Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lessons from the MediaStorm Methodology Workshop: Day 2

I'm at the first-ever MediaStorm methodology workshop in New York City. I'm trying to make it possible for people to follow my blog to get a sense of what the five participants are learning every day. Today Day 2. Here's where you can read about Day 1.

It's important to point out that there are many aspects of the class I can't share, not because I'm not willing or MediaStorm isn't willing, but because the class involves discussion of specific images and video sequences. We talk about them while they're on screen and it's very difficult to recreate that experience without doing a Webcast of the sessions.

We started Day 2 with an emphasis on quality. "Everything is driven by quality," Brian Storm said. "If you have a product that rocks, people will blog it or share it on social networks. That’s the new measure of success for us."

Something for newspaper folks to think about: In the mid '90s, video had to make you say, "Holy shit, dude come here you, have to see this." Why? Because it took so long to download. Now the problem with video on many newspaper sites is that it's not good enough. At some point, the audience is not going to hit the play button because they'll have been trained that the video isn't worth their time. That's why MediaStorm would recommend doing fewer pieces and making them better. Give people time to get them right. (To those who've worked with me who remember me encouraging them to be quick, because of the news value of video, that advice doesn't apply to compelling breaking news video.) You have to set a user expectation that the video will be worth the time, that the video will be special.

The work is expensive. So how to pay for it? MediaStorm's approach is to license to multiple mediums in multiple markets. Between television, web and portable devices, a multimedia news company can generate more streams of revenue. MediaStorm encourages media companies not to think of themselves as newspapers or magazines, but to do the necessary reporting, which will be more expensive, to expand their revenue and reach by distributing their work on television, computers and mobile devices, as well as in their print publications. If you spend more time to do the story, you can have three more channels: TV, computers and mobile devices.

As for fees, Brian's a "big believer" that there shouldn't be a standard for fees. "If we start charging for time, that's painful. Paying by time incents people in the wrong direction." You should make the piece the length it works best. He thinks photo pricing also misguided. Paying less for smaller usage incents customers to run photos poorly. Charge more for smaller pictures, Brian recommends. Incent people to run your pictures big.

We spent a lot of time discussing Iraqi Kurdistan, an awesome piece by Ed Kashi.

In-house, they called the project "the flip book," after the cartoon books that children animate just by flipping the pages. The story, done in sequences of still images set to music, explores how motion and a frozen moment can work together. I thought it was wonderful.

MediaStorm's biggest revenue generator is as a production studio. The company gets hired to tackle specific projects: cinematic narratives, interactive applications or full-on complete web sites.

An example of cinematic narrative we discussed extensively was The Sandwich Generation. Also worth viewing.

As I said, it's difficult in a blog to replicate our discussion. But here are a few examples of what we discussed that I think work without seeing the video. First, MediaStorm's philosophy is to use video to show motion and activity and still photography to show decisive moments. In the future, a single camera will be able to freeze frame video to capture the decisive moment, so the photographer will need to use only one camera. But they don't feel we're there yet.

Think character. That's how you get people to care. And finally, what is the apex of your narrrative arc? There has to be one. (If you watch this video, it's when the old man - the father - is in his house/garage as it's being cleaned out. The sound is painful. He's hearing it. And then he tries to save his old golf clubs. Very powerful.)

Finally, Brian emphasized the importance of sound quality. Even more important than video quality. "Bad sound will destroy the piece really quickly." It's painful/difficult to listen to.

The first question Brian asks photographers who bring him a story: "Got sound?" You can see why. What sounds does to a photo story is magical. It gives meaning.

As for story structure, do not break things into chapters unless you can playlist it, meaning it goes automatically from one chapter to the next. Otherwise, it's too easy to lose people.

NGOs and non profits are funding high-quality multimedia work. Just as with investigative reporting, these are other places to look for funding.

I'll have more on methodology in my Day 3 post, but one key thing I can share without further context is how Brian described their work process: "We work from subtraction. We look at everything." They're looking for the story in the work.

We talked a lot about a great piece by Brenda Ann Kenneally, which was a magazine story and audio slide show for The New York Times.

It was a wonderful magazine story about the children. But in video, the focus becomes a love story.

The story is an example of the kind of access good still photographers work to get, the kind of comfort-level they can build with their subjects. Very intimate and real.

One final lesson: Story trumps technique every time. Of course technique is important and people need to learn it. But if they don't have a good story, technique won't matter. And one thing clear about story, from looking at MediaStorm's work, is that it must be focused and disciplined. A story can't have everything. Everything in it must serve the story. (Those last two sentences are my editorializing.)


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