new york times

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 the Smokies, immigration, & Nina Simone

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.

Fire on the Mountain (2/24/17, WTVF-TV): If I wanted, I could probably devote my whole column to this one documentary.

“Fire on the Mountain” is a 30-minute special from the team at NewsChannel 5 in Nashville, widely regarded as one of the best storytelling stations in the country. It takes a look back at the wildfires that raged through the Smoky Mountains in late 2016.

The special consists of a series of moving, well-written, beautifully shot stories, largely from standout reporter Chris Conte. But I want to specifically highlight the final piece. Former podcast guest Jason Lamb reports about how the area has moved forward, and his sublime script is matched only by the photography of Mike Rose, Angie Dones, and (another former podcast guest) Catherine Steward.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring homelessness, Solange, and facts

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.

Under the Bridge: a virtual reality visit with homeless in Seattle (1/19/17, KING-TV): The first two stories I’m featuring this week are significant for breaking new ground in messy circumstances.

Let’s start with “Under the Bridge”, a 360-degree mini-doc produced by KING-TV’s Toby Rigby and Matt Mrozinski (himself a recent Telling the Story podcast guest). They work with photographer/activist Tim Durkan to explore a homeless camp in Seattle, and they devote five minutes to providing immersive looks and raw moments.

One cannot take on a new frontier without growing pains, and this production definitely presents a few from a storytelling standpoint. Watching it on my phone in a public place, I struggled at times to figure out where I was supposed to be looking. I often needed to take a few seconds during moments of dialogue to actually spot who was speaking.

But this is foremost an inspiring effort. Rigby and Mrozinski use the 360-degree space in innovative ways, from the opening titles to a sea of surrounding photographs towards the end. I applaud their dedication and perseverance here, and I look forward to seeing what they do next.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Russia, J-school, & the World Darts Championship

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.

Putin led a complex cyberattack scheme to aid Trump, report finds (1/6/17, New York Times): I often feel like we’re losing our appreciation for thorough, straightforward reporting that provides both the news of the day and the appropriate context.

Here is an example of how that can look.

Michael Shear and David Sanger put forth this front-page piece for the New York Times, giving the latest findings from US intelligence officials regarding Russian hacking efforts during the 2016 Presidential election. They provide a link to the public report, which itself is a worthy read. But they show, through their work, many of the hallmarks of a strong reporting foundation. They also present their findings in a digestible way.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2016, written edition

Every week, I will 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.

The tradition continues.

Every December, I look back at my “3 Great Stories” posts from the past year and decide on which stories, I feel, rose above the rest.

I often find I enjoy the stories the second time almost as much as the first.

I will post my three favorite audio/video stories of the year next week. This week, without further ado, I present my three favorite written pieces of 2016 — and an honorable mention — along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

HM) Brotherhood (3/23/16, Bleacher Report): Early on in “Brotherhood”, Howard Beck’s infinitely engrossing long-form story about the friendship between two basketball superstars, one of those stars makes a poignant statement.

“In our sport, or sports in general, everyone wants instant oatmeal,” says LeBron James. “Put it in the microwave, hit 30 seconds, you got a meal. Sometimes, no matter how great you are, it doesn’t happen like that.”

Now replace “sports” with “journalism”. In this era, many audiences — and news bosses — demand “instant oatmeal” from journalists, seeking and investing in clickbait and easy answers over more layered, complicated work.

Stories like this prove what one can get by waiting for a splendid meal.

Beck presents a fascinating portrait of two players — James and Carmelo Anthony — whose friendship and rivalry have provided a powerful undercurrent to the NBA’s past dozen years. This piece made headlines for a different “instant oatmeal” quote, where James muses how he would love to, one day, join forces with Anthony. But that quote comes at the end. The rest is a beautiful blend of smile-worthy memories, did-you-know-that stories, and revealing quotes from two of the league’s best.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring New York(er), New York (Times)

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.

Leslie Jones and Twitter’s troll economics (7/23/16, New Yorker): This article is the latest in a weekly James Surowiecki column called “The Week in Business”.

That title sounds beyond boring.

Surowiecki’s work is anything but.

He covers three topics in this column, the title one dealing with how Twitter polices its members. It’s a multi-layered discussion, especially for those of us who use Twitter on a regular basis. The crux of his column? This paragraph:

The fight underscored the peculiar nature of Twitter as a quasi-public space, and the challenges that this presents to the company as it tries to grow its stagnant user base. Twitter isn’t, after all, a coffee shop, and much of its appeal stems from its free-for-all nature. Tough speech codes run the risk of alienating users who relish the possibilities presented by the service’s relative lack of oversight. At the same time, many, perhaps even most, Twitter users have grown alienated by the disproportionate toxicity that a minority of users can spread, and in particular by the kind of pack harassment that is often directed at “controversial” figures, many of whom are visible minorities or women. (That’s largely why the site also produces a steady flow of articles about, or by, people who have quit Twitter.)

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the rise of journalism podcasts

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.

The man inside: four months as a prison guard (6/25/16, Reveal): A few weeks ago, I posted an entry on this blog that recommended three podcasts from which any journalist would benefit.

I already feel like I left that list incomplete.

The recent podcast boom has brought an extraordinary amount of new audio series from reputable journalistic sources, including (and perhaps particularly) the Reveal podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

After a friend recommended it to me, I pressed play on this episode, which profiles Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer as he goes undercover for four months as a private prison guard. (Bauer’s written piece for Mother Jones is also a riveting read.) I recommend listening to the episode uninterrupted, because once it begins, you will quickly be absorbed into the tremendous storytelling and horrifying statistics about the prevalence of private prisons in our country today.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2016 (so far), written edition

Every week, I will 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.

We are halfway through 2016, which means the continuation of an annual tradition: the “Best Of (so far)” editions of my 3 Great Stories segment.

I will post my three favorite audio/video stories of the year so far next week. This week, my three favorite written pieces from January through June, along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

Brotherhood (3/23/16, Bleacher Report): Early on in “Brotherhood”, Howard Beck’s infinitely engrossing long-form story about the friendship between two basketball superstars, one of those stars makes a poignant statement.

“In our sport, or sports in general, everyone wants instant oatmeal,” says LeBron James. “Put it in the microwave, hit 30 seconds, you got a meal. Sometimes, no matter how great you are, it doesn’t happen like that.”

Now replace “sports” with “journalism”. In this era, many audiences — and news bosses — demand “instant oatmeal” from journalists, seeking and investing in clickbait and easy answers over more layered, complicated work.

Stories like this prove what one can get by waiting for a splendid meal.

Beck presents a fascinating portrait of two players — James and Carmelo Anthony — whose friendship and rivalry have provided a powerful undercurrent to the NBA’s past dozen years. This piece made headlines for a different “instant oatmeal” quote, where James muses how he would love to, one day, join forces with Anthony. But that quote comes at the end. The rest is a beautiful blend of smile-worthy memories, did-you-know-that stories, and revealing quotes from two of the league’s best.

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3 GREAT STORIES: The all-New York Times edition

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.

It isn’t easy to figure out which foods contain sugar (5/21/16, New York Times): I found myself taken this week by the New York Times.

I think it’s easy to overlook the consistently strong and thorough reporting provided by the third-largest newspaper in the country. I do not consider myself a loyal Times reader, but I regularly find an article or two every week that increases my knowledge or shifts my perspective on a given subject.

This past week, I read three.

In this example, Margot Sanger-Katz of the Times’ Upshot series discusses the new FDA nutrition labels and their increased emphasis on “added sugar”. She breaks down the many sneaky and unhealthy ingredients that often find their way into seemingly nutritious products, and she even provides two lists of ingredients that, in her words, “really just mean added sugar”. This is a deceptively simple presentation, providing insights and takeaways in a compact package about a dietary issue that affects all of us.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Passover, paint & Shakespeare

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.

Meet a Southern Baptist matzoh expert (4/18/16, The Sporkful): This week marks the continuation of Passover, the eight-day Jewish holiday celebrating the exodus from Egypt.

Like many Jewish holidays, it is notable for its history as well as its food.

On a holiday where Jews are instructed to give up bread and other leavened products, the most fascinating food is matzoh, or unleavened bread. Very few podcasts would devote a whole episode to the cracker-like cuisine, but The Sporkful is one … and it does a great job.

Host Dan Pashman delves deep into matzoh with several enjoyable interviews, one of which features a Southern Baptist who once played a major role with the Manischewitz company. Like most episodes of The Sporkful, this one is inventive and enjoyable thanks to Pashman’s passion.

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