Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Student Request - Q & A

I just finished answering a series of questions for a photojournalism graduate student in Ohio who wanted some of my thoughts on multimedia, and specifically the Marshmuckers story that we just published in The Globe and Mail.

On the off chance that others may be interested, I've posted the questions and answers below.

Q: Can you tell me about the planning process that went into your story on the Holland Marsh? Was it a daily assignment? Was it your idea or from a reporter? How long did you work on it? How many times did you go shoot either video or photos?

A: First a bit of background. The Holland Marsh sits in a valley north of Toronto, but there is a major highway that cuts through it. That highway is an important commuter artery into Toronto, and it is also the route many Torontonians take to escape north into Cottage Country. After twenty years of working in Toronto I certainly was aware of the Holland Marsh, and I'd passed through it a million times at about 100km/h (55mph).

However, one day in 2007, I had some spare time while heading from an assignment up north and following my own curiosity I took a turn off the highway and ventured into the Marsh. As luck would have it the light that afternoon, just after a rain shower, was extraordinary. I began making photographs, and meeting people, and I soon found out through conversations that the people who worked and lived in the Marsh were referred to as Marshmuckers. Between that nickname, and some of the images I had made, the idea was born to do a series on The Marshmuckers.

My boss, Moe Doiron, gave me the go ahead to work on the story for a while, before we would try to "sell" it to management, but as I said before, the marsh is about 45min north of Toronto, and nearly 2 hrs from where I live, so "swinging by" in the course of a work day was never easy. That first fall harvest season I only made four trips up there, content that I would continue the story the following spring.

As the image count began to grow I started writing proposals for the story to management, which included some of the early photographs. At least three times since 2007 I pushed for the story to be officially sanctioned, so I could devote some real time to it, but I was never given the go ahead, and the story was developed in bits and pieces over two more growing seasons.

I should explain, that as space has dwindles at The Globe and Mail, like all newspapers, we are not in the habit of running photo essays, and in general (unfortunately) we tend to shy away from pure character sketches (which is what my story largely was). What the story needed in management's opinion was a "hook," a news-worthy reason to run it; the tension that makes readers want to read it.

Although this was frustrating for me, I knew I could continue to work on the images, meeting more people, and building the piece up. I was in no rush. However, the idea had caught the interest of one of our general assignment reporters, Tony Reinhart, who suggested he could help. After a very short time, he had come up with a story pitch based on the amount of food grown in the Marsh, versus how much was exported, and how much of it could actually feed the people of the Greater Toronto Area. Finally, this was an angle that management liked, and they gave us approval to finish the work.

Now the downside. After working on the story for the better part of three years - only still images and some audio at this point - they wanted the story in two weeks, to run as a harvest piece for Thanksgiving! Wow. So much for leisurely finishing Marshmuckers, I now had about three or four days available to fill the holes, shoot some video (which they absolutely wanted), and conduct some interviews.

Sadly I would say that in my experience this is typical of newspapers, and the reason many photographers working on long-term stories don't show their images until they are well into the piece. When most newspapers decide they want something, they usually want it NOW.

Q: Can you talk about the integration between still images, video, and audio interviews? Was this a hard story to produce? How long did it take to edit? How did you develop the story line?

A: For photography staff at The Globe and Mail, we are able to decide ourselves the medium that will work best for any given subject. For me this decision takes into account shooting time, shooting environment, the level of participation of the subjects, sensitivity issues; a whole spectrum of things. I'm convinced that when newspaper managers around the globe insist that they want "video" what they mean is they want content for their websites that can be placed in a video player. When all is said and done, no one really cares if a story is done purely with stills and audio, or incorporates video as well, as long as it is done well, and the story is compelling.

Stills are my first love, and always will be. But I understand what a compelling piece of audio or video can do to further the story and engage the viewer. I, and most of my colleagues at The Globe and Mail, try to do our multimedia in a way that allows people to tell their own stories. The disadvantage of this is that it is sometimes difficult to do in a very short time frame, which is why TV will use a voice over to fill in the gaps when concise audio is not available. They compress the story with some very short, exact, bits of information. But that's TV, and this is why I prefer the way we do things, allowing our characters to be the experts, and the focus, rather than the "talent."

I describe how I shoot photographs as shooting with a "feel" for when an image is right. It comes from experience, personal preference, and instinct. Luckily for me that works. I try to do the same for deciding which medium to use now, but keep in mind that we either need good audio, interviews and ambient sound, or good video interviews to pull a story together.

Today I try to do my interviews first if possible. This gives you a base to work from, and I also find that if something is going to go wrong for me it's going to be the audio, or the video interview somehow. I'm always happy to get these successfully "in the can" and then the visuals, still and/or video usually come naturally. Most subjects are best shot as stills in my opinion, but every once in a while something comes along that just screams for video, or you envision a way to use a video technique - motion, pan, zoom, etc. that will be effective in the final piece. I've shot several things in stills and then have returned to shoot the same thing in video. This has gotten easier to do with the newer 35mm SLRs that shoot great quality video, because we don't have to lug around an extra camera, and switching when the times are appropriate is much easier.

I love incorporating still into video, for the same reason we have argued for stills over video for years as photographers, because a photograph depicts that single wonderful moment, and I like to allow the viewer to linger a bit longer and appreciate that moment. In the same way, video can give you that "cool" effect you might be looking for.

This story was primarily shot in stills, then during the week before I edited, I spent three days more in the Marsh shooting two video interviews, gathering b-roll, and making more still images, as appropriate. We determined that the video story would emphasize the "story" aspect, more directly related to the story that Tony was writing for the newspaper, and that we would include a galley of images that would show more of the Marshmuckers aspect.

After completing shooting I spent three days on my own editing and producing the final product as well as preparing the gallery images, etc.

As always, I begin with the audio interviews, and edit them so that I have as interesting and cohesive a story line as possible. Then I begin to add images, and b-roll video. (I hate referring to my still photographs as b-roll.) Developing the story line is key, and is generally helped along by knowing our subject before hand so you can ask the appropriate questions, in the appropriate manner. Unlike newspaper interviews, you must resist the temptation to interject, and to help your interviewee along. Silence is a must, although I find it very uncomfortable. You cannot allow people to "ramble on," and you need to develop ways of getting people to be specific. This is extremely hard to do in some cases, and if it's not done, can make editing very difficult.

Q: What is it like to produce multimedia stories for a daily newspaper?

A: Producing multimedia stories for a daily newspaper, especially in this economy, and our changing newspaper environment is very challenging. We have been lucky in the past at The Globe and Mail because we have been encouraged to generate stories for the web, and we've been given time and resources to do this effectively. We have been encouraged to maintain a standard in our multimedia work that we have always had in our still photography. However, because we are all learning new skills, and developing them with each story, we are making mistakes as we go, and in a very public theater. Even with the support we have had it is an ongoing struggle to educate managers about what it takes to produce good multimedia. Few managers fully appreciate the amount of resource that is required to produce quality multimedia for the web. This includes the right equipment, the amount of work required from one individual, the amount of time required to shoot a story versus still images for the paper, and finally, and perhaps the least understood, is the amount of post production required to make a finished product.

Q: What is your take on model of visual storytelling with all the different kinds of media? Where do you think this kind of storytelling will lead?

A: Readers have always found their quick hit news and entertainment from television, but have also opened up newspapers to get a more complete, informed perspective. We have always provide the broader stories, and the in-depth coverage that television has lacked for the most part. With the web, we now have the opportunity to expand the story-telling capabilities of photographers, and everyone in the newsroom in general. We should take advantage of this and continue to include great multimedia story-telling as a vital part of our web content. However, producing good multimedia stories at a newspaper is an ongoing struggle, and one that is losing out, in my opinion, to newspapers who are trying to find ways to make money from the web, and are relying more and more on short, quick-hit, poorly shot and produced video clips that seem to get the hits. There are photography departments, the Globe's included, that are being discouraged by some managers, not all, from producing stories like Marshmuckers, The Carpet Merchant, Lightning's Last Dance, Black Tickle, Children of BIRT, etc. According to statistics that have been shared with us, these stories do not generate the hits that administrators need to justify them. They are however, the journalism that lends credibility to our brand, the same as good journalism does on the printed page. Good multimedia story telling has now entered the third stage of its development. Initially newspaper websites began using audio slide shows, then we progressed into video stories, some in multiple chapters, that have been received with great success by readers and within our industry. Now newspapers are tackling the questions of resources spent versus value added and revenues generated. What is in danger of being lost when the bean counters start deciding on content is the journalism that has been the cornerstone of newspapers forever.

I think and hope that newspapers will eventually find a way to become profitable again, and will learn how to generate more of these profits from the web. With time the tide will turn, and people will realize that readers and advertisers will not be attracted to sites simply because of content but will return time and again because of diverse and quality content. For newspapers this content must include great multimedia story telling.

Q: What other thoughts do you have in regards to this project, or other projects, that would be helpful to students or young photojournalist in making multimedia stories?

In terms of multimedia stories, I would say that you need to develop your visual skills to a very high standard. Great stories will be lost in poorly poorly produced works. Great journalism is still the goal for all of us, and the new and varied tools we have to work with now will only enhance our story telling abilities.

Begin your work with curiosity and compassion for your subjects. Understand what story needs to be told, and then use the skills at our disposal to execute this effectively. Do not get lost in fancy technique and flashy graphics, and try to use every technique only because it enhances the story you are telling.

Finally, I think that students, or anyone willing to learn new skills and keep an open mind are the future of the "newspaper" industry. Newspapers need people with the skills required to produce good stories for the newspaper, as well as the web, but they also need visionaries who can help find a productive direction for newspapers on the web. Too many newspapers have simply been transferring their content to their websites. This is certainly not been successful in terms of generating revenue. We have historically given web content away, and we have been selling web advertising at dirt cheap rates. Somehow these approaches need to be changed. Many websites, and perhaps their parent newspapers will probably fail. But the successful organizations will be the ones which are able to incorporate their newspaper and web productions into one.

This industry certainly needs highly motivated, skilled story tellers with a vast amount of technical skills, but these can only be successful in the long term if we remember that great journalism is at the heart of everything that have made newspapers successful in for decades.

The rules have changed in our game. Newsrooms have been quick to adapt to these changes, and have lead our organizations onto the web. Now we need great innovation, vision, and leadership from managers, young and old, who can find a way to make it all work from a business perspective. We need to throw away the business model we have been using for years and draw from other areas of expertise available to find a new model that will carry us forward.

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