Every riveting magazine piece, every compelling photo essay, and every powerful video report that ever grabbed readers and viewers by the throat and left them surprised, moved, newly informed, curious, prodded into action, or pissed off—they all have one thing in common. They all began with an idea—a strong, clear, focused idea.
And every pointless, puzzling, ho-hum piece of journalism that ever lost its audience within a few seconds? Each began—and was immediately doomed—when the reporter/writer, photographer, videographer, or producer proposing the piece spoke these words to his or her editor, “Why don’t we do something on…?”
“Something on modern art in Urbino,” “something on the Saturday market,” “something on farms that cater to tourists….” Were any more sleep-inducing words ever spoken?
Here, then, comes the mother of all tips for creating a strong story idea:
Never think and never say, “Let’s do something on…”
Saying that you want to “do something on” is nothing more than waving your hands in a vague general direction. A responsible editor should not let you go off that way, but if you do you’ll stumble around haphazardly collecting information and people and images that you’ll have no chance of assembling into a coherent, interesting piece. You won’t end up with a story, just “something on….”
So what’s the difference between a genuine story idea and a “something on?” Below are a few examples from last summer’s courses in Urbino on international reporting for magazines and multimedia. These are initial story ideas that three students pitched to us. As you’ll see, each story idea consists of no more than a few phrases or sentences; they were delivered like “elevator pitches,” during quick check-ins between student reporters and faculty editors. But these brief descriptions contained the ingredients needed to convince the editors that the students had identified promising seeds for their stories and should move ahead with reporting.
- Rather than “something on farms that cater to tourists,” here’s how the first student described her story idea: “A profile of ‘The Farm of the Singers,’ a family-owned organic farm, just outside of Urbino, that is not only a producer of quality food and art, but also a center of learning.”
- Rather than “something on modern art in Urbino,” this student described her idea as: “A visit with Vitaliano Angelini, a renowned artist who has just returned home to Urbino. I would interview him about how Renaissance art and philosophy shape his colorful abstract paintings.”
- Rather than “something on the Saturday market,” this student described her idea as: “How to put together a great look from the low-cost clothes vendors at Urbino’s Saturday summer market: consumer advice meets fashion makeover.”
As these samples show, a genuine “story idea,” as opposed to a vague reference to “something on,” points the way to a solid story in the following ways:
- It suggests or summarizes the likely characters and content of the piece. (It doesn’t simply identify the general topic area the way a “something on…” statement does.)
- It begins to solve the “problem” of how to tell the story, also known as the vehicle or approach. (An interview with an artist, for example, or a visually driven how-to shopping guide.)
- It implies the structure of the story.
- It signals the rationale. Why does the story belong on this website, on this broadcast, or in this publication (and, maybe, why now)? How does the idea connect with the target audience’s needs and interests?
- It gives focus and direction to your reporting and your plans for the writing/photographing/video shooting phase. It makes the work ahead do-able.
- It’s a tool for the team. It defines the story for everyone who’s working on it, providing a common vision and a common language.
Of course, these six touchstones are barely discussed in a two-sentence story idea. That’s why we always push students to flesh them out, either in follow-up meetings or in full, written pitch memos.
And you’ve also got to nail the execution: the research, interviews, writing, shooting, and so on. But if you formulate your initial idea in a way that is specific, focused, and clearly relevant to your audience, you’ll avoid the trap of doing just “something on.”
And you’ll give yourself a great shot at creating a piece of journalism that is, well, really something.
Don’t listen to all the doom and gloom you’ve heard about the economy and the journalism profession. There are still fabulous opportunities in the field — but they are competitive. Here are some tips for getting ahead of the pack.
- Build up a strong and varied portfolio. Take every opportunity you can to publish your work. Whether it’s classwork you publish on a blog, stories you produce for an internship or work you freelance for a professional publication, your online portfolio should have a rich variety of content that displays your strengths in different media and your ability to tell different types of stories.
- Hone your multimedia skills. While few can be truly gifted at photography AND writing AND videography AND social media AND data journalism AND graphics, you should have at least some familiarity with all of these skills. That’s what it means to be a 21st century journalist.
- Choose one or two skills to focus on. Even as you develop proficiency in a variety of media, you should find one or two to focus on. Try to be the best photographer or writer or videojournalist you can be.
- Look for challenges. You want to be able to show employers you’re game for anything. Working as a journalist in a foreign country or tackling an ambitious project shows you can work outside your comfort zone. Many ieiMedia alumni report that employers ask a lot about what it was like to work as a journalist in a foreign country; such experiences set them apart from other students.
- Develop your brand. Aspiring journalists should have a strong and distinctive professional identity. Find a focus for your journalism persona — environmental reporter, numbercruncher, fashionjournalista, global journalist — and build on it. Make sure your professional website, Twitter account, Tumblr, professional Facebook page and LinkedIn account (you do have all of these, right?!), contribute to your brand.
- Build your audience. Once you’ve got a brand, you need to have an audience for it. Gather followers and then continue to offer them quality content that will keep them engaged and coming back for more. Connect on LinkedIn and Twitter with journalism professors and journalists you admire.
- Be professional at all times. Assume that potential employers are going to track your social media trail. Don’t put up photos, videos or text online that you wouldn’t want an employer to see. We’re not just talking here about photos of drunken parties — you know by now not to post stuff like that! But misspelled words, clunky writing, poorly composed photos, factual errors and lousy sound on videos also chip away at your credibility as a journalist. You should have high professional standards for ALL work that you publish online — whether it’s a tweet, a blog post for a class or a 5,000-word story.
- Grab opportunities. Apply for internships, freelance work, journalism study-abroad programs, part-time jobs — anything that will give you professional-quality experience. And when you have these opportunities, make a great impression. Meet your deadlines; proofread your work carefully. Show everyone you work with that you’re a pro.
- Network, network, network. Take any chance you get to meet and mingle with media professionals. That means joining journalism organizations, such as the Online News Association, Society of Professional Journalists, Hacks/Hackers, National Association of Black Journalists, National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, and Asian American Journalists Association and getting active. Go to conferences, training sessions, dinner meetings and other events. Many of these groups have student chapters or student board positions. Some, like the Online News Association, hire students to cover their events. Get involved.
- Foster that network. Simply joining groups and going to events isn’t enough. You need to follow up and stay in touch. Send an email message or, better yet, a hand-written note to people after you’ve made a connection. Stay in touch with your journalism professors and with professionals who speak at conferences and in classes. (A student of mine landed his first job with a magazine publisher who spoke to my class. The student asked great questions and after class the publisher invited him to stay in touch. That brief connection resulted in a part-time position that turned into a full-time job.) When you’ve published work you’re particularly proud of, share it with your network.
- Always be prepared. Make up business cards and carry them wherever you go. Make sure your resume and your professional website and/or blog are up to date and worth showing off. You never know when you’re going to run into someone who could connect you with a great opportunity.
- Do great work. Ask questions. Investigate. Probe. Capture details. Write beautifully. Shoot amazing photos. Tell great stories. Above all, the best way to become a journalist is to be one.
When Kat Russell traveled to Turkey with ieiMedia’s Istanbul Project in 2011 she didn’t just find an interesting place to spend a summer. She felt she had found a home. Now, as Kat finishes her degree in journalism at California State University, Northridge she dreams of building a life and career in the exotic city where the East and West collide. Russell has returned to Istanbul twice since her ieiMedia experience to travel, to visit with friends and to research putting down future roots in Turkey. (See Kat’s photographs of Istanbul on her website.)
We caught up with Kat recently as she was about to finish her final semester at CSU Northridge, where she is the multimedia editor for the Daily Sundial.
What prompted you to sign up for the Istanbul Project?
I chose to sign up for The Istanbul Project for two main reasons: First, I wanted to gain foreign correspondence experience and to learn how to produce multimedia pieces. Second, I had never been to Turkey, nor any other predominantly Muslim culture and I really wanted to experience what that was like. Coming from a country where Muslims are regarded with suspicion and hate, I wanted to gain my own perspective and understanding.
Tell me about the story you produced there. How did you find the pantomime artist you interviewed? What challenges did the story present and how did you overcome them?
I had come to Turkey with the idea of writing about street kids in the city – an often overlooked and underemphasized problem. I envisioned working with local NGOs and social workers and the kids themselves. However, I quickly realized that this was not an easy task to execute and that it was quite a bit bigger than the program’s time frame would allow.
A week before the multimedia project was due, my project fell apart. I realized that I was going to have to find a new project and start over from scratch. That same day, my interpreter, Bürde, and I hit the pavement in search of a new subject. We were walking down Istikal (in Taksim), where there are tons of street performers, when we saw Janset – the pantomime. As we stood and watched her performance, I got excited – it was visually interesting, photogenic and she was compelling. When she finished, we approached her, introduced ourselves and asked her if we could do a piece on her and she agreed.
Once we found Janset, the rest was easy. The biggest obstacles I faced were the time pressure and my own internal barriers – having never done multimedia before, I found it to be incredibly intimidating and struggled with a lot of doubt and fear of failure. However, I have a mantra that I use in the face of fear – one foot in front of the other, just keep going – and so that’s what I did; I just kept going. I also worked closely with our multimedia advisor, Brent Foster – he was an amazing asset – and I asked for help when I felt lost or confused or doubtful. In the end, I managed to produce a piece that I am incredibly proud of.
What kind of reaction have you gotten to the piece you produced?
When I returned to the states I received a lot of praise for the pantomime piece. My advisor now uses it as a example of student work in his multimedia classes. The editorial staff of the Daily Sundial, our college newspaper, asked if I would be willing to write a weekly column chronicling my experiences in Turkey. Finally, the publisher of the Sundial, Melissa Lalum, wanted to enter my pantomime piece and some of my photographs from Turkey in several college journalism competitions. In January of this year, I was actually in Turkey again, and I received word from my publisher that my pantomime piece had placed 8th in the nation in the Hearst Journalism Awards multimedia competition. That was an unbelievable honor. This past week, I also received word that my piece received an honorable mention in the Associated Collegiate Press 2012 Multimedia Story of the Year competition – a national competition for college journalists. Again, it is an incredible honor.
Tell me about your love affair with Istanbul. What captivates you so about the place?
I have been asked so many times about my love for Istanbul and about why I feel such a connection to this city. Honestly, I have struggled to find adequate words to describe my feelings. When I first traveled to Istanbul last summer (2011), I never expected to find what I found there. I found a city that was teeming with vibrancy and life. I found oddities, contradictions, idiosyncrasies, rich culture and beautiful traditions. The hardest thing for me to explain is that I found what felt like home in Istanbul. In all my travels, this idea of searching for a place to call home had always been present in my mind – Istanbul is the first place where I felt like I had found that home. I don’t know why Istanbul is the place or what it is specifically that makes me want to live there – the only answer I have been able to give is that my heart as never felt so full and happy as it does when I am there.
How has your experience in the Istanbul Project affected your life/career plans?
My time in Istanbul has helped me to define what it is I really want to do in journalism and where it is that I really want to work and live. I have always had an interest in the Middle East, in Arabic countries and in Muslim cultures, but my experiences in Istanbul (a Near East country) really helped to ground me in those interests and really define those interests.
Istanbul also reignited my love for and interest in languages and in learning languages and since then I have been taking Turkish lessons and am looking forward to starting Arabic lessons next semester. When I returned from Istanbul, I knew where I wanted to live and what I wanted to do with my future.
Multimedia will play a large role in what is yet to come for me after I graduate from CSUN. Over the past two semesters, I have furthered my study and practice in producing multimedia pieces and worked to build a portfolio of my work. I have discovered that I am really partial to the realm of feature and documentary work as opposed to hard news. Although I love reporting and I am always interested in what is currently happening in the world, I find that I am more interested in the stories of the people impacted by world events and less interested in the fact, statistics and numbers of the event. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy sitting down with people and getting to know them, their lives and their struggles and that I love to give them the opportunity to voice those things.
Additionally, my time with ieiMedia introduced me to multimedia work and gave me a strong foundation in shooting and editing video, while igniting a new found passion. At first I found the multimedia to be really intimidating. I had never shot or edited video before – I am a still photographer normally – and I was doubtful of my ability in this new field. I owe a lot of my success and my newfound passion for multimedia work to Brent Foster – our multimedia instructor for the 2011 session. He worked closely with me, gave me instructions, helped me choose clips, edit my piece and find the narrative within the literal hours of footage I had collected. He showed me how to find usable seconds within a clip when all I saw was something I couldn’t use. He taught me to take the clips in moments rather than its entirety – something I now teach my multimedia students.
Today I am the multimedia editor for the Daily Sundial, the CSUN college paper. My job consists mostly of teaching students how to produce multimedia pieces for themselves. I teach them the way I was taught. I sit down with them and discuss the methodology, I review their footage with them, I show them what they did that was great and where/how they can improve. It’s something that I am really enjoying doing and it reaffirms for me, on a daily basis, my love for and my capability in what I do.
What advice do you have for students considering an ieiMedia program or other study-abroad experience?
The advice that I have to give to future Istanbul Project students is the same advice I give to my current group of students at CSUN: keep going in the face of doubt, frustration and fear.
Istanbul is an amazing place, but also a frustrating place to work in. One of the things that I learned early on while there is that it is better to show up than to call or email. Turks are not as prone to responding to phone messages or emails as we are here in the States. Be persistent – show up at the office of the person you want to interview, approach people face to face instead of emailing or calling; you will get better results this way.
Another thing I learned was to be flexible with my vision. When my original idea for the multimedia project fell through, I had to let it go and find something else and ultimately I walked away with a piece that has earned me national recognition and a sense of pride. Since then I have walked into scores of situations, which have required an ability to be flexible and adaptable. I now try to go into shooting without expectation of what the final product will look like and I find it much easier to work that way.
Also, keep in mind that your interpreters are assets. They are not assistants or people who happen to speak the language – they know the city, they know the cultural nuances and they can help you gain access to people an places that you might not able to on your own. Don’t just use them, work with them, befriend them and take into consideration that they have given up their valuable time to be of service to you.
Finally, Turkey is an amazingly beautiful and complex place, but it is extremely different from us – culturally and socially. Be respectful of that fact – adhere to what is socially acceptable there. Turks will appreciate your presence more if you show them respect and they are not afraid to let you know when they do not appreciate something. It is also important to understand that foreigners are held to a different standard than natives and to remember that things we wouldn’t think twice about here in the States may not be appreciated there. I guess what I am trying to say is that being respectful of their culture and their social traditions will lead to you having a much deeper and meaningful journey – at least that was my own experience.
Today’s young journalists need a broader set of skills than was required a couple of decades ago. Now that publishing has become a multi-platform activity, journalism students who will soon enter the job market need to know how to report, write, shoot photographs, and create basic video packages. And to do that, they need to own and become familiar with a few critical items of gear.
While it’s true that smart phones can record audio, photos, and video, they can’t produce the quality expected by serious publishers. The essential tool kit for today’s multimedia reporter should include these tools:
- Laptop computer
- Digital camera / video camera
- Audio recorder
Let’s consider these one at a time.
This is the first tool you will need to work as a “backpack” journalist. Your laptop should have enough memory to allow you to do basic photo, audio, and video editing. A computer with 4 to 8GB of RAM and a hard drive of 500GB should be enough for most needs.
The latest digital SLR cameras are not only good tools for still photography but they can also be used to shoot great quality HD video. Your basic lenses should include a wide angle, or wide angle zooms lens, plus a a normal lens with f/2.0 or wider aperture.
A good entry level kit to shoot both stills and video is the Nikon 3100 with 18-55mm lens, which costs around $550. A longer lens is sometimes useful, and the same camera kit but with an additional telephoto zoom lens will definitely be worth the investment. Canon’s entry level camera, a Rebel T3, starts at $450 and also shoots good quality HD video.
One of the weaknesses of the entry-level digital SLR cameras is that they do not have auxiliary mic inputs in addition to their built-in microphones. If you can shoot an interview close to your subject, in a quiet location, the built-in mic can often produce decent sound. However, to capture broadcast quality sound in less than ideal situations it is better to use auxiliary microphones or a separate audio recorder that you can place close to your source.
If you’re seriously committed to multimedia work, you should consider purchasing a camera that is a step or two higher than those listed above. My students who are “bitten” by the multimedia bug often move up to a Nikon D700 or a Canon 60D within a year of buying their first camera. These cameras will give you a bit more flexibility and are sturdier cameras that feel good in your hand.
If you cannot afford a DSLR kit, consider the high-end point-n-shoots and 4/3 format cameras. These are sometimes a bit less expensive than the cameras mentioned above and are smaller and easier to carry as you explore the world for stories. I’ll write about them in a future post.
Although there are quite a few recorders in the $200 to $500 range that meet the specifications needed for a multimedia journalist there is one recorder available for just over $100 that is useful for interviews, slideshow audio, and separate audio tracks for video: the Zoom H2. This recorder fits into a pocket and after a bit of practice you can easily produce high quality audio for your multimedia packages.
There are digital audio recorders available for under $100, but I have yet to see any that record at a level that is usable for anything other than taking notes. A lot of beginning reporters go for the low quality recorder that cost $50 to $70, but if they had spent a bit more money they could have purchased a better and more versatile tool.
Lastly, to get the most out of your laptop, camera, and audio recorder, make sure to put these essential supporting accessories in your multimedia kit:
- spare memory cards
- spare batteries
We’re so happy and proud when one of our former students leaves the nest–and lands a great journalism job. Here’s a dispatch from Samantha Blee, who was part of our magazine project in Urbino. Congratulations, Samantha!
In the summer of 2010, I participated in ieiMedia’s magazine program in Urbino, Italy. Today, the little pleasures of living in Urbino are still fresh in my memory. The stunning views of the surrounding countryside when looking over the city’s medieval walls. The taste of fresh gelato consumed in the main piazza. The passionate chatter of young Italian boys as they cheered for their team in the FIFA World Cup. If I close my eyes, I might as well be walking past the magnificent Palazzo Ducale with my friends from the program.
The lessons learned while studying journalism in a foreign country are still paying off. Shortly after returning to the United States, I started a Master’s program in Journalism and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., the city where I hoped to some day pursue a career at National Geographic. Luckily for me, when I walked into National Geographic’s headquarters that following fall for an internship interview, I had ieiMedia on my resume and a copy of our publication, Urbino Now, in hand.
IeiMedia gave me something that no normal classroom setting could provide: independence. Creating a magazine in another country is an invaluable experience. Not only are you sharpening basic journalistic skills, but you’re doing it completely out of your comfort zone. Working with translators becomes a big part of your writing process. Topics you’re covering might not even exist in America (The hidden caves of Camerano? The birthplace of Gioachino Rossini?). By the end of your time abroad, you get the sense that if you can do solid work here, you can do it anywhere, and that confidence becomes an important asset.
I spoke of these experiences in my interview, and was soon hired for my dream internship. Now I’m working full time with National Geographic Digital Media, and I fully believe that my time in Urbino helped me get to where I am today. The skills taught by ieiMedia are valuable in several fields; having a strong background in writing, photography, editing, design, planning, and organization is something that sets you apart from your peers. I still look back fondly on my experiences in Urbino, and will always be thankful for everything I gained through the program!
In 1930, Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk announced that Turkey’s principal city would be known only by its Muslim name, Istanbul. Constantinople, the Greek name in use since 330 AD, would no longer be recognized. Letters addressed “Constantinople” would be returned! That caused a stir.
But a silly swing song written in Turkey’s defense took the edge off Western pique. “They Might be Giants (Istanbul Not Constantinople)” later morphed into a cult hit for the Canadian group The Four Lads, and into Istanbul’s best-ever piece of global PR. The song still campily features in anglophone cartoons and movies.
It riffs on Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” popularized by Fred Astaire during the Great Depression.
Here’s a ska version, performed in Istanbul in 2010.
If there’s a Turkish version, I couldn’t find it. Undergraduate journalism students in ieiMedia’s Istanbul Project could pick up the story, for our summer 2012 web documentary chronicling Istanbul’s cosmopolitan heritage. What do Turks think of the song? I put the question to my Turkish husband. Never heard of it, he said.
Working with Prof. Brent Foster, Russell profiled Janset Karavan, an Istanbul writer and mime. Their interviews were conducted in Turkish, with Bahçeşehir University student Bürde Özçakır translating.
Russell, an undergraduate at California State University at Northridge, produced the story while on assignment for The Istanbul Project, a joint undergraduate foreign reporting program of ieiMedia and San Francisco State University. Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University hosts the three-credit program each summer.
Students practice reporting and writing about another culture, while learning to shoot photos and video, and to work with interpreters. Their stories are considered for publication in a digital magazine, and book.
The annual Hearst Journalism Awards Program is conducted under the auspices of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, and funded by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. The program’s mission is to support excellence in journalism and journalism education at U.S. colleges and universities.
The feisty Turkish republic that emerged from the Ottoman Empire in 1923 pledged to be a “Turkey for the Turks.” Yet as a foreigner visiting Istanbul, you’re unlikely to experience a monoethnic city.
France and Turkey may right now be blasting each other over whether the tragic expulsions and deaths of more than a million Armenians from the Ottoman Empire in 1915 constitute a “genocide,” but Turkish society fell in love with French culture a long time ago. The 19th century intelligentsia studied French literature, and Istanbul (then called Constantinople) happily promoted itself as the “Paris of the East.” A few years ago, in homage to binational amour, Istanbul built a French Street, decorating it with antique gas and coal-powered street lamps imported from Paris, the better to mimic Montmartre.
Students who join the ieiMedia study abroad program in the summer of 2012 will be covering this love-hate story of Franco-Turkish relations as we document Istanbul’s cosmopolitan heritage. (See the video below for a preview.)
Each student will be invited explore the ties between Istanbul and a country, ethnic group or resident minority. Then we’ll weave these stories into a web documentary incorporating student writing, photography and video. The best work will be published in a book.
As the wealthy capital of a multinational empire, Istanbul attracted ambitious people from around the world: Greek entrepreneurs and Armenian tradesmen; Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition; Albanian silversmiths who produced the finest filigree. Poles, Bosnians, Circassians, Georgians, Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Kurds all left their mark. So did British imperialists, Genoese bankers, German advisers and American missionaries, who established schools, churches and hospitals, some still operating today.
In its variety of neighborhoods, architecture, cuisine, books, views, music and dress, Istanbul still feels bound to that ancient cosmopolitanism. That’s probably why the city reminds me much more of my hometown, New York, than of some unicultural berg.
Here’s to our adventure.
Former NBC News President Reuven Frank once said, “the highest power of television journalism is not in the transmission of information, but in the transmission of experience.” While text is often better suited to telling the details of a story, the first person nature of video makes it well suited for conveying emotion and providing environmental context. With that in mind, one starts to see what types of stories, or aspects of larger stories, are best suited to each medium.
So, what are the key techniques of good video storytelling? Here’s a top ten list. (Thanks to Mark Anderson, former National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Television News Photographer of the Year, for some of these gems).
10. Avoid Big Mac stories. A Big Mac is made up of alternating pieces of bread, meat, bread, meat and bread. This is like a TV news package with two sound bites (meat) wrapped in pieces of narration or “track” (track, bite, track, bite, track). It’s the easiest type of story to create and requires only that you pick two sound bites and then write around them. The middle track or end track may contain a standup. So many stories are done with this basic approach, but it’s formulaic and boring.
9. Utilize an interspersing structure. Good visual stories keep the viewers attention with a sense of pacing. That often means liberal use of short pieces of natural sound up full, interspersed with short segments of narration. Reuven Frank said, “no one writes white space anymore.” If you find yourself writing long, continuous pieces of narration, ask if there are pieces of sound you can insert between sentences, and even phrases, to break up the monotony and provide white space.
8. Stories should have a clear beginning, middle and end. This is the essence of good storytelling in all forms. It could be going from specific, to general, back to specific, but the structure should be clear.
7. Editing begins when shooting. The best shooters are also editors. They think about what shots they’ll want/need later when editing. Shooting sequences, various angles of view, sound-up full – these things can’t be created in editing if not acquired during shooting.
6. Hold conversations – don’t conduct interviews. It’s always best to converse with people in their natural settings as they are engaged in some activity related to the story. Mark Anderson says, “no more guys in ties behind desks.” If that’s the best setting for your interview, ask yourself if you really need that sound at all. Avoid taking someone out of their natural setting, standing them against a wall and conducting a formal interview.
5. Standups are non-essential. There could be cases where a reporter standup serves a purpose (such as demonstrating something or to provide perspective on something where you have no video), but these things tend to be used simply to get a reporters face on TV. Remember, you are not the story.
4. Involve the camera. Mark Anderson says, “If your shots aren’t good enough, you’re probably not close enough.” Shooting something from 20 feet away with a long focal length is not the same as a shot from 3 feet away with a short focal length even if the subject is the same size in both shots. The closer shot widens the background and seems more intimate.
3. Good sound is the essence of good video storytelling. Natural sound in the background provides environmental perspective and should be a part of all voice overs. However, most essential is finding good natural sound you can use “up full” on its own for short periods. Wireless mics are invaluable for good sound. The mic should be invisible and unobtrusive. Wire up your subject with a wireless mic and they’ll forget they’re even wearing it.
2. Avoid pans, zooms and tilts. (Previously titled “pans, zooms and tilts are evil.”) Yes, you may need to pan to follow action from time to time, but even in those cases it’s often better to “pan with your feet,” meaning to follow the action by walking alongside. There is no human perceptual equivalent to the zoom. It’s unnatural. The main purpose of a variable focal length lens is simply to give you different levels of magnification for the various shots you’ll need. And, don’t underestimate the value of a tripod. Unless you have hands of stone, you’ll get shaky video and it will look amateurish.
1. Vary your shots. The most common mistake for a beginning news videographer is to shoot almost all medium shots. Most neglected are wide shots and close-ups. Perhaps the most neglected is the close-up. Shoot many more close-ups than you think you can use. Also, think about sequences of long, medium and close-up shots with matched action.
The best examples of these stories often come from television stations in markets like Minneapolis, Denver and Seattle. These markets tend to have stations that win NPPA Station of the Year honors for their visual storytelling. Some of the very best examples don’t come from television at all. Look to the New York Times and Washington Post online sites for examples of well crafted, sound-centric video stories.
If a reporter can’t convincingly sell a story idea—to an editor or to a professor—the story may never be written, photographed, or produced. (It shouldn’t be, anyway.) For that reason, Susan West and I spend a significant amount of time in the early days of the Urbino magazine course laying out the elements of a perfect pitch.
We ask each student to write a memo that makes the case for the idea in one or two pages, which is very much like what we as magazine editors expect from professional freelance writers. Below is a handout from this past summer’s magazine course that summarizes the four key elements. What makes a pitch persuasive to you? Would you add anything to our list? Please post your comments below.
Elements of a Perfect Pitch
Urbino Magazine Project 2011
Focus: What is the one question that the story will answer? The single main point? The one thing you want the reader to take away? What do your target readers want to know about this subject area, this place, or this new development? Aim for their “sweet spot.” That is the focus, or angle, of your story. Specific, not general. Narrow, not “all about.”
Approach: How will you tell the story? What is the vehicle that will give the story structure and allow you to make all the salient points in a coherent, natural way? Will it be a first-person account, a straight analysis of the facts, a guided tour or travelogue (taking the reader along on a journey), a story woven together by a central anecdote, a 10-best list…? Whenever possible, give a sample of that approach in your pitch.
A Whiff of the Meat: Give some key tidbits of the information that the story will provide. Show that you have done enough research to know that there’s a there there. Ideally, the pitch previews the likely main points of the story. There’s no sense in bringing up an idea that may evaporate with the first few phone calls or after the first few interview questions. Preliminary reporting prevents nasty surprises, long hours, and drastic, unsatisfactory “save jobs” later.
Rationale: Why does the story belong in this magazine (and, maybe, why now)? How does the story hit the target reader’s sweet spot—serve his/her needs and interests? This is the “peg,” or “hook,” or justification for doing this particular story (at this particular moment). For example: You have identified an outdoor adventure sure to be of interest to the numerous nature enthusiasts among our readers and it is an easy bus ride from their base in Urbino. Or, your proposed story covers an authentic local cultural event that tourists can participate in—and it recurs every summer, when we know our readers will be in town. Whatever it is, your rationale must answer the question: Why are we offering this story to this reader in this magazine?
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Our Students Get Great Gigs
- Urbino Project – 2012
- Urbino Now Magazine – 2012
- Urbino Project – 2011
- Urbino Now Magazine – 2011
- Perpignan Project – 2011
- Istanbul Stories – 2011
- Faces of Istanbul (Book) – 2011
- Urbino Now Magazine – 2010
- Perpignan Project – 2010
- Urbino Project – 2009
- Armagh Project – 2009
- Urbino View Magazine – 2009
- Cagli Project – 2008
- Armagh Project – 2007
- Cagli Project – 2007
- Camerano Project – 2006
- Cagli Project – 2006
- Cagli Project – 2005
- Cagli Project – 2004
- Cagli Project – 2003
- Cagli Project – 2002
by Milana Katic, Indiana University, Urbino Project 2012