Last summer, Guardian science correspondent Alok Jha got wind of plans to unveil the world’s first synthetic beef burger. With $250,000 grand funding from one of Google’s founders, Dr Mark Post of Maastricht University, had grown fibers in a lab that he was now offering to serve to the world in a bread bun.
“I knew that there was going to be a big launch, which in the normal run of things, I would have attended and written a slightly piss-takey colour piece”, Jha remembers. “But I thought that there was a potentially far more interesting story if I could get into his lab”. After negotiations with PRs, Jha and a video producer were invited into the labs where the ‘frankenburger’ had been created. To those pictures they added reactions from food writers and a farmer. “The package that we made was only six minutes long, but took the story to a whole new audience – some of whom might have also read the 2,000 word analysis piece that I also wrote”.
The Guardian is, of course, just one of many papers that are increasingly asking its reporters to contribute video, as well as text.
This marks a profound change that is underway in the media, according to Pat Younge – until a few months ago the BBC’s chief creative officer, and before that President of Travel Channel Media in the USA. “All the emerging money is around web video, which is what all of the papers want now – so if you are going to cover a story, why wouldn’t you film it as well? And with an interview, the very least you can do is audio record it and make that available – audio is underused”.
Younge’s proudest boast, as a digital storytelling pioneer, comes not from the BBC, where he was in charge of 3,000 program makers, but in his previous role. “We needed video content for the Travel Channel website, but could not afford the kind of budgets that we had for network programs.” His solution was to set up the Travel Channel Academy – a video production ‘boot camp’ on which participants paid $3,000 for a four-day course. “We taught the basics of storytelling and clearances and at the end of the course, we would offer the best students paid commissions. Those who did not make the grade, we gave exercises to do at home to get their work up to our standard.”
Over a couple of years, the academy built up a small army of videographers – many of whom went on to significant industry jobs, others remained on the fringes of the Travel Channel, picking up freelance work.
The Travel Channel approach has been replicated all over the world – with much of the teaching provided by Michael Rosenblum, the author of iPhone Millionaire (a guide to low-tech video production that is far better that its get-rich-quick title suggests). Rosenblaum’s message is that anyone with a smart phone, editing software and a little imagination can make the kind of short packages that Jha and Younge are enthusing about.
It is a move that has seen many media outlets using video in place of still photography.
At New Jersey’s Star-Ledger (nj.com), whose journalists were nominated for a clutch of Emmy’s for their video content recently, for example, much of their coverage of college sporting contests is now presented in short clips. Shot with a single camera – it works better with basketball that outdoor sports – and then edited to the most dramatic two minutes of play – they provide a respectable overview of matches that could only otherwise be seen live.
Traditional broadcasters have also got in on this low tech approach. RTE News has recently used packages in its news programs shot entirely on smart phones.
The Wall Street Journal has applied a similar model to its international correspondents. Two years ago, the paper trained more than 400 reporters to create short clips entirely on their iPhones. “Our video viewership has more than doubled in the past six months to over 20 million streams, and the creation of this video blog is a milestone in the expansion of video at the Journal,” said Alan Murray, deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. “Our reporters are demonstrating the opportunity that technology has given them to capture powerful images that enhance their great journalism. We now have the opportunity to deliver that video more quickly and efficiently for use in our rapidly growing video operation.”
The result is not in itself a lush, multi-textural approach to storytelling, but a huge collection of short bursts of footage – a little like Twitter, but comprising only video news footage. Since its launch, the WSJ has boasted that it is now attracting ‘premium’ advertising rates around its video footage, and the technology that underlies the WSJ’s initiative – tout.com – has been taken up by CBS, Fox, NBC Universal, WWE, New Corp and Conde Nast among others.
The prospect that this kind of material will become the main fibre of the web, rather than text-based ‘pages’ is one that is now common currency – at least among crystal-ball gazers.
Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter’s essay “The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It” – argues that the web’s old metaphors ‘pages’, ‘desktops’, and ‘bookmarks’ are all destined for history’s ‘recycle bin’ or ‘trash’ .
“The space-based web we currently have will gradually be replaced by a time-based worldstream,” he writes. “This lifestream – a heterogeneous, content-searchable, real-time messaging stream – arrived in the form of blog posts and RSS feeds, Twitter and other chatstreams and Facebook walls and timelines. Its structure represented a shift beyond the ‘flatland known as the desktop’ (where our interfaces ignored the temporal dimension) towards streams, which flow and can therefore serve as a representation of time”.
Geletnter envisages a seamless web of information and images that flow before us until we actively request that they stop. The contribution of journalism to this seems likely, as least in its front-page form, to be in short videos.
Jha for one, is optimistic about the way in which these forces will shape journalism in the years to come. He sees boundaries between different types of media and the outlets though which they are consumed blurring. “Ten years ago, when I was getting started, all I thought that I would do was write, today, if you try to tell stories without video and graphics, it would be like doing it with one hand tied behind your back”. He also notes that the young journalists alongside whom he is now working are enthusiasts for technologies that are every bit as alien to him, as the web was to his editors when he first joined the newsroom.
Jha anticipates that boundaries between print, television and the internet will continue blur until it is no longer clear to the consumer which channels started out on which legacy platform. It will never deflect him from the medium that he calls his first love, though. “Funnily enough, the challenges of working in video have made me a much better writer”, he says. “I now think much more visually, and particularly in longer pieces, think of how one scene leads to another. Writing will always be what I enjoy doing most.”