5 lessons from the NPPA’S best video stories of 2012

Last week was a national celebration of storytelling … and you may have missed it.

The National Press Photographers Association, or NPPA, announced the winners in its annual Best of Photojournalism video and editing competitions. This year’s judges selected breathtaking stories from some of the finest video journalists in the country. Most of the winning pieces are timeless; you could watch them two months from now or two years from now and be just as moved as if you watched them today.

Watching the winners this week, I felt one thing above all: I wish I had done better.

I don’t mean “better” in the sense of winning or losing. I have fared very well in past NPPA competitions, finishing in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place in the past three years in their standings for solo video journalists, or reporters who shoot their own stories. Since I joined in 2010, I have picked up an outstanding amount of photojournalistic techniques, gotten to know some talented colleagues, and found myself inspired by those colleagues’ stories.

No, what I mean is more insular: I wish I had done better work this past year.

I take great pride in the work I produced in 2012, but as I watched this year’s NPPA winners, I could not help but think about how much further I can grow as a photojournalist.

I should mention that I do not always prioritize the NPPA way in my daily work. As a solo video journalist, I must focus on every part of the reporting process: interviewing, researching, writing, shooting video, and editing. The NPPA tends to reward, I find, a certain style of story: one that emphasizes shooting and editing first while still valuing the other elements. They typically exalt the more stylistic, emotional stories above the investigative, information-heavy ones. This, of course, makes sense: the NPPA, after all, is an association of visual journalists, and they should not feel compelled to give out awards for writing and researching. But the NPPA philosophy does not always mesh with a newsroom’s philosophy or a particular day’s assignment.

That disclaimer aside, I greatly value the association for what it does so well: provide visual journalists a resource to continually improve their visual skills.

Here are five of my favorite 1st-place winners from this year’s Best of Photojournalism competition — and the five lessons I took from them:

THE STORY: “Irish Dancers”, by Peter Rosen (KSL-TV, Salt Lake City)
THE LESSON: Take time BEFORE you start shooting to brainstorm storytelling.

What a brilliant first 30 seconds! Peter Rosen makes me care more than I ever imagined about a pair of Irish dancers, and he does it by introducing the story in ways that require pre-production thought. By setting their interview in front of a pitch-black backdrop, he automatically infuses the story with stylistic flair. By simply showing the pair dancing in downtown Salt Lake City, he made me smile and think, “Wow, that’s awesome,” at the same time. I cannot say whether Rosen thought of those ideas before he started shooting this story, but I see no reason why one could not have done so. This story makes me realize how much more creatively I could produce my own work if I took 15 minutes beforehand to simply think it through.

THE STORY: “Never Ending Fight”, by Nick Moron (WAVY-TV, Norfolk, Va.)
THE LESSON: Wow ’em right off the bat.

I could spend ten paragraphs raving about this story; it may be my favorite of all the winners. Nick Moron gets just about everything right here: crisp, popping audio; great character development; tight editing. But what really stands out, much like the story on the Irish dancers, is how quickly he roped me into the story. All it took was some hyper-fast editing, and he hooked me. He spent the next three minutes reeling me in with a powerful story that did not necessarily present itself with great visual opportunities. A lesser photojournalist could have told this story in far more generic fashion; you would have forgotten about it an hour later. You won’t forget about this one for a while.

THE STORY: “The Life Cycle of a PBJ”, by Douglas Burgess (KING-TV, Seattle)
THE LESSON: Let stories unfold, and earn your moments.

I actually thought this story could have been about a minute shorter, but I loved its structure. Its finest moments come in the middle, when you hear the voices of the homeless over the video of their portraits, and at the end, with that final rewarding montage that ties all of its elements together. Burgess and reporter John Sharify take their time and develop characters thoroughly; by doing that, they provide context for the wonderful moments mentioned above. They allow those moments to resonate far beyond their nearly six-minute story.

THE STORY: “Happy Birthday P.D.”, by Rob Collett (KTUL-TV, Tulsa)
THE LESSON: Let the big moments breathe.

So many of my favorite NPPA stories display super-fast editing. Sometimes that is the right recipe; other times, stories leave their mark through long, breathable moments. I could tell early on where Rob Collett’s piece was headed, but I still found myself captivated by all the heart-breaking moments at the cemetery.

THE STORY: “Saving Grace”, by Jonathan Malat (KARE-TV, Minneapolis)
THE LESSON: Find a way to be inspired.

I can’t think of one thing that stands out to me about this story.

Simply put, everything stands out.

Few in my profession would argue that reporter Boyd Huppert and photographer Jonathan Malat are as good as it gets in terms of long-form, human-interest storytelling. I regularly find myself blown away by their work, and I could not stop smiling over this one. This is beginning-to-end perfect: a touching story that takes its time but does not waste a moment.

It is the kind of story that makes me want to be a better journalist.

I could probably list five lessons I learned from this story alone, but above all I was reminded of the importance of continually finding stories — and storytellers — who inspire you. I have no doubt I will improve because, when I watch pieces like this, I can see the possible results of said improvement.

Congrats to all the winners; thank you for the inspiration, yes, but mostly for your beautiful work.

Matt Pearl is the author of the “Telling the Story” blog. You can reach him via e-mail at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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