An Optimistic Plunge Into Multimedia Reporting
‘One columnist took on a controversial local issue and covered it in a way we'd never done before.’
Hanging with journalists isn't a lot of fun these days. There's a lot of sobering talk about what journalism's future will be, or even if there will be one. Those who are resigned to a hopeless fate come in two categories: Some only hang tightly onto the ship, hoping it doesn't sink before they retire, while others vow to stubbornly, and self-righteously, go down with their flags flying high. Among those with some modicum of hope, many are waiting for someone to come up with the "Answer" or are paralyzed by fear and leave any risk-taking to others.
Then there are the cockeyed optimists. This is the flag to which those of us at the Ventura County Star happily swear allegiance. Not only do we see a bright future for journalism, but also we find the present to be a dynamic period of boundless opportunities. And the source of our optimism is our plunge into multimedia journalism. This is no toe-dipping experiment, but a full-fledged cannonball into the deep end of the pool.
With help from Jane Ellen Stevens, a multimedia lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, in early 2006 we made a commitment to give multimedia training to all in the newsroom who wanted it. They learned how to do stories in print, online text, with video and audio, as well as slide shows, sometimes packaged in Flash, and often interactive with the readers. In a relatively short time, each learned how to produce such presentations.
What did we expect to gain from all of this? We weren't quite sure, but we knew a few things, and they were enough to convince us to take the plunge. Our newspaper audience was fragmented and growing more so every day. We realized the Internet had disrupted our business and showed no signs of letting up. We also knew that despite fragmentation and disruption, a strong demand exists for credible and reliable information. What had changed, however, is that people now expect and want a choice in how they get to this information; we wanted to give our readers those options.
The training program Stevens developed, although streamlined and condensed, requires a considerable commitment of time. Because of this, as well as limitations with equipment and the ever-present demands of producing a daily newspaper, it became apparent that we could not train everyone at once. So we broke the training down into six-week segments, training teams consisting of reporters and editors that were supplied with multimedia equipment, including video cameras, laptops and, perhaps most important, Flash software.
During this training time, their marching orders were clear: Learn to be multimedia journalists. Learn how to tell stories through a variety of media that allow our readers to get the information they want in the way they want it. Though it sounds simple—and many technical aspects of it proved to be quite easy to learn and perform—we found that the implications of these changes are profound and revealing.
A significant indicator of our commitment—and a real key to the success of our training—was that we freed participants from their daily duties. As the editor, my highest hurdle was in taking eight productive journalists out of the daily newsroom mix for this period of time. I worried that a huge gap would be left in our daily coverage and an extra burden would be put on the rest of the staff. But I leapt this hurdle because I believed that a little short-term pain was a small price to pay for a possible long-term gain. Among the many pleasant surprises we encountered was the willingness of staff members to step up and fill in these gaps. They did so willingly because they realized that when they took their turns for training others would cover for them. A new sense of teamwork blossomed in the newsroom.
Through serendipity, we turned out to be extremely fortunate in our choice of the first eight trainees. Twenty-three people volunteered for the initial training session, and though I realized the selections were critical, the criteria I initially used were primarily based on minimizing the pain in any one department. I decided to try to spread the pain around. Later on in the process I figured out that the most important factor to consider was compatibility. But luck was on my side, and the initial group of trainees was compatible and supportive of one another. They also became enthusiastic ambassadors for the training to the rest of the newsroom and effective advocates to those who feared the learning curve was too steep.
Stevens' program began with three days of intensive training. Before the training started, each two-member team was asked to come up with a multimedia story idea. That idea would serve as the basis for this initial training. The goal: In just three days' time each team would produce a project. The idea was that in doing this they'd figure out that the transition to doing this multimedia work would be easier than they might have expected it to be.
During five weeks, with Stevens' steady, guiding hand, teams churned out multimedia projects ranging from features to breaking news. One columnist took on a controversial local issue and covered it in a way we'd never done before. For many of our staff—and members of our community—this story marked a coming of age in our multimedia coverage.
This story involved a massive letter-writing campaign against the city of Camarillo's planned Fourth of July fireworks show next to an animal shelter. Those who organized the campaign claimed the fireworks traumatized the animals, and the show should be moved. Members of the local Lions Club, which sponsored the fireworks, and some city officials argued that the concerns were very much overblown and portrayed them as coming from overzealous animal rights activists. They also argued it was too late to change the location.
Columnist Colleen Cason saw an opportunity to break away from the standard "he said, she said" coverage. She decided—with the assistance of our Web site and multimedia tools—to let readers see for themselves the effect the fireworks had on the animals. She wrote her column for the newspaper, then she prepared a multimedia story using Flash technology that used audio and video to take readers inside the shelter before, during and after the fireworks show. In Cason's multimedia presentation, as the fireworks start, viewers can clearly see the effect they have on the animals. The online story concludes with a local veterinarian, who volunteered to help calm the animals, talking about working with two traumatized dogs.
Reaction to Cason's presentation was immediate. She was flooded with calls and e-mails thanking her for going inside the shelter and showing the impact of the fireworks on the animals. Supporters of the event were noticeably quiet. Perhaps the newness of the reporting caught them off-guard. We expected complaints about bias—charging that Cason chose to take video of only those animals that reacted to the fireworks. But all we received were more expressions of outrage and praise.
As quickly as we could, we began training a second group of eight journalists. As important as the first group was, this next one seemed even more critical to our mission. With them, the newspaper transitioned from an experiment in multimedia journalism to establishing the foundation of a full-fledged multimedia organization on which succeeding groups of trainees will build. And as we do, our newsroom's organizational structures will change, as will the ways in which we report the news. This is because multimedia journalism is not just about using new storytelling tools; when done right, it involves journalists thinking deeply about how to tell stories in different ways and also what new stories can—and should—be told.
One thing our reporters have learned in this process is that they need to vastly expand their sources. The welcome mat needs to be extended into our communities so new voices will be heard in our news coverage. To tell stories that are genuinely reflective of our communities and to cover issues at the core of the community's concern means transforming our "readers" into partners in the entire storytelling process. And finding ways to do this will be a lengthier, but equally important, part of our staff's transitional training.
Many approaches exist in reinventing what we, in newspapers, can do. I only hope there are enough cockeyed optimists willing to explore all of the possibilities. Claiming what is new and making it ours while refusing to leave behind the core values of tough, honest, courageous and fair reporting that sustain us now—and will, I hope, in the future—is an exciting yet daunting adventure. It's one our reporters and editors embarked on without an absolutely clear sense of where we were truly headed. I think now we know we are headed in the right direction, even if we don't know our final destination.
Joe Howry is editor of the Ventura (Calif.) County Star.