My POYi Multimedia Judging Experience

Being a juror for an industry competition has its share of challenges and rewards. My primary concerns were twofold: 1) the sheer number of entries and 2) their quality. Being an entrant (from The NYTimes), I get how difficult it is to pick and choose from the year’s body of work. But editing is a huge part of our job, and learning to let go is a must. I also can appreciate how difficult it is to edit down your entries based on the target audience as each photo competition has its unique categories.

And who knows which lens each juror will bring? As Dan Chung’s post (Multimedia Practioners Reactions to the 2012 World Press Photo Multimedia Awards) on DSLR News Shooter reveals, every producer/editor would bring their own diverse points of view to the judging process. Which is extremely important.

However, I do think we can afford to edit down the submissions by taking a hard look in-house at the best work. Maybe there’s something to be gained by that hard look, turning a pre-judging experience into a free self-training experience?

A thought: Maybe increasing the entry fee might help edit our submissions down. I wouldn’t want to discourage independent producers from entering, so perhaps a sliding-scale formula would make the big guys pay more than solo shops by factoring in the number of names credited on each piece.

The rewards, however, outweigh the challenges. First, I get to watch some projects that were new to me. Obviously, it’s important for us to observe and watch what others in our industry are producing. But finding the time to do so, between running a desk, producing work and living lives, is difficult. So it was a pleasure to get away for a few days and discover some great projects. Of course, the downside was having to sit through some mediocre ones as well. It’s a clear reminder on the importance of starting strong and layering narratives with tension and intrigue to keep readers and viewers engaged.

As a manager and editor, I also benefit from looking at the work of a number of promising and upcoming stars. I find it encouraging to see several producers (in the profession as well as those coming from academic settings) finding their own voice. The recording and editing tools are second nature to them as storytellers. They just need more opportunities in finding the right stories.

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Overall, my experience was fantastic. Having judged a number of NPPA’s BOP competition in the past as well as World Press Photo last year, this year’s judging at POYi was appreciatively unique (they all are in their own way, of course) because of the progress of industry work, Director Rick Shaw’s rigor and smooth process and, most of all, the conversations I had with fellow judges who come from documentary filmmaking backgrounds. Being POYi, there were obviously discussions around visual storytelling. But the discussions weren’t focused around issues we’ve talked about years ago (ie., value of music, narration, etc.). It was predominantly around story, engagement and character.

Check out the full list of winners from POYi 69. Or watch them by category: 

Did it suck?

It was timely that Mike Davis posted “Does Story Telling Lose In Multimedia?" at the time of the POYi competition. Someone had mentioned the post over a dinner break, and I was ready to disagree with him as I don’t find multimedia sucking. Having had a chance to read it after the judging was over, I was glad to see that I agree with Mike for the most part. He outlined the three-commandment formula:

  1. Though shalt approach subject matter that mostly happened in the past.
  2. Thou shalt point a video/audio producing machine at a person looking at said machine and ask them questions, as the primary story telling medium.
  3. Thou shalt make video of something in the present tense that may or may not have anything to do with that past event and then overlay that video cleverly with the interview audio to suggest a connection between the two, without being too misleading.

Most journalism stories are driven by writers and doctrine says the written story is better told by recreating past events. Transfer this doctrine to multimedia and voilà, the three commandment approach is almost the only one available in a journalistic setting.

… the greatest story telling potential of audio and video and still photography is reached in the present tense.

We are held captive by our own industry. It’s extremely important we find inspiration from outside the industry. It’s one of the many reasons why I found judging the competition with documentary filmmakers stimulating. The form of narratives we strive for is more akin to documentary films than our television news counterparts.

Unfortunately, the economies of scale are at odds. Many doc filmmakers will spend weeks or months with their stories to get pivotal moments as they unfold in present time. And those pivotal moments are often characterized by exchanges between characters or events that have to happen both in audio as well as video. The hours of footage will require several more months or even years to edit to a film.

For many in the news cycle, we simply don’t have the time to wait for the right moment to unfold as we’re rolling sound and video. Take a look at the awards given for both POYi and World Press Photo. “The Uprising” from Lightbox was the only piece awarded that covered the Arab Spring, even though it was one of the biggest stories from 2011. And even then, the video was a sight-and-sound piece with still photography and ambient audio. (To be fair, “Dawn of a Revolution” was recognized with a mention in POYi. But it was also produced in the similar sight-and-sound fashion.)

The other project awarded that was in response to news, and the other big story from 2011, was “Flirt” by Damir Sagolj, which reviewed the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan. Again, it was mainly still photography and laid over the ambient sound of waves. Narration by the photographer and his experience packaged it into a photographer’s journal.

These projects have a place in our industry. Obviously, they all come from the news category from POYi. They are artful but fail to tell the FULL story. We don’t actually see key moments unfolding nor do we meet any characters. And as this medium evolves ever so closer to being a documentary film, the need to complete the package with other materials such as user-submitted or archival footage will be greater. I’m reminded of a documentary titled “Trouble the Water” in which the filmmakers weaved 15 minutes of home movie footage shot the day before and the morning of Hurricane Katrina.

Vérité

The Features and Issues categories generally represent stories that allowed photographers and filmmakers to spend some time with the stories and their characters. And it was in one of these categories where the judges became fully immersed in the discussion because we were really looking at the observational method of visual reporting as opposed of being directed.

It’s a good exercise. Go ahead: Watch several multimedia packages. Or even consider your own edit. How much was kept in the final edit that had true exchanges between characters or events? It’s easy to get those walks across the fields or the drive on the prairies because those visual sequences happen several times a day.

It’s not enough to say that using only the voice of the characters in your story makes your piece (cinéma) vérité. I feel that we’ve bent that definition a bit to help us make an argument for non-narrated pieces. But the better exercise is to count the moments of candid realism.

The economy of scale issue, again, is at odds.

An excellent case study would be to compare the film “Restrepo” by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington to “Hell and Back Again” by Danfung Dennis. Both great docs but told in their own way based on the material they ultimately captured. I’m sure many PJs have had discussions over drinks on this very topic. Another war doc, Armadillo, is also worth watching.

At the end, it was great to know that our discussions often relied on truth, transparency and honesty between the filmmaker and audience.

Distribution

During the thoughtful discussions of visual storytelling, vérité and engagement, I can’t help but think about the process of our judging work in isolation. I have two concerns:

  • Are we reviewing and recognizing the most impactful work out there?
  • Are we in the ideal setting for consuming this type of content?

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I started this post referencing the overwhelming number of entries we had to review and weed out. And although I am certain we recognized some truly strong work and awarded the best based on the dynamic and lens of the jury, I wonder if some were left behind or weren’t even entered in the first place.

Other web competitions have Viewers’ Choice or People’s Voice divisions. But even then, the number of projects have already been edited down to nominees. And leaving it up to John Q. Public may only bring us LOLCats and Kony2012. I opened up InteractiveNarratives.org to a wider pool of contributors in 2008, but it hasn’t reached the numbers I had hoped. This is one of the reasons why I relaunched IN’s original form as a Tumblr blog.

Only a couple of years old, tablets and e-readers have launched a resurgence of long-form storytelling in text. Think Atavist and Kindle Singles. And for as much as we encourage people to start with compelling tape to lure viewers in, I wonder whether there will come a day when we can be as patient in our small-screen storytelling as the filmmakers are on their big screens.

As this work continues to evolve ever more akin to documentary films, the computer is simply NOT the ideal medium for this type of long-form visual journalism. Every moment you’re on a computer (and smartphone as well), you’re fighting the urge to check your email or your Twitter or Facebook feed.

As an industry, we need to get our multimedia stories distributed on other channels. Hulu and Netflix would be a good start. An Interactive Narratives channel on HBO Go would be pretty sweet. And if Apple ever launches an iTV with an equivalent of Newsstand for video content publishers, it could potentially change everything.

Now here’s a thought to get our work into the mainstream: Why not bring back the Newsreel of yore to the modern age? If the film festivals play short docs before feature films, why don’t we show our multimedia features along with the movie trailers? And what if we had a way to review and critique multimedia features as we do during this judging experience as a way to demonstrate impact?

At least we’d be giving people a reason to talk and use their devices while in the theater.

Wishlist: A Newsstand for Video Content Publishers

We don’t have a TV. Seriously, I’m not saying that to sound hip. We cut the cable when we moved to New York City 5 years ago mainly to trim our monthly overhead. I moved from California without bringing my flat-screen TV (which wasn’t going to fit in my New York City apartment anyway). But we decided not to subscribe to cable television. We were going to stick with the web. And we don’t miss a thing. Well, OK… maybe I miss my 50-inch.


But since that time, significant strides have been made in video distribution: Hulu, Netflix’s Watch Instantly, iTunes Store’s TV Shows & Movies. Then iOS launches. I often wear bluetooth earbuds (Jaybird Freedom) when consuming most audio and/or video content on my iPhone and iPad. I build playlists on Vimeo & YouTube (Watch Later) via my social network (Fav on Twitter mostly). And then watch them with Denso at appropriate times (ie: lean back, while doing chores, at the gym). And, of course, there’s an array of video publisher content. TED is one of my favorites. The new Smithsonian Channel app is impressive too (see image below). All this to say that we are not short in excellent video content to be consumed on a computer, tablets and smart phones. We lack a way to organize it all.

Hence, my wishlist for a Newsstand for Video Content Publishers and Platforms (Vimeo & YouTube). But beyond a place to purchase/rent video content, but a one-stop shop for discovery, curation, consumption and share. And what if we can create and organize our own personal channel based on our own discovery (ie: Interactive Narratives Channel). Denso just launched this channel on their platform to allow for easier consumption. Maybe that could be a part of iTV from Apple.
 
Or maybe Hulu can support a bookmarklet called “Add to Queue.” That action will then put it on my Hulu Plus Queue.

Redefining Interactive Narratives & Multimedia Storytelling

AIGA recently updated its Pivot website and made available a few of the “main stage" presentations as videos from their convention in Phoenix. I’d recommend watching a few of them, including Jonathan Hoefler & Valerie Casey.
 
Accompany this with a recent interactive story we produced at The New York Times (more on this later), and I’m inspired to write this overdue post on my contributions to the conversation at AIGA-Pivot. It’s an opportunity to share some of my thoughts on what excites me today about interactive storytelling and the projects we are producing on the multimedia desk.
 
This past summer, Julie Beeler from Portland’s Second Story interactive studio graciously invited me to be on the Storytelling is Design and Design is Storytelling affinity session in Phoenix. I was honored to be a part of an impressive lineup, and it was apropos to be invited by Julie, as it was the work of her and partner Brad Johnson that inspired me to tell, explain and innovate in the space of Interactive Narratives.
 
Before we go down this interactive path, let me start with the importance of linear storytelling. An excellent story is often compelling because of its layers. Each layer reveals a new concept or an arc that compels the reader or viewer to continue their narrative journey. A cross-section of a sequoia tree, for example, is a visual way to show the layered life-cycle of a tree … in a linear fashion.
 
I can appreciate a well-told, impeccably paced linear story with complex layers. Books, movies and documentary films have been doing amazing and beautiful storytelling for decades, if not centuries. A number of sites and organizations, including i-Docs and DocLab, have helped in collecting some of the new work in the interactive documentary space.
 
And there are well-executed and well-told linear stories today in the multimedia space. I’m extremely proud of the recent work we’ve done at The Times, including the beautifully shot and edited Vanishing Minds, Lives Restored & A Year at War series.
 
Even before joining The Times in 2006, I launched Interactive Narratives to capture the best of online visual storytelling as practiced by journalists and storytellers from around the world. I included “narrative” in the site’s title because I wanted the site to reflect the sentiment and thought of storytelling but not necessarily confine the collection to journalism. The term “interactive” helps define the viewer’s experience. But over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate that the interaction is not just about the users’ experiences but it’s equally about the interplay of story elements to enhance the package in non-linear layers.  
 
I’m also inspired by how video games push the interactive narrative form. Beyond Pong, video games use storytelling to keep players engaged, peeling new layers in the arc as one “levels up” in the game.
 
Today, players are more accustomed to exploring a world outside the structured narrative. Take Super Mario Bros. A player could essentially zoom through the structured narrative on ground level. But what makes the game more compelling is the ability to take Mario through tunnels, underground caverns or even in the clouds to explore tangent story lines.
 
In the Grand Theft Auto series, the narrative structure widens even more as players have the ability to roam through the entire city landscape.
 
Pivot to Interactive Narratives in the journalism and documentary space. Are there opportunities to engage readers/viewers with multi-layered, non-linear stories? During my presentation, I quote an Indian saying about education that goes:
 
Tell me, and I will forget.
Show me, and I may remember.
Involve me, and I will understand.
The second line has resonated with me and our work in visual storytelling for years. The third line helps in redefining Interactive Narratives. 
At The Times, we’ve applied a number of innovative story forms to our journalism. This interactive treatment isn’t for every story. Some narratives should remain linear and simple. While others can be enhanced by layers presented in interactive forms.
 
The NYTimes examples below have a common structure: a main backbone narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. The narrative becomes the organizing structure that allows a reader/viewer to explore additional elements of the story. When I talk about non-linear narrative storytelling, as I did at Pivot, I use this diagram as a starting point:
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This diagram evolved from an earlier one from 2009.

This diagram changes based on the elements of the story and forms available. The length of the narrative or the size of the circles may change. The circles of “sidebars,” if you will, are tangent to the main narrative and have obvious in-and-out points to the main storyline. The fine line between discovery and confusion can be resolved by thoughtful visual design.
 
Here are a few examples of how The Times’ multimedia desk applied this type of story form to a number of stories and interactives; the media that carried the main narrative is noted in parentheses:

I’m extremely proud of the projects that helped innovate on this story form. But I’ll be the first to admit that we’re not quite there. I’m looking forward to the day when both the main narrative and these interactive “sidebars” work explicitly together and each are edited and designed as integrated and interactive components to the narrative.
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These sidebars are less about the story form and presentation/design and more about the experience and narrative flow. Imagine a written story or a video script written specifically to engage the reader/viewer in an interactive sidebar, or a sidebar that encourages a user to take a quiz, engage with an interactive graphic or offer their thoughts on Twitter or Facebook … or giving a reader/viewer a chance to go to a physical space and to share in the experience of the story augmented by their personal mobile device.

Now things can get interesting.

iPhone 4S

Just pre-ordered my iPhone 4S. After reading so many positive reviews and upon hearing that some people are already getting theirs in the mail, I just couldn’t take it any longer. Two things I’m thinking about while ordering:

  • Justified purchasing the 64GB one as I suspect I will no longer carry my Canon S95 around. And for folks who know me, that’s a huge step as I shoot stills and video nearly constantly.
  • I’m worry about my memory muscle even more with Siri. It sounds incredible.

That is all.

In Search of The Mavens

Yahoo’s announcement of dropping bookmarking service Delicious had many users scrambling to find alternatives. Being one of then, I eventually exported my links to pinboard. We’ll see if that was necessary but I hold hope that Delicious will indeed find another home.

It’s unfortunate that one of the many benefits of delicious was never exploited. To me, it had the potential of finding the Mavens, the “information specialists”, or “people we rely upon to connect us with new information.” Check out the sidebar, “How ReadWriteWeb Used Delicious,” from ReadWriteWeb’s “R.I.P. Delicious: You Were So Beautiful to Me" and you’ll see what I mean. (HT @ J Robinson)

Essentially, their sorting mechanism allowed them to find The Mavens:

Then we subscribed to the RSS feeds of all those peoples’ bookmarks in the future. We regularly find things that way before our competitors do.

I wonder, however, if there’s a way to go beyond this set of early Mavens. Rather than “grab URLs for companies and products,” it’ll be great if we can grab the URL based on the ones we bookmark or tag similarly. Of course, this may not lead to serendipitous discovery. Often times, you may find folks who are too similar to you.

However, if there was a way to discover beyond your immediate circle of influence, this list of Mavens might expose some very interesting finds. I did a presentation on this awhile back and used this slide to help illustrate how it might work.

Imagine, for example, that “cooking” was one of my frequently used tags. I might find value in a Maven that frequently tagged articles with “vegetables” but a serendipitous find might have come from a Maven that was really into “gardening” and so forth.

Essentially, your Mavens may have their own Mavens based on tangentially related topics. Those in the first and second circle of Mavens are your customized curators for web content. Finding and sorting their links will ultimately you save time and lead you to discover a new perspective beyond the typical echo chamber.

Update (1/9/2011)

Since Flipboard has yet to launch its semantic integration, News.me could appeal to those who need more than just an attractive layout of the news, or even popular trends, but need to find the news that’s highly relevant to them.

And, yes, it’s a need.

Update (10/29/2011)

I joined Pinterest last month. And although I’m not active, I can see how this could get interesting if the masses were to “collect” here, sort of speak. I especially like the ability to not simply save the URL as in delicious, but to “save” a discrete piece of media. In Pinterest, it’s currently images only. But I can imagine a much more powerful discovery engine if folks can “save” a collection of quotes or paragraphs in a sharable service. Pinterest also highlights the original “Pinner” of that particular piece of content. In Search of The Mavens can be that much closer.

Flipboard

While the interwebs is still buzzing about the new “social magazine” iPad app Flipboard, I thought I’d add my two cents to the fray. Despite some of the challenges (see “some obvious CONS” below), there are a number of brilliant things happening with the app that I hope inspires others moving forward.

Preloaded Headlines and Summary from my Twitter and Facebook Networks.

Ironically, this is the current buzz around the web: is Flipboard scraping content illegally?  Wherever this legal mumbo-jumbo falls, I do hope there’s a solution. It’s just brilliant. My wife commented yesterday on how she would use Twitter if the feed were displayed this way. Otherwise, the stream is just daunting. This magazine-like layout for my Twitter and Facebook stream is a significantly much easier and elegant solution. Power this functionality with Semantic Data and this magazine-like browsing experience will be remarkable.

Visual Mode to Content
The main page is an auto-rotate through the current feed’s set of photos/images. As a 4th screen (yes, I have 3 screen in my work space), I would use this visual mode as a picture frame into the day’s rotating news/buzz stream. Great idea. Obviously, the images are a bit random and I would love a way to determine the visual feed.



Social Network Integration
I can retweet, like and comment right in the app. Is there a reason to go to the website at this point? I’m sure Zuckerberg isn’t very happy about that.



Creative Grids
On pages where a gallery of images are present, Flipboard will automatically devote a grid of photos to the entire page. Smart.


There are some obvious CONS to the app:

  • Being a week out, it is a bit buggy.
  • I wish Twitter list actually work cause that would be great channels. And I wouldn’t feel so bad about how much effort I put into my relatively useless Twitter lists.
  • Content isn’t cached. So no subway reading.
  • The seemingly random selection for photos as well as their crops could stir an issue for visual purist.


And as the app evolves, I’d love to see:

  • Instapaper integration
  • Google Reader integration

Some reviews around the web:

UPDATE: Well, well, well… it looks like there is Instapaper via Settings. Thanks for the heads up, Marco!

The Roles of Video Games

I’m looking forward to diving into Tom Bissell’s latest book “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter" not only because I feel connected to the "gamers" genre but also because of the idea of combining interactive narratives with games intrigue me. In his recent interview with “On The Media,” Bissell points out:

This is a medium that is actually open to more directional influence from smart people working within it than any other popular medium around right now.

It’s exciting to me where this genre is going. Games themselves will certainly get more visually realistic and the interactions with them will be more engaging. But the idea of engaging users with compelling narrative and possibly even understanding the world around us is inspiring. And I can only imagine the opportunities to use the same techniques to push how we tell multimedia stories.

Obviously, the idea isn’t new. But here are a few links that might comb together some ideas as to where we are headed with these types of interactive narratives:

  • Play the News - “a web-based platform that brings interactive gaming elements to the online ‘news media’ industry changing the paradigm of news consumption from passive reading to active engagement.” (Poynter’s Sara Quinn interviewed Eric Brown and Asi Burak back in February of 2009 in “Interactivity, Role Playing in News Games Engage Readers”)
  • Enter the Story - “a thirty year project to convert the world’s greatest stories into adventure games”
  • News Games - “research on the relationship between journalism and videogames at Georgia Tech”
  • Saving the World Through Game Design (The New Yorker: May 2008) - Jane was also recently on TED  with “Gaming can make a better world.”
  • Design Outside the Box” Presentation (Dice 2010) - “Carnegie Mellon University Professor, Jesse Schell, dives into a world of game development which will emerge from the popular ‘Facebook Games’ era.”
  • Picture the Impossible - “Players participate in a range of activities, including casual web-based games, games that bring players out to events and locations throughout the city, and games that involve the tangible aspects of the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper itself.”

Other reviews of Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter”

Facebook famously co-opted the word “friend” and created a new verb.

This NYTimes’ article, “Are 5,001 Facebook Friends One Too Many?,” as well as the fact that Facebook apparently isn’t going away anytime soon with the failed “Quit Facebook Day,” got me thinking about how I  choose “friends” on FB.

I used to have this crazy rule that I needed to at least have had a drink with someone before I accepted or extended a “friendship.”  Better yet if I can recall the topic of our last conversation. Then I noticed how many of my old high school friends were on FB and it would nearly be impossible to go by the “drink” or “last conversation” rule.

And then I noticed how some folks were using it as their own branding tool and used it to extend their network. I would imagine that these folks accepted any request for friendship. I tried that out for a bit but quickly realized my news feed became all but meaningless. Now, I’m a bit more selective in industry circles, as I continue to use Facebook for personal social networks and Twitter for professional networks for the most part.

On occasion, my wife and I play this little game where she goes down through my list of friends on Facebook and if I can’t identify how I know them within five seconds, I un-friend them.

The iPad & Writing

I couldn’t agree more about the longer writing statement from Gizmodo’s Joel Johnson on “The iPad Is Such A Great Travel Computer That I’m Selling My Laptop" (via "The iPad as a writing coach’s dream" from Nieman Journalism Lab).

For long typing sessions, I found myself putting the keyboard on my lap while placing the iPad off to the side — sometimes not even in direct eyeshot.

It’s especially handy when you’re also sitting with an infant:


With that said, however, it is difficult to cite quotes from stories and posts cause the cut and paste from safari to my writing app, Simplenote, is just too cumbersome at the moment. I also wish there were better dictionary and thesaurus integration.