Photos, Audio and the (Glorious) Struggle to Combine Them

By Pat Walters
Naughton Fellow

Audio slideshows seem to be showing up on more and more news Web sites these days -- and not just on sites produced by national news organizations. From what I can tell, much of the growth is being driven by smaller newsrooms, with many of the collections created by one program. Soundslides.

Joe Weiss, who created Soundslides, visited Poynter last month to train faculty and staff in using the program. I sat down with him to discuss the software and its impact on photojournalism and online storytelling. 

Weiss began working as a photojournalist in 1996. Since then, he's worked in photojournalism and multimedia at The (Raleigh, N.C.,) News & Observer, The (Durham, N.C.,) Herald-Sun and MSNBC.com. His work has earned him a number of online journalism awards, and he has served as a judge for several journalism competitions.

Soundslides, Weiss told me, was inspired by his work in 2002 on the staff of The Mountain Workshop, an annual photojournalism workshop run by Western Kentucky University.

By the end of the weeklong workshop, Weiss and his fellow staffers were faced with producing some 50 multimedia stories, with eight hours to do it. He needed a tool that would enable him to quickly and artfully build audio slideshows. And he wanted other journalists to have it, too.

So he made Soundslides.

What follows are some excerpts from a recording of my conversation with Weiss. The order and content of these passages have been edited for clarity. Weiss' words reveal a journalist whose skill as a software developer appears driven by his passion for innovative and powerful storytelling.

Weiss on the inherent value of still and moving images:

As
a photojournalist, I like to think there's some built-in idea of the
rememberance of a still image. ... Seeing 10 photographs over a minute
of audio is a very different experience, for me, than seeing a minute
of video. Even if it's the same material.

I'm certainly not
going to try to pick a fight between video and audio slideshows,
because I personally think that if there's a great videographer, a
great video storyteller, who goes to an assignment, and a great
photojournalist who does audio who goes to an assignment, they're gonna
both come away with great stories. And if a weak one goes on either
side, it's gonna be weak. But, for me, I do think ... there's a deliberateness in the
editing [of still images], there's a deliberateness in the visuals.

I personally
like audio slideshows. ... At the same time, there are people out
there who I know work in video online and they do such a great job
that, if I was to say, oh, I could have an audio slideshow of this
story or I could have this one guy go do video, there's no choice. I'm
gonna go with the more gifted storyteller, not the person who works in
a certain medium.


On the time and amount of staff it takes to make a good Soundslides project:

I
think that if you just started to do them, the audio slideshow is gonna
take about four or five times what it would have taken just to do the
assignment visually. ... I think what we're seeing in the industry
right now, is that the people who learn these skills, add these skills to
their bag, they'll get on an assignment where
they have more time, or they'll really listen to the assignment and
say, wow, there's great audio here, this could be a great narrative.
Then they jump on those. And they'll fall back to the [assignment] desk to ask for
more time. Or they'll do feature stories.

There haven't been a whole lot of ... hard news stories done in audio slideshows.

Most
of the people [who] are using Soundslides are not online journalists.
They're people in print papers who want to see their work online.

When I was a photojournalist, I liked to go
out with a reporter who respected photojournalism, and then I respect
what they do. ... I hope that we [can] get to the point where the
reporters [are] trying to do some of the audio ... and [working with the photojournalists].

I hope that's not too utopian of me
to think that. Because I think that makes sense. But it does involve
two people on something. And there are large parts of our industry that
say two people doing one story doesn't make sense.


On possible challenges and pitfalls:

I
think they key, number-one thing is that [most audio slideshows are] too long. ... They'll
create a three-minute audio slideshow, and because it's three minutes
long, they'll have to use so many photographs. Well, I'm sorry, there
just aren't that many good photographs in your edit. National
photographer-of-the-year portfolios can be 30 images, and you're
telling me you have 30 images from that one news event you were at
for two hours, ... it just doesn't make any sense. ... I think a lot of people are making them far too long.

They're not being respectful of the time commitment
that their audience is giving them. The attention that someone gives
you as a journalist online, that attention is currency.

I
would say the second thing [after length] is that, visually ... they are applying the
ideals of still, print picture editing, to online picture editing.
Essentially, they're not shooting for the medium. There are images you
can look at and say, that image does a great job of getting me from
this image to the other image. Well, are picture editors, or
photojournalists, trained to think about their photographs in that way,
that this is a transition image? Are they even shooting those images?
In most cases they're not.

If you
have a really great image, leave it up there for a little longer. Find
a way in the audio, so the audio supports that image, and then there
should be times where there's an image that supports the audio. Those
two things should exist in the same audio slideshow. ... I think a lot of people [think] ... an
audio slideshow is just a vehicle for their photojournalism. And it
isn't.

The most important thing is not your photojournalism. The most
important thing is not your audio journalism. The most important thing,
overall, above anything else, amen, to the end of it, is the story and
how well you communicate that to the human being who's on the other
side of that computer.


On his programming background:

I'm self-trained in programming. ... There's a ton of programming in [Soundslides]. It's all programming. And so, I had to learn a lot of things that I wouldn't have otherwise learned.


On becoming a journalist:

I guess after the first week [as an intern at The Herald-Sun], I was like, that's it, this is what I wanna do, for the rest of my life. Journalism, gotta do it. I loved the newspaper. Absolutely loved being a journalist.


On why journalism really seized him:

I think mainly it was the idea that people would let me go into their lives and get to see part of their lives and then help other people understand their lives. Basically the idea of connecting humans to humans, through the medium of journalism, was fascinating to me.

And then, ... being a photojournalist is a really cool way to spend your 20s. You get to travel and you get to see a lot of things that people don't get to see; it's not a desk job. If you were a [photojournalist], you didn't have to cover meetings, for the most part. It's a cool thing. I just loved it.


On getting started in multimedia reporting:

I [was driving] away from [an assignment at an orphanage], and the things that stuck in my head, the things that were really memorable ... the things I remembered most were the stories the kids told me, not necessarily what I had witnessed, visually, but what I had heard. And so, essentially on a whim, I went to Best Buy and bought a MiniDisc recorder and decided to go back up there, and I was like, I'm gonna do multimedia. Ya know, I'm gonna record these kids. This is what I'm gonna do.

So I bought a cheap mic and a MiniDisc recorder and went up there and recorded these kids' stories. And about that time, this thing called Flash 4 came out, and Flash 4 was the first one that allowed you to stream .mp3 audio. ... Suddenly it meant that if you wanted to see my photographs and hear audio, you didn't have to download 400kb, you just had to download 16kb, and then as you're listening to it, it would download more.

So I made this story, based off of that picture story, and the paper didn't even have a Web site to put it on. ... They had a Web site, but it was a marketing Web site. They weren't even [posting] news at that time. ... I put it up [anyway] and it got a lot of traffic. It was ... a Britannica site of the day. Yahoo recognized it. ... All these site-of-the-day kinda things. And that was how I started [in] multimedia. ... It came out of a frustrated picture story.

There's also a lot of other issues, ... when [would I] have 20 photographs published in the paper? Online, I could do whatever I want. ... And literally, the spirit of that was, I can do whatever I want. I can tell the story exactly as I want, without limitations, even without interaction with any other journalists. ... And it was a beautiful thing. And I think that spirit still exists in online journalism, in a way that it doesn't necessarily exist in collaborative print journalism; that you can create things that are distinctly and uniquely ... what you see.


On what multimedia tools existed when he released Soundslides in 2005:

There was basically Flash. People were hand-building these things in Flash. There were some large organizations that had tools that did similar things to this. But they might not be as elegant, or certainly weren't quite as portable as Soundslides is. My goal was to sort of level the playing field for the unsupported technical journalist as much as I could. I wanted the little papers to have the same advantages that the big boys had.


On pricing the $39.95 program:

I tried to pick a price that I thought every photojournalist could afford. That was essentially it. ... There were a couple of ideas. Being a former director of photography, I kind of know photographers can [get reimbursed for] a certain ammount. What's a real nice meal on the road cost while you're out covering a game?

I thought forty bucks was ... kinda that sweet spot where everybody on the staff could ... put that on their expenses. Even if you were on a staff with 20 people, you could say forty bucks for every person, and that's doable.


On the attention Soundslides has brought him:

I see myself as a journalist, and I want to stay that way. So, to get attention for a multimedia application that you've written, ... the last thing I want to do is be typecast as a software developer.

With that said, I get a lot of enjoyment out of helping other journalists ... that's cool.


On people getting excited about using Soundslides:

It's awesome. ... I think it's great. ... Anything that makes people more excited about doing journalism is cool to me. I don't really care what it is. And the fact that this little computer application that was made in the room over my garage has any impact on that is just the coolest thing for me.


On the value of the audio slideshow despite the widespread presence of online video:

I ask myself that a lot. ... The asusmption has been that ... video storytelling on the Web will eventually overtake still photography on the Web.

The problem is that I have no way of knowing if that's true or not, and no one else does either.

Couple reasons not to use video. One, newspapers still need stills. They still need still photography. Two, they have a trained staff, a trained visual staff, [which] is used to working in still photojournalism. ... I think that moving from still photography to an audio slideshow helps the journalist, the visual journalist, because they can maintain the ... quality that they've had with their still photojournalism but at the same time they can add linear storytelling skills, which will be super essential when they get to video.

The interesting part of multimedia, for me, has been this part where we're exploring all these different formats. ... I like to try new things. But I think that there will come a point where we need to have some standardization, in order to, like, speak the language.


On learning audio slideshow skills, and the value of the struggle:

There's not a training system in place. There's no audio slideshow class in school or anything.

I can think of a couple people at [MSNBC.com] who do these things day-in and day-out who just see the world a little differently because they do that; and they're really exceptional at it.

Most people are just struggling. They're just struggling to find a way to do it, and find what works best. And I think, actually, that's cool. What else should you be doing? Why not struggle? How do you think you learn?

If we knew all the time exactly how to do everything that we were asked to do, how boring would that be, ya know?
  • patwalters

    I'm a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines, including The St. Petersburg Times and The New York Times Magazine.

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