10 Questions Tom Kennedy

by Terry L. Heaton
Tom KennedyTom Kennedy is the managing editor for multimedia at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, a lofty (and enviable) title that puts him in charge of the company's Web-delivered multi-media products, including video journalism. Two of his VJs won NPPA Television News awards last week, and that's news, because these are essentially newspaper people winning TV awards.

Twenty-first century convergence has forever blurred the lines between print and television, and it's something local stations need to seriously consider as part of their Web strategy. Newspaper VJs produce material specifically for the Web, so their streams aren't simply repurposed television news.

Tom has a unique pedestal from which to view what's been happening in the convergence and VJ worlds and has graciously agreed to answer our ten questions. He wants to make it clear, however, that these answers represent his personal view, and not necessarily those of his employer. In no way are his responses to be viewed as official company positions.

Yours is a video news department within what is essentially a newspaper. What types of equipment do you use and how else does your operation differ from a local television station's video news gathering?
We use primarily Canon GL2's and Sony PD-150's and edit our video on Mac laptops, using Final Cut Pro (for field edits), Mac desktop units, and/or on PC desktop units using Adobe Premiere. I can't really speak for how our video news gathering might differ fundamentally from television other than to say that our video journalists often also edit their own work. In addition, we distinguish between "same day" breaking news pieces (which can include things that local television might do as live shot/lead-in to pre-recorded pieces) and short form documentaries that tend to get produced on a longer schedule. Our main effort is to provide story-telling that is driven by the subject's natural action, and a lot of the narrative structure comes from capturing real moments unfolding before the camera. Narration/titling may be used to impart information but because the video will often be seen in combination with text stories as a single experience, a lot of the weight of presenting "facts" may be borne by accompanying text, freeing the video to focus on character exposition and contextual expression of the emotional truth of the story.

Introduce us to your staff. What are their backgrounds?
Our video journalists come from a variety of backgrounds. Two started as still photographers, two come from writing/reporting backgrounds, others are self-taught as video journalists/editors coming from a background of multimedia training at new media programs being offered now at some Universities around the country. Our senior video editor for breaking news came from a background in radio broadcasting and television, including a stint as a professor in a broadcast program.

When and why did the WashingtonPost.com get into the video news business?
Given the strength of the Post newspaper's photo department, it made sense to me to develop our video/audio gathering and display capabilities as an adjunct when I arrived at the site in 1998. I came from a background as a newspaper photo editor and had immediately preceded my arrival at WPNI with a twelve-year stint at National Geographic, including ten years as director of photography there.

Taking some of the lessons from my previous career stops, I thought it made sense to create a visual team that had the ability to work from a documentary photography/photojournalism ethos and to develop the capability to produce subject-driven narrative story-telling where the stamp of individual authorship and journalistic responsibility could be as powerfully encountered as one might get it from a text story.

Who do you view as your competition in the market?
I would say that all forms of media are competition for us and that there is no one "main competitor". Our competition is ultimately for the time and attention of audience we can reach through the Internet.

We aren't consciously trying to copy or imitate mainstream broadcast outlets. Rather, we are trying to chart our own path, telling stories that can augment the reporting from the newspaper and provide our users with information that enables them to make intelligent decisions in their own lives. I say that we are a bridge to forces and situations that may exist outside the boundaries of our user's immediate lives but which they need to know about in order to lead productive lives as citizens in this time and place in world history.

Overall, how have your people been received by the local TV news operations in Washington?
I think it varies. Some of our colleagues commend our approach as enabling a type of story-telling that is powerful and direct and meaningful for the audience. Others decry aspects of our visual and editing technique and feel that the lack of conventional reporting voices and our editing processes don't make our work "broadcast news" as they would define it.

Have your VJs had any uncomfortable encounters with local TV crews in town? How about proud moments?
I'd prefer to focus on the positive — that after some initial confusion, we were welcomed ultimately into the White House News Photographers Association as brother/sister video journalists and editors, and that we've managed to compete very successfully in their annual competitions in the last four years. I was also very proud of the fact that the team won a Murrow Award in 2004, garnering that top prize the first time it was offered to a non-broadcast web site. That suggests that we belong.

I'd leave it to our men and women to tell you if they've had any hard times in the field. I know that some institutions have been reluctant to allow us entrance because they can't figure out where we belong in a conventional view of the media landscape. In that sense, it is similar to the debate going on now between journalists and bloggers. I recall some early tricks at a press conference like pulling our cable out of a mult box but that has really not happened in a long time.

Your team recently was honored by the National Press Photographers Association TV News awards. What's your reaction to that and how have you done in other video awards competitions?
This is the awards list I mentioned in the answer above. You can go to their web site and see the awards we've won this year and previously. I've kept a rolling list regarding our wins in the multimedia space in the past few years (Download a Word document here). It includes contest wins that aren't from video journalism but I think it answers the question as to our competitiveness. I am pleased that the NPPA is allowing us to compete with local broadcast entities, networks etc., as I think we are doing a form of video story-telling that is worthy and relevant.

Which would make an easier transition -- your people working for a TV station or TV station people working for you and why?
I'm guessing that it might be easier for TV station people to transition into our world than vice versa. I say that because I think the restrictiveness of the TV station local news presentation format and the rigidity of the editing processes and format are very different from a system that asks for individual vision and execution as the bedrock elements, along with individual accountability for the journalism involved. We tailor our visual approaches more fluidly to the demands of specific subject matter and we borrow heavily from a variety of visual and audio influences to tell our stories. As a result, I think we operate with fewer rules, etc. We accept a certain looseness in our visual approach as the tradeoff for attaining a kind of intimacy in the story-telling that isn't always accessible in other, more formal approaches. I think it would be hard for our video journalists to enter into a world that doesn't allow for that kind of approach to flourish.

As you gaze into your crystal ball, what do you see in terms of the future of video news?
That's a good question. Our peers have found our work worthy of some specific kinds of accolades. We also have heard positive anecdotal reaction to specific feature videos we've presented as well as with harder news topics from our audience. I believe there is room for experimentation that is not occurring now in more mainstream broadcast media. Having said that, there is a legitimate reason why television broadcast news looks and feels like it does now. I think that has to do in part with the economic models and revenue streams that have traditionally supported mainstream media. There are economic equations that have proven to be adequate to support earnings expectations and broadcast properties driven by the need to "make numbers" are unwilling to indulge further experiments with presentation — except at the margins — because the perceived downside risks are so great. Starting from scratch has been a real advantage because some of the economic constraints and risk/reward assessments have been different for us. I think we are still in a very early stage of the game and it is hard to know whether the economic models are going to arrive in parallel with the experimentation we're doing to enable us to continue to grow and develop in the ways that the broadcast industry did between 1947-1975. I see no reason why we can't find a voice and an audience and grow revenues for marketers and advertisers, although the modeling may be different than the mass audience scale equations that support mainstream broadcasting.

I can say with certainty that a young generation of video journalist/editors is being created world wide, in part by the fluidity and ease of digital gathering and editing tools, and the natural inventiveness/curiosity of a generation weaned on visual media and consumer culture. The trick is getting the best values and practices of mainstream journalism inculcated into the individual arsenals of those practitioners and reworking our journalistic gathering and dissemination practices in a way that enables fluid, personal, evolved, visual story-telling to occur.

Understandably, getting such work done is difficult in the contemporary landscape for a variety of reasons that have to do with economics, "spin control," media agendas, etc. Living, as I do, in the Washington, D.C. metro area, I have a ringside seat to the uneasy daily dance between politics, art, journalism, and commerce that plays out here. I find it ironic that we live in a world where the variety of media choice has never been greater and yet, at the same time, the ability to understand the world through media expression and consumption has never been under greater challenge. The issue, in my opinion, is not just a signal-to-noise problem, unleashed by the Internet; although certainly that is an issue.

I remain convinced that credibility, authenticity, fairness, the quest to get to the truth of a situation, and the willingness to speak truth to power are all still essential attributes of journalistic story-telling. I would submit that over time, economic realities have corroded aspects of the practice that insure the primacy of those values. But the kind of experimentation we're doing may help develop future answers that are better than today's solutions.

What I can say with some certainty is that audiovisual communication remains a potent form of story-telling that enables people to viscerally understand a story's impact and importance. Our audience wants to make the value determination based on being exposed to and processing our content. I believe from the feedback of audience and peers that we have enhanced the voice of the Post newspaper with the augmentations of audio and video stories that we've done to this point.

I also believe there is a chance to develop this form of story-telling and create the vehicles that enable it to find an audience just as surely as today's "reality shows" have worked for mainstream broadcast media. I would argue that we are the ones creating the true "reality shows" of our planet's stories. I would also argue that public appetite for our content is there once people find it and are exposed to it.

The Internet has leveled the playing field technologically between the individual practitioner and the mainstream media company. That doesn't guarantee commercial viability or the requisite audience, particularly if one is using past standards for mass media consumption and the economics driven by that model. However, I'd submit that an alternative universe of media creation and consumption patterns may be in the process of being born now, and that will exist in the future as a parallel to the rigidly bounded universe of mass audience broadcasting.

Yes, we have to prove it is economically viable for audience and practitioners alike, but that isn't a new challenge either, in the history of media.

I am excited about continuing to see where our stories can be displayed and find an audience. As cable continues to replicate and fracture, I see no reason why a channel couldn't function to expose our content parallel to and in conjunction with exposure on the Internet. That is a reality I expect to see in the next few years.

Finally, a lot of people in the local TV business are scared of losing their jobs as broadcast companies continue to struggle in today's competitive environment. What advice would you have for them?
As I have never worked in the local TV business directly, I am loath to give advice to anyone in that arena now. I see the same "disturbances in the force" affecting all mainstream media equally. I expect the roiling of audiences and economic models to continue unabated for the next decade, or until new models of audience demand/economic certainty settle into place and produce "satisficing" on all sides. I think one has to assume that smart people will make individual choices to expand personal repertoires as a response to this climate of change, just as many may simply abandon the profession because the magnitude/pace of change is too demanding and the bumpiness of the economic turbulence is too unsettling. I would encourage people to continue to be curious, learn new tricks, and recognize that any successful mutation (using biology as a metaphor) has always been as a result of a combination of exploitation and exploration. I intend to keep on, using that framework as my guiding principle. I don't expect management or peers to have all the answers, and I think rigidly clinging to the certainties of old economic models, organizational structures, workflow processes, tools, and outputs is ultimately a recipe for failure.