Michelle Johnson on web video

Founding editor of Boston.com Michelle Johnson knows a thing or two about the power of video. In her lecture to digital journalism students at Boston University, Johnson discussed who was watching web video (everyone), the three tiers of videojournalism, and the importance of emotional impact when producing video for the web.

Johnson, a multimedia journalism professor herself at neighboring Boston University, leaned on Pew Research’s State of the Media report to give the students an overview of the web video audience.

As we can see above, the most popular video online is comedy or humor content. However, news is not very far behind, with 36 percent of the US adult population watching at least some sort of news video online.

Although Pew’s last State of the Media hypothesized the growth rate of web video audiences was slowing, Johnson pointed out that Pew didn’t factor in the role of mobile. “I suspect their numbers will change once they go back and start to look at the mobile impact of all this,” she said.

Johnson next outlined what she sees as three “tiers” of video for news. It is up to the news organization to determine which tier fits best with the reporting and what resources are like to produce the video.

Tier One: Breaking News

Tier one videos are mostly raw footage. If there is editing, it is minimal. Tier one videos are used mostly for breaking news, to convey an event in a way that is visceral and true to reality

Tier Two: Short package

Tier Two videos can be used for breaking news, feature reporting, and special reports. Johnson showed a video from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from Ferguson as an example of a great Tier Two production. Although these videos still have an unproduced feel, they are layered with a voiceover and minimal graphics. Tier Two videos usually run two to four minutes.

Tier Two videos can also be more polished, resembling the typical news package. This example from the Boston Globe told the story of the re-opening of Boylston Street after the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013. The video had voiceover, but reporter Scott LaPierre let the interviewees narrate their experiences rather than inserting his own voice into the piece.

Tier Three: Documentary style video

This level of web video is less of a news package and more of a free-standing documentary feature in itself. It can be produced to support and enhance a story, or can live on its own as a piece of videojournalism. These videos, usually five minutes or longer, feature strong characters with interesting angles and visuals. Johnson used the Globe’s “68 Blocks” series video to illustrate quality Tier Three video. “They have really strong central storytelling,” said Johnson. “Every time I watch it, I watch it all the way through, because it’s generally compelling.”

The Globe’s Bowdoin Geneva videos led the group into a conversation about the emotional impact that web video can bring to a story. Her advice:

  • Avoid being sensationalistic by managing the emotional impact and being fair to the story.
  • Focus on a central character and use his story to frame the reporting.
  • Utilize the “60 Minutes Shot,” going in tight to the face. This captures the emotion of the speaker.
  • When interviewing emotional or sensitive subjects, don’t start off the bat with the camera. Get them at ease, talk to them first, and then go to the car to get your camera.

Johnson uses the Bowdoin Geneva videos as an example of how the emotional impact of videojournalism can quickly invest you in a story in a way that words seldom do. “I’m not sure I would have connected with [the story] the way I did if I came into the story through the newspaper,” she said.

Johnson had many bits of practical advice for the students. The thread I found most interesting was her practical tips about video on the iPhone. “The technology keeps getting better,” Johnson said. Learn your phone and all its little tricks, like the HDR (high dynamic range) setting which allows you to choose between multiple shots taken in a burst. She also emphasized the usefulness of the iPhone app Videolicious for its ability to shoot, edit and publish all on mobile.

Although Johnson gave an excellent overview of the levels of web video, she recommended using sites like NewsU.org or Lynda.com for web courses and video tutorials.


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