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Video Journalism at Newspapers

SOC BPJ Colin Mulvany parade

Video Journalism at Newspapers

Advisory Board member Colin Mulvany gives insight into the changing news industry, particularly the opportunities presented by the increasing use of video by newspaper web sites.

Discussion topic of the month

This series of essays by Project Advisory Board Members is designed to provoke debate from the backpack journalism communityJoin the conversation on Facebook or Twitter @bpjournalism.

This month's piece is by Colin Mulvany, who, in 2004, after 18 years as a staff photojournalist made the transition to online storytelling as a multimedia producer and staff photographer at The Spokesman-Review, a 90,000-circulation newspaper that covers eastern Washington and North Idaho.

Video Journalism at Newspapers, By Colin Mulvany

For the last several years, newspaper video journalists have collectively held their breath. Mass layoffs, newsroom reorganizations and non-paid furloughs have left journalists still employed at newspapers on-edge.  

The good news is the worst may be over.

The movement that we refer to as solo video journalism, or backpack journalism, came late to newspapers. In the 90s, it was all about broadcast TV. A new breed of one-man band journalist equipped with small video cameras set its sights on producing content for shows like ABC’s Nightline and other network news magazine shows. The web was not yet ready for video.

Photo by Colin Mulvany, Veterans

The shift started around the turn of the century when companies like Apple and Adobe released non-linear editing software that supported the new digital video formats for the creation of web video. Producers could suddenly edit their stories on a laptop in the field instead of in a costly edit suite.

Pioneers like Travis Fox at The Washington Post and photojournalist David Leeson at The Dallas Morning News were some of the first newspaper journalists to see web video’s potential. Others, like myself, soon followed. It was mostly a grassroots effort, with individuals investing a lot of their own time to learn the technology.  

Around 2006-07 large newspaper chains like Gannett and Scripps were drawn to the potential revenue that could be generated by pre-roll ads attached to video stories produced by their newsroom staffs. Following the industry trend, smaller publications jumped in, too. Cheap video cameras were handed out like candy to print and visual journalists who were magically expected to add the complexity of shooting and editing video to their already jammed workflow.  

Training, or lack thereof, was a huge issue. There were few qualified trainers available and high-priced video storytelling workshops were not much of an option when newsroom budgets were being slashed. Truth is, video storytelling has never been part of the DNA of newspapers. Resistance came from all corners in newsrooms. Traditional newspaper journalists associated video with local TV news—and God knows they didn’t want to be associated with THAT clan.  

Still, individual visual storytellers, mostly from photo departments, continued to dip their toes in the video waters. As they gained shooting and editing competence, they shared their knowledge with others in the newsroom.  

Photo by Colin Mulvany, Fairies

When video stories started showing up on newspaper’s websites mid-decade, the online content management systems (CMS) were not designed to showcase video in a way that was compelling to viewers. Poor video players, lack of full-screen options and lousy placement on homepages, left many newsroom managers scratching their heads as to why so few viewers were watching their video content. This led to a lot of heated debates about whether video was worth the time and effort. Many of these early discussions about newspaper web-video centered on the issue of quality vs. quantity. The point-and-shoot video camera movement, pioneered at newspapers like the Bakersfield Californian, pushed the idea that quality was not as important as immediacy. A couple of video clips from a house fire and a quick interview with a fire chief was considered good enough. Staff photojournalists scoffed at the idea of putting an inferior product on the website. Many resisted shooting any video at all.  

Frustrated online managers instead turned to non-visual print reporters to fill the need. For a few years the concept of the Mojo (mobile journalist) became popular at some newspapers. At The Spokesman-Review, I trained several Mojos who were equipped with video cameras and laptops to report breaking news from the field. The experiment was hit or miss, depending on the day. It took a lot of effort and training for our Mojos to understand what the job entailed. Most of our Mojos, I think out of habit, stayed chained to their newsroom desks for a majority of their shifts. They felt more comfortable coming in to edit their video and update their online stories, which ran counter to the idea of a mobile journalist always being out there in the community.  

The photojournalists who weighed in on the quality side of the video debate steadily improved over time. As their editing and camera skills became second nature, they were able to put more effort into telling a compelling story.  

When I started shooting video for my newspaper website in 2004, there were only a handful of other newspapers producing video content. Now in 2010, newspapers that don’t have video or multimedia on their websites are a rarity.  

Technology and consumer habits have improved a video’s chances of being seen. Modern CMS’s are multimedia centric. Video players’ size and compression quality have improved as broadband penetration and speeds have increased. Most newspapers are utilizing social media in the form of Facebook and Twitter to help drive an increasing amount of traffic to their websites and, in turn, their video content.  

Just as video use by newspapers was starting to gel, the economy imploded in late 2008, and with it went a newspaper’s ad revenue and circulation. By the end of 2009, many newspaper newsrooms were shells of their former selves. The windfall of video ad revenue failed to materialize. Publishers soon turned their efforts to saving the print side of the business -- the one thing that could still generate a lot of revenue.  

Photo by Colin Mulvany, Vigil

As layoffs reshaped my newsroom, so too have they impacted the type of video stories I produce. The Mojos are gone now, a victim of layoffs. Same with many of the 14 people I trained to shoot and edit video.  

Today I shoot video when there is a good reason and time to do so. If there’s not a strong opportunity for great visuals and narrative, then I pass in favor of shooting the story with my still camera.  

As a multimedia producer working in a vastly smaller newsroom, I am always looking for ways to collaborate with other journalists. Though the trend of the video journalist is to be a one-man band, I have found utilizing the resources of the newsroom to be beneficial. I have collaborated with many reporters who are willing to write and voice scripts for my video productions. This allows me more time to focus on shooting and editing. It is also my sneaky way of getting more people in the newsroom invested in producing multimedia.  

From the start, I have always shared the video and multimedia skills I have learned with my co-workers. Bringing one person at a time into the process has taken the fear factor out of the equation and has spurred others in the newsroom to want to learn more online skills.  

I occasionally get calls from video producers or editors struggling with how to successfully integrate video into their newsrooms. These are the blueprint questions I would ask anyone on a similar quest: 

  • Do you have an overall vision for video in your newsroom?
  • Why are you doing video in the first place?
  • Is quality video valuable to your viewers?
  • Has video gained traction on your website over time? If not, figure out why.
  • Has your paper invested in training that empowers your video producers to be able to tell and edit a story effectively?
  • Do you have (need) a web-savvy management structure in place to filter out bad video ideas and is an advocate for video based storytelling?
  • If you are producing lots of video, do you have a website that showcases this valued web-only content?
  • Can viewers find your videos quickly if they land on a story page and not on the home page?
  • Can lower levels of video quality be acceptable if they meet a high news value bar?
  • Do your videos load fast, have good, clean compression, and have full screen ability?
  • Are you using social media to promote your video content?
  • If you’re a small paper with dwindling resources, should you really be adding poorly produced video to your already bleak shovelware website?  

Even with all the industry chaos of the last few years, I still believe video journalism can generate revenue opportunities for newspapers, especially as the economy rebounds. The Internet is growing increasingly visual. Video, in many ways, is becoming the language of the Internet. Online viewers have steadily embraced video, so it’s imperative for newspapers to be there with compelling, well-edited video content for them to consume. But if video journalism, or backpack journalism, is to grow and succeed at newspapers, it will need a lot more nurturing and support from newsroom management than it is getting now.  

Video journalists working at newspapers are a dedicated group. The best are starting to make names for themselves. This year, producers from The Detroit Free Press and New Jersey’s Star Ledger took Emmy trophies—a traditional TV award -- back to their papers.  

Finally, one of the critical issues facing video journalists at newspapers is a lack of feedback they receive on their stories. If you’re the only one on staff producing video, there are few people around who understand the complexity of what you do. My former Spokesman-Review co-worker Brian Immel and I felt the best way to address this was to create a website that brings together a talented pool of video producers and editors with those in need of feedback on their video stories. The critiques on hopefully will help video producers improve their level of storytelling.