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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:

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring voting, laughter yoga, & the Cubs

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

My first vote as an American (11/4/16, KUSA-TV): In a year that has been marked by election fatigue, we could all use a good reminder of the idealistic value of voting.

This piece provides that reminder in a powerful way.

Anastasiya Bolton is a reporter for KUSA-TV in Denver and a Russian native who voted in America for the first time in 2008 as a naturalized citizen. In this first-person opinion piece, Bolton speaks to viewers about why she treats the right to vote as a privilege. She speaks with passion and chokes up repeatedly during the two-minute monologue. Even if she perhaps tips her hand as to who she selected in the voting booth in ’08, she does so with the larger purpose of conveying the importance of the opportunity.

I admire Bolton for stepping out of her comfort zone and offering such an appeal. She presents straightforward honesty and emotion in a political season often criticized for lacking either.

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PODCAST EPISODE #43: Cheryl Preheim, morning anchor, KUSA-TV

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I may have said this a time or two in the past month:

The Olympics are an extraordinary assignment.

I have had the privilege of covering the event three times, most recently this August in Rio de Janeiro. I find the assignment tests me in a variety of ways, both professionally and personally, and provides both unique challenges and wonderful memories.

I have not been alone. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of journalists descend upon the Olympics every two years, and they are all tasked with providing a window for their readers and viewers that enables a greater connection to both the Games and their host city.

I saw few handle this as deftly as the team at KUSA-TV in Denver. The NBC affiliate (and TEGNA sister station) comes equipped with a team of journalists who consistently make the extra push to tell the best story for their audience.

One of those journalists, morning anchor Cheryl Preheim, is my guest on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast.

I got to know Preheim at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and worked with her again in Rio. In both cases I marveled at her abilities as a storyteller and her disposition as a person. Through a grueling 25 days, she always seemed to find the energy and optimism while putting together great work for her viewers.

Listen to this podcast, and you’ll get a window into what makes Preheim such a strong storyteller — and what makes the Olympics such a daunting yet rewarding assignment.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring barbers, David Ortiz, & moving forward

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Twin barbers keep Fillmore County groomed and giggling (5/1/16, KARE-TV): This story is a virtual clinic on how to put together a TV news feature.

Naturally, it comes from the reporter who does features better than anyone in the country.

Boyd Huppert of KARE-TV in the Twin Cities worked with photographer Chad Nelson on this, and together they produced an ultra-enjoyable story about two barbers who seem to love two things above all: cutting hair and laughing. I hesitate to say much more, because I would prefer for you to see for yourself.

But I will say this: any up-and-coming reporter should watch this story twice. The first time, sit back and enjoy it. The second time, pay attention to everything Huppert does to craft a beautiful piece: his thoughtful, open-hearted voicing; his ability to write in and out of sound bites; and his way of building a story to a resolution that brings it all together.

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PODCAST EPISODE #38: Chris Vanderveen, reporter, KUSA-TV

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Sometimes we forget the cold hard potential of what we can accomplish in journalism.

Chris Vanderveen is a good reminder.

(As evidenced from his photo above with the Most Interesting Man in the World, he also knows how to keep good company.)

After more than a decade as an award-winning general assignment reporter for KUSA-TV in Denver, Vanderveen applied for a job within his station to join the investigative team. He got it, and he has been throwing journalistic haymakers ever since.

Specifically, Vanderveen has produced stories and led movements that have changed laws.

He brings a storyteller’s sensibility to the often tough-to-digest world of investigative journalism. I-Team stories tend to come across as an overload of numbers and data, except when in the hands of a reporter who can give viewers a reason to care.

Vanderveen is my guest on this episode of the Telling the Story podcast.

He is also one of the many tremendous speakers at this year’s NPPA Southeast Storytelling Workshop, being held June 10th and 11th in Atlanta. I am organizing and co-hosting the conference with photojournalist (and one-time podcast guest) John Kirtley of WLOS-TV in Asheville. We welcome anyone looking to improve as a storyteller and receive inspiration from some of the best in the country. Vanderveen has the hardware to back up his credentials, including recently being named a finalist for NPPA Reporter of the Year.

Click here to learn more and register for the conference, Feel free to e-mail me with questions at the address below. In the meantime, enjoy this look into the power of investigative journalism, with great tips on how to do it right.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring kids and sweet moments

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Little League dedicates field to fallen Thornton soldier (4/18/15, KUSA-TV): The May sweeps period in local TV news has officially begun.

This means, as in previous ratings months, newsrooms nationwide are rolling out some of their juiciest, most heavily produced work.

But sometimes the best stories can be done in a day, and this week I saw three memorable pieces that only required a standard shift.

Here is one from KUSA-TV reporter Jessica Oh and photographer Andrew Christman. Given little to work with visually, they find a way through poignant writing and editing to elevate a relatively straightforward story.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring paint, police cars, & pics

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Young artist not stopped by disease sells $50K painting (10/23/14, KUSA-TV): An on-the-surface slam dunk of a story turns out, indeed, to be just that.

Reporter Kyle Dyer and photographer Andrew Christman of 9News in Denver spin a great yarn here. They tell the story of a young girl who suffers from brittle bone disease — as do her parents. She fights it with a beaming personality and a unexpected ability: painting. Fast forward to a charity event where the young girl, named Anicee, sells two of her canvases for $50,000 each.

It’s a feel-good story that feels better thanks to Dyer and Christman’s storytelling. They weave in some great surprises and genuine moments of joy, and they make it look pretty easy. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring India, SNL, & Soldierstone

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Fulfilling a promise, Jewish center in India reopens after terror attack (8/26/14, New York Times): Here is an example of what the New York Times often does so well.

Writer Gardiner Harris tells the story of a Jewish center in India that had been “attacked and gutted during a 2008 killing rampage by Pakistani gunmen”. A week ago, the center re-opened, with a group of Hasidic men from Brooklyn having flown to Mumbai to help dedicate it.

The facts of the story are interesting on their own. But Harris elevates them by surrounding them with context, a summary of Jewish history in India, and personal perspectives. Sometimes, as journalists, we complete a story and wonder if we have covered everything worth mentioning in our tiny allotted window.

This is a complete story, and Harris — with his editors, for giving him the space — deserves credit for a job thoroughly done. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring animals and David Letterman

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Being assigned a local TV news feature story about animals is like starting Monopoly with an extra $2,000 and three “Get Out of Jail Free” cards.

Basically, you’re a mile ahead in a three-mile race.

Animals — particularly when placed in an eccentric context — almost always provide the kind of necessary flair, both visually and aurally, for a light-hearted feature. Attend a morning pitch meeting at my station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, and watch as the mere mention of an animal-related story elicits swoons from half the crowd.

(It also typically brings out groans from the other half.)

But if animals provide great feature material, the storyteller must still finish the job and produce a compelling piece.

Here are two strong examples of that from last week — as well as a thoughtful farewell piece to a late night titan:

A sign of spring at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery (4/7/14, TWC Rochester): Unfortunately, only Time Warner Cable subscribers can actually watch this piece on its Rochester affiliate’s web site.

Thankfully, the story’s teller, multimedia journalist Seth Voorhees, liberated it onto YouTube, to which I have linked above.

Voorhees pens a piece about a local cemetery where, every spring, more than a dozen deer show up and, essentially, hang out. As most storytellers might do, he starts by discussing the cemetery and then, 30 seconds in, reveals the deer.

But pay attention to how Voorhees does this. Story-wise, he first introduces a character named Terri Wolfe; she is an older woman who regularly visits the cemetery. As a viewer, I have no idea how Terri fits into the story. Is it about her? A lost loved one of hers? Some feature of the cemetery? This misdirection makes the surprise of the deer more effective.

‘Candidates who really give a crap’ (4/6/14, KUSA-TV Denver): In this story, a couple of Telling The Story favorites take you on a four-minute visit to Animal Town. (more…)

A video journalism how-to guide, from KUSA-TV’s Michael Driver

Consider this a cheat sheet.

Last week’s podcast with KUSA-TV photojournalist Michael Driver was one of the most-downloaded Telling The Story podcasts to date.

But, as I noted then, Driver was almost too good a guest.

He offered so much advice in such a short period of time, and while we were recording the interview, I kept thinking I could better serve photojournalists — heck, better serve myself — by transcribing all of Driver’s terrific tidbits.

I always enjoy the discussion of journalism, and I have used this blog several times to focus specifically on photojournalism. Check out my spotlight on the best NPPA video stories from 2012 or my podcast with KDVR-TV photographer Anne Herbst. Great photojournalism is an art that often must be sustained and passed down by, not station managers or other journalists, but the artists themselves.

Here is a thorough collection of important advice from Driver, one of the top photojournalists in the country.

BEFORE YOU SHOOT:

Back-time your day: “You need to make sure you know how much time you’re going to have to do this stuff. Give yourself enough time to edit and do the story properly. You have to have a plan in place. If you go in like, ‘We’ll see what happens,’ you’re going to run out of time. We work in a business where deadlines are our enemy. You have to make sure you get everything you can in the quickest amount of time, and then give yourself enough time to work on it.”

Work with your reporter (if you have one): “We’re constantly communicating, constantly talking about what we’re going to do. Talk to your reporter. When you get out to a scene, you’re not going to know exactly what it is. It’s constantly talking about, ‘What elements do we need? What are the visuals we need to tell this story?'”

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