It’s getting harder than ever to keep our viewers’ attention.
That’s what we keep hearing, and that’s why, we are told, we must adapt.
If attention spans are shrinking and devotion to broadcast news is dwindling, local news journalists must expand how we connect with others. I, for example, have talked a lot about the potential of social media to enable our work to reach unforeseen audiences. Maybe we all need to educate ourselves on new platforms and media in addition to our product on-air.
But we cannot forget about that product.
If anything, we need to step it up.
The best stories I saw last year demanded my attention, and I watched zero of them on television. I watched all of them online, via links and recommendations from colleagues and friends. I arrived upon them organically and, when I clicked on the videos, found myself instantly engrossed.
A few weeks ago, the NPPA announced its Best of Photojournalism winners for last year, and I became engrossed again. I have, in several years past, authored blog posts about lessons learned from the competition’s champs, and I feel compelled to do so once more, thanks to some tremendous storytelling from some of the nation’s most talented journalists:
THE STORY: Last Week in April, by Jed Gamber & the WBFF-TV photography staff
LESSON #1: Never get in the way of others’ emotions.
LESSON #2: Think big, and commit bigger.
I cannot speak enough about the value of this story.
Last year in Baltimore, a 25-year-old man named Freddie Gray was found dead while in police custody, and the news brought an explosion of emotion and hostility across the city. It led to riots, a curfew, and, ultimately, criminal charges filed against six Baltimore P.D. officers. The week following Gray’s death will go down as one of the most volatile and perhaps pivotal in the city’s history.
The photography staff at WBFF-TV produced a compilation worthy of that history.
This is an eight-minute epic that serves as a perfect time capsule for what took place that week. Chief photographer (and recent podcast guest) Jed Gamber edited the most passionate and powerful moments into a truly beautiful work of journalism. I watched it when it first aired, and when I gave it a second click this week, I remained riveted even as I knew what was coming. This is the kind of thing that should be played in history classes 20 years from now; it will put anyone who watches it right back in that moment.
I took away two lessons here. First, I appreciated how Gamber chose not to ask a reporter to track the piece. He used a simple and effective narrative device, shooting tight shots of someone writing a word (“ARREST’, “RIOT”) on a calendar to introduce each day. Then he let the video and audio lead the way. This is a story where a journalist must allow the voices of the people to be heard; it is about showcasing emotions and exposing the ugliness, consequences, and results. Credit Gamber for respecting that and, as a result, producing a piece with many layers.
Second, I applaud the team at WBFF for seeking a big way to commemorate such a historic week. This type of piece demands extraordinary commitment and execution, particularly from a staff that was surely drained and depleted after such a brutal series of events. They succeeded tremendously and served viewers both present and future with a monumental report.
Last Week in AprilThe JUDGES CHOICE AWARD went to ‘Last Week In April’ by Luke Rollins, Ben Worsley, Bryan Barr, Brian Johnson, Ruth Morton, Patrck Boquard, Rob Parks, Allen Cork, Josh Miller, and Jed Gamber from WBFF. This also placed 1st in PHOTO ESSAY EDIT, a Jed Gamber edit.
Posted by Best of Video Photojournalism Contest on Monday, April 4, 2016
THE STORY: Auto Hacking, by Evan Stulberger (WNBC-TV, New York)
THE LESSON: Investigate with innovation.
Investigative stories are special in so many ways. Reporters receive extra time to pursue them; photographers receive extra time to edit them; and crews often take unique storytelling measures to produce them. As such, they require a final product that exemplifies that effort. Below is one example of how to get there. Evan Stulberger, a photographer at New York’s NBC affiliate, soups up a story about auto hacking with a variety of tech sounds, wipes, and effects. In the wrong hands, or on a different type of story, such effects could prove corny and unnecessary. In this case, they enhance an already potent piece about the ability for hackers to infiltrate people’s cars. Investigative teams — and general assignment crews on investigative stories — should be encouraged to think of innovative ways to tell stories that often struggle visually.
THE STORY: High Speed Hello, by Steve Rhodes (WTHR-TV, Indianapolis)
LESSON #1: Ignore the perceived limitations.
LESSON #2: Find the soul of your story.
Oh, to be able to edit like Steve Rhodes … except Rhodes goes so far beyond editing. The Indianapolis photographer does the basics and builds upon them, but he also works wizardry with time lapses, text graphics, and just about every special effect available. In doing so, Rhodes consistently produces work that is singular in its execution and thought process. Yes, he probably receives ample time to put together stories, such as this one about people who collect vanity license plates. But he delivers exponentially on that time, using it in this case to digitally place letters on license plates and saturate specific clips with various color effects. I have never met Rhodes, but I can guarantee he ignores whatever rules most people think they should follow. Perhaps more accurately, Rhodes likely knows all the rules — and knows when to break them.
That’s the first lesson I took from this story. The second is far more fundamental.
All of the effects in the world cannot elevate a story where the team reporting it doesn’t recognize its soul. In this case, Rhodes and his reporter clearly understand and adore their subjects, and they produce a loving tribute that in other hands could have never sustained five minutes of airtime.
This one is an absolute joy … as are all of the winners. I offer them my thanks for continuing to elevate the field.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.