How shopping, prayer led to Columbus Dispatch’s viral Ted Williams video

Before Ted Williams entered rehab for drug and alcohol issues, he was a homeless man Doral Chenoweth saw on his way to the store.

Chenoweth, a Web producer for The Columbus Dispatch, told me by e-mail how he discovered Williams and what happened next as “the ‘golden voice’ video went viral.”

Columbus Dispatch Web Producer Doral Chenoweth first saw Ted Williams while out shopping with his wife.

Kenny Irby: Tell me how you and Ted Williams first connected. Was this an assignment or enterprise work on your part?

Doral Chenoweth: I actually first met Ted Williams when I wasn’t working. I was going shopping with my wife, Robin, at a store at that freeway exit. The light was red, I stopped and read his sign.

I rolled down the window, asked him to say something with his voice, and that golden, velvety old-school radio voice came out. We were so surprised that my wife and I exclaimed out loud, “Wow!” The light turned green, I handed him a dollar and moved on.

A week later I needed a fresh video for Dispatch.com and I thought about the homeless guy with the great voice. I drove to that part of town, saw Ted, and pulled out my FlipCam and sort of duplicated the experience I had a week earlier.

What attracted you to his story initially? Was it the voice?

Chenoweth: Yes, it was the voice, but I knew there had to be a “backstory.”

As soon as I videotaped the first part of the piece, I introduced myself and I asked this man to meet me across the street. It’s there that I simply asked him to tell me about himself and he opened up with his life story: the alcohol, drug abuse, and the desire to have another chance in life.

What was the key to developing your relationship, gain his trust and earn access?

Chenoweth: There wasn’t a whole lot of relationship to develop for this video. I was willing to listen and record, he was willing to talk. But since he has rocketed to stardom, I’ve tried to keep in touch with Ted. He’s a friendly, likable guy. I feel partially responsible for his success, and I don’t want to see him slip into another life of alcohol, drug abuse, or even having problems with the IRS. I want this story to have a happy ending.

How did you approach the multimedia reporting — stills, audio and video?

Chenoweth: I made a quick decision to use a Flip camera for two reasons.

First, it would give a gritty, man-on-the-street feel that was appropriate for a video about a homeless man. Anything else might feel contrived. Secondly, it would have just been too darn hard to both drive the car and focus a Canon EOS-5D II, and especially the Panasonic AVX-200. I’ve never used a Flipcam for any other video I’ve done for the Dispatch.

How did the story structure take shape? What was the timetable?

Chenoweth: I shot it eight weeks ago, edited it, and put it in a folder on my laptop. I got busy with other news stories, including three people killed and dismembered in nearby Knox County and five Ohio State football players facing NCAA sanctions.

Our dispatch.com intern, Jen Monroe, also produced two nice videos about the struggles of homeless people and I didn’t want to detract from her videos.

I was never happy with the ending of the Ted Williams video (his voice just kind of trails off) so I went back a few more times looking for him but I never saw him. I’ve since discovered he spent part of the holidays with his children, so he wasn’t around.

On the first Monday of January, I was having another slow news day. Looking back on it now, I remember how my day started: I dropped my gear off at my desk and went to the Starbucks across the street.

Walking back to the Dispatch, I saw the door was open into a big church. I thought about how it was [the] first work day of the new year, so maybe I’ll sit in the church, have my coffee, and simply pray for safety and having a good year. There were only two other people in there, both homeless men trying to stay warm. I finished my prayer, sipped my coffee and went to my desk and posted the video.

It did the average amount of video traffic on Monday, then on Tuesday it went viral. Exact numbers are hard to tally, but I think it did about 30 million hits.

With so much homelessness and panhandling going on, why do you think that stories like Ted’s go under-covered?

Chenoweth: There’s a certain amount of passion fatigue that goes on in newsrooms and our general culture. The media does cover the homeless, but we can’t do it every day. The bigger story (in terms of what we’ve covered) for the past three years have been the layoffs affecting the middle-class and the recession in general.

What are your big personal or journalistic lessons?

Chenoweth: I’ve done photodocumentary work on four continents, but the story creating the biggest media storm happened only two freeway exits from my own house!

I’m really happy for Ted Williams. It’s a great feeling to know a simple video has helped a homeless man get off the streets, but I hope he is able to handle all this fame and have the fulfilling life he says he wants. The other cool thing is how the video has touched other people’s lives. My in-box is full of messages like this one from Oregon:

“Found myself actually looking at the homeless guys’ face today at the post office realizing I’d been walking by him for the past few years not once really making eye contact. I’m not one to usually give any money or conversation to them, always thinking they probably are pedophiles or something. After this story, need to check myself, as it reminded me that not all homeless guys are bad people and a little caring can go a long ways.”

Some have been critical about the lack of context in the initial piece, what’s your take on that?

Chenoweth: Unless it’s a straight-take from a news conference, many of the videos I produce have all the journalistic bases covered: second and third sources, different opinions, openings, closings, and a polished feel. To produce a quality piece, I generally use either a Canon 5D or a Panasonic AVX-200. But this video breaks all those rules.

Maybe that’s why more than 30 million people liked it.

Debra Jasper of the Kiplinger Program at Ohio State and a viral-video expert told me … if I had interviewed homeless outreach workers, talked to his family, etc., etc., it would have been four minutes long. It never would have gone viral. It’s not gonna be a prize-winner.

But looking back, would I choose to make the video longer and more polished? No. Ted would still be homeless.

Has this experience caused the Dispatch to think differently about sharing your videos more widely?

Chenoweth: It’s been a learning experience. We’ve established a YouTube channel so people can easily link or embed our videos.

There have been valid criticisms of our website navigation, but the management team was already planning to improve the website.

Once a video starts to go viral, you need to be sure the original links on reddit.com, google.com, and yahoo.com point back to your media outlet’s video, not the pirated YouTube version.

What should others know about managing an ongoing story once it goes viral?

Chenoweth: Clear the decks and plan to spend a few days following your story and managing the resulting news coverage.

After it went viral on Tuesday, I flew to New York Wednesday to try to follow Ted Williams as he coped with his newfound fame.

But it was tough even for me to break through his “bubble” and I ended up feeding the media beast with the “behind-the-scenes” story of how the video was shot. My editors realized getting this type of exposure for dispatch.com is priceless.

Once I returned to Columbus, I did another video (with the Panasonic AVX-200!) about the man who shared a tent in the homeless camp with Ted Williams.

CORRECTION: Doral Chenoweth’s name was misspelled in the original version of this story.

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