February 27, 2007

By Pat Walters
Naughton Fellow


In mid-January, a video crew visited washingtonpost.com.Newsweek Interactive in Arlington, Va., to capture a behind-the-scenes look at this most innovative of major American newsrooms. They interviewed the guys who run the joint — Jim Brady and Tom Kennedy — as well as some of the other folks who build and maintain the stuff on The Washington Post‘s Web site. Here’s what they came up with.

The video crew could have been from ABC, NBC or any of the major news networks. In fact, had it come a week earlier, it would have been there at the same time as a crew from PBS. Frontline was there working on “News War.”

But this particular group was from Apple.

By the middle of last week, the video, which was posted Feb. 23 on the Pro section of the company’s Web site, had made its way onto a number of popular journalism Web sites. The Apple flick generated buzz among journalists in large part, I think, because it gives us a peek into a newsroom that is on the cutting edge. And what it reveals is very cool.

Lively video shows staffers zipping through a brightly lit newsroom, no doubt moving so quickly because they’re working on groundbreaking multimedia projects. All of this action plays to an edgy digital sountrack that makes me feel more like I’m shopping at American Eagle than taking a tour of a newsroom.

It’s no surprise that the film focuses on video production, a strength that both Apple and the Post are happy to show off. Last year Post videographer Travis Fox won an Emmy for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina, beating out MTV and National Geographic. Earlier this month, the Post launched “onBeing,” an innovative video project that takes a stripped-down approach to telling the stories of interesting local characters.

As we watch the Apple piece, we learn the Post has 50 reporters with video cameras. We see them using those cameras and editing their footage back in the newsroom. It’s a sweet setup. And the film makes the newsroom look fast-paced, innovative and generally cool. As the camera pans across a Macbook Pro — with Final Cut Pro splashed across the screen — Tom Kennedy, managing editor for multimedia, narrates:

“In the last couple years we’ve just really taken off with our video editing,” he says, “because we’ve been able to do laptop editing in the field with Apple products.”

And with that, we come to understand just what this little film is. “Oh yes,” I remember telling myself the first time I watched it, “this is an ad.” Apple, Apple everywhere.

To be fair, it isn’t quite a commercial like we might see on television. The Pro section of Apple’s Web site, on which this video appears, is a showcase for interesting Apple users. The miniature documentaries feature people like music producer Machine and pop musician Duncan Shiek.

And then, of course, there is the Post.

It felt strange watching Post staffers — professional, mainstream journalists — endorse Apple products.

Did I say endorse? I meant promote. Or acknowledge.

Here’s executive editor Jim Brady:

“It wasn’t an endorsement, it was an acknowledgement that … we use Apple products,” Brady told me on the phone last week. “Our entire multimedia department looks like an Apple superstore.

“Our editorial board endorses political candidates and policy changes,” he continued. “If [this] were seen as an endorsement, that’d be a problem.”

I could be alone on this, but I saw it as an endorsement. When I told Brady that, he didn’t sound happy, but he also didn’t sound entirely surprised. One thing about the video that irked him was the editing. It was “unfortunate,” he said, that certain Apple-friendly quotes made the final version. When asked if he expected that Apple would spin the film to advertise its products, Bradly said he didn’t.

“From our perspective it was like doing an interview,” he said. “I sat there for an hour and nobody asked me about Apple at all.”

Brady wasn’t asked about Apple, and he didn’t talk about it. But Kennedy did. And so did vice president for product development Rob Curley.

The Post wouldn’t be the first media company to endorse a vendor — see this year’s Super Bowl issue of Sports Illustrated for a two-page Canon ad that features a few of the magazine’s staff photographers.

But what makes this case particularly interesting is what it says about our relationship with our audiences.

More and more news organizations are finding ways to give audience members a peek inside the newsroom. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., broadcasts its news meetings live on the Web. KPIX-TV in San Francisco recently started a similar practice.

These videos are usually raw, brimming with banter, laughter and foul language. They show us as we really are. Sometimes we look good. Sometimes we don’t. But if nothing else, we look real. And sometimes that means we look biased.

Critics will no doubt use the film to take shots at the Post‘s coverage of Apple. “Ah-hah! I knew your coverage of that iPhone thing has been unfairly favorable,” the Windows fans might say. “It’s not that cool.”

It might be more productive, though, to ask a question. What can we learn from the film? Here are a few things. One — The Post uses lots of Apple products. Two — Those products work well for them. Three — Post staffers like them.

And here’s a fourth.

Whether or not you can imagine letting a video crew turn your newsroom’s love of Apple — or Canon or Marantz or any other vendor, for that matter — into a promotion, the Post did just that.

There could be a lot of reasons for this. For one thing, the film is as much an advertisement for the Post as it is one for Apple. But I think it also suggests that we’re all getting a little more comfortable with exposing ourselves to our audiences. More than ever before, the people we serve want to see us, to know how we do what we do, to understand what we like and dislike. They want to know we are real people. And we’re showing them we are.

Maybe handing the task of self-documentation over to a vendor isn’t the best idea.

But watch the Apple film again, take note of what it tells us about how the Post produces its Web site and try to imagine some ways you might turn the camera around and point it at your own news organization.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story attributed Tom Kennedy’s comments on “apple products” to Jim Brady.

UPDATE (3/7/07): Since I posted this story Tuesday, a couple particularly sharp readers have pointed out that the Apple piece isn’t really a video at all. If you watch it again, you’ll notice that it’s done in still images. I, of course, didn’t notice this, and called it a video. My editor did the same thing. And so did a slew of bloggers who linked to the piece.

So, if it’s not a video, what is it? I’m told that in order to be called video, a sequence of still images must be moving at 30 frames per second. The Apple piece falls well short of that, even at its most frantic moments.

Any ideas?

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

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