Eye on Image-Making: Newspapers and Video, Part 2

In my last Eye on Image-Making column, I wrote about videos on newspaper Web sites — what’s out there, what I liked, and what I didn’t like. That discussion was based on a nonscientific sample of several dozen videos on the Web sites of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times. This column continues the discussion with more reactions to the videos I watched.


As fans of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show know, humor has enormous power to grab audience attention and convince television viewers to stay tuned. Humor works equally well in newspaper videos, provided the subject matter is appropriate and the humor effective.

The master of this is David Pogue, who writes about technology for the New York Times. In his videos, Pogue creates humorous skits to explore the pros and cons of his topic, usually a new product or service. For example, Apple’s release last July of the new iPhone prompted Pogue to adopt the pose of a television reporter doing a “person-in-the street” interview — in this case, with folks waiting in line in front of an Apple store. Pogue’s interviewee, the first person in line, was an actor who hilariously played the role of a surfer dude/technophile. The best thing about this five-minute video is that you actually learn nearly everything you need to know about the new iPhone, laughing all the while.

For comparison, I watched a video from 2007 on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site — made the day the first iPhone was released. The two videos start by covering some of the same ground, with footage of early adopters waiting in line to buy the new phone. (In fact, they are so similar that I’d bet Pogue saw the Chronicle’s video and decided to spoof it.) But the Chronicle’s video soon deteriorates into a straight news report — ignoring the comic possibilities (come on … this is San Francisco, home of Robin Williams and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence!).

By the time it ends, the Chronicle’s technology reporter Ryan Kim is back at the office, showing the phone’s features to reporter Carolyne Zinko. Talking head talking to another talking head — not the most compelling video.

Speaking of talking heads, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post gets some marvelous mileage by spoofing the Republican’s loathing –expressed at the recent GOP presidential convention by several speakers — of the “Eastern media elite.” Milbank’s video features a press credential that reads “Eastern Media Elite,” a secret handshake between elite members, and some good-natured joshing with Republican politicians.

The take-away messages from both Pogue and Milbank? Recognize the power of humor as a device to grab and hold audience attention; use humor to make otherwise bland information more palatable; and make sure humor is appropriate for your subject matter and audience.

Behind the Scenes

Video has the power to take us to unfamiliar places and show us new things. The subjects can be wide-ranging or intimate, profound or mundane.

Matt Gross, who writes the “Frugal Traveler” articles for the New York Times, takes us on a 13-week “Grand Tour” of Europe in less than five minutes — a good example of filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s dictum that editing is “the ruthless elimination of the inessential.” Gross talks to the camera, shows us some of the places he visited, and introduces us to various people he met along the way. Nothing earth-shaking here, but enjoyable — especially if you’ve got the travel bug.

Two videos on the Dallas Morning News Web site narrow the focus, so instead of a grand tour we get a behind-the-scenes peek at a photo shoot with an Olympic athlete and a visit to a Dallas dance club. “Anatomy of a photo shoot: Nastia Liukin” starts with Dallas Morning News photo editor David Woo and photographer Courtney Perry discussing the upcoming shoot, and then follows Perry as she photographs Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin.

In “Up All Night: New West,” reporter Lesley Tellez makes us want to grab our dancing shoes and head for Texas. How does Tellez accomplish this happy feat? By combining foot-tapping music and a lively voiceover with an under-two-minute video that features quick cuts, interviews, split-screen effects, and a cash-register “ka-ching” when a young woman on camera says, “I’m single.”

Accessing and Selecting Video Content

When it comes to accessing and selecting video content, not all newspaper sites are created equal. For example, the Dallas Morning News site has a Photos/Video button on the top toolbar and a drag-down menu to help you make a selection. The San Francisco Chronicle site has a Photos & Multimedia bar placed horizontally across the page, about one-third of the way down the page. The Washington Post site puts a Photos & Videos bar horizontally across the page, about one-third from the bottom. Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have a hard-to-spot Video link in the left-hand column of their Web pages.

After navigating to the video page, you then face the challenge of selecting what you want to watch — for example, the New York Times site has 999 videos available (or more: maybe that’s as high as the counter goes). You can usually search a site by categories or by using a search bar.

Some of the categories may mirror the paper’s familiar sections — Technology, Sports, Travel etc., on the New York Times site — and some may have been created specifically for the Web page, such as the Featured Video, Latest Videos, and Most Popular on the Dallas Morning News site. The Washington Post site, which I think has the best videos, has the most confusing interface, but it does allow you to sort video and multimedia stories by date, media, and whether they were created especially for the paper’s Web site.

The media player on the five newspaper Web sites I visited is a small box on the left side of the screen. There are buttons (sometimes labeled, sometimes not) for play/pause and screen size and also a volume control. Screen size can be a problem, because if the screen is too big, the video looks blocky and pixelated. The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle sites have the size issue figured out; the other three take you to a full-screen size that is all but unwatchable, even on a 15-inch laptop.

But on the San Francisco Chronicle site, when you click the Maximize Video button, all the control buttons disappear, leaving you no way to pause or stop the video, or to return to the smaller mode. What’s worse, a new video starts playing as soon as the old one is done — your only recourse is to use the back arrow on your browser. On the other hand, the Chronicle video page has no ads — at least none that popped up while I was going through the videos. Let’s see: endless videos versus no ads … hmmm.

I hope this discussion of videos on newspaper Web sites has been helpful. If you have comments or suggestions for future columns, please let me know. What I’d especially like to learn — perhaps with your help — is this: who is watching all this free video content and why?

[tags]newspapers, videography[/tags]

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