The fundamentals of visual storytelling and editing have become fairly standard requirements for digital media gigs. Visuals were a responsibility listed in many the online producer openings collected for this report, whether job seekers were applying for work at a local broadcaster like WABC-TV in New York (“a key focus on video”); a publisher like the Hartford Courant Media Group in Connecticut (“will edit and post text, photographs and video”); or a public media outlet like Oregon Public Broadcasting (“familiarity with acquisition of digital content such as photos, infographics, video…and related rights management issues”).
The media organizations that responded to our questionnaire sent a similar message, with nearly 60 percent (18 of 31) saying that “visual storytelling and editing” was a top-10 hiring priorities. The questionnaire form defined visual storytelling as “photo/video production” (with a separate question for editorial graphics and animation, addressed below). But based on the answers to our open-ended questions and the job postings we collected, when news leaders referred to “visual storytelling,” they mostly meant video — a need driven in part by a combination of video’s power to engage social and mobile audiences as well as the relatively high ad rates for streaming content.
“The push for more (and smarter) video content comes from a dual imperative to serve our audiences and our advertisers; to make more money and do more relevant journalism,” said Michelle Holmes, vice president of content at the Alabama Media Group, answering a follow-up question for our survey via email. “We’ve seen the demand for video advertising skyrocket across the industry and the relentless march toward mobile makes this even more essential. From the journalistic side AND the monetization side: mobile video is where the eyeballs are. It’s where we need to be focusing attention, resources, great content and great opportunities for brands to reach our audiences.”
Some of the leaders we heard from said their organizations were not just interested in video people who could produce and distribute TV by other means; they wanted video people who also came with other editorial super powers.
Holmes’ Alabama Media Group created an eight-person social video production unit last year. The Advance Publications subsidiary — which also produces the AL.com statewide news site, The Birmingham News and several other newspapers — announced the new team in a job posting seeking journalists to “help blaze a path into a future that puts video at the very core of a new kind of social storytelling.” With titles like social video producer and social sourcing producer, the company said the unit would explore “new ways to reach audiences, from Snapchat to Vine to Periscope, and recognize the place those venues have alongside longer-form documentary work.”
Alabama Media Group isn’t alone in looking for ways to focus on different kind of video. When asked in an open-ended question about any positions their organizations had created in the previous year, we also heard about new video producer and editing positions at two social media-minded ventures — non-profit First Look Media and Al Jazeera Media Network’s AJ+.
That some of these gigs combined elements from several skill categories, such as images and social engagement, underscored the changing nature of visual journalism, as well as the overall importance of mixing and matching editorial talents. We also saw that illustrated in the job requirements for multimedia photo/video positions like this one for a “Visual Arts Journalist” at the Journal Media Group’s Naples Daily News in Florida:
“Must be versed in the use of and active [on] social media programs such as Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Facebook, Google+ and others.”
Job postings also illustrated how news organizations increasingly expect reporters to handle visuals as well as text, as the Associated Press seemed to want when it was looking for a supervisory correspondent to work in Milwaukee: “Proficiency in reporting and producing content in multiple platforms, including text, photo and video, is a plus.”
Overall, the video vision appeared to be on the minds of all kinds of news leaders. But newspapers showed particularly strong interest, with three-quarters (6 of 8, or 75 percent) listing visual storytelling and editing as a priority. And because most of the small- to medium-market locals began as newspaper companies (5 of 7, or 71 percent), visual storytelling was one of the only areas in which those respondents showed more interest in a particular skill set than did their peers at organizations focused on other audiences.
The public radio organizations in the survey seemed be of slightly more mixed on video than other media outlets (2 of 5, or 40 percent) — in part because their traditional audio orientation already makes generating text for digital audiences an additive, multi-platform challenge for their staffs.
For-profit commercial media companies seemed to think visual storytelling and editing was slightly more important than their nonprofit counterparts. Two-thirds of for-profit companies (13 of 20, or 65 percent) said visuals were a hiring priority. Among the non-profit companies, visuals were a priority for less than half (5 of 11, or 45 percent).
We asked about editorial graphics and animation, in addition to video and photo production. In open-ended answers to our questionnaire, news leaders spoke about newly created positions, such as an interactive digital graphics person at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a position at Vox Media in Washington, D.C., focused on “motion graphics… for mobile/social platforms”
News leaders also told us that editorial graphics and animation were some of the most challenging positions to fill. Three respondents volunteered that they had a difficult time finding qualified applicants to do data visualizations. Another said the same thing about animation and another mentioned “interactive reporters.”
The interest in graphical and animated storytelling was far higher among the respondents from newspaper companies (5 of 8, or 63 percent) than than those at other kinds of media companies (7 of 23, or 30 percent). It also was higher among those from for-profit media firms (9 of 20, or 45 percent) than in non-profit media (3 of 11, or 27 percent).
Overall, editorial graphics and animation was less of a priority than video and photo production. But there seemed to be significant cross-over between the two categories among our respondents. Of the organizations that said editorial graphics and animation was a priority (12 of 31, or 39 percent), all but two (10 of 12) said video and photography was important, too.
“There’s going to be more video and motion graphics,” said Trei Brundrett, chief product officer at Vox Media. “Mobile is going to drive us into a world where we want to express that whether on our platform or others.” But finding the kind of multimedia journalists who can do that kind of work requires a combination of skills that are hard to come by.
“Unicorns are the people who can produce the video and incorporate story and motion graphics and integrate it into the platform they are telling that on — and put that with a written story in a much more integrated way,” Brundrett said. But that’s not how many multimedia teams really operate: “It’s usually that the video people are over here and the writers are over here. The people making the experiences are rarely talking to each…. Generally people who aren’t as fixated on the medium — they have the ability to work across platforms and mediums. And they are harder to find.”
Video, editorial graphics and animation are talents many newsroom needs to create the kinds of experiences they think their digital audiences crave. However, those particular superpowers are sometimes hard to come by — especially in one editorial package.
Keith Jenkins, former general manager, digital, National Geographic (now with the National Geographic Society):
“If there’s one skill that needs to be honed it’s multimedia storytelling. There are a lot of good journalists and writers, but being able to create a compelling storytelling environment is key. Much of what we do mirrors the ink landscape. But it’s the multimedia experience that really sticks with people. [We need] people who really understand that and specialized in that skill set in a newsroom.”
Jim Schachter, Vice President of News, WNYC public radio in New York:
“In our newsroom, being able to take the great photograph and write the headline that gains your story traction in social is important, certainly for a place that was audio-centric. It’s not the thing that someone wouldn’t get hired for, but people need the visual sensibility.”