Painting with the palette of the Web: a pointillistic approach to storytelling

Backpack journalist and multimedia storyteller Kevin Sites stopped by USC Annenberg this week to talk about his new book and documentary, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars and how solo journalists can innovate within new media.

One-man band

The increasingly popular one-man news bureau – a solo journalist who gathers news using multimedia tools – should leverage each medium to further engage the reader, said Sites.

In September 2005, Sites became Yahoo News’s first original content correspondent, pioneering the “one-man band.” Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone showcased an ambitious undertaking: a one-year trip to all the major conflicts zones around the world reported by Sites, with video, text, and still photography.

Carrying over 60 pounds of equipment, Sites leveraged each medium’s unique strengths to tell his stories. Video was for the “inherent drama,” the “motion” of the world – capturing verbs like dancing, singing, talking, exploding. Text was for “nuance,” the “details that bring a story to life.” Still photography was reserved for portraits to create a powerful “connection to someone’s face,” explained Sites.

Reporting simultaneously in three dimensions is “not a replacement for mainstream media… but an amplification of it,” said Sites. By putting a human face on the global conflicts and “stringing those stories together so that when you see them online, perhaps collectively, cumulatively, they provide a greater idea of what’s happening in that conflict zone.”

Sites views news in new media as not the “last word… but the first word” to pull the reader into the story. “The computer that delivers news is also a tool for you to respond to the information.” Under the intimate portraits and videos of ordinary people caught in war, Sites provided links to the chronology of the conflict (BBC country profiles) and to possible solutions (NGOs and political organizations).

The site drew two million viewers a week. Sites’ workload was heavy: Spending about ten days in each war zone, he transmitted a 600-1,200-word story, five to 15 photographs, and two to three videos every day.

“In some ways I felt that doing this project was a bit of penitence for my journalistic sins of past,” said Sites.

He was referring to November 2004. While covering the battle of Falluja as a pool correspondent, Sites shot a highly controversial video of a U.S. Marine shooting and killing a wounded, unarmed Iraqi insurgent stretched out on the ground of a mosque. Most international networks ran the full tape. All the American networks blacked out the shooting.

“It was absolutely the wrong decision,” recounted Sites, who supported censoring at the time. He explained, “That videotape to me had the potential of creating more bloodshed,” and that conflicted with the journalistic ethic of minimizing harm.

“We failed the public,” Sites admitted. “It wasn’t the government. It wasn’t the military… We censored ourselves.” Subsequently, Sites wrote a 2,500-word open letter to the Marines involved in the shooting on his blog, retelling the story of the shooting and putting it in context. That piece was picked up by newspapers and TV stations around the world.

“What that demonstrated to me was the power of online media in telling a more complete – and sometimes more accurate story than traditional media,” said Sites.

Focus on characters

After Sites’ return from the Hot Zone (and a year off scuba diving to decompress), he and Yahoo continued their foray into original reporting in May 2007, albeit with a dramatic change of subject. “People of the Web” is a series of articles and four to four-and-a-half-minute videos featuring people who use the Internet to “bypass the traditional world.”

He profiles people who circumvent traditional approaches to acting (lonelygirl15), music (bands on MySpace), and art (Phil Hansen).

“What I wanted to do was reach into the computer, and pull out that human being,” said Sites. He looks for stories that contain a strong Web component, a colorful central character, a compelling visual, and an element of social relevance.

For example, Hansen, an X-ray-technician-cum-artist became famous not through galleries, but by broadcasting his art-making process via YouTube. His art is interactive. One particularly impressive project – on a ten-foot, circular canvas-wheel canvas – was created with the words of his viewers. Hansen asked people to write him a moment that changed their lives. Each letter appears as a tiny dot on the canvas, but the blended result was that of a picture of the artist’s own face, cradled by four hands.

Sites said that he’s beaten the mainstream media on most of these stories. Fox News, for example, reported on an online dating service for farmers after Sites covered it.

Reporting in color

The media of video, print and photography contain finer shades that journalists could explore, Sites said.

Within solo journalist broadcast reporting, for example, are at least four techniques that “don’t compete with each other,” demonstrated Sites. Each technique offers a subtly varied angle ranging from micro-view to macro-view.

First, in a traditional first person stand up, the reporter holds the camera at arm’s length and films himself speaking over events in the background. A variation of this technique is one in which the reporter does not himself appear on camera. In both cases, the solo journalist can pan the scene using himself as the center, turning in place, and drawing a circle with his arm and camera.

A third technique uses POV plus nat sound. Sites showed an example of a video of a Sudanese woman singing a rebel fight song to lull her malaria-stricken baby to sleep.

Using a fourth technique that Sites calls “post-impressionistic narration,” the reporter provides a sort of director’s-cut commentary. He watches a video with the viewer, talking over the footage. The time lapse and informal narration offers a macro-view of the events on screen.

“Everyone talks about the Internet as the death knell for newspapers,” Sites said, “No, it’s TV that’s really bad online.” Whereas newspaper websites have become great sources of info, Sites said – they just need to learn how to monetize the Web – Sites criticized local TV websites for simply parking their aired stories on the Internet.

When asked if offering so many retellings of the same event would over-saturate the viewer, Sites replied, “It’s a matter of palette… It makes the journalist work harder.” And in the end, it benefits the viewers and the sources.

“The mediums are not displacing but enhancing each other, playing off each other in ways that are relevant,” Sites said. “TV didn’t kill radio. It transformed it.”

Building a perfect storm of journalism and multimedia

While in a masters program in photojournalism at the University of Missouri in the early 90s, Brian Storm started a company called MediaStorm. He envisioned producing photojournalism projects that would be published on CD-ROMs, the hot technology at the time. But he dropped the idea after graduation and went on to hold several high-profile positions in the New Media world, including director of multimedia at and vice president of News, Multimedia & Assignment Services for Corbis, a digital media agency founded and owned by Bill Gates.

But since Nov. 16, 2005, New York city-based MediaStorm has gathered force in its second coming as a multimedia journalism website, winning accolades and awards. OJR spoke to Brian Storm about how his boutique media company continues to crank out high-quality journalism.

OJR: What was the impetus for taking a fresh look at MediaStorm in 2005?

Storm: I looked at the landscape and I remembered vividly in 2000 when broadband penetration at home was 10 percent. But by 2005 or 2004, we actually hit 50 percent of the online households where broadband enabled, and that’s a sea change. You remember surfing with dial up. That was a different experience. Now it’s always connected. Broadband gives you real video speed.

The other thing that I was noticing was the desire for video advertising. Madison Avenue now was looking at the Web saying “Pre-roll video ads are a big deal,” to the tune of $275 million business in ’05 looking to go to $640 million in ’07, looking to triple in ’09 to $1.5 billion. I think those estimates are low. I think it is going to grow faster and bigger than that.

The other thing I noticed was there was a supply problem. Everybody was saying, “look there is demand to place these video ads but there is no content to place it against.” There was no inventory. And if you look at circulation going down and fragmented television programming, and about viewers moving to the Web, now all of a sudden you have Madison Avenue wanting to place $25 dollar CPM video ads in front of content. This is a huge financial opportunity that just didn’t exist a couple of years ago.

The other thing that has happened is what I call the democracy of production. So you think about things like this magic box that we are sitting next to. This is a Mac with 3 terabyte hard drive in it. I mean, it comes with a seatbelt. It’s a multimedia powerhouse machine. This is like a Hollywood production facility that we are sitting in front of in my apartment. And it’s not that expensive. Final Cut Pro is 1,200 bucks. And it’s like a Avid system that used to cost $250,000. HD video camera used to be $70,000. Now they are $5,000. I own a HD video camera, man.

So that’s the democracy of production–that’s a revolution in my mind.

So I wanted to get back to my publishing roots, frankly. I had seen a lot of great projects and I felt like I had developed a model for financing and producing and creating them. And I felt completely empowered because of production tools because the way the medium has matured.

It was just the right time to do it… to start this thing again.

OJR: You said you had developed a model for financing. How are you financially staying alive in the middle of Manhattan with four employees and putting out publication that is really about socially aware journalism?

Storm: How do you do that? You cash in on your relationships and you go build really high-end stuff for big name brands.

The Los Angeles Times hired us to produce a Gail Fisher project. It’s called “Blighted Homeland” it’s about Navajo living in Monument Valley where they’ve been doing all this uranium mining and so the people you know have been affected adversely because of that the mining. We’ve produced this project for the LA Times.

OJR: So their photographer collected the audio you worked with them to produce this?

Storm: Exactly, Gail actually came to New York stayed in our guest room–we have a guest room exactly for that reason. And Pam Chen produced this project. And I do the oversight.

Early on, hired me to produce video projects for a magazine called “Take 3” which was targeted at baby boomers. There was the story about “The Vanishing Americana” about the “Milk Man” and it was laden with sexual innuendos; it was really funny.

And then we did a piece called “The Sandwich Generation” which is also now on our site but we first produced it for MSNBC. It was at the level at which I want MediaStorm projects to be so it was also on MediaStorm.

Plus we do a lot of consulting. It’s standard interactive Web stuff but most companies don’t have teams that can produce that for them.

The other thing we are doing is that we really are acting as a multimedia agency. And I am really excited about this element.

There is the technology that we deployed for them so we work as both a consultant and a production arm. We help them tell the story but we also help them get up to speed with doing video.

OJR: Tell me about the auction model you tried out for selling a project last year?

Storm: I sent an e-mail out to 25 key clients inviting them to participate in a private auction to license the exclusive right to premier “Iraqi Kurdistan.” So the premier was auctioned off eBay-like. So what happened is I actually had ability for people to write their name, and publication, their e-mail address, their bid amount, and they’d hit send, and that would come to my cell phone in my e-mail and I would say yes, approve it. So we now have a template for doing digital auctioning of editorial content where we are allowing the client to drive the price up. I mean, I could have said $10,000. I could have guessed what that that’s what it was worth. It was far better to let the industry sort of decide. You know I mean that’s the key issue. Producing great content and trying to get it to the right publication and you get paid an appropriate fee to do it. I mean that to me seems to be the Holy Grail of trying to do these kinds of stories.

OJR: With the ability to route your content to TiVo over cable, you are poised to be a broadcast company…

Storm: In my mind we already are a broadcast company. We have this unique place on the web right now that we can do pretty much anything we want to do. I can publish any story I want. I know the next nine projects that we are going to produce for MediaStorm. I am sitting on 200 stories right now. Thirty of which I would love to produce for this site.

OJR: Your roots are of a photo editor… how do you see the Web’s impact on photojournalism?

Storm: So with this idea of a photojournalist going in and taking a picture but also doing audio reporting, we can give our subject a voice and I think that that is such a critical element. That changes the equation.

Most of us as photographers, we got into this because we didn’t want to write. We love journalism but we wanted to tell the story through photography. And because we are not necessarily great writers, the thing that’s so beautiful about sound is that we don’t have to write the story we can let the subject write it for us. And it’s just refreshing to hear the subject of a story tell you their story as opposed to some beautiful television person telling you… standing in front of the situation saying this is what you should be seeing and what you should be thinking. I don’t feel we need that.

I always describe it as documentary photojournalism meets National Public Radio. It’s like a combination of the fly on the wall of “This American Life” and the story telling approach they take meeting the sort of fly on the wall hands off approach that we take as a documentary photographers.

OJR: What does that say about just journalism in general? There is no more division of labor… the photographers, the print reporters, the radio reporters, the television reporters…. You have to be good at multiple things?

Storm: That’s the trend but for economic reasons and that bums me out. It shouldn’t be an economic decision.

What we should be doing in journalism is figuring out the very best way to tell a story. There’s division of labor on a breaking news story, where you’ve got people doing multiple things to try to meet the deadline. That’s one form of news.

The stories I work on are long term. The difference is that these photographers are authors. Only Olivier Jobard was on the story with “Kingsley’s Crossing.” He spent six months of his life on that story. Now if we would have had the resources to send a crew on that story, I think it would have changed the intimacy of it.

So I think there is a fine line between our just redoing this because it is just flat out cheaper to not send a sound guy.

OJR: Right, so you’ve been in this field for about 14 years. What’s really surprised you with MediaStorm about audience feedback? Enthusiasm for this kind of work?

Storm: Honestly it’s not surprised me that the “audience” has responded, because this medium is completely different from television, for example. The television has a signal that they send out there and they have to homogenize it frankly, because what they are trying to do with that one signal is trying to get as many people to watch it. So therefore they get stories on Britney Spears’ belly button because that’s going to give you more numbers.

The Web is completely different. I can have thousands of stories on my website and its exact opposite mentality which is I want to do a story about AIDS that will stand the test of time because those sort of affinity groups will find it and promote it. You will find people promoting “Bloodline” off their blog or off a foundation site or charities. They want advocacy work to be able to get people to be inspired and act and give.

There are a lot of interesting things about the way the audience is different. About 70 different countries hit our website. How do they find us? It’s all word of mouth. We don’t do any marketing. It is all viral conversation and its exact opposite of broadcast. When we launched on November 16, 2005, maybe 500 people watched our project that day. Today there are thousands of people watching those same projects who have never seen it before right so the whole time-shifting capability is really critical to this medium.

I wouldn’t say things have surprised me I think what they have really done is to encourage me to believe what I always believed about people: that they really do care and they do really want quality stories. I think mainstream journalism isn’t always set up to deliver that. They’ve got to feed the beast. They’ve got to shoot for numbers. The biggest problem with big journalism right now is answering to shareholders, instead of to their readers. They are trying to drive a profit margin at twenty seven percent instead of saying let’s invest in journalism and you know satisfy and gain readership. They are answering to the wrong matrix in my mind.

I hope this is just one example of the kind of company that is going to say that it’s time to take journalism back. I know I’m not going to make a pot of money with MediaStorm. I’m not going to. I’m just continuing to do stories that I believe in.

You know that’s that whole living a rich lifestyle thing. You know making money is a necessary evil to stay in business but it’s not our focus. It’s not like any of us got into journalism to make tons of money. We got into journalism because of the experiences—the rich lifestyle.

OJR: Nicholas Kristof, a columnist at the New York Times, recently invited readers to “tell the story” using the material he has gathered with his producer Naka Nathaniel on a trip to Darfur. What are your thoughts on audience participation-–helping with the process of production?

Storm: Well that to me, honestly, sounds like a gimmick–and that’s what that is. But if that gimmick gets more people to care about, and learn about, and understand what’s going on in Darfur, I’m for it.

I think citizen journalism is incredibly exciting because we need to engage the audience. We just do and getting them to tell their own stories or to comment on a story. I think that’s super important and valuable. I think we as professional journalists have to contemplate what that means. Breaking news is really not for us any more because there are going to be tons of people on the scene. We need to be the people who come in with our rich journalism skills and do the definitive story… the story of record if you will.

You can see more MediaStorm projects at Brian Storm can be reached at brian [at]

Forget the backpack, 'pocket journalism' is coming

[Editor’s note: We at OJR and USC Annenberg would like to wish you a happy holiday season before we take a break for the next two weeks. In the meantime, we leave you with a piece that might provoke little holiday gift envy, courtesy of our friend Clyde Bentley, an Associate Professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.]

“Backpack” journalism? How old fashioned. My newsroom is in my pocket.

I may have literally picked up the future of journalism while in London this fall. For the past two months I have field-tested a cell phone so sophisticated it defies that name. It’s the forerunner of a new generation of convergence device that could change the way we do our job.

I came to the UK to shepherd a class of Missouri School of Journalism students for four months while they learned how the rest of the world gets its news.

The trip gave me the opportunity to scratch one of my biggest technology itches. When I went to Korea a few years ago, I saw a society that was rapidly moving away from the laptop computer and toward hand-held super cell phones. But between the language barrier and my own awe, I never really figured out why the Koreans could watch video on their phones and I could only check my voice mail.

The answer to my question came from Mark Squires, head of communications for Nokia UK. Rather than give me a technical answer, he reminded me that it’s “Knock-y-ah” and handed me an impressive chunk of aluminum, silicon and glass. It looked something like Spock’s tricorder.

The Vulcan’s machine only worked in three dimensions, however. This N93 is on paper a 3G (Third Generation) cellular telephone. But in fact it shoots high quality still and video photos, displays them for you on a 2.4-inch active matrix screen or connects to a standard television, downloads any Web page you want, produces copy on Microsoft Word, displays your presentations on PowerPoint, keeps your expense account on Excel, opens that e-Book on Adobe Reader, records the mayor’s speech in digital audio, phones Mongolia free on Skype, polishes your shoes and teaches your kids Latin.

Well, maybe not the last two. But it does include a bar code reader if you are ever curious about those thick and thin lines.

I’m not a technologist, but I proudly speak basic Geek. Nevertheless, I was overwhelmed. Maybe hyperwhelmed.

The N93 is Nokia’s latest attempt to pack the whole technology world into a pocket-sized package. It is the big brother of the N90, a lighter and simpler camera-cum-telephone that has made American inroads and which several of my students gleefully tested.

In fact, a super telephone is just a pocket or purse away on any London street. People here can buy 3G telephones at any of the Orange, Carphone Warehouse, O2 or T-mobile shops that occupy every other doorway on High Street. As you watch the world go by from the second deck of a bus, the people around you check their e-mail or text messages, share photos, find a map to a restaurant or listen to music.

Yes, listen to music. The techno world predicted that video messaging would be the killer app for 3G. But the iPod generation discovered the system allowed them to download music or even music videos to play through the phone.

The N93 has a dandy MP3 player as well as an MP4 player for your videos. But I’m old fashioned – I liked the built-in FM radio.

As much as I loved to play with the buttons on the slick little machine, my job was to see if it had a future in the journalism world.

It does. And it will only get better as Nokia, Samsung and the other cellphone wizards improve the concept by making smaller and lighter units

Calling wonder boxes like the N93 a “cell phone” is a misnomer. They are advanced communications devices with telephony thrown in – more like a little laptop that can call home.

We are still installing a 3G network in the United States and it will be some time until it is ubiquitous. Japan and Korea are so far ahead they are looking at 4G and the European cell system upgraded to that level some time ago.

What are we are missing out on with our clunky second generation cell phones? Incredible bandwidth, for one. The 5 Mhz frequency of 3G allows 384 kbps from mobile systems and a blazing 2Mbps from stationary systems. This means mobile video calls are a reality. But it also means that we in the information world can burst tons of data back to the office and even stream video from our phone.

But that’s in the future for most of the U.S. And it’s not why I’m excited by a 4×6-inch device.

Even without the capacity of 3G, the N93 allows journalists to do almost everything they would with a host of other appliances. The phone comes with two cameras. The “ordinary” low-rez camera comes on when you flip open the phone, letting you see your own smiling face until you launch a video call.

But more significant is the 3.5 MP camera with a 3x optical zoom that tops the N93. Both my students and I used the camera to shoot everything from crowds to portraits to landscapes in London. We sent side-by-side test shots back to the Mizzou photojournalism department and found they were as sharp as those from my Canon A520 (usually in my other pocket) and quite usable for print and online reproduction.

It’s the video, however, that astounds. It records and plays at full VGA – 640 x 480 pixels – at 30 frames per second. One UK reviewer said the resolution combined with the optics competes with almost every amateur camcorder on the market. And we are not talking about brief clips here. Pop a miniSD chip into the expansion slot and you can shoot a 90-minute feature.

A journalist with only an N93 can then go to a coffee shop, edit the feature with the included Adobe Premiere software and send it to the office.

Oh, yea. Not having a 3G connection is less of a problem than it sounds. The N93 has built-in Wi-Fi.

Despite all that, I wasn’t ready to go into the field without my trusty PowerBook until I discovered the Microsoft Office suite and the ability to hook to a portable keyboard via Bluetooth or USB 2.0.

I didn’t have a keyboard available in London. But I once had one for my now-retired Palm Pilot. I loved the ability to pull the Palm from one pocket and the folded-but-full-sized keyboard from another and type for hours. The smaller screen is really not bad for text entry and becomes second-nature quickly. Remember, half the world communicates by text-messaging on even smaller screens and 10-key pads.

At this stage in the technology’s development, using a device such as the Nokia N93 is not yet a perfect solution for the journalists. There are many times when a bulky camera, a powerful computer or a sophisticated digital audio unit is needed. The N93 is chunky for a phone (about 6 ounces) but lighter than the combined pieces of equipment it replaces.

Squires said the larger size of business cell phones is less of a problem in Europe than in the U.S. Purchasing cell phones at face value instead of via a calling plan is so common that many people have multiple units. He has a wafer-thin “evening phone” to which he transfers his SIM when the workday is done, similar to a woman who exchanges her shoulder bag for an elegant clutch for an evening at the theater.

But I’d put up with the size. I will whimper when I give my loaner N93 back to Nokia and will have the $699 gadget on my wish list. I’m looking forward to the day I always work from a pocketful of technology.

My dream scenario is walking into a neighborhood in jeans and sweatshirt, an N93 in one pocket and a keyboard in the other. Sans my tell-tale computer bag and camera, I think I could be just one of the boys as I developed my contacts. And when the time came, I could record audio clips of background sounds, take a few photos of the street corner crowd then shoot a video clip of that great old codger. Back at the café, I could type my story, file it to the office and amble into the sunset.

Now that’s new media journalism. And who knows how we will do journalism when Nokea gets to the N203? Beam me up.