Great multimedia depends on interesting stories, and now the sound is just as important as the pictures, says John Donegan.
Digital-only futures, convergence, fragmentation, paywalls – these are the buzzwords of 2012, throwing up many questions as to the future of journalists and journalism. Journalist-entrepreneurs, de-industrialisation, multitasking, start-ups, digital-enablers – these may be some of the answers.
And where do photographers fit into this? How do we adapt what we have done in the past? Is there an audience? Will that audience pay for our work?
As photographer Tom Griggs put it: “A definition of progress needs to be moved to a sense of a photographer’s ability to present a fresh visual conversation flowing from the creative combination and balance of technology, form, content, context.” And this fresh visual conversation can be delivered with stills-based multimedia.
Is there an audience? Simply, yes: 6000 photographs are uploaded every minute to Flickr. Flickr and Instagram have achieved unimagined success because people want to consume photography and photojournalism in numbers never before imagined.
The first multimedia slide shows were produced for Australian newspapers a little over a decade ago. These early works were produced with analogue cameras on intricate software and published in a world where no social media tools existed to promote the work beyond the digital platform’s readership. They were not only critically acclaimed, but also rated relatively highly in the hit counts because they provided a new experience that maximised the possibilities of a digital platform.
Then in 2005 Joe Weiss developed Soundslides – a simple (for the user) piece of software that revolutionised the press photographer’s ability to quickly produce sound and stills multimedia. It coincided with the phenomenon of sharing content through social media, a shift which gives us access to a global audience of media consumers. People can surf on the waves of recommendation to original compelling content.
It doesn’t matter if you use Soundslides, or an expensive and more flexible software like Final Cut Pro, or freeware like iMovie – producing original engaging content that the viewer can access in a byte-light format is the key.
What makes good stills-based multimedia? The story is always the starting point. Interesting stories told well are the core of all good journalism.
Freelancer Chico Sanchez started producing multimedia in 2007 and is one of the best stills-based storytellers in the world. “The most valuable thing about multimedia is that it combines several formats to tell a story, so one learns several mediums for communicating,” he says.
Creating a narrative with images is the beginning. Do 15 random pictures from an event constitute a narrative? No. You have to invite the reader into the world of the subject.
Using tried and tested means of visual storytelling, start with an establishing shot: wide views of the event or location. Then bring the viewer closer with mid-range angles, and follow with a close-up. Use visual variety to keep the viewer engaged and hold them for the duration of the piece.
Selection of the images – or more importantly, deleting images – is the hardest discipline in the process. Fifteen good pictures chosen to build a narrative are better than 20 random images that may be eye-candy but don’t enhance the storytelling process.
While a simple way of producing multimedia is to lay music over a collection of pictures, the most compelling works have the narrative delivered by the subject, with ambient sounds from the location bedded under the interview.
I asked Chico Sanchez what he looked for. “The most important aspect of multimedia storytelling for me is sound. The voices of the people, and sounds of the places in my pictures tell the stories. If you take away the images, it’s like a radio piece. The audio reveals a lot more about the people and the places you are taking pictures of than the written word,” Sanchez explains.
Will the audience pay for our work? Yes. As long as we deliver interesting stories in a byte-light, platform-agnostic format.
We are no longer working in an old-fashioned world of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. As the industry changes to a digital-first model and newspaper companies become content delivery companies, these businesses are looking for lowest cost content to offset falling revenues. This will change depending on the success of paywalls, and the need for these companies to provide original, engaging content.
A freelancer needs to look at how to maximise sales not only of the original slideshow, but of the individual parts. Sanchez onsells the individual images through his agent Aurora. And the ambient sound effects collected for each story can be onsold through agencies such as audio stock.
Multimedia journalists should also look at a form of syndication of the slideshow. If you sell your work to an app-based, paywalled publisher in Australia, you should also reserve the right to sell the same story to app-based, paywalled publishers in the USA, Europe and Britain. While the internet is global, subscribers to these app-based, paywalled publications are usually bound by geography or nationality.
All these ideas can be viewed as a jumping-off point: rules that need to be broken so we can develop the storytelling experience for the benefit of the subject, the viewer, and the industry.
And the future? There is always a new aspect to explore. For Sanchez: “My next step is to learn to shoot video to mix with stills and audio.”
John Donegan is a freelance photographer and multimedia producer; www.1826media.com.au