All this has happened before. All this will happen again.
It’s a common refrain that any Battlestar Galactica fan will recognize – the notion that history is destined to repeat itself over and over again.
And so it seems destined that the same will happen with Gannett.
Kate Walters, Senior Director, Video & Photo Products at Gannett, talks about the latest push the media company is making into video. For anyone who was working in the chain from 2005-2007 (including me), this should all sound familiar:
(You can read more about it here on Beet.TV)
The basic gist of it is this: The higher-ups at Gannett have determined that video is important. They will now force everyone to do it.
Some background information – In the mid-2000s, Gannett started sending a couple of folks from their broadcast division, Lane Michaelson and Harvey Mars, to various media properties the company owned to do what they called “Video Convergence Training.” They took a few folks hand-picked by their executive editors to go through an intense, week-long bootcamp in learning how to shoot and edit video. The leadership had determined that video was the future. This is how they decided to force every newspaper property to do it. Every newspaper did.
But Walters says now that only 5 to 10 Gannett newspaper sites are doing video now. What happened?
The big newspaper video glut happened. And this sort of well-intentioned, but misguided push was the reason it did – video is not the answer for everything. It is an answer to some things, just as words, photos and sound are answers to other things.
The appropriate medium for the story
One of the assignments I hand to my students in my multimedia class is to cover a story in photos, video and written words. Invariably, I get students pitching profiles of people who are essentially desk jockeys, or they’ll try to cover a small-time fair like it’s the biggest thing since sliced bread.
I ask them – would you want to watch a video, look at a photogallery and then read this story about this person or this event? Would you be able to even get that much out of it anyway?
That’s when the light bulb goes off, all the time – a good story is a good story, but it’s not always a good visual story. Sometimes it’s not worth more than a brief.
I’m not sure why that light bulb doesn’t go off for Walters, or the leadership she refers to.
It’s been doneThis was tried before, in 2006-2007, at Gannett. I was there to watch it firsthand.
The reason it didn’t succeed was not for poor training. The training was very good. I wouldn’t be a multimedia journalism professor today without that first workshop from Lane and Harvey. They did a fine job, and taught us all of the best practices for video journalism.
But after Lane and Harvey packed up and left my newspaper, the message got muddled. It wasn’t a conscious muddling; more of a gradual decline. One photographer let go here, a writer there. Soon, all we had time for was run-and-gun junk.
There were less bodies to do the work, but the demand for video from management didn’t change, though the demands from readers never really did – it was low most of the time. Walters throws out a number of video views increasing 461 percent year over year at a very small Gannett property, St. Cloud, – but what are the hard numbers to back that up? 461 percent of not a lot is still not a lot.
From a labor standpoint, even the best editors spend about one hour on a polished minute of video. That’s not counting the time to gather the video in the field. Add this onto a growing workload for a shrinking workforce (Gannett shed 20,000 jobs in the last six years) and you’re setting yourself up for failure.
And let’s not forget, we’re talking skilled visual journalists here – not writers shoehorned into a visual role. While some writers will discover their inner talent for visuals, most won’t, and it would work the same way if you forced all visual journalists into narrative journalism. You wouldn’t ask a podiatrist to perform brain surgery, even though both are doctors.
All journalists should know how to slip into any role – visual, writer, etc. – on any given day, but to do both and be expected to do it well day-in, day-out is unreasonable.
You want more video? Hire more visual journalists. You want more words? Hire more writers. Rare is the person who can do both. Hire them, too. Reinvest in field operatives instead of paying out bonuses to people who tarnished a good company.
Feet on the ground
Which brings me to this: Has Walters – who seems largely responsible for this push – ever actually shot or produced a video herself? More than once? On deadline?
I tried to reach out to her via Twitter, as I couldn’t track her e-mail down from Gannett’s site, but since she has yet to respond after almost two days (and she doesn’t have a lot of followers, so she had to have seen me) I’ll just have to go by what I’ve managed to dig up on her, mostly from her LinkedIn site.
As far as I can tell, she’s never committed journalism with a camera, despite her title. Her background (managing video “products” at AOL) and degree (a Johns Hopkins MBA), signals that she’s come up through the ranks from the advertisement side.
That’s not good enough.
To tell thousands of employees who are dealing with furloughs and reduced pay that they need to pick up a camera with their notepad and pens doesn’t make sense coming from someone who hasn’t ever really tried it.
Gannett’s attitude about visuals – that it is a “product” – is evident in Walters’ title: Senior Director, Video & Photo Products. Indeed, in the interview, Walters’ keeps referring to it as “content” and talks about “content acquisition.”
We’re not making widgets here, we’re telling peoples’ stories. We’re supposed to be the fourth estate.
A message for Kate Walters
“We really need a culture shift across all of our reporters. Traditional journalists need to change the way they are thinking about stories by adding video,” Walters says in the Beet.TV interview.
How about this for a culture shift, Ms. Walters – Take one of the Sony A1U cameras gathering dust in the nearest Gannett Local Information Center (newsroom to the rest of us) and shoot a news video. Then write a story. Do it all on deadline. For a month.
You’re about a year older than me, so take it from a peer who’s been there the first time they tried this – You don’t have the perspective on this that the feet on the ground do. So get that perspective through actual experience.
Then, instead of the widespread criticism you’re getting from the rank and file, you’ll actually have some weight behind your request that everyone shoot video on top of everything they are already doing.
More likely, you’ll probably back off this foolish idea.
And if I’m wrong – and you have a wealth of newspaper and visual journalism experience that I just wasn’t able to find, then let me know and I’ll set the record straight.