The Ivory tower dispatch: defining multimedia journalism

This week in the ivory tower I’ve mostly been looking at multimedia.

I’ve been building on the idea that, regardless of the approach you take (the fast/slow journalism split I created last week) , chunks of multimedia are going to be you building blocks.

Of course there are the practicalities to consider, but I spent a bit of time thinking about the broader context and what that meant in terms of roles within a digital newsroom.

Something that’s become clear in my pondering and looking around is that there is a belief in two distinct forms of journalism - audio journalism and video journalism.  These are not just variations on a broadcast theme. The rhetoric being used clearly indicates a belief that they are new forms of journalism and that was all a bit worrying.

Audio Journalism

Even though a large part of the audio on the web is produced in much the same way as broadcast (a kind of pre-medium specifics is you like) proponents of Audio Journalism  identify two forms of content as core to the definition:

  • Podcasts
  • Audio Slideshows

The form of podcasts is pretty flexible and there is no one clear format – short, scripted and snappy or round table – that’s been agreed on. In fact the development of the different styles suggests that the form has outgrown it’s platform-derived title. They are different from broadcast in a number of ways not least in the business model. The big challenges now are metrics and return on investment. The battle ground is tablets where app delivered podcasts can be monitored more effectively   So, podcasts clearly provide the established framework – the mode and form – that helps set audio journalism as a definition.

In that sense podcasts are the solid, practical output. So it would all be a little technologically deterministic if it wasn’t for the intellectual weight that Audio slideshows  add to the definition.

Benjamin Chesterton’s take on Audio slideshows (as reported by Kevin Marsh) in response to the question “Why would you choose a slideshow when you could use video?”

with moving video, the viewers eye is centred – broadly, locked to the framing of the video camera. With still images, the eye roams. It stops and moves and stops and moves. Frozen gestures and expressions kick off a cognitive process – thinking – that moving images simply never do.

 

Something similar is true of good audio. The best audio blends reportage (‘being me, being here’) with the kind of aural cues that make audiences think and wander off down their own pathways while still engaging with the sound.

Put the two together – great audio documentary and great still images – and you have something that is potentially MORE than great storytelling.

It works on a whole different cognitive level to video.

It’s a take on audio slideshows that I’ve seen echoed around the audio journalism community. The claim of a more cerebral and deeply cognitive experience is quite seductive and calls on much of the deeply long-lived and traditional practices of photojournalism and image editors; the power of an image. But am I being cynical in seeing a reading of video as shallow and surface? Are we seeing a similar rhetoric to the slow/longform journalism? Video is surface and temporal. Pictures are deep and connected.

It’s a hard position for me to feel any real affinity for and one that often feels laboured (not by duckrabbit I might add). When I see advice on the five shots that make great slideshows I see a version of the 5 shots you need to make a good video package. In my view neither is better or worse, but with more in common than the broad demarcations suggest.

The discourse that’s used to define audio journalism is one that’s familiar to me as someone who has had more than a passing interest in online video.

Video Journalism

I’ve watched the concept of video journalism shift from a technical revelation, a rush to embrace a new platform, all the way through a new business model, via snake oil, to be a kind of new wave of film making.  It’s clear that it’s supporters feel it’s something different from broadcast.

The films are often authored, they are commonly open about a bias or particular viewpoint, they often cover stories away from the mainstream. But in form they are often best defined by their difference from standard broadcast fair than any general innovation.

That’s not to say there isn’t some compelling, editorially excellent, important and often, downright beautiful stuff going on out there. But beyond experiments with the form – none linear narratives and presentation – there’s little innovation. Maybe a good deal of disruption, but not innovation; using afterFX in a documentary is not innovative. It makes the claim for a new form of journalism a little hollow especially when a lot of it reflects such good journalism.

I know that the biggest regret of many VJ’s (unless your selling the dream not living it) seems to be that it isn’t taken seriously by broadcast journalism. I can see their point. The shocking lack of strands for documentary has pushed the good stuff online – it was only a matter of time.

Things are changing for VJ’s in that respect; without mainstream broadcast (which is their loss). But in my travels I still found pockets of identity crisis and concerns about a lack of recognition – why is that so important if there is a new (and better) form of video journalism I wonder.

Multimedia journalism

The concern over recognition is one that spreads beyond audio and video to those who prefer the title multimedia journalist (they chose the title rather than it being their job description).I was genuinely saddened to read Mark Kelly’s blog about his experiences of trying to do video in a newspaper context, bemoaning the ‘sea of crap’ he has to work with

I believe we’re about to see a huge surge in mobile phone footage shot by print journalists. And we all know what happens next, multimedia producers like you and I get given the footage and asked to turn it into something usable. But you can’t polish a turd can you?

It’s clear Mark has a deep commitment to producing quality stuff, but In another post he explains the exit route and maybe reveals the problem all in one:

Interestingly the majority of multimedia journalists are actually broadcast journalists who’ve ve set their sights on a future in TV and are working for online platforms as a way of gaining experience, a good plan given the growing number of channels and the lack of quality content available.

I suppose there’s nothing worse than being a frustrated broadcast journalist having to lower yourself to working with newspapers, apart from maybe being the newspaper journalist in that equation.

One commentator thinks the world of broadcast will have more respect for his skills:

Fortunately I’m leaving newspapers for the world of broadcast. There, they seem to recognise the breadth of talent, creativity and man hours that go into something worth watching. Maybe newspapers will learn that one day too.

The people who march under the video journalism banner would maybe have some different advice for them.

Conclusions

So why was all that worrying. For me it’s encapsulated in the plight of multimedia journalists. In trying to define themselves as different from the (traditional) norm they exclude themselves from all the groups. Perhaps it’s the environment that doesn’t respect the skills that pushes that banding together – maybe one day there will be a union!

But mostly all of the debates and definitions around multimedia (and you can use what term you like here – audio, video, multimedia, visual journalist) reminded me a lot of a section from Life of Brian (some bad language here)


 

 

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