I recently went to “Convergence Journalism? Emerging Documentary and Multimedia Forms of News,” a discussion with Jason Spingarn-Koff, of the New York Times, and Alexandra Garcia, multimedia journalist at the Washington Post and current Neiman Fellow for journalism at Harvard University. Sponsored by the Open Doc Lab and moderated by Sarah Wolozin, the talk was part of the MIT Communications Forum, an ongoing series of talks held at the MIT Media Lab. Online multimedia journalism is growing and changing by leaps and bounds – there’s a lot of opportunity to try out new ways to do the news, and these journalists are experimenting, with successful results.
Jason Spingarn Koff is the series producer and curator of the NYT Op-docs section. Op-docs features short opinion videos and accompanying articles made by independent documentary filmmakers and artists, and in the past year it’s become an established part of editorial section of the Times. LEF grantees have contributed to Op-docs: Ashley Sabin and David Redmon did a story related to their film Girl Model, (“Scouted”) and Rebecca Richman Cohen profiled one of her subjects from “Code of the West” (“The Fight Over Medical Marijuana“).
It’s a chance for independent filmmakers to reach a large audience with their ideas about news-worthy issues, and the paper gets the advantage of video made by professional filmmakers who have an in-depth commitment to a subject and existing footage to work with. Op-docs also commissions filmmakers to make shorts based on specific issues – Jason shared one of the videos he’s done with with Casey Neistat – “Calorie Detective” a funny look at the truth behind mandatory nutritional information at chain restaurants in New York (bottom line – don’t trust any nutritional information, except at Subway). The Op-docs videos are cross-promoted in the paper version of the times and made available via YouTube and Hulu as well.
It’s a fresh approach that raises some questions; an audience member asked whether there might be a loss of journalistic quality in that written op-ed pieces in a major newspaper are usually assigned to people with expertise on the issue at hand – an academic or policy expert – whereas a documentary filmmaker might be most knowledgable about filmmaking itself. It’s definitely a shift, but Jason gives filmmakers credit – he pointed out that documentary filmmakers who are often devoting years to producing a documentary have to be authorities on their subjects, and they’re qualified to talk about them in a way that’s informative and in-depth.
As video/multimedia journalist at the Washington Post, Alexandra Garcia works as a one-man-band running her own camera and sound to generate stories. An early user of DSLR technology, she talked about having to meet the demands of both video and photo editors simultaneously while trying to maintain quality, interviewing and using the camera at the same time. It means wearing a lot of hats at once and it’s challenging. She showed us a video by a WP colleague (a video I wish I could find!) who captured the rapper T.I. saying on-camera, while the journalist is struggling to get all her equipment together, something to the effect of: “it’s like a low-budget movie set!” I’m sure independent documentary filmmakers can relate.
Alexandra is very excited, about the increased reach and the interactivity that video has added to the news. We watched some of the “Scene In” style videos/neighborhood profiles she’s filmed in DC (here’s “Scene In – Easter”); they’re really engaging features and Alexandra talked about how she reached out to readers for suggestions about where she should go to film next, and followed up on them. It’s the kind of engagement that actually connects the journalist and news consumers in a way that the paper version of the newspaper doesn’t.
The topic of fact-checking was raised – does the newspaper have a responsibility to make sure every statement made on-camera is researched and accurate? Do Op-Docs filmmakers and video journalists have to hand over transcripts of all their footage? The New York Times has a staff fact checker for its Op-docs section – these are opinion pieces but journalistic integrity still has to apply. Jason suggests that filmmakers really shouldn’t be afraid of fact-checking, since it can really make the work stronger.
Institutional backup and staffing – from professional fact-checkers to news editors to the computer programmers/journalists who create innovative interactive graphics for stories – is one of the main reasons I think independent filmmakers are, and should be, excited about collaborating with newspapers and other major online publications. There’s a lot of exciting new journalistic forms happening – both the panelists were very enthusiastic about “Snow Fall” a story created earlier this year by the New York Times about a terrifying avalanche in the Cascades. It seamlessly integrates maps, video, a written long-form piece to make the story feel immediate and dramatic and to give additional background. “Snowfall” points the way toward a new, satisfying user experience in online journalism, and the story is also a great reminder of why I never ski – definitely worth a read.