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.
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