Lessons in preparation

There is a cliche about proper preparation preventing poor performance, and it’s entirely true. I usually like to use this space to highlight things I’ve done well, but this time I’m going to share two video shoots that could have gone better.

The first was a simple high school softball game. Even when I’m just there to shoot highlights, I try to know about the teams and the key players in advance. If there’s a player we might do a feature on at some point, I try to focus on them. Or, if there is an interesting context to the game, knowing that can help frame the video as more of a story than just a recap of the game action.

After the game, I asked the reporter if the starting pitcher and relief pitcher were sisters. She told me yes, and that she had written about the younger sister’s struggle with bone cancer. It was pretty remarkable that she was playing varsity softball at all. She came in to relieve her sister for the win, but I had only one shot of her pitching. Had I known her story, I would have changed my approach. Fortunately, the teams are playing again in an annual cancer benefit game, so I have a chance to do the story the right way.

The week before, I was in Rhode Island to shoot fish stocking for a part of a longer story on the Pawcatuck River. I wanted to get an underwater view of the fish, so I brought a GoPro on a long pole. The problem was they were not stocking with nets, as I had seen in the past. Instead, they backed the truck down a boat launch and opened the tank, releasing 750 fish in less than a minute. I didn’t have a way to get close to where the fish were going in the water. I stuck the GoPro in the water from a dock nearby, and got lucky that a few fish swam past the lens. (20 seconds into the video below)

I should have asked how they were doing the stocking. Had I known, I could have come up with some waders and a way to sit the GoPro on the ramp underwater. I had planned to go back again, but it turns out they won’t be doing any more herring stocking this year.

In both cases, had I asked a few questions before the assignments, the videos would have turned out much better than they did.

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Periscope in a news workflow

There has been a lot of excitement out there about live streaming videos apps Periscope and Meerkat. At The Day, we do a weekly live streaming music show called Live Lunch Break and live streaming basketball and football games, but these are more produced and streamed through Livestream. We as a newsroom wondered if it made sense to add these streaming apps to the toolbox our journalists have.

We already have two full-time videographers, four still photographers who are equipped to shoot video, and a handful of reporters who shoot short videos through the Tout app on their phones. The simplicity of live streaming with the tap of one button in an app and the ability to easily promote your broadcast and interact with viewers made us try out Periscope on two occasions this week.

On Tuesday, a group of New London residents went to City Hall to protest a proposed tax hike. We sent a reporter, photographer and videographer. With the reporter streaming via Periscope and the other two trying to shoot as well, there was a lot of getting in each other’s way at the small protest. The lesson here is if you are going to deploy multiple people all trying to shoot for the same publication, there needs to be some coordination of the effort.

On Friday, the Westerly Morris Men did their annual May Day dance on the Connecticut College green. I’ve done video stories in the past, so this time I figured I would try streaming via Periscope for something different. My plan was to download the video afterward and upload an edit to Tout. The problem I discovered was that even when I was shooting horizontal, the Periscope app saved the file to my camera roll as a vertical (see above). Another issue is the quality of the recording. The file is saved at a relatively low resolution (320×568) and with a lot of compression (486 kbps). So if you want to upload the stream to a service like YouTube for on-demand viewing, you’re going to get a low quality video that you have to rotate in another program like Final Cut in order to view it horizontally. Vertical video is fine when it’s confined to a mobile app, but the standard for video players is horizontal.

I tested out Meerkat’s quality this morning, and it’s not much better (360×640 pixels, 534 kbps).

News websites amass viewers over time, so a video that can be viewed on demand is going to be of a lot more value than one that is streamed live and then not archived. Add to this the fact that the live stream is confined to the app and not available to be embedded on a website, and it seems Meerkat and Periscope are more novelties than useful tools for journalism.

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The right way to do native advertising

Native advertising can be a dirty word in the news room. Let’s face it, the term is a euphemism for what’s really happening. A better description might be “advertising that looks like news content in order to trick the reader.” Advertisers and sales departments like native ads because, since they look like news content, viewers are less likely to skip over them they way they do banner ads. Newsrooms don’t like them because they may confuse viewers as to what is news content and what is paid content. Another issue with local native ads is that they could confuse the expectations of local businesses. Imagine a business reporter approaching a local shop for an article. The shop owner has in the past paid for a native ad, and now wonders why he doesn’t get to dictate the content of the news article.

Gimlet Media, a podcasting company founded by Alex Blumberg, formerly of Planet Money and This American Life, has taken what I think is a novel approach to native advertising in their podcasts Startup and Reply All. Think radio live reads done as narrative journalism. At the 11:50 mark of the above episode, Startup co-host Lisa Chow narrates a sponsor message from Ford. Instead of just reading copy supplied by the sponsor, Chow does what amounts to a one-minute audio story about Ford’s engineers wearing special suits that simulate what it’s like to be elderly so they can improve the design of their cars. She interviews an engineer and makes a point about human empathy. All sponsor messages done over a specific music bed that they use to differentiate ads from editorial content, and they are always introduced as a word from our sponsor so their is no confusion as to what is journalism and what is advertising. I usually fast-forward through ads on podcasts, but I find myself listening to most of Gimlet’s ads. My favorites are when Reply All co-hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt frame their sponsor messages through a long-running dispute about when one is going to visit the other’s newborn baby. Storytelling and personality are at the forefront of these spots, and you sometimes forget that they are advertisements. The other masters of podcast native ads are How To Do Everything‘s Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag. They bring in unrelated experts as an elaborate setup for what turns out to be a bad pun (so bad it’s good). They recently did a phone interview with an Olympic swimmer and asked her if being in the pool with everybody in the their swim trunks was like being in some kind of trunks club. Get it? Trunk Club?

This is not to say that there are no problems with these native ads. Startup devoted an entire episode to a mistake with a native ad for Squarespace. The problem was not in the presentation of the ad, but in the way it was presented to the subject of the ad. The ad included an interview with a young boy who used Squarespace to make a website about Minecraft. The producer who approached the boy’s mother made it sound like he was being interviewed for a story on This American Life, not an ad that would appear in a podcast. This underscores the problem I pointed out in the beginning of this post: native advertising needs to be transparent in the same way that all journalistic reporting is. The difference between editorial and advertising content need to be 100% clear, and you risk blurring that line when a journalist is the one producing the advertisement.

Gimlet learned their lesson and have continued to produce compelling shows and interesting sponsor messages. It works because of the new media nature of their business. I don’t see yet how a newspaper could adopt this style of native advertising, because it would be too hard to prevent conflicts of interest when you  have a reporter for a local paper writing an ad about a local company. As long as Gimlet doesn’t start presenting editorial stories about Ford and Squarespace, they should be free of any conflicts. As traditional news organizations try to find their way on the web, it would be worth investigating how they could adapt this model, particularly in video. For many local advertisers, the cost of producing a video ad is more than the cost of purchasing the pre-roll spot. News organizations should consider having a videojournalist who can quickly and inexpensively produce a short ad that mirrors the storytelling style of their editorial content, even if that person works in another department outside the newsroom.

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When is it ok to use music in a news video?

When I was first learning video storytelling, and when I was first teaching it to my co-workers, I would have told you it is never a good idea to use music in your news video. I was a stickler for natural sound, and adding music is fraught with ethical and legal issues that are better avoided. Both of these are still true for me, but I have softened my stance somewhat for some types of videos. My rule used to be only include music that was part of the natural sound and relevant to the story. This piece about a composer and a high school choir made use of music in a natural sound context.

I think the reason so many people want to include music when they are learning video storytelling is that musical scores are so ubiquitous in the film and television that we watch. A movie scene without its score can seem dry, as evidenced by this scene from Star Wars that someone removed the musical score from.

Music sets the tone for movie scenes, even when you don’t notice that it’s there. In fact, the type of music used can completely change our perception of the scene we are watching. A YouTube user added three different musical scores to a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, giving it three completely different feels.

You could see how this could be a problem in a journalistic context. Heavy-handed use of music in a journalistic piece risks adding a mood that wasn’t there, or telling the viewers how they should feel instead of allowing them to experience the story on their own. Copyright is the other reason to avoid adding a musical soundtrack. There is no rule of fair use that allows you to use a certain amount of a song. Musical compositions and recordings are copyrighted materials, and you need to pay the rights holder for the right to use them.

I still think that for straightforward news pieces, like the kind of video you would see on a television newscast, you should avoid adding music. But for more feature-type pieces, I’ve been taking more inspiration from documentaries and from radio storytelling like This American Life. The video at the top was shot in about an hour, with an interview and a few drawings done just for me. We had almost no natural sound, so I wanted some subtle music to add some pace and feel. I used a track from some friends of the reporter who were nice enough to let us use it for free. This, I feel, is the best way around the issue of copyright: find a musician you know or who is local to you and work out an agreement. This also avoids another issue that I see from time to time with royalty-free music.

There are many royalty-free music sources out there, the easiest of which is the folder of music that comes installed with Apple software like GarageBand or SoundTrack Pro. If you work with these enough, you will start to notice them in PowerPoint presentations, low-budget advertisements, and other online videos. A composer named Kevin McLeod has a great royalty-free music site, but I’ve even started to recognize some of his pieces in multiple places around the web.

The best option, in my opinion, is to find someone who can compose a simple musical score for you. There are lots of musical hobbyists out there, and there is probably even someone in your own newsroom who plays the guitar or piano. Rick Koster, The Day’s arts writer, used to be a bass player in a band, and he has played acoustic guitar to score several of my video projects. Below are two longer historical pieces that were based mostly on interviews, with no natural sound footage.

The most recent piece was a story about migrating swallows that blended poetry and music.

Adding music means a significant increase in production time, so you need to make sure that the end result will be worth it. If you’re going to use a royalty-free piece, it can mean hours looking for the right piece. If someone is going to compose a piece for you, they need the time to see your video and compose something, and then you need to record it. Music also adds another layer of complexity to the sound mixing process. The great thing about the online publishing space is it allows for more creativity in storytelling, including the use of music. Creators just need to make good choices in selecting music, because a bad selection will stand out as heavy-handed, and can be worse than no music at all.

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News videos going viral

If I am to believe the endless stream of spam messages we receive on YouTube, there is a secret to making your videos go viral, and the people who know the secret will happily tell you…for a price. Well I’m telling you that there is no secret, but there are steps that you can take beyond just creating interesting content that will get your videos in front of a wider audience.

The first step, a no-brainer, is creating something that people will want to watch. Eric Seals, a photojournalist at The Detroit Free Press, was asked in 2012 to shoot a quick video on his iPhone of a turkey that was harassing a local woman. Seals recognized this as an opportunity for an interesting story, and instead shot it with a combination of camcorder and GoPro, giving viewers a unique up close look that would have been difficult with an iPhone. The Free Press uses Brightcove as their video host, and does does push videos out to other platforms like YouTube. The large audience of the Free Press, combined with social sharing, led the Godzilla the Turkey video to spread organically, getting more than 300,000 views on the first day, according to Seals.

The video’s spread was aided by embeds on national news sites like The Huffington Post, USA Today and Time. Seals told me he did numerous TV and radio interviews in the following days, and that the story was mentioned on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment. There’s no doubt this story would have been interesting even if it was a simple iPhone video, but by going the extra mile with the GoPro and editing that emphasized the humor of the story, Seals turned out a viral sensation. Having “the right kind of video and the right duration” are the keys to going viral, Seals said during a phone interview from his home in Michigan. Keeping the video in the company’s own video player ensured that their branding was seen every time the video was played on another site, and any pre-roll ads associated with the video would have received the increased impressions.

For news outlets that don’t have as big an audience as the Free Press, YouTube offers the ability to reach a worldwide audience. The Cape Cod Times, a much smaller newspaper, recently switched from YouTube to Brightcove as their primary video host, but they continue to post their videos to YouTube as well. Eric Williams hosts the video series CapeCast, and has seen some decent success on YouTube. His most-watched video on the CCT YouTube channel is a profile on a maker of giant swords that is at 1.8 million views.

Williams told me in an email that they use YouTube because the platform “gives video a longer shelf life and youtube videos show up better in search results.” The Cape Cod Times does have an audience of summer residents and vacationers that fall outside the paper’s geographic print distribution, but they are still consumers of the daily news product who may not find an interesting video that they didn’t see on the day it was published. YouTube allows you to reach an audience actively looking to consume video content, no matter the publication date.

We’ve had a similar experience at The Day. Our YouTube champ is a video of police testing the decibel level of a teen’s dirt bike after neighbors complained. We had maybe a few thousand views on our site when it was published, but the YouTube version continues to get 10,000-20,000 views a week for a total of 1.1 million so far.

It’s not a particularly interesting video, but it appeals to a passionate niche audience (dirt bike riders) and presents a controversial issue that 1,600 people have commented on so far. This reach has been completely organic and has occurred long after the story was initially published on theday.com.

We encountered a similar situation with a video tour of a funeral home that we published back in 2008. Again, it had a few thousand views on our site, but has over 1 million on YouTube. This is a case of showing the audience something they can’t see anywhere else. Interest on YouTube built slowly several years after publication, mostly through shares and related videos.

One other viral success story I’ll share from The Day happened back in 2010, and was the result of some intentional changes in my workflow. I was covering the UConn women’s basketball team on the night they would surpass the UCLA men for the longest winning streak in college basketball. I was one of many media outlets at the post-game press conference when coach Geno Auriemma took a phone call from President Obama at the podium. I published the video immediately to YouTube and shared the link on Facebook and Twitter. Because I was the first one to publish this, it was embedded on several news sites, including Yahoo Sports. The video was watched 500,000 times, with 450,000 of the views coming in the two days following the game.

I’ve heard the argument that posting to YouTube steals audience from your own site, but I haven’t found that to be the case. While there may be some overlap, the YouTube audience includes many more people who will never find their way to your site. To counter any concerns, we usually wait at east a few days to send a video to YouTube. YouTube’s partner program give you the opportunity to earn revenue, though it’s considerably less than you could earn on ads served through your own video player. We’ve found YouTube revenue to be around $1-2 per 1,000 views.

So what are the lessons here?

  • You’re not always going to find a turkey on a rampage, but having an animal in your video never hurts. Or more broadly, as Williams put it, “find cool stuff and people and have a sense of adventure and goofiness and fun.”
  • Passionate niche audiences (dirt bike fans, guys who like big swords) will watch, share and comment.
  • Letting people see something they can’t always see (inside a funeral home, big swords) will get their attention.
  • Politics will always stir up controversy (Obama) even if you think the video has nothing to do with politics (see the comments on the dirt bike video).

Both Seals and Williams stressed sharing videos via social media. Seals said he has been experimenting with breaking longer video projects into 15 second versions for Instagram. When you look at what millions of people will watch, it can be a little depressing. Seals expressed disappointment that “things that matter, and things that move people…never get as many clicks.” Williams suggested not spending lots of hours producing something that few people will watch. As journalists, I think we want to work on stories that we think are important, but it is also important to cater to your audience sometimes, and give them something that will capture their attention. In the long term, I hope this will pay off in more eyeballs on the serious, more crafted projects.

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Kayaking to see the seals – and trying to shoot video at the same time

It was already a week past the first day of spring, but it didn’t feel like it at nine in the morning on Esker Point Beach in Groton. The grass and sand were covered with a fresh layer of snow, and the parking lot was so slick with ice that I almost fell getting out of the car. The kayaks being unloaded from the car next to me seemed just a bit out of place.

I’ve always been a fair weather paddler. A few summer camp canoe trips in the wind and rain, but I’d never been out on the water when the air was below freezing. I remember one spring regatta on my college sailing team when it snowed, but it’s a lot easier to stay dry sailing a dinghy near shore than it is sitting in a kayak in open water. Fishers Island sound is not exactly the middle of the ocean, but the wind can whip up some chop out there.

I was on the beach at the behest of my colleague Steve Fagin, who writes an outdoors blog for The Day. We had collaborated in the past on a few videos, including one about making maple syrup, and he took me out in his tandem kayak when I was filming the migrating swallows on the Connecticut River. This time he wanted to take me to see the seals who spend the winter in the waters around Fishers Island. After several attempts when the weather or the tide or our schedules would not cooperate, we finally settled on a day when everyone could make it, the weather was beautiful, and the tide was low in the late morning. For four of us, it was going to be a fun excursion. For me, it was also going to be a day of work, trying to put together a coherent video despite several challenges:

Challenge #1: Staying warm. I realized when I arrived that my sailing spray suit was not the best choice, as some of out fellow paddlers donned drysuits and thick neoprene gloves. I wore sailing gloves with neoprene backs and leather palms. My hands were wet almost the minute we hit the water, and shortly after that my fingers were numb. Steve let me borrow a pair of expedition weight mittens when we got to Fishers Island. They weren’t waterproof, but they kept my hand far warmer than the other gloves. Also, I was wearing medium weight wool socks and Chuck Taylors, while everyone else wore neoprene booties. My feet were numb by the time we arrived back on shore. If there is a next time, I’m not going out without a drysuit or at least a wetsuit.

Challenge #2: Shooting and paddling. I was in the front of the tandem with Steve, so I didn’t technically have to paddle at all, but I would have felt bad if I had been a useless weight in the bow of the boat for the entire trip. So I alternated between shooting and paddling. When I went back to edit, I saw times where I wished I had shot a little more.

Challenge #3: Keeping camera gear dry. What I really needed was a waterproof housing, or at least a splash bag. This would have allowed me to shoot with a professional camera. Since we don’t have anything like that, and I wasn’t going to risk killing $5,000 of electronics, my options were limited. I packed an old Canon HV20 in a dry bag that I kept under my spray skirt. I only pulled this out when we saw the seals. The rest of the footage is shot with a pair of GoPros. I clamped one onto the shaft of my paddle, and hung the other around my neck on a lanyard. These would give me the waterproof protection, but the lenses are too wide to capture a seal unless its swimming alongside the boat.

Challenge #4: Finding the seals. We went to a rocky beach on Fishers Island where Steve thought he had seen the seals before. We didn’t see any. After hiking around for a few minutes, we got back in the boats and paddled west, where we finally encountered about a dozen seals.

Challenge #5: Steady video from a kayak. The waves were not very big, but shooting handheld with a small lightweight camera and zooming in on a distant object is hard enough on dry land. Add in a little pitching and rolling and it can be impossible to even keep the subject in the frame. I did my best to hold steady, and picked the few usable shots for the above video. Sorry if it makes anyone seasick.

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