5 lessons from the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism 2016 video winners

Every year I watch the video winners of the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism awards.

Every year I go back to the same thought:

The building blocks of storytelling are absolutely important to a great piece of journalism, but they require the foundation of a story worth telling.

If we cannot get in the door with meaningful material, we cannot expect viewers to appreciate the various techniques on which we pride ourselves. Last year I profiled several BOP winners on this site and drew lessons from them. In my introduction, I wrote: “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.”

Ditto for 2016. In general, the stories that won BOP awards — and stood out in public as well — were triumphs of content over technique.

Here are five first-place winners and the lessons I took from them:

THE STORY: Trail to the Next High, by Chris Hansen (KUSA-TV, Denver)
LESSON: It’s all about the content.

When judging awards and watching award-winners, I always take special interest in the “General News” category. I always expect the highest-placing stories to be phenomenal displays of photojournalism; how else, I presume, could they reach the top of the competition’s most prolific category?

Rarely is that actually the case.

Yes, the winners are often exquisitely shot and edited, but they shine because of the subject.

Here is a perfect example of how that looks.

Chris Hansen of KUSA-TV is an extraordinary photographer, and in “Trail to the Next High”, he delivers a sprinkling of shots that thrive on visual flair. Mostly, though, he shines because his principal video in this story engenders one thought:

“I can’t believe he got that on camera.”

Hansen works with reporter Ryan Haarer on a story about heroin use in plain sight at a local trail. Such a story can be difficult to convincingly tell without proof, but Hansen gets it, over and over. He grabs numerous shots of people getting high in clear view of his camera; they even look Hansen’s way and then turn back to continue. Hansen holds these moments and lets them breathe, and in the process he presents a stunning story.

THE STORY: Car Wash Politics, by Ted Land (KING-TV, Seattle)
THE LESSON: When given a straightforward story, GO BIG.

As a solo video journalist, I always look forward to seeing the winners in our categories. This year saw some incredible work, especially from newly crowned SVJ of the Year (and one-time podcast guest) Anne Herbst.

This particular winner, from KING-TV’s Ted Land, caught my eye for its effort.

Land tells a pretty standard feature story, profiling a local car wash offering patrons a chance to choose lanes based on Presidential candidates. But he refuses to present the story in a standard way, shuffling quick edits like cards and shooting a nifty stand-up from the driver’s seat. He combines it with a great script — not surprising from a former National Murrow winner for writing — to produce a memorable package.

THE STORY: The Awakening, by Steve Rhodes (WTHR-TV, Indianapolis)
LESSON: Find the soul of your story.

I have already showered praise upon this story from WTHR-TV’s Steve Rhodes. I put it in the #2 spot for audio/video in my Best of 2016 column back in December.

I will leave here what I wrote then, adding that Rhodes uses his usual array of absurdly creative shots and edits, but he always does so in service of the story:

Reporter Kevin Rader and photographer Steve Rhodes always craft powerful, joyous stories for WTHR-TV’s “Only in Indiana” segment. In this case, they turn their gaze to a young boy named Elias, blind and deaf since birth, and his “awakening” with a musical instrument. To say much more would mean spoiling a truly beautiful piece.

THE STORY: Fragments of a Life: A Curbside Mystery, by Deborah Acosta (New York Times)
LESSON: Be willing to break “the rules”.

Perhaps the most memorable story in this year’s batch of winners involved the least amount of photographic technique.

In fact, it is largely told through a series of Facebook Live videos shot on the reporter’s iPhone.

Again, it all comes back to content. In this case, Deborah Acosta tells such an engaging story that it breezes by despite its ten-minute length. She finds a set of discarded slides by a New York City trash can, and she puts herself in charge of finding the story behind them.

Acosta winds up discovering the background and delivering it in a straightforward, break-all-the-rules kind of way. She produces a piece that, in its scope and heart, feels like a Steve Hartman piece with its “Everybody Has a Story” mentality. I loved it.

THE STORY: Six Hours in Dallas, by Brandon Mowry (WFAA-TV, Dallas)
LESSON: When in doubt, JUST ROLL.

After watching this piece multiple times, I remain dumbfounded about what to say about it.

I can only say this: I cannot imagine anyone telling this story any better.

Brandon Mowry of WFAA-TV wound up in the middle of the scene during last year’s shooting of police officers in Dallas. He kept shooting when he felt appropriate, and more importantly, he kept rolling regardless.

Mowry weaves so much of the latter footage into this piece, filling it with running shots that perfectly capture the chaos of the situation. He also organizes the story in such a way that allows emotions and themes to overflow from the video.

It is a marvelous piece of work. Again, I really don’t have much to say other than, “Just watch.”

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners. Thank you for the inspiration, and thank you for keeping the bar so high.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

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