Many newspapers see doomsday approaching and are turning to the Internet for salvation. By loading their Web sites with free content, newspapers hope to tap additional sources of income, with advertisers footing the bill.
High-speed Internet connections have made it relatively easy to provide video and audio content — in addition to the traditional text and photographs — on Web sites. I recently spent several days drifting through cyberspace and watching 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. My goal in doing this? On the one hand, I wanted to see what kind of content is available. On the other, I’m interested in trying to figure out (someday) who is accessing all this content and why. Please join the conversation and let me know about the best newspaper-produced videos you’ve found.
Don’t you just hate those ads that come up when you are trying to watch a video on a newspaper’s Web site? But on reflection, why should I begrudge the publisher of a newspaper 15 seconds of my time, watching an ad for a product or service I probably won’t remember 15 seconds later? After all, I’m getting something for free, right?
I should be grateful, but for some reason I’m not. I think this is because time spent watching video on the computer is measured in dog years — one minute equals at least seven in real time. Only one of the five sites I visited, that of the New York Times, lets you skip the ad by pausing it and then clicking on the video you actually want to watch — but I have a feeling that Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman and publisher, will not be pleased.
If you are looking for serious but short documentary videos — think “Four Minutes” instead of “60 Minutes” — the New York Times and Washington Post sites are your obvious choices. The documentary videos that captivated me the most were on the Washington Post’s Web site: “The Frontline of Mexico’s AIDS War,” by Nancy Donaldson; and the “Middle Class” segment of “Pakistan on the Brink,” reported by Griff Witte, with videography by Travis Fox. Perhaps these appealed to me because they came the closest to traditional documentaries, with well-shot video (attention to camera angles, composition, and lighting), clean audio, and an interesting mix of voiceover narration, interviews, and natural sound.
Interestingly, the New York Times also has a video on its site about the AIDS crisis in Mexico: “Sexual Ambiguity Hampers Mexican AIDS Fight,” reported by Marc Lacey, Jorge Melchor, and Vijai Singh, with videography by Jennifer Szymaszek. The New York Times video on AIDS fell short because it seemed to be a reporter-driven piece rather than a photographer-driven one. It had all the same elements as the Post’s video, but the videography just wasn’t as compelling. The Post video shows us the dark and gritty reality of Tijuana’s drug scene, whereas the Times video relies on a voiceover, combined with average images, to tell us the story. This brought home an obvious point: when you are watching videos, the power of the visual images can make or break the piece.
However, the Times got it right with “Anti-Government Protesters in Thailand,” reported by Seth Mydens and Vijai Singh, and shot by Mariko Takayasu. The “you were there” feel of this video comes from watching action footage and still photographs of the protests intercut with the faces and voices of the protesters. Mydens provides the explanatory narration, but the visual images carry the story, showing us what is happening — which works much better than having a reporter tell us what is happening.
In fact, talking heads can kill an otherwise good video. There is nothing visually interesting about watching a reporter, or anyone else for that matter, talk to the camera for extended periods; the same information can be conveyed using voiceover narration. This was the problem with some of the political videos I watched, including “Previewing Senator McCain’s Speech,” with Adam Nagoumey, and “Inside the Palin Speech,” with Kit Seelye, both of the New York Times. These were, in effect, double whammies, because they were talking heads talking about talking heads. The talking-head bug also infected other New York Times videos, including “Infiltrating a Nuclear Network” and “Serena’s Hitting Partner” (Ken Burnsed still photos of Serena combined with video of Bajin Aleksander, her hitting partner, talking to the camera).
The Washington Post’s videos were not immune from the talking-head bug either. “Growing Up Biracial,” by Ben de la Cruz, is about Will Jawando, a young man with a Nigerian father and a mother from Kansas, who married a woman named Michele and was employed for a time by Sen. Barack Obama. This promising story is hindered by too much Ken Burns zooming on the still photographs and too much footage of Will talking to the camera. A further hindrance is the poor quality of the noninterview footage.
Interviews were used successfully in the “Middle Class” segment of the Post’s “Pakistan on the Brink,” where the voice of the interviewee starts as a voiceover before we actually see him or her on screen. This simple but effective technique shortens the length of time the interviewee needs to be on camera, and gives the viewer a reason for wanting to see a visual image of the person talking: the audio sets up the video.
In fact, sometimes the audio can carry the video, as is the case with two “Featured Videos” on the Dallas Morning News site: “Adamson High School’s football tradition of ‘bringing the wood,'” by Randy Eli Grothe; and “American Indian ceremony blesses new nature center in North Oak Cliff,” by Blanca Cantu. Neither of these has particularly compelling images, but the clean, insistent audio — along with their two-minute length — kept me watching.
I’ve only scratched the surface in this column, so stay tuned for the next “Eye On Image-Making,” which will continue my exploration of videos on newspaper Web sites. Please help continue the conversation by letting me know about the best videos you’ve found on newspaper Web sites.