A Visual Telling of Immigrants' Stories
Reporters, photographers and videographers combined their skills to create a multimedia presentation with content unique to the online experience.
The "Crossing Borders" project was beset by postponements and obstacles as it made its way from reporter Steve Franklin's initial vision onto the pages of the Chicago Tribune. Less problematic was its multimedia presentation — including a 44-minute documentary, "Women Crossing Borders," and other visual and audio storytelling components — and this offers a good example of how well journalists from different disciplines can work together in creating compelling storytelling across several media platforms.
I wrote and produced "Women Crossing Borders," which was broadcast on CLTV, a 24-hour all-news Chicago station owned by the Tribune Company, in November 2005 [see author's note]. With its intensely personal focus, its stories about the plight of female immigrants who now live in the United States is among my favorites of the 10 documentaries I've produced for the Tribune Company since 2003. Some stories in the documentary echo what appeared in the newspaper; others are unique to the film.
By the time I heard about the Chicago Tribune project in the summer of 2005, Steve Franklin was already collecting audio on his reporting trips to Guatemala and Mexico. He'd taken a high-quality digital recorder with him on the suggestion of Mark Hinojosa, who supervises our multimedia department and was thinking about possibilities for this project to expand to the Web. Franklin had been skeptical about the use of multimedia in his reporting in part because he, like many of his colleagues, felt the extra equipment — and additional reporting obligation — would interfere with instead of enhance his storytelling ability. But after using the equipment, Franklin became an enthusiastic convert, and that is what led him to have discussions with me about a video component to this project.
The Tribune's multimedia group is small; I am the only senior producer, working with two videographers/video producers, an engineer, a senior news editor, and an associate managing editor, Mark Hinojosa. Being so small, we operate in a scaled-down fashion. When Franklin told us he was heading to the Arizona border to report, Hinojosa sent a bare-bones video crew — Bradley Piper, our senior video producer — with him and the Tribune's photographer, Heather Stone. (A translator, Maria Ochoa, accompanied them later on this trip.) Piper had spent two months in Iraq with his Tribune print colleagues at the start of the war so he had experience working with print reporters in the field, and he used those skills here. Aside from his work as a videographer and a segment/field producer, responsible for setting up and conducting interviews at times, he also works on occasion as a coach for print reporters on visual storytelling.
Because Franklin had not worked in the field with a videographer, Piper helped him to be aware of the differences involved between print and video interviews. "[Steve] would e-mail me to let me know what interviews he had set up," Piper said. "I'd let him know what video I would need to support the interview. And when he did the interviews, I had to remind him not to interrupt — that we needed to hear the responses. As the week went on, things worked better." When Steve had to cover a breaking news story, Piper and Stone worked on their own to get video and photographs of a Pima County [Arizona] coroner as he tried to identify the body of a female illegal immigrant who died near the border. Video and still photographers can be at odds with each other because of the different disciplines involved with their work, but Piper and Stone worked well together. As Piper recalls, "I tried to be aware of where she was, so I didn't get into her shots."
Once back in Chicago, we realized that what we'd shot could be our documentary's centerpiece. But to make the documentary work to accompany the print project, we'd need to involve four other Tribune reporters who were writing stories about women who had made the migrant's journey to Chicago. Those reporters helped us to set up on-camera interviews in a small multimedia studio in the Tribune Tower with women they'd profiled and, after that initial interview, I set up "location" shoots at their homes and in their communities and workplaces. (At times, Stone accompanied us on the shoots.)
In some cases, those interviewed for the Tribune's story refused to appear on camera: One woman who escaped the civil war in Sudan was concerned about the safety of her relatives still there; another woman was a victim of human trafficking who did not want to be identified. I replaced these stories with others about female immigrant students at Chicago's Senn High School, where there are more than 80 ethnic groups represented in the student body. Historic perspective emerged through the stories of Chicago's legendary reformer Jane Addams and her Hull House, which was home to many female immigrants during the turn of the 20th century.
Our last interviews were with the Tribune reporters who told of their involvement with this project. WGN Radio's news anchor, Andrea Darlas, narrated the documentary, which took about two weeks to edit. Originally, we'd hoped to coordinate the online, broadcast and print versions of this project so they would surface at the same time, but that did not happen. Our documentary aired a month earlier than when the newspaper and online versions of "Crossing Borders" appeared.
For all the success we experienced with the project's multimedia efforts, the same cannot be said of some of its other elements. "Crossing Borders" turned out to be the last full section of WomanNews ever published; soon after, the section was eliminated in a cost-cutting move by the Tribune. Some jobs were also eliminated around this time, including mine and Piper's. (We were soon rehired.) However, one of the WomanNews reporters who worked with us was laid off along with several colleagues just after this story was published. There were other disappointments about the project, as well. The online version, though well designed to feature the documentary, audio interviews, and first-person stories from Tribune reporters whose parents were immigrants (only available online), was never prominently displayed on the Chicago Tribune's Web site.
But despite these disappointments, the multimedia presentation points to a time ahead when print, online and broadcast journalists will combine their talent and ingenuity to create compelling presentations of stories across multiple platforms.
John Owens is senior producer of the Tribune's multimedia group.