Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

A snapshot of how video journalism should be

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 30, 2009

A big hats off to US journalist Paul Balcerak, who has found and posted two examples of what he calls artistic video journalism.

What they are, are two examples of how video journalism ought to be, if we can persuade VJs and newsrooms the world over to drop their book of TV conventions, put down the voice-over microphone and engage some creative juices.

The first, tells the story of a man trapped in a lift in a New York skyscraper. Before you watch it, imagine how it might look as a human interest piece on your local news programme.

FOOTAGE FROM INSIDE LIFT

REPORTER VO: “Nicholas White got more than he bargained for when he went for a smoke break last Friday evening”

WHITE, ON SCREEN: “I told my colleagues I was going for a cigarette break and I’d be back in five minutes.”

REPORTER VO: “But it became the longest cigarette break in history when the express elevator Nick was in broke down somewhere between the 30th and 43rd floor.”

REPORTER PIECE TO CAMERA, OUTSIDE BUILDING: “It began a 40 hour ordeal for Nicholas…” etc. etc.

We might also expect to hear from the manager of the building, defending lift safety, and if the reporter’s got more space to fill, some kind of medical expert about what happens to the body after 40 hours with no food or water.

All very….meh.

Now watch this:

That’s how the New Yorker ran it on their website. No reporter. No voice over narration. No interviews.

But which one tells the story? Which one gives you even the slightest inkling of the fear, boredom, desperation, despair you must feel being stuck in a lift for 40 hours?

The second piece was produced at Pnwlocalnews.com:

But there’s lots to be said about it, the first being I watched the whole thing through, even though it was about transportation policy in a US state thousands of miles away.

  • It uses vox pops, not to tell us how ‘disgusting’ something else or how ‘the government need to sort it out’; instead they’re used to share how people commute
  • It favours captions with artistic b-roll over droning voice over
  • Some footage is not full frame
  • It is beautifully shot with excellent use of depth-of-field/focus, which gives the story an extra quality

On the other side I’m sure you noticed the poor quality of the sound in the interviews, and I felt it was a bit slow in places, but otherwise this is storytelling on another level.

So what can we learn from this?

The way news is gathered is changing. So is the way it is funded. And the way it is delivered. But it is also vital the way news looks changes too. It would be a crying shame if, after the dust of the digital revolution settles, we are still watching formulaic 90 second packages fronted by a reporter.

Now is the time to make sure that doesn’t happen: video journalists need to let go of the rule book and think freely – and let storytelling take the lead.

The last word is best left to Paul:

The industry is going through a complete and utter reformation—and a lot of us aren’t going to make it. Most of us who do will be the ones who innovate, who experiment—who go against everything we’ve been ever been told about journalism.