Monday, February 28, 2011

Congratulations, Oakland Press!

In the grand scheme of things, The Oakland Press is just a small newspaper. We’re not a national publication and we don’t try to be. We’re not even a Detroit News or Detroit Free Press, and we aren’t trying to be that either. Our specialty is quality local coverage of Oakland County — that’s who we are, that’s what we do and that’s what we’re focused on.
So, when we found out we were being recognized on a national level by the well-respected Editor & Publisher magazine as one of “10 newspapers that do it right” it was a surprise — usually, it’s the big national publications that get such recognition.
The magazine honored us for our live election night coverage as well as our live coverage at the North American International Auto Show.
I’ll be expanding more on both events in later posts.
“The effort surpassed expectations and generated a buzz in the community surround the Press, which this year will be training its entire reporting staff in videography so they can livestream even more events,” states the Editor & Publisher article.
This reaffirms for me that it is an exciting time to be in journalism, and dare I say, even more exciting for those who work at a JRC property.
Our coverage of the election in November was truly groundbreaking for us. We owe a big thanks to the staff at CMNtv for helping us get it done and we’re looking forward to partnering with them again in the future!
 Watch a "Behind the scenes" video from our November 2010 Election Night Coverage

Friday, February 25, 2011

Live: From the scene of breaking news

It isn’t just video that The Oakland Press has jumped into during the past year, but live video coverage too.
After all, does it get more “Digital First” than that?
We’ve done live coverage for a variety of different things — elections, large events, press conferences, etc. My favorite use of live coverage is breaking news, though.
House fire on Feb. 23 in Pontiac
Opportunities for live video coverage of breaking news may be scarce — it is, after all, dependent on there being breaking news that’s local and lends itself to video.
Fires provide such an opportunity and twice in recent months we’ve been able to go live from the scene of an active fire.
On Wednesday, we were alerted to a fire in Pontiac by our Executive Assistant, Vicki Arsenault, who happened to drive past a five-unit apartment building in flames on her way back from lunch.

Sidenote: Way to go Vicki!
Check out this video shot by Vicki. Keep in mind that as our Executive Assistant, she takes care of payroll and all sorts of bookkeeping tasks for the newsroom. Creating content has never been a part of her job description, but that didn’t stop her from shooting video on Wednesday.
In fact, after seeing our little Flipcams in action, Vicki was inspired to get one of her own. Her 15-year anniversary at the company came around earlier this year and, from the catalog provided to employees to select an anniversary gift, she chose the RCA version of the Flipcam.
And on Wednesday, she shot breaking news with it. It’s some of the best footage we have of a working fire, I think. She happened to be driving by just as the firefighters were arriving on scene, capturing video of smoke billowing out of the building at an alarming pace while firefighters ran through the snow to get to the house.

After that ...
You can hear Vicki on the phone with the office during the video she shot. Her calls led us to send out livestream specialist Kyle Duda with cops reporter Dave Phillips. They were on the scene for quite a while shooting video. The video you see now is an edited version (shortened) featuring an interview from Battalion Chief Brad Riggs.
Read the full story and check out both videos, Fire damages Pontiac home

How we do it
It’s in these situations that for as fast as technology changes, it’s just not fast enough.
Kyle manages carrying both a laptop and our Sony camera in order to make livestreams like this possible.
“It’s not ideal,” Kyle says of juggling both pieces of equipment.
Could we use the iPhone and have more freedom? Sure. But fires get noisy — think, lots of sirens — and the audio (remember folks, good audio is the single most important thing about video) would not be very good with the iPhone.
By using the Sony camera with a laptop, we can have the reporter carry a microphone that’s connected to the camera. It makes all the difference in the world in terms of capturing good audio.
Our message to the world of technology makers? We want a smartphone that has an input for a microphone, and while you’re at it, put a little spot for a tripod on there too. It’d make our life — and especially Kyle’s — a whole lot easier.

Earlier this year
The thing with shooting breaking news is, you really can’t predict what you’re going to get.
Fire in White Lake Twp. in December
In December, our first foray into covering breaking news turned into one of the most riveting pieces of coverage I’ve ever seen (White Lake man loses home, dog in morning blaze). Most of us in the office were absolutely glued to the coverage, astonished at what we were seeing unfold live on our computers.
It was a call about multiple fires taking place in White Lake Township. Kyle, Reporter Carol Hopkins and Photographer Vaughn Gurganian went out to the scene. When they arrived, the fire turned out to be just one fire ravaging a mobile home.
Firefighters were still working to put the fire out. What happened next, though, was the heartbreaking part — suddenly, Carol is interviewing the man who owns the home. He recounts leaving his house for just a few minutes to run to the store and you can see the shock on his face as he looks back at the smoldering trailer. And then he tells the camera that his dog didn’t make it out of the fire.
You could hear staffers gasp across the newsroom. We were all sad for this man.
Almost 80 people tuned in to watch that coverage while it was happening. I feel pretty confident in saying that in terms of being moved by something, watching that unfold live was more moving than any after-the-fact article or video could have been.

Again with the audio
In my last post, I talked about the importance of audio while shooting video. The December fire provides a case-and-point.
For the first 10 minutes of the livestream, we had no audio. Viewers noticed and complained. We called Kyle and were able to let him know there was an issue, so luckily, we got it fixed and it all worked out. But take note — audio is important!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The importance of audio

What is the most important thing you can do as a videographer to ensure people watch your video, and watch it all the way through the end?
It’s not picture quality. It’s not composition. It’s not lighting or even having action shots or B-roll.
Nope — it’s all about the audio.
“In testing viewers, viewers will watch video longer if the audio is good even if the video is bad. But, if you have good video but poor audio, people will lose their patience much quicker,” said Joe Johnson of CMNtv, a cable access channel providing video production training for a number of Oakland Press staffers.
This is critical for everyone shooting video at JRC properties to know. It is the single most important thing you can get right while shooting a video.

For Flipcam users
For those using Flipcams, this has huge implications. You must be close enough to your interviewee for the camera to capture good audio — I recommend being no further away than three feet. Flipcams have no inputs for microphones, so you have no choice but to get close.
The good news is, you should be close anyhow because your goal is to get a close-up, head-and-shoulders shot.
If the person you’re filming is at a podium and using a microphone to amplify sound, you can probably get away with being a little farther back. But even then, use caution.
Additionally, we sometimes find ourselves filming in noisy places — boardrooms, protests, busy streets, etc. Don’t get lazy. Spend the time to explain to the person you want to interview that in order to hear them on camera, you need to move outside the noisy area.

For Sony camera users
Quite a few years ago, more advanced Sony cameras began making their way to our newsrooms. Not everyone uses one of these cameras, but for those who do, or those who want to learn, it’s important to know the ins and outs of the camera’s audio settings.
If you’re using a microphone, you need to have the setting switched to “Mic.”
This seems simple enough, but what about that setting called “Line”?
The “Line” setting is only to be used with a line feed. A line feed is a cable that connects to a sound mixer. The sound mixer amplifies the sound coming from the microphones — and that’s where it gets confusing.
You’re using a microphone, so you want the setting on “Mic,” right? Wrong — not if you’re also using a sound mixer. The “Mic” setting amplifies the sound within the camera. If you use that in conjunction with a sound mixer, which is also amplifying the sound, you get double-amplified audio — and what does that get you? Distortion.
From my point of view, having distorted audio is worse than having barely-audible audio. With something you can hardly hear, you just get frustrated and turn it off. Distorted audio, though, is like nails on a chalkboard. By the time you turn it off, your mad because your ears hurt from the awful noise.
And, if you’ve got quiet audio, you can at least try to amplify it during the editing process. Distorted audio, though, cannot be fixed.
The lesson? Make sure you get it right from the start, or you could lose the entire project.

How audio can be the single most important element of your video does make sense. Think about it — we may offer podcasts or slideshows with voiceovers or even just a plain audio recording of an interview along with our stories. With all those types of media, it’s the audio that keeps the viewer viewing or the listener listening.
Basically, there are more applications for audio than just video. The versatility of audio, the many different ways we can use it to present a story, should say something about the importance of audio to our news consumers. Which, of course, means the quality of audio should be important to us when producing videos.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Learn to be better videographers

OP Staffers Vicki Arsenault, Charlie Crumm and Allan Adler.
Considering that many of us had done little more than wave around a video camera at a family party prior to last year, we've come a long ways.

For nine of us working in the newsroom, we've taken an extra step to continue developing our skills. Reporters Charlie Crumm, Carol Hopkins, Ann Zaniewski, Dave Phillips, Shaun Byron and myself, Editors Allan Adler and Steve Frye as well as Online Coordinator Kyle Duda and Administrative Analyst Vicki Arsenault are taking a 10-week video production class at CMNtv, a local cable access channel.

CMNtv isn't your typical public access station. They're a consortium of communities that have chosen to fund one station, pooling their resources in order to create a very professional public access channel available in several Oakland County communities.

In November, staff from CMNtv transformed our newsroom into a remote broadcast station. They brought in all the equipment we needed to make our live election coverage be a high-quality production. (More on our election night coverage to come in later posts)

It became clear on election night that while we journalists can certainly jump in front of the camera and do a decent job, we were mostly clueless behind the scenes.

Operating a Flipcam is one thing. Operating a professional camera and all the equipment that goes along with it is another.

OP staffers Vicki Arsenault & Charlie Crumm
Newsroom leadership offered to those of us who had the desire to learn more about creating a broadcast production to enroll in one of CMNtv's 10-week courses. Based on the large number of us who chose to attend, I think it's safe to say there was a lot of interest among staffers.

In the future, I imagine this training will greatly benefit our relationship with CMNtv. We may never have the control room, studio and fancy equipment that CMNtv has, but we do have CMNtv. And once nine of us are trained in creating a broadcast, it gives us a lot of leeway in terms of partnering with CMNtv in the future.

As a public access channel, CMNtv does rely heavily on volunteers. But in terms of working with us, we'll have all the volunteers needed right in our office and ready to roll.

It's a partnership that I'd like to think will grow and grow much stronger — after all, we've got content to benefit them, they've got technology to benefit us and we can cross-promote both brands on a variety of platforms. To be specific, between the two entities, we've got a TV station, a newspaper and two websites. Genius.

After class today, I asked instructor Joe Johnson to give some tips on basic videography. Below, he talks about the importance of composition and how to produce a compelling video despite having a limited camera. Not surprisingly, most of these tips were among those shared with us at the very start of our endeavor into video by corporate leadership — composition, lighting and audio.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Video: "A new element to our coverage that is basically a lot of fun"

Watch the video below. Count how many times staffers refer to video as "fun."

Who would do that? Who, in their right minds, would say to themselves, "So you want me to not only write a story about something now, but go out to the scene, shoot video, bring it back here, edit it and upload it too? Sounds like fun!"

We would. And we do.

Does it increase our workload? Yes. A lot. Does it totally change how we do our jobs? Yes, it does. And one year later, are we calling it fun? Yes, we are.

How do you get people to add more work to their day, yet consider it fun? Well, you've got to have the right elements.

First, you need to make sure whatever extra work you're adding has a purpose. With video, that's easy. As staffers pointed out, video encourages accuracy in our writing, it puts a stop to accusations of us misquoting people and it makes our work more "multi-dimensional," as sports reporter Keith Dunlap put it. Dave Phillips, our cops reporter, said it lets us bring our readers "to the scene." All things considered it, video makes our work better and we all care very much about the work we do.

iMovie editing screen
Secondly, there's got to be training. Taking a camera, dumping it in someone's lap and barking orders to start producing videos is going to frighten and frustrate staffers. That's why we did a lot of training here at The Oakland Press.

JRC provided webinars to give us some basic instruction. In our own office, we expanded on that. For me, it meant I spent a lot of time teaching people how to use programs like Flipshare, MPEG Streamclip and iMovie, but it was worth my while in a variety of ways — I got to give something back to veteran staffers who have taught me so much, I got to feel like I had a role in making our whole product better and it even helped land me the spot in the ideaLab. See, there's a reason to have faith in old sayings like 'No good deed goes unnoticed.'

Flipshare editing screen
The best part about training, though, was watching as video editing began clicking for people. I would've never thought something like a subtitle or transition could put a smile on so many reporter's faces.

One year and 2,820 videos later, I'd have to say that video was the smartest and coolest thing to reach The Oakland Press in decades. I hope our readers share the sentiment!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Video: One year later

That's the total number of videos hosted on our website as of 3:33 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14.
The Flipcam

Broken down, that's almost 8 videos being produced per day over the space of one year. And it has been almost exactly one year since the first Flipcams reached the hot little hands of Oakland Press reporters.

It was February last year that the tiny high def cameras we've come to love so much first began arriving. With few buttons, they weren't too terribly difficult to figure out. It was the editing that intimidated us to start.

Even so, we posted 19 videos for the month of February 2010, and many of those weren't even produced by Flipcams, but by our traditional videographer.

By the time March 2010 ended, we'd posted 109 videos for that month alone.

One year later, we're only half way through the month of February and already, we've got 140 videos posted to our website.

I still find myself telling these two things to the public:
1) "No no, it's a video camera, not a tape recorder."
2) "Well, we are a newspaper but we also have a website, We're really trying to offer our stories on as many platforms as possible, and video is one of those platforms that our readers really seem to like."

Stay tuned for more posts about video this week.