I Watched 78 Multimedia Stories by Visual Journalists. What I Learned Will Shock You…

… because it shocked me into writing this kind of headline

I recently watched 78 “multimedia” stories from visual journalists, as a judge, and for the first time in my career, I came away with a shocking revelation.

Of all the stories I watched, not a single one sucked.

I mean this as faint praise.

I’ve been creating, watching and more recently judging “multimedia” produced by journalists for about 10 years and there were many times I have had to hide my head or look away in embarrassment. The reasons were many: Bad sound or no sound, shaky video, lack of scenes and sequences, no story arc, no characters, no pacing (“crazy aunt syndrome”), stories that might have worked best in video presented as audio slide shows, no story or, worse, a bad story. I’ll stop there.

So it was thrilling to see the quality of everyone’s work come up.

My worksheet from a different “multimedia” judging competition

Still, while all the stories were decent and some were quite strong, not a single one met the threshold that Brian Storm taught me: “Do you want to forward this to 10 of your friends right away?”

Not quite yet. But they’re getting closer. And in the hopes of getting them closer, faster, I wanted to share some notes I took while watching these stories.

A great story that is only talking heads

is not a great video story. Never.

Always use some ambient sound.

It gives a sense of place, unless your story actually takes place in a sound booth.

Audio mixing is important.

Our brain does it every second of the day so apply that same skill to your story.

Viewers want to see something happening .

They want to hear what’s going on when something happens. My colleague, Travis Fox, calls that X-roll, “ X-roll is when you get your interviewee’s money quotes in their natural environment,“ hopefully when they’re doing something related to their story.

Story structure is crucial.

Outline it on a sheet of paper before you start editing.

Start with something compelling.

Most of the time, context is important, but it’s probably not the most compelling thing in your story. People have a short attention span when watching stories online so they may never get to the interesting stuff if you start with the context.

Color correction.

There’s no way you’d let a picture go straight out of the camera into print without toning it (at least for contrast.) So why would you not apply the same effort to your video? These days color correction is easier than ever since Premiere added Lumetri, with Lightroom like color controls.

No more mournful piano scores,

please, please, please stop.

I’m excited that visual journalists are getting better at telling compelling stories, in part because they have videos like this as their competition.

Maybe it’ll be next year when I judge a journalism contest — perhaps even when they call the category “video” instead of “multimedia” — that I share a dozen or more stories with friends and strangers will click them into virality. I know it’s coming soon.

This powerful story from Tim Matsui was one of the videos I selected as a winner last year. My fellow judges were even crazier about it. Yes, I did share with 10 of my friends.

Bob Sacha is an award-winning filmmaker, photographer, editor and teacher. He’s created the video for projects that have won the Pulitzer Prize and a National News Emmy. He also leads workshops that teach video to photographers and anyone who loves visual storytelling.

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