Eye on Image-Making: KobreGuide

With all the video and multimedia on the Web these days, how is a person to choose? Last month, I wrote about videos on newspaper Web sites. Although there are many worthwhile videos, knowing which sites to visit and what to watch presents a challenge —- especially if you don’t have hours to spend drifting through cyberspace. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a single Web site you could visit that had a selection of the best journalistic videos and multimedia projects?

Last April, the University of South Carolina hosted Ken Kobré, professor of photojournalism at San Francisco State University, as a guest speaker for several of our visual-communications classes. At a dinner with the visual-communications faculty, Kobré discussed plans for a new Web site, which he said would revolutionize the way people access video and multimedia on the Internet. Coming from anyone else, this might have sounded like hyperbole. But we all sat up and took notice. Why?

Kobré is the author of Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach, considered the gold standard for photojournalism textbooks. He is also the inventor of Professor Kobré’s Lightscoop, a simple attachment for digital SLRs that greatly improves the quality of photographs taken with the camera’s pop-up flash. Kobré is thus a rare bird: part academic, part professional photographer/videographer, and part entrepreneur. With this kind of a proven track record, the faculty members gathered around the dinner table on that warm South Carolina spring evening were all ears.

Three Major Trends

Fast forward to fall 2008 and the launch of KobreGuide, which bills itself as a guide to the Web’s best multimedia and photojournalism. (Full disclosure: Kobré and I have been colleagues and close personal friends for 20 years. I worked on his textbook, editing a previous edition and writing a section on the business of freelancing. I have no connection with Lightscoop or KobreGuide.)

In an e-mail interview with Kobré, I asked him how he got the idea for the site and what needs he sees it serving. Kobré said three major trends have recently converged: 1) print journalism is migrating to the Web; 2) more people have high-speed Internet connections, and 3) the hardware and software for producing Web-quality video and multimedia have become more accessible and more affordable. “As a result, we’re seeing a new kind of visual story that’s unique to this medium, with roots in both newspapers and TV news,” Kobré said.

Pressure coming from publications eager to enrich their Web sites with content has forced photographers to learn the skills needed to create videos and multimedia productions such as audio slideshows. Kobré said this has evolved to the point where we are now seeing videos and multimedia on newspaper Web sites that are actual feature stories, i.e., mini-documentaries, and not just spot news or event coverage. In addition to managing the hardware and software, photographers are thus having to learn how to conduct interviews and create narrative arcs. But not all videos and multimedia projects are created equal. “Obviously, some are succeeding better than others,” Kobré said.

If They Upload It, Will Anybody Watch?

In an era of declining profits for print newspapers, many publishers have turned to the Web as a magic bullet. But Kobré said there is “scant evidence” that uploading gigabytes of video and multimedia to their Web sites has been profitable for publishers. Rather, there is a sense that this is something newspapers and other media outlets should do, simply because they can do it. In other words, the technology — and perhaps wishful thinking — is driving the effort to upload as much content as possible.

After investing so much time and energy getting all this video and multimedia up on their Web sites, you would think media outlets would be tooting their own horns and trolling for eyeballs. But this is apparently not the case. “On most newspaper Web sites, you have to look pretty hard to find the video. And once you find it, it’s not easy to sort through,” Kobré said. I found exactly the same thing during my sample of newspaper videos (see my previous two Eye on Image-Making columns). Last year, in a “Eureka!” moment, Kobré realized that folks interested in watching videos and multimedia on the Web needed the equivalent of TV Guide. But this guide wouldn’t just list all the available programs — it would tell you the best ones to watch.

Stringent Criteria

KobreGuide is a curated site, meaning that it is the opposite of free-for-all Web portals such as YouTube. The site relies on professional editors and what Kobré calls his “scouts” -— former students and professional colleagues —- to screen and select content according to stringent criteria (see the site’s “About Us” section for details.) Basically, all videos and multimedia must be nonfiction stories meeting the highest journalistic standards, similar to what you might see on “60 Minutes.” Kobré personally approves each story before it is posted on the site. Kobré said that although KobreGuide is not a grassroots enterprise, he and his staff are certainly interested in getting feedback, recommendations, and submissions from visitors to the site.

Coordinating the efforts is Jerry Lazar, editorial director, who has more than 30 years of experience in newspapers, magazines, TV, and the Web. Lazar oversees KobreGuide’s day-to-day editorial content. Also on staff are senior editor Jim McNay, who taught at the Brooks Institute of Photography and at San Jose State University; and managing editor Betsy Brill, a photographer, writer, editor, and designer who is married to Kobré. “When we embarked on this venture in 2007, newspapers were just starting to dip their toes in this crazy new world, so good stories were few and far between,” Kobré said. “But now, more sites committed to video journalism are starting to proliferate, and each one is generating stories on an accelerated schedule.”

It’s the Navigation, Dummy!

One of the things I found while drifting through various newspaper Web sites was how difficult some of them made finding and viewing the videos I wanted to watch. KobreGuide is organized by Channels and also by Topics. The Channels tab calls up media outlets, such as the Boston Globe, MediaStorm, and MSNBC. The Subject tab lets you choose from topics such as Adventure, Environment, Politics, and Sports. The site also features tabs for Award Winners (of various contests), Got A Minute? (videos and multimedia that will make you cry, make you laugh, or make you wonder), Hall of Fame (the best of the best), and How To (video tutorials). “We invested a lot of time, thought, and money into creating a database-driven site with a navigation scheme and search engine that makes it very easy to find and look at stories fast, and point you to other similar stories,” Kobré said.

The response to KobreGuide has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Kobré said. First, journalists now have a place to display and share their best video and multimedia work: “It gives them insight and inspiration, lets them know what kinds of stories are being pursued, and what innovative techniques are being used.” Second, the general public now has access to a wide range of videos and multimedia from sources other than their hometown newspaper.

“Curiously, that is something they didn’t realize they were missing,” Kobré said. “For instance, if you don’t live in Detroit, it’s unlikely you would have seen the amazing multimedia package put together by the Detroit Free Press to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect,’ one of the most influential recordings in pop-music history.” But this and other similarly stimulating and provocative videos and multimedia are available with a mouse click.

Future Plans

In the coming months, KobreGuide will expand its How To section, with more tutorials on how journalists can enter the brave new world of video and multimedia. Also on tap is a series of behind-the-scenes interviews with the creators of stories found on KobreGuide, sharing their perspectives and insights. A channel to showcase the best student videos and multimedia is in the works, as is a channel devoted to the work of individuals not affiliated with a major media outlet. Feature-length pieces might find a home under a tab called Got an Hour? Finally, Kobré is courting sponsors and advertisers who want to become part of this exciting new venture.

Leave a Reply