Videojournalism brain dump: Some advice I’ve picked up over the past few years

Poynter College Fellows win again, this time on video. Seriously, that e-mail group is inspiring me. And, yes, I was asked directly. I don’t just randomly spout off like this. Ok, not THIS much. Thanks #pcf09 kids.

This is in response to a request for advice on teaching a video workshop for high school journalists [Update: to clarify, they already have some video recording and editing experience]. One earlier point I made in the thread was about Web vs. TV. And with that...

Ok, so in general, mostly big-picture tips for videojournalism. Quick follow-up, I shouldn’t have said “Web video” before. I consider this advice more in the non-traditional broadcast style because “Web video” should scale to mobile, TV, Hulu, iPhones, pocket watches (wait, what?), whatever (h/t Chuck Fadely re scaling).

I’m biased toward a documentary-style videojournalism, so here it goes:

  • The story rules. If it’s all pretty pictures, make me a slideshow.
  • You’re making a video — not taking a video (h/t Kenny Irby, who really brought it home). It’s not yours. You’re just helping the person or people tell their story or stories (h/t Rich Beckman).
  • Lexicon is important (h/t Kenny). Just like with making vs. taking, you’re not shooting, killing, chopping anything. And you’re not a shooter. Words matter. You’re better than that.
  • Video for Web can’t suck just because it’s online. As Rich says, it should be better because it’s primarily being viewed at a smaller size, which enhances your sense of imperfections. But it can also be viewed full-screen, on TV, etc.
  • Shorter = better. But there’s no rule for length. It should be as long (really, as short) as it needs to be.
  • You’re not doing soundbites — you need to ask subjects questions so you have them telling as complete a story as possible [Update: As Eric noted in the comments, and I almost included here the first time, this includes making sure you have full sentences. Also, I’ll add that you need to the proper context. How? Awesome questions.], which leads to…
  • Avoid narration (way too many people use it as a crutch, both on Web and TV). It should be your absolute last resort. Only reason to use it, I think, is if the story suffers without it. Also, somewhat related…
  • Ditch standups. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to hear you. I’m watching your video because I care about the subject — not you. Sorry.
  • On that note, I don’t really want to see them talking either. More so if it’s just them sitting in a chair, in a boring office, with their boring talking head. The less talking head, the better. If I only see a talking head once, I’m happy.
  • Get it in the field, the first time (h/t Jim Virga). Yes, technology allows you to clean up sound and color correct video, but it’s still not going to be as good, it can be very time consuming and it’s lazy [field work]. In that vein…
  • There’s a saying that audio is 70 percent of video (h/t Miami Herald vjs). Most people are more forgiving if the visuals aren’t great, but if the audio sucks, they’re probably saying see ya. I can’t emphasize audio enough.
  • Headphones. Always. It shouldn’t even need to be on here. And they’re not your be-all-end-all. The audio meter to see levels is your bestest friend in the whole wide world.
  • Have the eye of a photojournalist making pictures when you aim the camera.
  • Get tons of b-roll. There’s an 80:20 “rule,” which basically means get a lot more footage than you need. Which ties into…
  • You may only have one chance to get everything you need. Don’t take anything for granted in terms of interviews and b-roll.
  • No canned shots or b-roll. If you ask someone to repeat something they’ve done or do something they plan to do, you’re making stuff up. Sorry. Not good journalism. Any re-enactments, simulations, etc. should, first, be avoided at all costs and, if you must, be clearly disclosed.
  • Record mostly in the range of medium and tight, but be sure to get establishing (wide) shots.
  • Record sequences.
  • Story. Just wanted to make sure you remembered.
  • There’s no formula.
  • Try interesting angles and approaches (h/t Mike Schmidt). Break outside the “safe” zone (h/t Jim). If it doesn’t work, don’t use it. If it does, cool.
  • Your goal should be to use as few (ideally, no) automatic settings as possible (go manual with exposure, white balance, sound and focus) once you’re comfortable with the gear (h/t Jim). I want you to say, “This is my camera. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” You need to explore all the buttons and menus and settings. You need to be able to troubleshoot any problem that you could possibly troubleshoot. When you’re a professional, you can’t make excuses (h/t Jim Virga). No one will want to work with you. If it’s really beyond your control, then it might not be your fault, but you still don’t have what you need. (This is more a problem on deadline.)
  • Just because you can create a video full of narrative, doesn’t mean you should. Sometimes, you just need to let the pictures do the talking. If the video can show it better than a person can describe, just leave that out.
  • There is no perfect video. It can never really be finished (h/t Jim Virga). You need to accept and embrace that it can always be better. That’s why it’s so important to knock out as much as you can as early as you can. The more time you have to edit and re-edit and re-edit again, the more time you have to get feedback, the more time you have to sleep on it, etc., the better.
  • How’s that audio? Just checking.
  • Send it to everyone who’s opinion you value or can give you constructive feedback. That’s good for several reasons; namely, it’ll will make you better and it will help get your work/name out there.
  • Show your video to the subjects. If they have e-mail, send them the link. If they don’t, go to them with your computer. Again, it’s not for you. It’s for them and your viewers. (h/t Rich)
  • There’s no magic. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s almost all skills you can learn with practice.
  • You’re doing an important job. Keep at it and kick butt.

Non-attributed parts were learned along the way on my own or by some combination of by lessons from professors Rich Beckman and Jim Virga and professionals (check out their stuff online): Chuck Fadely, Travis Fox, Brent McDonald, Garrett Hubbard, Ricardo Lopez and other people I’ve seen speak. Also from articles and blog posts. Just trying to give proper credit.

Speaking of Travis, some great advice: Ten Golden Rules of Video Journalism.

And great resources:

  • NewsVideographer (plus anything in her blogroll)
  • Newspaper Video
  • Documentaries are great sources of inspiration [we watched parts of several in Jim’s class]
  • And, of course, video journalism on news sites (NYT, WaPo, MediaStorm and the like)

That got a little out of hand again. Sorry. I wasn’t trying to be comprehensive, so there may be some points left out.

Everyone: What would you add/subtract/take the square root of?

Good luck, sir.

PS. Yeah, I’ll probably blog this one too. You guys are good, inspiring me to write!

Same question: What would you add/subtract/take the square root of?

Update: I’ve made some minor grammatical changes.

Update 2: People in the e-mail thread have added great insights, such as understanding video for different platforms at a conceptual level, how to plan, how to improvise, etc. Interviewing is huge too. After doing videojournalism for a about two years, I can say without a doubt it has made me a much better interviewer (and listener) after being primarily a text-based reporter for the five years prior.

14 thoughts on “Videojournalism brain dump: Some advice I’ve picked up over the past few years”

  1. Hi Greg
    A really comprehensive list-I think the worst crime online video journalists can commit is to replicate the formulas and foibles of traditional TV news: like you say, wooden pieces to camera, voice over narratives etc.

    There’s a real chance to develop a new style and way of doing things right now!

  2. Thanks!

    @Eric: Great point. I almost included that in the e-mail/post, but thought it might have been obvious or implied. I’ve added it with a note above.

    @Adam: Yup, Web video needs to be clean break from TV. But there are things we can learn from TV about video storytelling — both what to do and what not to do online and on other platforms.

  3. It can be overwhelming to try and remember all the things a reporter has to document with their camera in order to make a good video story. Newbies are quickly overwhelmed with all the narratives they have to learn how to master. High quality audio is the king of all multimedia. Pwn it.

    Web video is a very rich medium.
    It matter in what context they will be viewed in. A stand alone player? an iPhone app? Embedded in a text story, embedded in a Flash container?
    The context demands different approaches. It is not about you – it is about the user experience. Start from that perspective before you turn on the camera.

    Web films connect because of the immediacy and the best ones are edited in ways that propel you through the scenes in ways that length limits alone don’t address.

    Learn to make great, short films. The discipline is important because great longer films are built from a library of tight, shorter film sequences

    I teach that there are no hard and fast rules about whether your story needs elements like pieces to camera, voice overs or how long to stay with shots of interview subjects.

    A fully-trained VJ will know how to document and employ do all those things because some stories simply need those narrative devices to establish or make connections between the “subject” and verb. in the timeline.

  4. Great tips Greg, well collated. Important also I think for those reading this that you give your self time to serve/seek out your apprenticeship e.g. a company, contributory “wisdom of crowds”, or pref with that someone.

    In other words seek out the knowledge repository or get “grandmothered” or “grandfathered” to understand different methodologies.

    There are at least half a dozen different workflows that are standard and the variations you’ll find specific to that someone, group or institution.

    For example, BBC does things differently to ABC News, and to newspapers (all attract talent so have a good pass-it-on and the Indies (number of video web communities) do things differently to the establishment, which facilitates a disruptive discourse – which then can become the norm. And the cycle continues.

    To re-work your last point: “Know what you know from being that nomad”, I tell my students. That much has helped me enormously in mixing almost two decades of IM videojournalism .

    Curating something around Vjism at our biggest arts/culture centre in the UK, which might interest readers. Keep you posted :)

  5. Great advice, thanks for your comments Robb and David!

    @Robb: Completely agree about considering the context(s).

    I should have clarified about VOs — that’s just more my preference. I’ve seen plenty of Web videos with them that are excellent. Lots of different styles can work on the Web, but I was more focusing on the documentary style I learned.

    @David: Great points. I’m glad you found the post.

    @Everyone: These guys are some of the best out there. I’ve learned a lot from them, their sites, videos, etc. If I had made a more comprehensive list of resources, they’d definitely be on it. Be sure to check out:

  6. Hey Greg,

    The majority of videos/mixedmedia videos I have been watching lately from the NYTimes have narrators. I am wonding whether this is a trend you are noticing elsewhere or any other insight you might have into why this is happening. Is this a viewer preference? Is this written journalists working with video? I agree strongly with you that narrators rarely add value to a piece. I want to know why this is happening and whether it will continue.


  7. Hey Eileen,

    Yeah, I’ve notice that too. Also, it seems as though the video staff uses narration more than the multimedia staffers who do video.

    I don’t know for sure, but the background of the videojournalists might be more in broadcast than documentary-style video (though I know Brent McDonald on video staff did doc video in grad school).

    Also, it seems that a lot of the videos try to tell a more complete story instead of working in a complementary manner with text or vice versa, so they probably figure it’s easier for a journalist to summarize and add additional context.

    It’s a great question — something I’ve thought about but never asked about.

    I hope all is well!

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