Q&A with Travis Fox, video journalist for washingtonpost.com

Shortly after Travis Fox joined the Washington Post in 1999 as a photo editor, he picked up a video camera that was sitting in the newsroom and slowly began producing a few pieces for the Web. Not that anyone was watching these videos–not even the Website’s editors. The joke in the newsroom at the time, says Fox, was that he didn’t want the executive editor to watch the videos because the pieces would invariably crash his computer and he worried that might dampen the editor’s laissez-faire attitude.

“It was a great place to learn and to let my own style come to forefront,” says Fox. “I didn’t have deadline pressure, I didn’t have editorial pressure, I didn’t have many viewers.”

How times have changed. Fox is now one of seven “Video Journalists” for the Washington Post. He has produced pieces out of the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the United States, viewable here. This year, two of his pieces “Fueling Azerbaijan’s Future” and “Hurricane Katrina Coverage in New Orleans” are nominated for Emmy awards.

Travis Fox in 2004 reporting on tsunami damage to a Sri Lankan fishing village.

OJR spoke to Fox about how the role of an Internet video journalist is evolving at the Washington Post and what makes compelling video for the Web.

OJR: You said that hardly anyone was watching videos on the Washington Post site at first. What was the turning point that led to the creation of a “video journalist” at the Post?

Fox: I think it was the Iraq war. And it was doing stories that are high profile enough that people couldn’t help but notice. That’s when the top editors both at the Website and the newspaper noticed. They had known me before, obviously, but this was a chance to show that in a high pressure, dangerous situations we can tell stories and we can do journalism that’s on par with the newspaper.

OJR: How were these videos different than those on television that they made the top editors want to nurture this media?

Fox: I can’t speak for them but the fact that it was different from television was not necessarily so important. It was the fact that we were doing it. And I think my style in general is different from some parts of television but not all. It’s not reporter driven and it’s not celebrity-anchor driven. That’s not to say that it’s not heavily reported and heavily narrated because a lot of them are. I would say the ones we did in the beginning were more different from television–they were more character-driven pieces, less narration. We still do those types of pieces as well but we mix it up with more heavily-narrated pieces.

OJR: What is your subject’s reaction to being in a multimedia presentation versus being in the print version of the Post? Is there still a preference nowadays?

Fox: I think when I say I am from washingtonpost.com and I have a video camera they automatically think Washington Post and they think video and the two don’t match up–much to their surprise. I think it depends on where you are. I do a lot of foreign coverage and I think abroad it is not as surprising as it is here in the States. But I think here especially, in the last year, Web video is becoming so common that it is surprising fewer and fewer people. I should also say that a lot of my pieces do air on television in different forms. So I always say both. I say that it’s for the Washington Post online but also for possibly for other places.

OJR: So do you frame shots differently for the Web and for TV, or do you work with the same material for both?

Fox: In terms of the production of the video, I think they are pretty close to being the same. You can make the argument that the video screen is smaller on the computer monitor, therefore we should shoot tighter. But shooting tight is a good technique, whether you are shooting for television or for film. People typically sit closer to their computer screens than to their televisions, so proportionally the Web video looks bigger. I don’t think it makes any difference.

In the beginning, there was the notion that you should have everything on a tripod to be stable because any sort of camera shake would cause the pixels to be refreshed, which would slow down your processor, which would slow down your computer. So that’s still a concern, if you are dealing with slower computers.

I would shoot it the same way, whether it was for television or whether it was for the web. I have a certain style and a certain way of shooting, that’s considered a Web style or Web way of shooting perhaps because that’s where I learnt how to do video. But it also works on television.

OJR: Do you cut it differently for TV than you do for the Web?

Fox: These are interesting questions. You know my friends who work for television tell me that I am so lucky because people actually click my videos. That means they want to watch them. Whereas their shows on television are in the background when someone is making dinner. And at the same time I am jealous of them because it’s a better experience when you are on your couch and watching it on television than when you are on your computer monitor.

So there are different ways of thinking about how to cut it. This is something we constantly talk about and we constantly deal. How tight and how fast moving to cut it? On television you want it to be fast moving because you don’t want anyone to click on their remote control and go to the next channel, right? You want to keep their attention all the time.

Whereas on the web you don’t want someone to go to a different Website. Obviously you want it to be tight and you want it to be fast moving. I don’t have the answers but it’s a different medium and it is interesting to
think of it in different ways.

OJR: What new ways of conveying a news story have you tried with which you were pleasantly surprised?

I think the key is always finding the right balance between the different media. So when to do a video? When to do some sort of Flash graphics? When to do panorama? What’s the combination? When to do a blog? And how to integrate them all? How to do that without getting completely overwhelmed by everything?

There are several projects that I think have been successful. Those would probably be ones where you took the various media and combined them in a way that was logical, using a blog for user feedback and conversation; using the panoramas to give you a sense of place; and using videos to give you a sense of people, the character, the location, and then combing the two to give you a full picture of the story. As opposed to just doing a video, just doing a blog, just doing a photo gallery. I think those are the most successful examples.

OJR: What new ways of conveying a news story have you tried that fell flat? Can you tweak it to make that idea work?

Fox: The project I am thinking of is both a success in some ways and a failure in others. I did one in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami. It’s using videos to capture the characters’ stories, panoramas for a sense of place and destruction, and a blog to update the stories that you initially got from the videos. In the beginning I feel like it was very successful in combining those media and telling the story, but at the same time this was one where we underestimated how much effort it would take to maintain the blog over the days and the months after the Tsunami.

OJR: So when you try something like that again or if you’ve tried something…

Fox: I’ll think twice about it…

OJR: …you’ll think twice about it. That’s a big issue: maintaining a blog.

Fox: Yeah, I think the lesson is that you just need to decide whether the story is worth that long-term work commitment or not. Or you see how it is for the first few months and you see what kind of readership you get and
then you decide what to do with it at that point.

OJR: Is there a model that has worked well that you plan to keep working with?

Fox: My job now is really to do evergreen projects. I’m not really doing news. I covered the Lebanon war and Gaza this summer but typically I am supposed to be doing these evergreen-type projects. And I think that’s also a good model that we have tried in the past and we’ve liked so much that it is now kind of institutionalized.

These projects are thematic in nature. The themes will be reoccurring in the news. The themes, the issues that have been in the news, and will be in the news over and over again. The nuclear issue, and Iran, groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, for example. I did a piece a couple of years ago on the fence in the West Bank that Israel is building. This is an issue that’s in the news over and over and over again. The piece had stories from each side of the fence, panorama photos, and a Flash graphic showing the route of the fence.

And now every story the Post has about the fence (we have had several and we will continue to have several in the future) this project will be linked to them This project gets traffic over, and over, and over again. Traffic on the web is not like a subscription to a newspaper–the same people reading it over and over again. You are going to get new traffic from different places constantly. Because this project is a couple of years old, our regular users have already clicked on it but the new user who are coming in to the new story from Yahoo or from Google are going to click on it. And it is going to draw traffic and it’s going to give depth to the article. Now I am setting out in the next year to do these types of projects that are reoccurring themes that are in the news.

That’s not the nuts and bolts but that’s an example of trying something that has worked well. This Israel fence story is more than two years old and it continues to get good traffic and that’s something that we noticed. So that’s essentially a good model–not covering news on a day in and day out basis but the kind of stories that have legs and can go on for several weeks, several months, several years even.
OJR: You started with photography and moved on to video. How do you think your role is likely to evolve over the next five years?

Fox: I am content with video. Video is where I have made my mark. Video is what I want to do. I am not interested in doing still photography. There are many gifted still photographers out there. But it’s more difficult for single individuals to produce videos from start to finish because traditionally television news has worked in a crew. It is a more unusual for people like me who produce video from start to finish. I’d like to keep exploring that. This video journalism vision of single authorship throughout the process will get you some really interesting results. And as the technology gets simpler, if more individuals shoot and cut video–like they create writing–you are going to get a lot more interesting styles, and a lot richer body of work as a whole. I am very committed to that process.

OJR: What about the role of video journalist within the paper and Website?

Fox: I think I it will be much more integrated with traditional news reporters at the newspaper. I think we will be working much more collaboratively. I would guess we are going work on their stories or work with them to develop their stories into video. We have had some successes with that but we haven’t nailed that down as much as we really need to find the right working relationship. We don’t want them to turn into television reporters, obviously. I don’t want to produce that type of video and we want to give them the time that they need to do newspaper reporting. But we want to be able to leverage their expertise into the video.

I would say the direction we are headed in is that I will continue to do my own video reporting, but at the same time probably become more integrated with the newsroom–both the dotcom and Post newsrooms are becoming more integrated.

I did a piece in Azerbaijan with Philip Kennicott, a Post reporter, that was nominated for an Emmy. That’s an example a successful collaboration. We didn’t actually work together ever– even our trips didn’t overlap to Azerbaijan–but we compared notes and we shared the reporting. He went first then I went second. He wrote the script and I voiced the script and then I fed him my reporting and he fed me his reporting and we came up with something. So to me that’s the kind of collaborative effort I am talking about.

OJR: Are there compelling pieces like that that you decide not to cover? Not because of time, not because of budget, not because of the topic itself, but that a new media treatment just won’t be compelling.

Fox: No, I think there is always a compelling way to cover a story. But I don’t think that that means in video. Certain stories are visual and good for video. Katrina, the tsunami, they are good in video and photographs. Certain stories are better in video but not so good in still pictures. And some stories are tough to do in either medium. For example, in Lebanon we did a series on Hezbollah during the war and this wasn’t war action stuff, this is more of a behind the scenes of Hezbollah as an organization. I think in video it worked out really well because you get a sense of the characters and how the organization works. But in still photographs that would not be a very compelling photo essay. In southern Lebanon I was working with print reporters and photographers and it was really interesting to see where the focus of each of the group lied. I chose to go do video somewhere in the middle between the print reporters and still photographers.

A story about the new budget on Capital Hill would probably be tough to do in either stills or a video. That would be more of a print story or a Flash graphics story.

OJR: The Azerbaijan piece, did it appear on Web only?

Fox: Online and it also appeared on television on PBS’s “Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria”, it’s on the podcast, it appeared as an article in the newspaper. This is convergence. We are leveraging this over multiple platforms.
We said that in some ways we are functioning like a production company. We are producing videos for the Website, for our podcast. We were also selling them to television.

So this is an example where we sold it to television, which is not only a very good money maker, it essentially pays for the expense of going abroad and covering the stories which aren’t cheap. It is also a way to market our content to a lot of different audiences. Something like ten times the people that saw it on PBS saw it on the Website and at the end of the show Zakaria said something like “for more of this video go to washingtonpost.com.”

OJR: Collaboration in the newsroom is more of a journalistic change. What impact do you expect from technical changes?

Fox: What’s really going to be exciting is the Internet as a delivery means not as an end media. For us to really compete with television, we have to get our videos to your living room television screen. Because no matter how good it is on the computer it’s never going to be as good as when it’s on your TV or when it’s on your high-definition plasma screen, right?

So I think in the next five years–or even sooner than that–we are going to see the Internet used as a means of delivery to compete with cable TV. We are already seeing that it’s technically possible. Getting Internet content delivered to your television–either through your TiVo or through the new Apple set-top box that is going to come out or through whatever box–and watching it on television in the same high definition quality as cable television, that is exciting. So think about that when you are setting your TiVo or whatever box you are going to be using in the future, you select a Survivor episode, news reports and the latest Washington Post documentary. And the next day, when you sit down to watch them, they will all look the same but one of them came through the Internet and two of them came through cable TV. But for the user it won’t matter.

I think a glimpse of that is through our video podcast that’s on iTunes. That’s kind of the first glimpse–it’s a small screen but it’s essentially the on-demand television that we need to get to. We sell the advertising against that. So we reap the benefits of that and we put it up and users download it and do whatever. But you know as soon as we make the jump onto your television, that’s really when things are going to get exciting. The industry is excited about Web video not because it’s good content or unusual content or it’s better than television, but because of the advertising. Advertising on television in general is lucrative and to be able to capture that type of lucrative advertising by bypassing the juggernaut of cable or broadcast is very exciting.

It’s not just for me or for newspaper sites, it’s for people running their blogs. You can now essentially be your own broadcast station. It’s another one of those milestones that we are crossing on the Internet.

Sandeep Junnarkar is an associate professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (The City University of New York). He has reported for @times, the New York Times’ first presence on the Web, as well as News.com. If there is a new media journalist who you would like to see featured in a Q&A, email Sandeep here.

About Sandeep Junnarkar

SANDEEP JUNNARKAR is an associate professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (The City University of New York). He entered the online journalism world at its infancy in 1994 as part of a team gathered to present The New York Times on America Online, a service called @times. He later became a breaking news editor, writer and Web producer when the paper went live on the Internet as The New York Times on the Web. He served as a reporter and New York Bureau chief for News.com from 1998 to 2003.He received a Masters in Journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia in 1994. He completed his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley.


  1. This is a wonderful interview. Fox covers so many angles that a lot of people in the journalism field are curious about today. It’s especially good that he touches on the question, “How does The Post finance this video, or make it pay for itself?” Not only by creating evergreen work that draws people to the Web site, but also by selling the video to TV outlets and on iTunes. Well done!