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MSNBC finds documentary photo packages provide visual relief for click-weary web readers

On this Friday afternoon, MSNBC’s online photo director, a former college baseball shortstop with close-cropped hair and an easy grin, huddles in a humming corner of the high-tech MSNBC newsroom on the Microsoft main campus in Redmond, Wash.

He fields questions from seven different photo and audio editors as he flips channels on his computer/TV monitor, reviewing a dozen video feeds and a swirling demo of a future interactive TV version of the MSNBC Web site. Finally, he clicks to MSNBC’s next cover page, due to hit the site in three minutes.

He stops. He squints his permanently blood-shot eyes. He leans back in his black ergonomic captain’s chair. Finally, he cracks a smile, and well he might.

Storm surfs a dizzying array of satellite feeds with successive waves of bleeding-edge software to keep ahead of a million mice scratching at the MSNBC Web site every week. With so much moving media at his disposal, it’s surprising to see that what pleases Storm this moment, and in fact what he values most, are still images.

"This is the heyday of photography on the Web," Storm says. "It’s the king medium of the Web right now. It’s efficient. It’s 18k instead of a streaming file with a plug-in. Everybody can get it.

"At some point you are going to hit our cover, and you are going to see video right there. The still picture is going to lose that real estate. We know that is going to happen. The photographer’s chance to prove their worth is right now. That window is shrinking. Video is going to be here fast."

Fielding dreams

On an average day, Storm’s 11-person team at MSNBC publishes more than 200 images, more than 50 video clips, and a dozen streaming audio interviews. Editors serve up those media slices with hundreds of NBC news stories. They write nearly 1,000 headlines, subheads, and captions a week for the MSNBC Web site and the myriad Microsoft sister sites such as msn.com. It’s a 24-hour-a-day effort to reach a quarter-million daily users, and more than a million unique users around the world.

Amid all that multimedia, within terabytes of pixels, Storm keeps looking for the trifecta, a goal really no different from that of any local newspaper or national magazine.

"We want a great picture, a great headline, and a great design," Storm says. "We’ve invested a lot. We’ve got specialists in each area. We’ve got people who write good headlines, we’ve got people who pick the right picture, we’ve got people who put it together well. They get up every day thinking about doing this."

While the major photo wires and agencies are a given, a growing number of submissions are coming from photographer/entrepreneurs, freelancers, startup photo networks, and simple over-the-transom submissions from photographers working on what Storm calls "personal projects."

These old-style magazine features and long-form photo stories, the dream assignments for many photographers, are finding a new home on the Web. Not because there is more space, as Storm says, but because there is more opportunity to touch the audience.

"That’s really what I am trying to do with our special packages. To me, photography is very visceral. It’s an emotional reaction to an event. And we’re finding that it’s still only half the story."

How does video grab you?

With so much text, video, and audio to contend with, it’s surprising that every member of MSNBC’s media team comes from a still-photography background. Composition, color, and visual fundamentals are the core of MSNBC’s online presence.

"In video, you have an amount of time to tell the story. With pictures, you have that one moment. You’ve got to frame it right; you’ve got to think foreground and background, left to right; there are a lot of different pieces to it.

"I always look at TV as a series of B roll all the time. Rarely do you get this amazing collection of video. We’ve got NBC video. We’ve got that in spades. We’ve got it coming out of our ears. What we’re trying to do is take this to the next level."

vOne of the great advantages photojournalism has over video is you have to spend more time to get that definitive moment. To find a beginning, middle, and end. A lot of the principles transfer over to video, but many do not.

To keep the team’s photo editing skills sharp despite the day-to-day video grind, MSNBC produces a regular "Week in Pictures" feature, available at [MSNBC The Week In Pictures].

"Every Thursday night I’ll look through the wire and I’ll print out like 60 of my favorite pictures," says Storm.

"Every Friday morning I’ll take one person on the team, and we’ll throw the pictures out. It’s a different person every week. Then I get to edit with them; I get to work with them, learn from them, and vice versa. And we just try to pick what we think are the most interesting pictures. Sometimes it’s top news. Sometimes it’s a feature.’"

While the editing discussion may take a few hours, with production wizards and Photoshop plug-ins the creation of the "Week in Pictures" section takes less than 30 minutes. New skills and tools acquired in daily and weekly production are tested at least once a month when MSNBC dives into a large-scale photo story. Most often these picture stories are tied to the news. Almost always they are gleaned from personal projects that leading photographers submit to the site.

Hearing voices

With dwindling day rates and fewer long-term assignments, more and more powerful photography is generated from photographers’ personal projects. These have been the source of numerous special photo packages published by MSNBC, which can be viewed at [msnbc.com/picturestories].

Among the picture stories featured there are

  • "Intifada: Birth of a Nation," the story of Palestinian Arab resistance in Gaza and the West Bank, by Israeli photographer Judah Passow.
  • "AIDS in Africa," by South Africa native Gideon Mendel.
  • "I Dream a World," by Brian Lanker, which tells the stories of women whose strength carried them — and many others in the African-American community — through troubled times.

One of the strongest audience responses was provoked by "Children of the Underground," about a woman who helps children escape their abusive parents. The photographer, Allan Dietrich, traveled thousands of miles over the course of a year and shot 7,000 photos chronicling the escape into hell of a teenage girl named Amanda Otter.

When MSNBC sought to publish the images, Dietrich volunteered to go back underground and interview the sources with a digital audio recorder in hand. The resulting eerie NPR-style narration accompanies dozens of stunning images. The faces of the children now seem to lift off the page, and the voices reach into your heart.

"When a photographer is working on a personal project, they are willing to go the extra yard to do a bigger edit, to lay down audio, or to make it a real Web-style package. It’s not like you just hand it over to the publisher and they take three frames and run it in an article. Because there is more ability to tell the story, there is more work."

Such efforts become personal projects for Storm’s team as well. The payoff is when other photographers bring similar projects to MSNBC.

"The photography world is pretty small, and people know each other," Storm says. "People say, ‘Well, MSNBC, they are doing these kinds of stories. They are a company who is not only going to publish it well, but they are actually going to pay you for it.’"

What’s it all worth?

Figuring out what to pay for a story is perhaps the hardest part of Storm’s job. "It really has to hit me in the heart," he says. "I have to think, ‘People need to see this. This is the story that needs to get out there.’"

Even in that context, the bidding can be difficult. Often, Storm feels as if he is bidding against himself.

"I think about what the value of the work is going to be for us over time. Like ‘Intifada’ is valuable over time to us because it is a great historical document of what’s gone on over there. I also think about what the timeliness issue is.

‘Casualties of War,’ our Kosovo package, was worth a lot to me when it came in. It was the best photography I’d seen from over there, and I was looking at stuff every single day. I felt like, ‘This is premier content; this is the kind of photography I want to get out to people.’ It’s a little more sophisticated than most people are used to seeing. But its good stuff. That helps me bump it up a notch.

While paying $3,000 for a picture story may be a high rate for the average Web site, Storm says paying below-market rates will ultimately be self-defeating. If major publishers continually turn to stock photos and wire services, fewer photographers will be able to afford to produce the quality work they aspire to, or are even currently capable of.

"Dude," says Storm, "the financial world of photography is dismal. When I say I am going to publish your project on our web site for $3,000, people go through the roof. They think that’s great. We want people to think we are going to pay you a fair price to publish a good set of pictures. Sometimes we get burned on that, and overspend. But I think the reaction we’re getting with the community is strong."

With streaming video becoming more dominant, it might seem there will be less opportunity for still photographers to capture a share of the Web audience. MSNBC is experimenting with Ken Burns-style documentaries, using streaming video to weave slow pans of still photos with audio. Storm’s belief is that before the sun sets on still photography online, Web video may actually increase the demand for documentary picture stories. And that makes Storm smile.

"Photographers have great jobs," says Storm. "They just do. They get to do some really fun things. They get access to people in a way most people don’t get access to them. And they come back with this really neat experience caught on film."

John Callan
Story Author: John Callan

John Callan, a former editor of PhotoMedia, is a freelance writer based in Woodinville, Wash.

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