By KEN WEISS
It was a perfectly planned reporting trip to Florida. Or so I thought. A red tide of algae was sending toxic fumes ashore, causing coastal residents to cough and wheeze. Dead fish were choking the harbors and washing ashore. Bloated carcasses of turtles littered the beach. Los Angeles Times photographer Rick Loomis – who is trained to shoot video – was supposed to join me to record it all. As my cross-country flight landed in Tampa, I learned Loomis had been rerouted to Houston to await Hurricane Rita as it made landfall. He wouldn't be coming.
So there I was in Florida, carrying a video camera, a hefty tripod, assorted battery packs, wireless microphones and a fistful of blank videotapes. As soon as I reached my destination late that evening, I was met by residents ready to go public with their frustrations about red tide.
"Hold on," I told one of them as I unzipped a bag and pulled out the video camera. I hadn't really looked closely at the camera before, or its confusing assortment of knobs, dials and switches. I called our video guru's cell phone and reached him at home. "What can I do for you, Ken?" the groggy voice asked.
"How do you turn this damn thing on?"
Like it or not, video cameras are fast becoming part of the daily lives of print reporters. Smart newspapers realize that if they are going to attract and hold viewers on the World Wide Web, they need to do more than just post articles from the news pages. Mini-documentaries or even video snippets add something extra that can help lure a different type of audience to the newspaper's website. It worked with the Los Angeles Times' recent series called "Altered Oceans" (www.latimes.com/oceans). We put together 10 short videos, generally two to three minutes apiece, that generated a great deal of interest in the stories themselves. That's the kind of video project that this print reporter can get behind: Videos that inspire people to read.
After completing five video projects that accompanied various stories, I"m beginning to appreciate the power of the moving image. So much of what we write about the environment gets challenged by interest groups, industry lobbyists, government apologists or self-styled contrarians. I find it reassuring to collect videotape as backup. It's hard to refute video images of a gushing sewer pipe or industrial spill just as it is, say, to dismiss video images of L.A. police officers beating Rodney King.
Covering the environment is a natural subject for interesting video. Many of our topics offer great visuals: charismatic wildlife, interesting places or scenic habitat, and, all too often, disturbing pollutants or a cascade of environmental changes at the hand of our industrial society. Video can help us take readers and viewers along with us to be eyewitnesses to nature, both its thrills and its threats.
Videotapes are better than voice-only tapes for resurrecting material from an assignment that somehow eluded my notebook. How would I describe his facial hair or the color of his eyes? What were her exact words? What was written on that sign? All can be found on the videotape.
I often ask the photographer to do a slow, 360-degree spin with the camera, so I can later rely on the videotape to help me describe the surroundings. Of course, I need to have the luxury of time to review the tapes, something that often isn't possible under the crush of deadline. Video projects are much more manageable with non-deadline features and other long-term projects.
At the Los Angeles Times, some photographers are crosstrained to shoot video as well as still photographs. They are also instructed that their first priority is to get the best photographs possible for the newspaper. So during the reporting for the Altered Oceans series, Loomis often handed me the video camera as he started snapping pictures. This usually happened when he couldn't rest the camera on the ground. Now, I see myself as a reporter and writer. He sees me as his camera caddy. So all too often I would find myself with a notebook in one hand and a video camera in the other. I quickly learned I couldn't take notes with one hand. So I did the next best thing: I'd pull the trigger and start videotaping.
Loomis has developed a terrific eye as a photographer. I learned to piggyback on his talent. When he starts snapping pictures from a certain angle, I come up behind him and place the video camera just over his shoulder to get the same shot. It works brilliantly, except when he's using a flash.
Operating a video camera is relatively easy. Today's video cameras have automatic settings that adjust the focus and for different levels of lighting. I put it on automatic, press the trigger and go. I learned to avoid zooming in or out. Nor do I do much panning. The best shots are often ones during which the camera is stationary.
Gathering high-quality sound is much more difficult. Batteries seem to fail at the worst possible time, as do the connections between the camera and wireless lavaliere microphones. Those are the small ones you pin to the lapel of someone being interviewed. Sound is tricky stuff.
It can be arduous to boil down hours and hours of videotape into just a few minutes. Writing a script for the video and then voicing the narration reminds me of the value of clean, simple writing. Short sentences and simple words sound better to the ear.
I never would have expected it, but working with video has helped me improve my writing.
Ken Weiss is an environmental writer for the Los Angeles Times, focusing on coast and oceans.
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2007 issue.