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Home > Publications > Quill > How one old reporting dog learned new multimedia tricks


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Monday, March 3, 2008
How one old reporting dog learned new multimedia tricks

Ron Sylvester

Dennis Decker took my call on a rainy, cold, slow news day. I’d been bugging the chief photojournalist and director of news operations for Wichita’s CBS affiliate for weeks. I needed his help figuring out how to connect the small Canon Elura point-and-shoot camcorder to the professional camera used by most television stations.

“It’s a baby camera,” Decker said.

The Canon Elura was the only video camera available a year ago at the Wichita Eagle. And I had an idea. I’ve spent the past eight years covering courts for the Eagle in a three-decade career as a working journalist. But the world around me was about to change, and I was determined to go with it.

At the Eagle and in newsrooms across the country, we were all hearing the same edict: You must contribute more online. My colleagues’ eyes glazed over; their faces grew ashen.

My beat — relentlessly tragic but never boring — was prime for the online world of breaking news and multimedia. Telling my wife I needed new electronics “for work,” I shopped for a smartphone and Bluetooth enabled foldable keyboard, a set up that fits in my suit pockets, so I could begin to file stories live from the courtroom and e-mail them back to our Web producers.

Kansas courts allow television cameras — one area where we’re years ahead of New York. But only one video camera is allowed in the courtroom. Everyone else pools video, lining up to connect one camera to another like a train. I could join in and use video to supplement my stories of criminal trials.

I was visiting Dennis because I had hit the first snag in my plan. I needed to make a small single plug running out of my $200 camera connect to separate audio and video channels in the $10,000-plus professional cameras that the TV stations used. And it needed to work.

Decker could have told me to go to hell and figure it out myself. But he spent that afternoon helping me experiment with settings and connections. He made me a shopping list to take to the electronics store, where I spent $30 on connectors.

I was not all swagger. Part of the reason multimedia didn’t intimidate me was that I come from a broadcast family. My dad was a news director for a television station in the 1960s. He probably faced some of the same questions as he decided to buy the station’s first sound film camera. My brother spent several years in radio, before deciding to go to medical school. I had grown up around people trying to patch together recorders, microphones and speakers. In my dad’s retirement years, he ran a satellite radio station out of his garage, years before Sirius.

And I had help. One of our photographers, Jaime Oppenheimer, and our photo editor, Brian Corn, were encouraging as they watched a lifelong writer struggle to learn how to frame a video shot. Jaime treated me like a partner, not an interloper. Some of my pictures with a point-and-shoot camera even ended up in the print addition. I started getting e-mails from Sherry Chisenhall, the executive editor of our newsroom. She wanted to see more, so I’ve kept working.

Our online producers, Jeff Butts and Nick Jungman, helped make my ideas workable and simply shrugged when something didn’t work.

Katie Lohrenz, our online content developer at Kansas.com who is more than 20 years younger and cooler than I, generously refrained from laughing at an old guy trying to learn new tricks in an online world. She taught me to use I-Movie and Final Cut to edit videos. She critiqued what I produced for our Web site. She suggested I try a personal blog to document my learning. That would become Technolo-J on SPJ.org (www.spj.org/blog/blogs/tech).

She encouraged me via e-mails, including one that linked to a blog and said “Rob Curley thinks you’re cool.”

Rob Curley, a fellow Kansan, is the reason people here refer to Lawrence.com when they talk about online journalism, rather than the Web site of my larger paper. Curley is now heading up WashingtonPost.com.

Curley has no idea who I am, or how cool I might be. But in his blog of April 2007, Curley talked about guys like me:

“I think there is a misconception that if you really want to get things done at a newspaper Web site, you need a ‘couple of kids right out of college,’” Curley wrote. “Not that things aren’t changing, but I’ve never really found that to be true. As of right now, I’ll take the mid-career ‘traditional’ journalist who still wants to kick some ass any old day.”

I am mid-career and I am trying to kick ass, but I have been most frustrated by what kicks back. Pesky problems such as connecting these cameras; fuzzy sound from a car air conditioner; video where I can see my arm holding the microphone. And, most surprising, some of my colleagues.

“You are not a videographer. You are a writer,” one newsroom veteran told me, as if the two were mutually exclusive. She soon took a job in public relations.

One editor pointed out that during this year of learning new skills and new software and new vocabulary, my Page 1A byline count fell. I honestly do not think anyone thinks about how much time it takes to learn all the new skills. But it does take time. And patience. And a willingness to stumble, which is hard for those of us comfortable with our hard-earned professional competence.

But the best way to adapt to online is by participating in it, through social networking sites and blogs. I’ve learned much from my RSS feeds from the blogs of Mindy McAdams of the University of Florida (mindymcadams.com/tojou), Richard Koci Hernandez’s Multimedia Shooter (multimediashooter.com) and Angela Grant (newsvideographer.com). These online mentors have become my friends, even though I know them only through cyberspace.

I signed up for MySpace and Facebook, which my wife teases me about relentlessly.

Our newsroom is now buying high-definition video cameras and professional MP3 audio recorders. I carry an audio recorder, microphones, headphones and a “baby” video camera in my satchel.

What we used to call newspapers are becoming newsrooms. The medium we use to deliver the news is evolving from a product affected by snow and rain and sloppy delivery to something people can read on their phones and iPods.

Whether our careers have involved words or pictures to this point, in the end we are all reporters and storytellers. We’re just now able to tell our stories in new ways, and with new tools to add layers and depth to them.

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