October 21, 2009

What I learned about multimedia by producing multimedia

A lot has changed in the past 6 months... actually, the past year and a half. I finished up grad school at Syracuse University, returned to the Free Lance-Star, and over the summer moved to Athens, Ohio to start a job as Assistant Professor at the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University. We picked up everything and trucked our way out here, bought our first home, and started again. Not going to lie... there's been anxiety along the way. I really enjoy working for newspapers and really believe in what they do, but even more in what they are capable of doing.

Since leaving, I've thought about what I've learned in the past year about multimedia, both in newsroom/workplace and in general. Here are 10 out of the many.

1. It takes Time, Time, Time...

There's no way around it. It takes time. Time to learn multimedia. Time to plan multimedia. Time to talk multimedia. Time to collaborate on multimedia. Time to do multimedia. And even more time to do it right.

And there's that question of whether or not the time is worth it in the newsroom.

Right now, most of that worth is tracked in views, or hits. (Sometimes in other ways as well, such as response, quality, awards, etc.) More often than not, multimedia does not drive a lot of traffic. What is difficult in this sense is that, in the print product, there is no way to track if one story is read more or less on the page than another story. On a website, there is. It can be seen if crime stories are read more than budget stories, if videos of sports get more hits than feature videos. Some of this can be put on the quality, some on how it is played or where it can be found, some on whether or not viewers are willing to take their time to watch it.

So do I think it is worth the time anyway? You bet. We're storytellers. We're journalists. We don't choose to write stories or take photos because more people will read or look at that one (well, in the ideal we don't).

Multimedia, to me, is about taking the tools available in front of you and using the best ones to communicate to readers, sometimes more effectively than in one way alone. So yes, I think it's worth the time.

And this time is money. If only more places would realize it is worth putting in the money to train people, or even better, pay them for the time they are putting into learning the new skills or reward them for broadening their skills, or not being afraid to let people specialize... and not asking all of this for a reduction in paycheck and fewer hours a week...

2. Can't do one video and assume it is going to be worth selling.

I'm a believer in quality in the quality vs. quantity debate (which as the debate continues, quality seems to be winning). But I also know that if I picked up my still camera one week a year to tell a story, I wouldn't have much luck in telling it at all. But that's how we think about doing audio and video. Sure, it is about quality, but in order to have the quality, you have to keep doing it, and more often than one video every six months (unless that video took you six months to work on).

In addition to that, I don't know about you all, but my first still photo wasn't one I think anyone would publish. Same goes for multimedia. The more you do it, the better it will get. But so many places are saying it isn't worth doing, or short projects aren't worth doing, in the first year or two that professionals are learning to do it.

3. While quality is definitely better than quantity, are you passing up good stories with that thought? Is it an excuse?

It is a fine line where the quality over quantity debate becomes an excuse. I've seen people get excited about working on an idea, even small ideas, until they hit a challenge, or it doesn't come out the way they thought. Then the quality debate comes out.

There's nothing wrong with doing a small, quick project. Quality isn't always long-term stories. If you want to be a photographer who thinks multimedia and does multimedia, it is a good idea to look at stories in front of you and think about whether or not there are possibilities in it. Doesn't mean every story will have it or that what you were thinking of as a possibility won't work out the way you thought. It also doesn't mean that daily assignments don't have potential either.

4. We can't expect everyone to do everything and to do it well.

The movement to have everyone able to do everything seems to be drying up, which in my opinion, is a good thing.

There's nothing wrong with being a still photographer. We should still be masters of the craft that we choose to pursue, whether still photography or other skills. That also doesn't mean that there is anything wrong with being a still photographer who understands multimedia, and even one who has the skills to do it when asked, or one who actually wants to do both.

To me, it should be more about embracing those who want to do multimedia. Nothing wrong with learning new skills when you want to... keeps you current and excited and better at what you do.

The investment needs to be put into their excitement to learn new tools to tell stories. Be willing to take the time to teach them to do it and get the equipment so they can do it.

On top of that, it's about bringing people in who have the job of doing multimedia. You want the content? Have people who have the job of producing it for you. Reporters and photographers and editors and designers and website producers each have their role, and sometimes those overlap and people are asked to cross over. Why not have the role of multimedia present as well?

There is a reason that more and more jobs out there are asking for the multimedia skillset.

5. Push boundaries / take risks. There are very few steadfast "rules".

This beast of multimedia is changing and developing fast.

People are doing new projects every week, the content is getting better and better, as is the communication value. Look at the multimedia that was being done four years ago vs. today. Not getting into one being better or worse than the other, but look at how much it as grown and changed.

Embrace that. There is no rut to get stuck in. Ethics and honesty are among those rules that need to be kept in the journalistic world, and well they should be. But the development of the narrative in a video has so many different approaches to it, as does taking any still photograph or writing any story or designing any page. The way content is put together in an online multimedia package... well... the sky's the limit.

Try something new, and be ok with it failing.

6. Collaborate and don't be afraid to talk shop.

Share the work of others with others. When you have an idea for something, talk to peers about it. I'm not a fan of talking about the job outside of the job, but to me, that's different than talking about work outside of the job.

Let's talk about what we're working on, and talk to others we want to get involved in the process or project. Collaborate with those who have the skills. You don't have to be a one-man-show to produce great multimedia work, and you don't have to have all of the skills to do it either, if you're willing to talk to the people who do.

7. It's not your role to make the money, and it shouldn't be, but it is a reality that the content can help others to do so.

We have to be careful not to get caught in the trap of only doing multimedia that is sellable to advertisers, just as newspapers shouldn't shy away from stories for the same reason (which goes back to not only doing stories that will get hits). Journalism can't be about that, and never should.

But that doesn't mean that when a big package is coming, or a new way of presenting the content is going to be released, that we shouldn't let the people in other departments know about it either. That's just helping others plan and do their job, and don't be afraid of continuing to do yours regardless of what happens there.

8. What media is the best story-telling platform?

Whether it is the written story, photos, slideshows, audio slideshows, videos, interactive graphics, databases, or other, you can use these tools to communicate more effectively the story you are telling. Have fun with the ideas! Get excited about using these tools, and working with others who have the skills to do them, to tell people a great story.

9. Don't try to do both at the same time, but at the same function.

My best tip to someone needing to do two or three things at the "same time" is to not think about doing them at the same time.

If it is a photographer, when you are shooting stills, shoot stills. When you are shooting video, shoot video. When you are gathering audio, gather audio. Once you make the decision to put one piece of equipment down and pick the other up, be ok with that decision. Do you smack your hand on your forehead when you miss a moment with your still camera when there is no audio recorder with you? Sure. That doesn't go away when you have both. But be focused on what you are doing when you are doing it, and you will have more success.

Instead of learning how to do it all at the "same time", you need to learn how to make the best decision about what moments you choose to gather what. Then you know you are using the best tool when you choose to pick it up, and be ok with the tools that are hanging over your shoulder. They'll get their turn.

Along with that, spread the love if you have the staff and support to do it (easier said than done these days, I know). Why have one person do it all when you can have two people work together?

10. Play. Play with the equipment, play with the software, play with the creative process.

Look at multimedia projects. What do you like about that one in particular?
Take the video camera home with you. How would I tell a story about painting my living room?
Take that video into Final Cut. How can I cut it together?
Before you started in the first place, sketch out a storyboard. Before you cut it in Final Cut (or whatever software), sketch out another one. Write your story in one sentence... what's it all about?

The more you play with the whole process, with different gear, with new plugins, with how you approach editing a piece, with how you look at the great work being done by others, the more ideas you will have, the more skilled you will be, the better storyteller you will become.