Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

You can learn anything, and why you should

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 6, 2012

It was late on a Friday night and we were all drunk. 

My flatmate Rob picked up some juggling balls and offered me a challenge. “I bet I can teach you to juggle in 10 minutes” he said.

I remember trying to learn how to juggle when I was about 12 years old: a short lived experience full of frustration and ultimately failure. But now seemed as good a time as any to try again.

Over the next 10 minutes, Rob showed me the basic technique, starting with one ball, then two, and finally three. When the 10 minutes were up, I had managed to juggle all three balls about once or maybe twice before I dropped them – but I got the general technique.

Then something interesting happened. As everyone else went to bed, I stayed up and kept practicing. I tried juggling the three balls, and dropped them. Then I picked them up, and tried again. I practiced this over and over and over – until four in the morning. Silently throwing the balls up in the air, dropping them, picking them back up.

As I was doing it, I could almost feel my brain making new connections. Arm movements which seemed awkward an hour before were beginning to feel more natural. Soon I could juggle for two rotations, and then three, before dropping the balls.

II

This was the moment I realised something: I absolutely love learning new things. And I realised that learning something new is as simple as picking up the technique, and then working at it, silently, humbly, unflinchingly, until it sticks. They say your brain is like a muscle – you can train it new habits and build strength by regular repetition.

Of course, most people give up before then. Learning French seems pretty romantic until you factor in the hours of repeating irregular verbs over and over in your head. Every boy dreams of becoming a footballer, until it comes to the moment he has to practice hundreds of penalty kicks over and over in the rain. Everyone signs up to a new gym membership after Christmas with dreams of toning up, until they realise this involves dozens of painful press-ups, over and over again.

III

I’ve decided to make 2012 a year where I learn relentlessly with machine-line procedure: first I study the key points and then I practice, putting in the repetitive legwork until the muscle is strong. I won’t ever make it to Malcolm Gladwell good, but good enough. So far this year, I’ve been teaching myself some new web design skills: HTML 5, CSS3 and Jquery, building on my French, and hopefully a new musical instrument too.

This attitude to learning is essential in this modern world where technology seems to continually create new platforms, new workflows and new disciplines. In 2010 I taught myself how to animate motion graphics following this idea, something which soon became a source of income.

How to learn anything

So what’s the best way to learn? Luckily for us journalists, producers and publishers access to knowledge we need is pretty easy. But there are things you can do make it easier on yourself.

.01 Find free or cheap resources:  if you need video skills, hit the Vimeo Video School. Anything code related, tap up the Code Academy. You can even learn how to code your own iPhone app at Stanford University – for free! For everything in between I highly recommend Lynda.com*. They’ve got a huge range of courses on design, coding and other key software, and a month subscription costs $25 (£16).

.02 Learn on a need-to-know basis: you need to be smart about this sort of learning. There are no exams, no coursework: you decide the curriculum. So don’t waste your time learning something if it’s not going to be useful to you. What I mean is, if you want to learn how to make small styling adjustments to your WordPress blog, there’s no need to delve in to the history, syntax and ins and outs of  CSS. Just get what you need.

.03 Allocate regular practice time: this is where the legwork comes in – the regular practice, the bit where you create those grey matter connections. Depending on how intense you want to make it, somewhere between an hour a day and an hour a week will do it. Keeping motivation going is tough though, which is where the next tip is the killer…

.04 Give yourself a project: quite simply, the best way to learn something new is to turn your learning into an exciting creative project. In the education world it’s called experiential, or work-based learning, and experts are sure that people learn better when they’re excited by a particular goal. I haven’t been learning HTML step-by-step in factory fashion. Instead, I challenged myself to redesign my personal website from scratch and learnt on the job.

At the heart of all this, is the belief that there is nothing you can’t learn, regardless of age, income, background or education. Director David Mamet puts it well:

“…you get someone who knows how to take a picture, or you learn to how take a picture; you get someone who knows how to light or you learn how to light. There’s no magic to it. Some people will be able to do some tasks better than others – depending upon the degree of their technical mastery and their aptitude for the task. Just like playing the piano. Anybody can learn how to play the piano…There’s almost no-one who can’t learn to play the piano…The same thing is true of cinematography and sound mixing. Just technical skills.”

Finally, an important note about learning. Too often, we use education as a procrastination tool. Someone who wants to make a documentary (or says they want to) will go out and buy a big book about documentary making for beginners. What they should do instead is pick up a camera and start filming. Learning is best done by  doing.

Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr said “An expert is a person who has made every possible mistake within his or her field”. And nobody made any mistakes while reading a book.

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Your unique route into journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 16, 2012

How do you get into journalism?

The route above will be familiar to anyone working in broadcast journalism today as a typical career path into the industry. The sad thing is most people who want to be a correspondent will do their best to follow this track, because they assume it is the only way. And they’ll spend a career in a never ending race with all the other people trying to do the same thing, full of the stress, envy and critical comparison that comes with it.

10 years ago that was the only way to do it. But of course, everything has changed…including this.

Whatever it is you want to do with your life: be a BBC News foreign correspondent, edit a magazine, make a documentary about climate change, write a book, be an NPR producer, and every other job in our industry in-between, remember there is no single route. There is no right way.

There is only your way.

That’ll be news to some because most of us think there is a career path of some kind, as if getting your foot on the ladder with an internship is the only way to becoming an editor. But actually there are countless ways – ways that no-one has tried before, because they were too busy working on their CV, slogging it out as a junior reporter, and all of the other things we think we have to do to make it.

It’s the same reason people wear suits to work for decades, pull long hours for days on end and work for free when they really shouldn’t. What it boils down to is not living your life on your terms.

I haven’t worn a suit for near on three years now, and I don’t intend to start anytime soon. In the last two and a half years I’ve left the race to run my career on my terms – at my own speed. I know roughly where I want to get to, and I come up with plans to make that happen. Then I arrange my schedule for the week or month to suit that plan.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy, and there have been lots of hiccups, false starts and outright failures along the way. But when I look back on my career so far, I know one thing: I’ve done it in a way that is uniquely me – and no-one could ever do it exactly the same way.

Most of us would probably prefer to follow the path well-trodden, because it seems safer and more sensible. But the real challenges, and the real rewards, lie in straying off the path, exploring your career on your own terms.

Whether you decide to do this is up to you. But whatever direction you take, don’t waste time competing in a race with others. Run/sprint/jog/walk your own race, at your own speed.

Meet the online video heroes of 2010

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 21, 2010

I’ve got a really good feeling about 2011: online video is going to be huge.

This last year’s been ramping up to that realisation. In the past few months I’ve been approached by journalists, online magazines, charities, corporations and even individuals seeing the enormous potential of online video and wanting to commission films, consulting or training.

Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee.

James Cameron

The real heroes are the people out there already making video. They’re not asking if it’ll make money before picking up their camera.They’re just getting off their arse and creating content. The online videos heroes I’ve chosen have done more than made a pretty film: they’ve used online video in a new way, for journalism, art or even business.

The list is pretty arbitrary though: if you know other, better online video heroes, add them to the list via the comments!

my online video heroes of 2010

1. Phos Pictures

Heading up the list is a group of three young American filmmakers who are showing the rest of us how online documentary ought to be done. They blew me away back in March with Last Minutes With Oden a short about one man and his dog, a piece so good, it was recognised as Vimeo’s documentary of the year. It’s clocked up 1.3million page views at last count. They followed it quickly with Pennies HEART and most recently with The KINGDOM.

I interviewed filmmaker Lukas Korver about the production of their films for blog.fu earlier this year – check it out here.

2. Yoodoo

Coming in from a different line is the UK enterprise Yoodoo.biz, founded by Nick Saalfield and Tony Heywood. I met them both when I invited them to speak at the UK Future of News Meetup back in the spring.

Yoodoo is an online training course for entrepreneurs and new businesses. It is content which could be delivered through text and pictures. Any other producers would probably do just that. But Nick and Tony saw the potential of online video earlier than many, and the free course is delivered through short video interviews.

Disclaimer: I write occasionally for Yoodoo.

3. Food Curated

What you need to know about me is pretty simple. I love food. And I love telling a good story.

That’s how Liza Mosquito de Guia describes the founding of Food Curated: an online video blog all about food. Throughout the year Liza’s been out shooting and editing (she’s a one-man-band) short films in all sorts of food establishments.

Each film is unique and she does a good job of keeping herself out of it, and letting the subjects tell their own story. Her site was nominated for a James Beard Award this year, for best Video Webcast.

4. The Scout

If there’s one thing American new media producers can do better than European ones (in this reporter’s humble opinion) it is designing online magazines that look insanely stylish. Dwell, for example, has an elegant aesthetic which outclasses the Darth Vader-esque front page of Britain’s Monocle.

Another stylish number is The Scout, a food culture and design blogazine from the US. They’re on this list for commissioning several short films about inspiring creatives which leave you drooling. They’re the work of director Brennan Stasiewicz who I interviewed back in the summer. His piece on eccentric chocolatiers the Mast Brothers has been shared very widely, but his film on architects Roman and Williams is also superb.

Hat-tips for dedication to similar online video content this year has to go to The Monocle and Vice’s VBC TV.

5. Honda

Yes, it pains me too. But one of this years online video heroes has to be Honda, for their surprising Live Every Litre campaign.

They hired top director Claudio Von Planta to tell a series of powerful short stories, on the premise of a journey taken while driving a Honda Civic. The vehicles and any Honda promotion takes a back seat to the stories however, which is what makes this campaign quite unique in 2010. In particular, check out this short about a D-Day veteran and his daughter which gives many history documentaries a run for their money.

6.Vimeo

Many of the best online video of the year wouldn’t be possible without Vimeo, the classier alternative to Youtube. But that’s not why they’re on the list. The video sharing site was a late entry, with the release, just last week, of their online video school.

It’s something they’ve been working on all year, according to the site’s blog, and it’s a comprehensive, stylish and fun introduction to shooting video. They even brought in Philip Bloom to teach us how to use our DLSR cameras properly. Again, some training Vimeo could have been tempted to deliver in text or even in paid face-to-face courses.

But they chose to harness the power of online video and create something of far more value instead.

7. Witney TV

OK, straight-up, Witney TV ain’t pretty. They’ve actually chosen the ‘broadcast news’ theme from Garageband for their opening titles, which themselves, look like they’ve been done in Microsoft Paint. There isn’t a huge amount of care taken to making pretty video.

ButWitney TV is one of the first, sustained attempts at online video serving a local audience. And, it’s incredibly popular. Some episodes I’ve seen have 150,000+ views and scoops with Jeremy Clarkson and David Cameron have had them mentioned in the national press. I grew up in Witney, and family members tell me it’s also huge in Japan. Who knew?

They’re showing the rest of the hyperlocal world how it should be done. If you choose to follow in their footsteps, just don’t use Garageband.

8. Tim Johns

BBC radio producer Tim Johns (Disclaimer: he’s a friend) is on the list to represent all the people who’ve picked up a camera and got creative with it this year, again without any desire for reward.

Online video is an unrivalled platform for original drama and comedy, and with a flipcam costing less than £100 it’s possible for anyone to join the party. But how many do? And how many get scared away?

Tim isn’t one of those. He’s just started making films for the hell of it, and for a radio producer, he shows a startling aptitude for visual comedy & storytelling.

.09 VJ Movement

Another online video hero this year is the Dutch social enterprise  VJ Movement.

It launched back in 2009 amid some hype (among video journalists, at least) and since then has got down to the business of building a network of VJs from across the globe. After a recent rebrand this autumn, the VJ Movement have focussed on developing larger scale projects and commissioning films for that project from all over the world.

Personally, I think it’s yet to find its real voice and distinctive style, but this will come with time. For the time being, it is one of the only fully independent platforms commissioning in-depth journalism from outside mainstream circles, and long may that continue.

Disclaimer: I occasionally produce films for the VJ Movement

Lifetime achievement award: TED

And finally, a lifetime achievement award is deserving of one organisation who clearly ‘got’ online video when Youtube was still in nappies.

TED lectures have been around for sometime, but it was only when they started uploading them to Youtube and making them freely available that the organisation’s remarkable talks really started to take off.

They’ve collectively been watched more than 600 million times, and spurred future speakers to up their game, a concept TED boss Chris Anderson called Crowd Accelerated Innovation. In this TED lecture, he predicts online video will have a profound affect on our future. Which begs the question: if you’re not getting in on the fun now, why not?

Five myths about shooting video

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 27, 2010

Lets start with some truths: video is going to play a huge part in the future of journalism; it is more popular than blogging and social networking; according to the Global Web Index of May 2009, 70% of web users watch video online.

And here’s some more truths: 20 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube every minute; (and that was in May 09, so it’s probably closer to 22 or 24 hours). That’s the equivalent of 86,000 Hollywood movies being released every week of the year.

Despite this, there are still some myths surrounding video and film making; myths which stop some print reporters, journalism students and hyperlocal bloggers from trying it, and mean that those who do produce mediocre content.

Time to blow them myths wide open.

Five myths about shooting video

01. shooting video is expensive

It really is time to put this myth to bed. Yes, TV programmes cost £100,000 upwards per hour; Hollwood movies $45,0000,000 is more like the average.

But you don’t need a £20,000 camera to achieve broadcastable results. In fact, you can make high quality, high definition video for as little as £100. It’s not the kit, but how you use it.

Not convinced? Here’s how I kitted myself out with camera, tripod, sound gear and a full editing suite for £500 ($900). And watch how the Kodak Zi8 (£150) can get professional results.

02. shooting video is only for the professionals

There are lots of people who’d like you to believe you need to spend years in film school and thousands in training courses to produce professional looking video.

These are the people who have spent years in film school and thousands on training courses, and fair play to them. To an extent they’re right. If you want to produce a pitch perfect visual masterpiece every time you take out your camera then this may be the answer.

But to produce video journalism, to cover everyday news events, to record interviews, to tell exciting video stories…well, there are some basic tricks anyone can learn. White balance, framing, sequences – these three basics of visual grammar will elevate your production in no time.

Here’s how I’ve been teaching journalism students at Kingston University, London how to shoot video:

03. shooting video requires lots of talented people

Even today there’s a lot of resentment towards video journalism. Jaded hacks hate the idea of being asked to hold the camera and ask questions at the same time. They argue having a camera-person (and ideally a producer) with them means the results are better.

Now I believe in collaboration, don’t get me wrong. And two heads are better than one. But are they always necessary? No. The evidence of this comes in the scores of excellent films produced single handedly.

So don’t feel inadequate when you pitch up on your own. It is possible, and indeed not that challenging, to master your video and your sound and your lighting and your framing, and still have time to ask the questions. You will need one thing, and one thing alone to achieve this: practice.

04. shooting video is a luxury

I’m sure there are lots of journalism students, and lots of hyperlocal bloggers who would love to have more video on their website, but see it as a luxury they can’t afford. Well, I’ve already shown you it doesn’t necessarily have to be a financial luxury.

But don’t think video is the icing on the cake; the thing which makes your journalism look a bit prettier. No, the statistics at the top of this page show the audience is demanding more and more video. They don’t just want to read about an event, or see a nice photograph. They want to watch it, they want to hear the interviews.

In a short number of years video will become core to our audiences’ consumption of storytelling. So it needs to become core to our production.

05. shooting video is easy

And on the flip-side, the final myth of shooting video is it is actually easy. Well, the professionals make it look that way don’t they? Trust me, from years of frustration, anger and despair, the one thing I’ve learned is shooting video is actually ruddy hard.

At least getting it right is.

First there’s the guaranteed technical hiccups. Your camera’s battery is low; there’s interference on the mic; the tape has corrupted; the edit software keeps crashing; your video exports sound and video out of sync…all of these have happened to me at one time or another and it drives me crazy.

And secondly getting every shot right, getting the soundbite, getting a perfect sequence, getting your framing right…these are all simple to read on paper, but difficult out in the cold with an impatient interviewee.

Multimedia Journalism on the frontline

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on October 29, 2009

Image: Adam Westbrook

I spent an afternoon at the Canon expo in London yesterday, a showcase for the latest photography kit, including some very sexy looking XL H1s and of course the 5D Mark II.

Hidden among the photo-geekery was photojournalist turned multimedia war reporter John D McHugh.

He was there to speak about his experiences reporting from Afghanistan between 2006-8, during which time he moved from producing just photographs, to audio slideshows and even full films.

He also experienced several fire fights, which he described as “fucking insane” and was even shot by insurgents for his trouble.

John D McHugh

“The power of the still image is still unsurpassed” he says, although he admits he loves the fact he now has lots of different ways to tell a story.

His aim is not to copy television though, rather to “emulate the newspaper tradition”, using multimedia to show more and give more understanding to a story.

But it is not without its challenges. He admitted it is difficult to juggle his SLR with a video camera and dictaphone – something I can totally relate to from my short time filming in Iraq earlier this year. For me the fear was always missing a good shot because I’m busy with something else, something John has just got used to.

“I’ve missed photos, sure” he says, “but then I’ve always missed photographs in my whole career. If I was going to write a book, I always said it was going to be called ‘Photos I Didn’t Take.””

He says each missed photograph is seared in his memory.

“This is never going to be ideal, but it’s the world we’re in.”

A talented, brave and determined photojournalist, John is very much on the frontline, both militarily, and inside the industry.

Get your copy of 6×6: advice for multimedia journalists

Posted in 6x6 series by Adam Westbrook on October 26, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

My e-book 6×6: advice for multimedia journalists is now available for download.

I put it together after the popularity of the blog series of the same name back in August. It sums up the advice in that series and updates it. It’s also packed with bonus tips which you won’t find in the series itself, plus a page of resources and links to help you on your way.

The six chapters cover the technical skills, like video, audio & storytelling, plus the non-technical skills, like branding & business.

Best of all, this 32 page e-book is 100% free – you won’t need to register or anything – just click on the big download button below to get it!

And please hit me with feedback, good or bad. What did it miss out? What would you put in?

Click to download for free!

6×6: video

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 19, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The second in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

video

Video has by far and away become the most popular medium for the multimedia journalist – to the extent it almost seems many won’t consider it a truly multimedia project unless its got a bit of video in it. The thing is, video is a tricky medium and must be treated differently in the world of online journalism.

01. video doesn’t need to be expensive

Don’t be fooled into thinking you can’t do video just because you haven’t  got any cash. Sure, if you want to go right to the top range, say a Sony EX3, Final Cut Pro and After Effects yes, it’s going to set you back about £3,000 ($5,000). But high quality can be achieved on lower budgets.

Check out my article on how I put together an entire film making kit for £500 ($800).

02. shoot for the edit

If there’s one piece of advice for multimedia journalists making films – it comes from Harris Watts, in a book he published 20 years ago. In Directing on Camera he describes exactly what shooting footage is:

“Shooting is collecting pictures and sound for editing…so when you shoot, shoot for editing. Take your shots in a way that keeps your options open”

Filming with the final piece firmly in mind will keep your shooting focussed and short. So when you start filming, start looking for close ups and sequences. The latter is the hardest: an action which tells your story, told over 2 or more shots.

Sequences are vital to storytelling and must be thought through.

A simple sequence: shot 1, soldiers feet walking from behind

A simple sequence: shot 1, soldiers feet walking from behind

Then to a wide shot of the same action...

Then to a wide shot of the same action...

...and then to a wide reverse showing more detail

...and then to a wide reverse showing more detail

03. master depth of field

In online video, close ups matter. The most effective way to hold close ups – especially of a person – is to master depth of field. Put simply the depth of field how much of your shot in front of and behind your subject is kept in focus. It is controlled by the aperture on your camera – so you’ll need a camera with a manual iris setting.

Your aim – especially with closeups – is to have your subject in clear focus, and everything behind them blurred: Alexandra Garcia does it very well in her Washington Post In-Scene series. (HT: Innovative Interactivity)

Screenshot: Innovative Interactivity

Screenshot: Innovative Interactivity

Here’s a quick guide to getting to grips with depth of field:

  1. you need a good distance between the camera and subject
  2. a good distance between the subject and the background
  3. and a low f-stop on your iris – around f2.8, depending on how much light there is in your scene. A short focal length does this too.
  4. You may need to zoom in on your subject from a distance

04. never wallpaper

If there was ever an example of the phrase “easier said than done” this would be it. It’s a simple tip on first read: make sure every shot in your film is there for a reason. But with pressures of time or bad planning you can often find yourself “wallpapering” shots just to fill a gap.

In his excellent book The Television News Handbook Vin Ray says following this rule will help you out no end:

“One simple rule will dramatically improve your television packaging: never use a shot – any shot – as ‘wallpaper’. Never just write across pictures as though they weren’t there, leaving the viewer wondering what they’re looking at. Never ever.”

05. look for the detail and the telling shot

Broadcast Journalists are taught to look for the “telling shot”, and more often than not make it the first image. If your story is about a fire at a school, the first thing the audience need to see is the school on fire. If it’s about a woman with cancer, we must see her in shot immediately.

But the telling shot extends further: you can enhance your storytelling by looking for little details which really bring your story to life.

Vin Ray says looking for the little details are what set great camera operators apart from the rest:

“Small details make a big difference. Nervous hands; pictures on a mantelpiece; someone whispering into an ear; a hand clutching a toy; details of a life.”

I’m midway through shooting a short documentary about a former prisoner turned lawyer. One of the first things I noticed when I met him was a copy of the Shawshank Redemption on his coffee table – a great little vignette to help understand the character.

06. break the rules

The worst thing a multimedia journalist can do when producing video for the web is to replicate television – unless that’s your commission of course. TV is full of rules and formulas, all designed to hide edits, look good to the eye, and sometimes decieve. Fact is, online video journalism provides the chance to escape all that.

Sure it must look good, but be prepared to experiment – you’ll be amazed what people will put up with online:

  • Cutaways are often used to cover over edits in interviews; why not be honest and use a simple flash-dissolve instead. Your audience deserve to know where you’ve edited right?
  • TV packages can’t operate without being leaden with voice over, but your online films don’t need to be
  • Piece to cameras don’t need to be woodenly delivered with the camera on a tripod

The final word…

Here’s VJ pioneer David Dunkley-Gyimah speaking at this year’s SxSW event in the US:

““When it comes to the net, there is no code yet as I believe that is set in stone….we’ve all been taking TV’s language and applying that and it hasn’t quite worked. Video journalism needs a more cinematic- hightened visual base.”

Next: storytelling for multimedia journalists!

6×6: starting next week

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 14, 2009

The walls of the debate are shifting. People don’t want to be reminded how bad the newspaper/journalism sector is right now; they don’t want to read more introductions to articles reeling off the various nails in the coffin.

In the last couple of months we’ve started to see more articles looking forward. And that’s a positive thing.

A piece I wrote last month on what the journalist of the future might look like sparked a lot of debate – and got me working on something which I’m launching on Monday:

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

Six articles, each with six tips for the journalist of the future. They’re going to be focused on the down to earth practical stuff, and cover six broad areas the next generation freelance journalist will need to be familiar with:

  1. Video
  2. Branding
  3. Storytelling
  4. Audio
  5. Business skills
  6. Making things happen

Some of them are new skills, which are just emerging; others are some of the oldest. And that last one isn’t a journalism skill, but I think it’s vital for freelancers if they’re not to end up sitting at home staring at their computer screen.

It starts on Monday with Branding – and as always, it’s never a complete list so feel free to add your advice in the comments!

Choose your multimedia, wisely

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 12, 2009

He chose, poorly

"He chose, poorly"

Video, audio, pictures, timelines, slideshows, maps….multimedia’s great isn’t it? As a journalist it gives you an amazing choice of how to treat a story.

But how many journalists use that choice? And how many chose wisely?

In order to know which medium to use for which story, you must know its strengths and weaknesses; not of the software or  the content – but of the very medium itself.  Because some mediums are only good for some things.

Video

With so much talk about video journalism, it’s not surprising so many journalists take a camera out and shoot whatever they can. I rarely see a big multimedia project without any video in it. And that’s a shame, because video, really, is only good at a couple of things. And bad for some others.

Video/Film/TV whatever you want to call it, is great for showing action. For evoking an emotional response. For creating atmosphere….so use it for this.

But video is bad, really bad, for getting across facts, figures, and complicated arguments. That’s why overloaded documentaries and TV reports are so dull.

Writing about online video’s older, more glamorous sister, television news, BBC journalist Vin Ray says:

“The problem for television news is that it is at once both an immensely powerful medium, and yet an inadequate way of explaining complicated issues in a comprehensive way.

“Academics, sociologists and newspaper columnists the world over have criticised the shortcomings of television news for years, but they have rarely – if ever – come up with a realistic, practical alternative.”

So whatever your story, save the complicated bit for another type of medium. Use video to show us something happening, or make us angry or sad. Video is the ultimate medium though in many ways because – done correctly – it is totally engrossing. We surrender ourselves to it and you can make an impact with video. It’s great to use as an opening gambit to suck your audience in.

Audio

In a world where pictures dominate, the power of radio is often underestimated. This is a mistake though because audio’s power to penetrate the mind is very strong. And don’t forget, while in the US, UK and Europe we may prefer to watch films on our laptops, in the developing world, millions upon millions of people live with a radio by their side.

Still unsure of audio’s power? Robert McLeish sums it up perfectly in Radio Production:

“It is a blind medium but one which can stimulate the imagination so as soon as a voice comes out of the loudspeaker, the listener attempts to visualise what they hear and to create in he mind’s eye the owner of the voice.

“Unlike (video) where the pictures are limited by the size of the screen, radio’s pictures are any size you care to make them”

With the size of most web video players that should hit home even harder. So think: if you haven’t got or can’t get the amazing pictures which show your audience what you want, some good audio interviews and vivid writing can let the audience do the work inside their own head.

And audio’s other strength is the fact it is uni-sensory: you can listen to audio, while doing something else.

Audio weaknesses though are the same as videos: as a temporal medium it is exceptionally bad at explaining complicated issues comprehensively. So again, save it for the emotional/action/umbrella elements of your piece. And it is very reliant on good quality sound – and good voices. This piece by the New York Times is excellent…but weakened by the monotonous drone of the voice over.

If you’re going to use sound, please make sure it’s high quality!

Images

The renaissance in photography thanks to the internet reminds us of how powerful the still image can be.  Of course it’s cheaper and quicker to produce photos for your multimedia project than video or audio; but don’t mistake that with easier. If you’re going to take photographs which have an impact you’re going to need a good SLR, and you’re going to need to know your f-stop from your shutter speed (and, indeed, how they are related!)

So when should you use photographs and slideshows in your work? It’s weaknesses are the same as video – but then you would never use a photograph to convey information. The photo is about that one moment in time, and because of that it is about smacking your  audience across the face with some emotional trout. Use it to make them feel something about your story.

And some great advice from multimedia experts Duckrabbit:

“The point about a still photo is that your eye explores it. When you put too much motion into a slideshow you’re removing the viewers ability to pause and reflect, to explore.

“Slow pans on a big screen look great … but at the small size the images are reduced to on our computer screens the panning looks as rough as a dogs dinner that even the dog refuses to eat.”

Give your audience time to explore your photographs.

Text (and quotes, maps, graphics)

Poor text. The original medium, it’s kind of been given a back seat by those of us too excited by the glitz and glamour of the video camera and the audio recorder.

But text covers the other media’s ass – because it’s the one which can get across all these details, background, statistics; all the things the audio visual mediums are rather poor at.

There’s no escaping it: if you’re going to be a multimedia journalist, you need to be damn good writer; being a great editor, or good voice don’t cut it. So use text to convey the nuts and bolts of your story, but make sure you don’t bore them while you’re doing it.

Maps, tables and graphs are great assistants to this: they can brighten up a page of text and add an element of interactivity. And text too becomes interactive, the moment you put in a hyperlink.

So remember: as a multimedia journalist you have a choice. So use it!

“This is why we’re entrepreneurs”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 15, 2009

An inspiring video: times like these are the best to get out there and make something happen.

Hat tip: @Zee at TheNextWeb and NewsCred

Shooting multimedia: a lot to juggle

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 9, 2009

They say multimedia journalism is the way forward; hell, it is the way forward. But sitting on a moving helicopter, flying over the rooftops of Baghdad, camera in hand trying to get a shot out the side, while also checking your audio recorder is working, with your seatbelt barely fastened….well it’s not easy.

That was the challenge I faced during my week with the First Batallion the Yorkshire Regiment in Iraq. On assignment for my employer – a radio station – I was also armed with a DV Camera and digital camera, hoping, desperately to come back with high quality video, audio and pictures.

Juggling kit

Photo: Corporal James Williams RLC

Now the obvious question, looking at the picture (right) is why didn’t I just use the audio from my video pictures? A good question, but I felt seeing as my primary reason for going out to Iraq was for radio, I needed to make good rich quality audio my priority. I just didn’t trust the quality from my DV Cam. I think though, in future projects, perhaps not just for radio, I will use onboard audio.

Juggling content

But juggling equipment isn’t the only problem for a multimedia shooter, I learned. The big challenge is juggling content.

It might be easy to say ‘just take a camera out and use the on board mic for sound and freezeframes for images’ but that ignores the fact that all three mediums – audio, video, pictures – have their own methods and priorities. Your video demands clean white balanced shots and considered visual sequences of something happening. Your audio demands to have clear sounds of that something happening. And your pictures want to be well framed and capture a split second, not a moving image.

Voice overs or pieces to camera have to be written differently for video than audio as they demand different styles. The former is written as a slave to pictures, while the latter must cope without any pictures at all.

So, in short, it’s a bit of a mindfuck.

But then if it’s not worth having, it’s not easy to get, right?

So how should the journalist approach multimedia stories?

01. with a good knowledge of each medium

02. with a plan of what the final products will be

03. with a variety of treatments: do some stories in just video, do others in just audio, rather than repeating the same content in different mediums

04. with a good bag which can carry all your equipment, and a notebook for logging everything and planning the final product

05. with a small digital camera- take a photo of everyone you interview in audio, for audio slide shows

06. smaller and lighter is better

07. when you arrive somewhere new, think over your video first of all, as getting the right shots is more complicated than getting the right audio or stills

08. and don’t just think in terms of audio, video or still images..what about interactive timelines, potted histories and discussion boards? If your final platform is online then all these are options  you can bear in mind.

All I will say is it was a lot more challenging than I had anticipated-if anyone has any other practical tips then please, add them below!