After layoffs, a last sermon from a West Virginia ‘multimedia evangelist’

A photo from the West Virginia school employee strike, taken outside the state capitol by Michael Morgan and submitted to the Charleston Gazette-Mail for its crowdsourced video series on the strike. Photo provided by Douglas Imbrogno.

SOMETIMES, I THINK I should have been a Starbucks barista, in terms of job security. But I began work for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in 1988, and have been a multimedia evangelist there for more than a decade, during which I uploaded more than 300 videos for the daily paper in West Virginia’s capital city before being recently laid off.

After more than a decade of multimedia efforts at the Gazette-Mail, my last—a crowdsourced series on the landmark teachers strike—broke important ground for our newsroom. The video capped a broad, successful crowdsourcing campaign for footage and images from people at the scene and across the state, including striking teachers and other school personnel. And it generated revenue outside of Facebook’s walled garden. None of it was enough to save my job. But all of it is important to the future of local multimedia reporting.

So, let’s talk video.

 

ON THE EIGHTH DAY of the West Virginia Teachers Strike, I arrived at the state capitol complex in Charleston with my “lo-fi” multimedia kit: a very expensive iPhone 7S, a very cheap lavalier mic, and a stabilizer to remove jostle and shake from footage. A zoo of people jammed the corridors beneath the towering gold dome of the Capitol building while thousands of teachers and school personnel rallied outside. After interviewing strikers and gathering B-roll, I headed back to the Charleston Gazette-Mail office, where I knocked out a serviceable street-level video of the strike.

On the ninth day, the strike ended. The state legislature agreed to a five-percent raise for school and state personnel as well as the state police, the equivalent of a $2,020 raise. The state would also hold insurance premium increases and benefit cuts at bay through mid-2019, and create a task force to study long-term solutions.

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The problem? The strike ended around 1pm, right about the time I went back to the Gazette-Mail office that day, and so I missed the conclusion.

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My camera was not there that day, but thousands of others were. Why not crowdsource documentary coverage of West Virginia’s first statewide teacher strike, which would soon go on to inspire teacher strikes in other states?

We solicited readers via print, email, and our Facebook timelines, and I used my own Dropbox account for reader uploads. In just over one week’s time, we received nearly 500 photographs and video files, from the action at the Capitol as well as from kindred protests across West Virginia’s 55 counties.

Technical challenges led to a few “a-ha” moments. Many photos and videos had been shot with the phone held vertically rather than horizontally, the usual aspect ratio of video and film. Strip three vertical photos or videos together, however, and you’ve got the horizontal screen covered. Layer. Sequence. Add some dissolves and serve.

The strike had compelled national attention. Still, I was concerned about how long our multimedia coverage should be. Facebook tracks “10-second views” for videos posted to the platform—a suggestion that holding a viewer’s attention for a fraction of a minute should be considered a draw, if not a win.

I hoped “total minutes viewed”—the net time an audience spends with a newspaper’s branded videos—might be a more significant number. Between November 2017 and April 2018, I uploaded a dozen videos in my newspaper’s name to Facebook. Those videos were watched for a total of 102,172 minutes—the equivalent of a Gazette-Mail video streaming on Facebook for 71 days straight. I decided to go long—too much good material—and tried to put aside my concern.

The Gazette-Mail released its two-part series on consecutive Sundays. The first part examined the strike’s origins and its potential implications for the West Virginia midterms, while the second provided more of a “you-are-there” experience of the strikes. Each part clocked in at close to eight minutes and carried a credit roll that named each contributor—our appreciation for citizen journalism in action.

 

The Gazette-Mail created a special section on the paper’s website to showcase the series alongside the rest of our teacher-strike coverage. The United Mine Workers of America, whose president had addressed the striking teachers, bought a banner ad for that section—the first time a specific multimedia project at the Gazette-Mail generated revenue for the paper. Compare that to Facebook, the walled garden within which the Gazette-Mail videos streamed for hours, days, weeks—and generated no money for us, beyond those people that came to our site via social media.

 

THE DAY AFTER WE RELEASED the second part of our teacher-strike footage, I was laid off. The Gazette-Mail, which had declared bankruptcy and been put up for auction, sold to HD Media, a small West Virginia-based newspaper chain that seemed cognizant of the paper’s kick-ass-and-take-names reputation. Before its sale, the Gazette-Mail had anticipated that 50 or more employees might be laid off. Ultimately, HD Media kept that number to 11.

“This is the worst thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” said the staffer tasked with handing out white envelopes. Inside each was a piece of paper letting us know whether we were getting kicked off the island. I opened mine and read as far as “We regret to inform you…”

I was bamfoozled for a day. Relieved the second day. Felt liberated the third. Now I wish the Gazette-Mail and its new owners well. The paper is essential to the civic life of West Virginia and to keeping its state government from tipping over into autocracy. It’s still filled with friends and people I admire, and I’m writing freelance pieces for them.

There are a lot of folks out there trying to re-invent newspapering for this fractured attention-span age. I firmly believe there is a future for pioneering journalism in little old West Virginia, and in tradition-rich, Pulitzer Prize-winning “legacy” publications like the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Multimedia reporting should be a part of that work. It’s a fragile time for hometown newspapering, but there are still newsrooms out there that are tough as nails. Subscribe to them. Support them. And when they ask you to help crowdsource a video—send your best stuff. Horizontal. Vertical. Doesn’t matter.

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Douglas Imbrogno is a freelance feature writer, editor and social media video producer and trainer. See his video work and contact him at The Web Theater.