Nancy Barnes: Star Tribune journalists are moving beyond print

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune Editor
  • Updated: June 29, 2008 - 11:09 AM

Video and voice are joining words and still photos on our website. It's definitely a change in how we operate.

For many years, most print journalists have been able to remain invisible to the public, except for bylines. We've prided ourselves on our grittiness, and -- let's be honest -- we've often made fun of our broadcast colleagues for their attention to clothes, fashion, hair and makeup.

Indeed, the less-than-fashionable street reporter has been a caricature in many a Hollywood production featuring newspapers. One of my oldest friends (who shall remain nameless) simply cannot make it to 3 p.m. without splashing coffee on his wrinkled shirt, which has never stayed tucked into his pants for an entire day of his career.

Now, however, the very visual world in which we live has caught up with the ink-stained wretches of your traditional newspaper. The camera is invading our newsroom, and it is making for some fine comedy here on Portland Avenue. This year, we are rapidly increasing our training in and production of news and entertainment video to enliven our website, diversify our news and prepare for mobile delivery.

What's funny about that? Well, consider that most of us were hired because we had a knack for digging out information, for writing and for shooting pictures -- not because of how we looked on camera. Increasingly, however, our journalists are being asked to step in front of the lens and talk about the content they know best: home and gardening, sports, breaking news, personal finance. They find themselves worrying for the first time what the camera sees. "I wish I could have done this 20 years ago," muttered one of our editors about her appearances on the camera. "Do I need makeup?" "How does my hair look?" This is not the journalism we signed up for!

Nonetheless, this is serious work. The newspaper industry is in a depression, with advertising slumping and many readers permanently changing their habits. Hundreds of thousands of our customers still want a print newspaper; we expect that to be the core of our business for many years to come. But a growing number of readers simply want to go online. Others want their news read to them, or they want to watch it on video. It's no longer sufficient for a news company to put out a fine newspaper. We have to deliver the news anywhere, anytime, however the consumer wants it. Some days, this feels a bit like the old game where you see if you can jump up and down and pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. Now, can you do it on one foot?

In the last year, we have trained nearly half of our photographers to shoot documentary or breaking-news video. Once you could get this only on TV. Now we're determined to provide it to you on our website. We're also training reporters to bring along a very basic video camera on breaking-news assignments. They'll be asked to shoot video as well as collect information. Later this summer, we're bringing in experts to coach us in editing video and producing programming. We'll also coach people in voice, and -- yes, I'm afraid to say it -- some may even get makeup tips for the camera.

What does this mean for our readers? If you just read the newspaper, not much. But if you read the newspaper and go online during the day, you will see a growing presence of news video, entertainment video and programmed shows. We're trying to transform a site that was once a newspaper on the Web into one that takes full advantage of the medium. I'll not pretend that these are the most polished videos or the best performances of a journalist's career. We're doing some of this for the first time. We're testing and experimenting to see what drives audience and what does not. But before long, our website users will be able to access all the video and news they want from their mobile phones.

Despite the challenges, it has been inspiring to see print journalists embrace new ways of telling stories. Rick Sennott started as a photographer when newspapers were mostly black and white and the Web didn't exist. He was among the first to get trained in videography -- and is now leading the way for our staff on breaking-news videography. His goal as a photojournalist is to "produce images that act as a channel for true understanding and give a clear voice to the people being photographed. ... Today, they literally talk, cry or sing in the video we are producing on a daily basis."

To Sennott, the difference between still photography and video reporting is a little like the difference between hunting and gathering, in one case looking for the perfect moment and in the other collecting many details to tell a story. But he has come to enjoy both activities. "What I like about video journalism is that I can be a one-man band. I can shoot, report, edit and produce a story on deadline from the scene."

Connie Nelson, our Home+Garden editor, can be found on our website introducing you to fine homes around the metro area and giving gardening tips. She looks like quite the pro, even if she doesn't feel like it. "While I'm still not crazy about seeing myself on the small screen, I really enjoy how video reporting can bring to a story to life," she said. "You get the sights, the sounds. You can show rather than say. And you can make a personal connection."

She has also discovered that it's not as simple as just stepping in front of a camera.

"I've discovered there's a lot of prep work in videos, even simple how-tos. The shoots can be nerve-wracking. What if the source gets nervous and won't talk? What if I stumble over my words?"

When she's done, the online team still has hours of work to do, polishing and editing the video into one polished six-minute segment.

Regardless of how hard this transition is, there's a real benefit to us all. Instead of providing the community with news once a day, the Star Tribune is now delivering all day long, in all sorts of ways, creating a much more lively, ever-changing source of news, information, advertising and entertainment.

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