Newspaper video catches up

I spent some time recently exploring what television and newspaper Web sites are doing with video and came away convinced that newspapers are catching up to TV more quickly than folks on the TV side might have anticipated. Yes, a lot of the video on newspaper sites isn’t great. Some of it’s atrocious. But it’s getting better fast.

How much better? This fall, the Detroit Free Press won a national Emmy for the video portion of its “Band of Brothers” project about Marines returning from Iraq. The feature is one of several highlighted in the latest American Journalism Review, which looks at what newspapers have learned about online video.

Some people argue that Internet video, which is shown mainly in small boxes on small monitors, can get by with fewer pixels and a less polished appearance than TV visuals. Some think a less smooth quality actually looks more “real” online. “It’s overstatement to say the rougher the better,” says the Tampa Tribune’s Janet Coats, “but there is a certain veracity if you haven’t spent so much time making it refined.”

That may infuriate some photojournalists, but it makes a certain amount of sense.

It’s no secret to TV Web site managers that raw video can draw a huge audience. Case in point: WFAA-TV in Dallas posted tower cam video of a huge explosion and fire at a gas storage facility in July. Two months later, that silent, grainy footage was still one of the “most watched” videos on the site, because it’s the kind of “wow-did-you-see that” video that can easily go viral.

Newspapers are learning something else good TV photojournalists already know–the importance of sound. AJR talked to Nancy Andrews, photo director at the Free Press, a Gannett newspaper.

Andrews says she was a bit startled to learn that background noise–the hum of a refrigerator, the whistle of the wind, things writers and still shooters aren’t trained to notice–can wreck an otherwise good video. In fact, she has learned that although most people will accept less than perfect visual images, they want the sound to be superior. “People are listening to music through really high quality headphones now,” she says, “and they’re used to good sound.” Even if the visuals are poor, she says, good audio can often save the day.

Aside from video and audio quality issues, two things struck me about many of the newspaper videos I watched. While a lot of the individual shots were beautifully composed, there were few if any sequences, which meant the editing was clunky. And too many stories lacked the most basic structure of a beginning, middle and end. But it won’t be long before newspapers figure this out. Are TV stations paying attention? They’d better be.

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