006, providing quality, hard-core news to a wide audience.

Because video reporting is a game everyone can play, consequently blurring all the lines that had previously set off professional, independent inquiry, it’s more important than ever that serious journalism organizations engage in video as more than just an offshoot of their core missions.

For candid video to move to the forefront of online news and address a rising generation of news consumers, several things have to change: online video journalists need to develop their own storytelling styles, breaking with the anchor-centered conventions of broadcast. Newsrooms need to better integrate and bolster their multimedia and video staffs, and create career paths for visual journalists that extend right to the top. Great video needs to be promoted just as big text stories are.

Video stories need to be judged like all other stories—by how good they are, not how many clicks they get. And at the same time, media companies need to push search engines to focus on creating better tools to highlight well-produced, unique video stories.

Although there’s likely to be no immediate payoff, the current obstacles—like poor search returns—that block quality stories from finding quality audiences will be surmounted.

I have seen such things happen before, through the prism of my own family. My husband’s father, Robert L. Drew, was a correspondent for Life magazine when he took a 1955 Nieman fellowship and developed a concept for candid filmmaking that became the basis of cinema vérité in the U.S. It’s his concept of “picture logic,” versus “word logic,” that I feel is the key to great video.

He produced breakthrough documentaries like Primary—the first candid documentary, which followed John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey on the stump in Wisconsin in 1960—and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, filmed inside the White House and in the Alabama governor’s mansion as the Kennedy administration forced the desegregation of the University of Alabama against the will of Governor George Wallace.

He revolutionized visual journalism with his belief that a camera shouldn’t stand on a tripod, but should move freely with the characters. Working with Albert Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker, and Richard Leacock, he took the tools available and re-engineered them to work in new ways, including replacing a camera’s noisy metal gears with quieter ones, fashioned from plastic, to enable a new kind of intimate storytelling. Today’s lightweight and easy-to-use technology makes it easy for journalists to continue exploring candid filmmaking.

My other inspiration here is my husband, Derek Drew, who started a little venture back in the early 1990s to provide meta-reviews of consumer products. His Consumersearch.com remained obscure—until Google’s algorithms revolutionized search. Then his high-quality content soon stood atop Google’s search results for queries like “best washing machine” or “digital camera reviews” and traffic started pouring in. He sold the outfit to The New York Times Company’s About.com subsidiary in 2007 for $33 million.

The content on Consumersearch.com in 1999 was essentially the same as the content in 2007. But superior search transformed it into a high-growth, moneymaking business.

The same can happen with online narrative video. It’s so close. I can feel it.

Jill Drew is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. She was an associate editor at The Washington Post until August 2009. For nine of her fourteen years at the newspaper, she was assistant managing editor for financial news.