Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lessons from the MediaStorm Methodology Workshop: Day 1

This week I'm attending a methodology workshop at MediaStorm, the multimedia production studio that in my view produces the most sophisticated storytelling in journalism right now.

Each day, after the workshop, I'll try to share a few of the insights I've gleaned from our class. There are five of us working with MediaStorm for the week: Janet Reeves, former senior editor for photography and multimedia at the Rocky Mountain News; David Carlson, who holds the James M. Cox, Jr. Foundation/The Palm Beach Post professorship in New Media Journalism at the University of Florida College of Journalism and also is the director of the university's Center for Media Innovation and Research; Tavia Gilbert, an award-winning audio producer and actress; and Kim Komenich, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer with The San Francisco Chronicle who left the paper earlier this year to become an assistant professor for multimedia studies at San Jose State University.

Day 1, with Brian Storm:

The two most important words of MediaStorm's philosophy: quality works.

When you do something really great on multiple platforms, vs. just for a single format, you will reach a larger audience and make more money. (Or at least you have that potential.)

The first story we examined in detail was Driftless, Stories from Iowa by Danny Wilcox Frazier, Chapter Six, which Brian described as a perfect example of a MediaStorm story. Totally worth looking at. It's a beautiful story. What makes it a perfect example of what MediaStorm is trying to do is it's a small story about a huge issue. It's timeless. And it involves sophisticated integration of video and still photography. Something else that makes this a fine example of how MediaStorm works is that it started as a book and then expanded for multiple platforms. In Chapter Six, you see three photos from the book. But there are 35 still photographs in the piece.

The essence of multimedia, Brian says, is that 1 plus 1 equals 5. When you put the elements together in the right way something special happens that's bigger than the sum of the pieces.

The power of music. Brian said when he was at MSNBC he wasn't allowed to use music, because it was considered editorializing. It can be the quickest way to destroy a piece. But it's incredible to see how they use music to carry a piece.

Interactive storytelling doesn't work, in Brian's view. Very expensive to do and doesn't drive traffic. Confusing for the user. They have to figure it out. What works is to produce something where the user can press play and watch something. "Linear media flat-out works," he said.

What the company does is essentially documentary filmmaking for a new era. What's somewhat revolutionary about what MediaStorm does is that they're open to all media types. (I think it's also that whatever they produce is produced for all platforms. They output their work in many forms.)

The long-form work MediaStorm specializes in is "totally hard to do." They only work on personal projects, because they need the photographer to be fully invested. That way they'll do the extra leg work necessary for this kind of work. Without that commitment, he said, they'll fail.

One of Brian's personal goals is to get photographers to stop thinking of the book as the ultimate product. He wants to change that so they'll be giving friends their DVD in the future. He wants them to realize that the DVD (ie. multimedia) is the most important thing. Not that a book shouldn't be one of the products. But that the added dimensions of the DVD make it the richer product.

The next story we studied was "Intended Consequences" by Jonathan Torgovnik, a very powerful piece on women who were raped during the genocide in Rwanda and then bore the children of their attackers. The story has led to $500,000 in donations to put 1,500 kids through secondary school in Rwanda, Brian said. The piece started with an assignment by Newsweek. It became a moving and complex multimedia story.

E-mail used to be the company's most important marketing tool - until about a year ago. Now it's social networking that's most important. The power of sharing. A blogger in Russia linked to their site and traffic increased fifteen times for a week. Facebook is "epic" for MediaStorm now. It's the home page for so many people. The "grand daddy of them all."

If you produce projects at the highest level, important projects, affinity groups will spread awareness of them for you. That is "one of the most revolutionary things happening in journalism." It's why if you do something, you want it to be the definitive story on the topic. To do something in the middle tier is a waste. People will post and retweet something they think is fantastic.

An example of how the world has changed and the importance of viral came when iTunes passed Walmart as the No. 1 music retailer. It would have been impossible for MediaStorm to get its stories into Walmart. They're too small. On iTunes, it took the company four minutes and they didn't have to talk to a human being.

The company's business model and approach is based on patience. The stories have a long shelf life.

An interesting note: All the company's work fits on Brian's iPhone. He literally can carry everything they produce on a hand-held device. A cool sign of the times.

In this first post, I've avoided reporting on our conversation about how certain pieces are done or certain effects are achieved. Perhaps I'll touch on those issues in later posts. But they seem to be better-suited for the conference room, where we're actually breaking down the work and talking about how it's done - at least after Day 1.



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