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Print guy learns video--how's he doing?

For the last several weeks, I've been leading a double life in journalism. During the weekdays, I've been doing essentially the same job at The Washington Post for the last ten years -- churning out feature and news stories for our print editions and website. But since July, I've been a struggling video journalist trying to complete an "interactive journalism" master's degree at nights and on weekends at American University.

On Thursday, I finished filming and editing a four-minute video due Saturday for my documentary course at American. The piece, a profile of a longtime District-based DJ who performs at the Black Cat on 14th Street NW, would have been easy to execute for an experienced video journalist. But the project made me feel like I was starting out in the industry all over again.

My transition from writer to video journalist has not been comfortable. I constantly fumbled with the tripod -- right in front of my subject -- which was about as embarrassing as getting caught with one's fly open. And I spent so many hours late into the evening with the video editing software Final Cut Express that I wondered whether I was even doing journalism anymore, or computer science. One huge lesson learned: Never say "videographer."

More important, I discovered that making a compelling video for a website such as The Post's requires a fundamentally different kind of journalistic skill. As a writer with a pen and notepad, I have several logistical advantages over the video folks: I can reconstruct scenes that I am physically not able to witness; I don't need to lug around heavy equipment to film or record every tiny yet important atmospheric nuance; and, perhaps most obvious, I can persuade people in sensitive situations -- often, the very people who make the essence of a story -- to be quoted in an article, while those same people might scram when you utter the words "Can I mic you up?"

When I was working on my profile of Erin Myers, 36, a.k.a. DJ Lil'e, I kept worrying whether I was capturing enough footage to illustrate her thoughts and emotions. At one point in our interviews, as Myers discussed how she and her husband, Andy Myers, the sommelier at CityZen, decided not to have children; I kept fretting about the kind of filmed scenes I'd need to artfully convey these serious family choices. (Andy, by the way, was profiled in both an article and video for The Washington Post Magazine two years ago.)

Ultimately, I couldn't figure out the answer. Even if I had, I am not sure if including their decision to go childless would have sent my short video off on a wild tangent, distracting the viewer from the narrative of the DJ's work and life. All I know is that I left out something I could have easily slipped into an article.

Coincidentally, this week, my colleague Whitney Shefte, who sits about 20 feet away from me in the newsroom, wrote her first-ever Post article, a profile of blues musicians who gather on Saturdays in an old Maryland bookstore for jam sessions. She also shot an accompanying video. After she wrote her Style piece, I asked Shefte what she thought of her own transition, in the opposite direction from mine. Here's what she wrote:

[W]riting is telling and not showing. A written story asks for more of my own voice. It requires me to verbalize my observations instead of just piecing together what the camera captures. I can allow the subject to tell their own story from beginning to end in video. Sure, I edit out a lot of material, inevitably inserting my voice with each cut I make. But I’m never adding anything that wasn’t there. Video feels more true to me, more objective...
Unless the video has a narrator, old photographs or reenactments, history can’t really be shown on the screen. I had to do a lot more research than I do for video to uncover that history. At the same time, subjects open up more when a camera isn’t present. There are nuggets in written stories that no photographer or video journalist has access to. And while writing, I was also able to focus in a new way.

Some media critics slammed The Post for the delayed and uneasy merger of our print and web staffs. But today our newsroom is filled with video journalists, writers, photographers, editors, and web producers who are earnestly trying to collaborate. As we plunge deeper into the Internet era, I grapple with larger debates about our newspaper's staffing: Does it even make sense for writers like me to learn how to shoot and edit video? For video journalists to become writers? Shouldn't news organizations such as The Post invest in more specialists? Or, given our industry's financial upheaval, is a more versatile staff better?

Help me answer those questions by checking out my video below, and letting me know if I should keep my day job or not.

By Ian Shapira  | August 13, 2010; 9:04 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Thanks for writing this. You give me encouraging signs about the future of journalism, especially as I'm an alumnus of your web organization (Ask Jim Brady!) and found through 2005 when I worked there that not so many people were willing to do what you are doing.
Robert MacMillan

Posted by: easymac | August 13, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Ian, I empathize with you. I'm a freelance journalist who began transitioning into multi-media and visual communications and design about five years ago.

Your struggle over what to include in your four-minute documentary seems similar to choices determined by a word count. You may have been able to explore the subject's family choices in a 1,000 or 1,500 word article, but not if you were limited to 300 or 500 words.

I can tell you that learning to think visually, while difficult, is rewarding. It also makes one a much, much better writer.

Good luck. I look forward to seeing your work.

Posted by: aoscruggs | August 13, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Just my personal bias, but you wouldn't write a feature story with nothing but quotes from your subject. Likewise, I think trying to tell a video story without some kind of narration often misses the mark, too. It's hard to provide context and continuity with sound bites alone.

Posted by: rainycamp | August 13, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

I'm also a multimedia freelancer, with equal love for video, audio, blogging & print reporting. I like the flexibility my skills give me as a communicator, but it's taken years for me to get good at writing, audio and video editing. (I've been fine tuning all three at basically the same time/rate). My fear is that I'm spreading myself too thin by wanting to do it all, and that I'll never give myself the opportunity to excel at any one of them. As with anything else, focusing on your priorities is essential. Otherwise burn out is inevitable.

Posted by: savsabrina | August 13, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

I was prepared to be indignant when I read the summary of this post over on Romenesko. But after reading it, I think Ian is pretty dead on. Shooting and editing really good videos is a specialized skill. It only makes sense to do it professionally if you are 1) passionate about it, and 2) able to commit lots of time ... as in all of it.

With that said, I think reporters (and editors and copyeditors and news aides etc) should be carrying around cameras all the time. Breaking news video doesn't have to be perfect, nor do photos. Reporters should have enough skills to know how to get best possible frame, light and sound. And he/she ought to be able to do a bare-bones edit of it, if necessary.

Good on you for getting the training. If more people at 15th and L spent as much time trying to understand the Web as you do, then The Post would be leaving the rest of the media in the dust.

Posted by: Russ_Walker | August 13, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Good stuff, man, but watch the jump cuts. Her lighting should be a lot better, especially in the interviews with all those shadows (unless that was an intentional choice, in which case I disagree).

You had her framed well, good action shots, decent tight shots, but give me a better wide shot than that boring one of the Black Cat -- outside and during the day!

Audio is kind of all over the place, Final Cut should be better about moderating that.

Overall, as a a fellow print-to-print/video journalist, I say well done.

Posted by: bustamia | August 13, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

i watched the whole movie without getting bored, so a huge congratulations is in order. being a radio reporter and working with the time component, i probably would've brought in the "conflict" or "plot" earlier. but nonetheless, it was a really nice profile and gave me a good sense of the person.

i disagree with the poster who said it's such a huge learning curve to get good at a new type of medium. technical stuff is easy to do. you already have the most important and difficult skill -- storytelling. it's true, you have to dedicate some time to the technical stuff, probably at the exclusion of what you're already good at. but before you know it, you've caught on.

best of luck and look forward to seeing more from you!!

Posted by: hyperballad400 | August 13, 2010 9:07 PM | Report abuse


First of all, anyone who wants to be a videojournalist should treat the job with the same respect given to print. I seriously doubt that the Post would have printed an article of a would-be print journalist containing serious grammatical mistakes: your video report contains the equivalent of many such mistakes.

That said, here are a few key points to keep in mind in the future. 1) Every story must have a beginning, middle and an end. 2) Start "in media res," in this case start with your character doing what she does. 3) Audio is just as important as video, each count for 50% of story. Your audio, both nat sound and interview are all over the place. Pay attention to obtaining clean audio with appropriate mics; also you need to use nat sound under interview clips when you use video of club. 4) You NEED reaction shots and cutaways. It is crucial to shoot closeup reaction shots of people dancing or listening; reaction shots bring viewers into story. Cutaways (details of turntable, etc., would have allowed you to avoid jump cuts). 5) Pay attention to proper lighting (can very well be just natural light but avoid high contrast areas on face) and position interviewee properly in your shot (use rule of thirds).

Having said all that, I'd advise you to keep at it. Be humble because there is a lot to learn, watch films of the masters to see how they communicate emotions and ideas and try to learn from great videojournalists like your fellow WP colleague, Travis Fox. Last but not least, if you want to be successful, ENJOY what you're doing! Best regards, Wolfgang Achtner

Posted by: wachtner | August 15, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Whitney Shefte states, after letting out a little respect for photo and video, "At the same time, subjects open up more when a camera isn’t present. There are nuggets in written stories that no photographer or video journalist has access to." That is pretty much insulting to the people who are visual journalists and work at gaining the trust of subjects, day in and out, whether in 10 minutes or 10 days, and make images with impact.

There has been many a time when a reporter cannot get a person to open up, but the photographer/cameraman can. It is a skill, and to state the myth that people do not open up in front of the camera. Look at the work of the Post's own photographers and video journalists. That belies that faux belief.

Posted by: mdpjvj | August 18, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

The presentation was smooth, and the jumps made sense. It was informative. I confess that I wasn't much interested in the main character; I wanted more narrative pressure, was waiting for a payoff. The person on Facebook who found it so abysmal has some private axe to grind. It seemed to me as good as the portraits Steve Hartman does on CBS, even if the subject wasn't riveting.

Posted by: rlathbury | August 18, 2010 9:00 PM | Report abuse

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