Intro from Jay Allison: Brian Storm - the founder and executive producer of the innovative, multimedia production studio MediaStorm - talks about "quality" on the web as the main driver of traffic (besides gossip or sensationalism, or being really funny). In an attempt to diagnose the elements of quality, he's prepared a fascinating Transom Manifesto, comparing three versions of the same story about a New York City Seltzer Man - one for radio, one for TV, and one by MediaStorm. He takes the time to disassemble the stories and break down the beats. This is a great multimedia storytelling exercise, highly recommended.
The MediaStorm Approach to Storytelling
MediaStorm is a multimedia studio based in Brooklyn, NY. We have a talented staff and prolific alumni that have received numerous accolades including 15 Emmy nominations in the last six years and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards in the last three years.
We run several lines of business including:
- A publication
- Content syndication and software licensing
- Original reporting, interactive application development and video production for clients
- Online training and workshops
At MediaStorm, we believe that quality storytelling is the killer app. Our mission is to convey the essence of the human experience in deeply personal, intimate and emotional ways.
We focus on stories with universal truths–those that bind us regardless of race, religion or border. Stories about common people who march through history unseen, an experience not noted in the history books. Our stories help people understand the human condition. They may not be “newsworthy” by common standards, but are essential to understanding our shared humanity. Without that, we don’t understand how the world works or how it can progress.
We approach the process of storytelling with a few key things in mind:
- Everyone has a story to tell and it’s not always obvious what that story is without deep reporting and an open mind.
- Time to report, along with time in post-production are key to quality.
- Quality is the central ingredient to having an impact.
To be relevant on the web your offering needs to be either super funny or the highest quality story on the topic. That’s what readers will tweet, post and share. Mediocre offerings are just noise. If you gain traction on the web, it likely means you’ve done something that connects to a broad swath of humanity.
Our approach to storytelling has risen out of our experience working with the limitations of other formats. Traditional media outlets, be it print, radio or TV, encourage — consciously or unconsciously — a specific type of storytelling. This can limit the depth to which a story is told, and it can limit the story’s ability to be leveraged in other media.
In looking at the limitations of other formats, we’ve done our best to remove them:
- We don’t work on deadlines for our own publication, we publish when we simply can’t make the story any better.
- We aren’t focused on one media type or one delivery platform. We work to tell the story to the best of our ability utilizing all the tools at our disposal.
- We don’t publish to any set duration. Our stories are as short or as long as we need them to be in order to make them compelling.
The Same Story, Different Approaches
To detail our process and approach more concisely, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare how different organizations approach the same story with different media in mind.
The subject of the story is Walter Backerman who is one of the few remaining seltzer men in New York City. He’s had a ton of press and has a real gift for telling his story.
Of the many stories about Walter, I’ve chosen to compare three different stories in three different formats:
- Radio by Radio Diaries
- Web by The MediaStorm Storytelling Workshop
- Broadcast by WABC TV News
I’ll share my thoughts on the strengths and weakness for each of them below.
Walter Backerman, Seltzer Man by Radio Diaries on January 19, 2002
The Radio Approach
This lovely story was produced by Emily Botein and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries, which is one of the best radio series on any station. It aired on NPR’s The Next Big Thing on January 19, 2002, a full ten years before we did the MediaStorm Workshop story. My assumption is that one person did the reporting on this story using a small audio recorder. As a result, there are some very genuine and intimate moments in the piece.
Deconstructing the Process
Here are some thoughts at specific moments in the story:
00:00 – I love the-old school music to open the piece.
00:03 – Great natural sound of the truck starting up.
00:05 – Walter sets the time and location, a good convention for visually setting the scene.
00:15 – The horn honk right after he finishes his statement is nice, most likely shifted for impact in post-production.
00:16 to 00:45 – We learn a ton about what’s in his truck. Walter is painting a picture with the narrative.
00:47 – Nice natural sound of truck door and squirting the bottles.
01:10 – Powerful storytelling line: “The year is 1952. That’s the year I was born. This bottle is as old as I am!” Walter is great at bringing the context of time; it’s the key to his personal narrative.
01:28 – I was really surprised to hear this line: “At this sad point in time the route is unfortunately worth more dead than it is alive.”
I thought: wow, that is an amazing statement for Walter to make because in our coverage it seemed that he would never part with his bottles. So, I did a little research and sure enough he has actually been selling bottles on eBay since 2000.
Note: In reading another magazine story about Walter he talks about selling on eBay, but says he would never sell his father’s bottles:
Walter sells retired bottles on eBay to augment income and whittle away at the impressive collection of 7,000 bottles he’s amassed. They can fetch up to hundreds of dollars, depending on how fancy and faceted, or if they flaunt a logo like Coca-Cola. “I’ve got bottles from every state in the union. What was a phenomenon in New York was also big in Chicago and Philadelphia,” says Walter, who’s like an encyclopedia of all things effervescent. “I sold a Nehi Soda bottle for $500, but I’ll never sell my father’s bottles,” he says of the cobalt siphons bearing Al Backerman’s label. “When my sons are my age, they’ll be happy for the reminder of the legacy.”
01:47 – “I enjoy the socialism.” Great, great, great. Classic Walter using big words incorrectly:)
01:50 – Music comes back for a natural sound interlude that gives you a nice break in the narrative.
02:11 – The wife hits a guy where it hurts!
“You’re just the delivery guy. Don’t think you’re anything more than that. You are like the guy delivering Poland Springs to a water cooler.”
02:43 to 03:17 – For us, this was the big, universal issue that we found in our reporting and that we thought was most compelling and relatable about Walter:
“When I asked my grandfather about the route in the old days, he said to me, ‘It was a tough route, it’s a hard way to make a living. I really wish that you would find something easier to do.’
And my father too, I remember I went to visit my father in the hospital and my father was really very, very sick, you know his body was kind of giving up on him. And the weird part about it, the last thing my father ever said to me was, you know, ‘I have nightmares about the route. I go to sleep and dream I’m on the route, it just never ends. I wish you didn’t follow in my footsteps.’
So when you see your grandfather filled with regret about you following in their footsteps, you see your father filled with regret about you following in their footsteps it’s got to make you think maybe you could have done something different with your life.”
03:31 – Walter loves his clichés and wraps a few together here:
“Sooner or later, nothing lasts forever. And maybe time when this is the end of the world for the Seltzer route.”
03:39 – A great question, especially for a radio piece because it allows the subject to set the scene: “What time is it and where are we?”
04:11 – “Oh, don’t you look beautiful. You got all dressed up for me?” Same line he uses with the customer in our piece. Walter, we are on to you!
04:25 – This customer interview with Mildred Blitz is really special:
Mildred Blitz: I mean the seltzer is great, but it’s Walter. That’s the thing about his product. He’s the product. It’s not the seltzer, it’s Walter. He talks about retiring, I get sick.
I think this is a great case for the non-obtrusive nature of using only audio gear. We just couldn’t get customers comfortable with us in the short time we did spend with them. I think the difference between having several people with a couple video cameras around, versus one person with a small audio recording device shows in the access and comfort level of the customer in this example. It seems likely too that they spent more than a few minutes with Mildred and that it was a pretty special relationship.
04:48 – Great ambient sound that puts you on the scene. I feel like I’m standing right next to them and the sound is making me thirsty. Mildred goes on to explain why Walter’s product is so much better than what you can get in the store:
Mildred Blitz: What’s sad now is the seltzer that’s being sold in the supermarket doesn’t come close. It doesn’t have the taste; it’s nothing. When you open the top it fizzles a little the first time and then it dies, a horrible death. Ich, it’s awful.
Walter Backerman: You got the real thing baby.
Mildred Blitz: That’s right. Drink some more.
05:15 – Walter has such a great grasp of time passing and it really matters to him to bring the context of his father and grandfather up any chance he gets to do so:
Walter Backerman: How many years you actually live in this apartment?
Mildred Blitz: 52 years.
Walter Backerman: Wow, and my father was delivering to you, so in the late forties?
5:44 – Walter, again, brings the time element into his personal narrative:
Walter Backerman: “Time flies. It’s funny. I remember coming here as a kid, I might have been ten years old and now I’m almost 50. And I’m still doing it.”
05:50 – I love how the customer works in the law school issue:
Mildred Blitz: You’re not just a seltzer man. You’re too bright. When you told me you were leaving law school to work with Al, I was devastated.
Walter Backerman: Well that’s the road not taken.
06:08 – Mildred then delivers a gold line here:
Mildred Blitz: Not that I have so much regard for lawyers. I mean I’d rather take an honest seltzer man any day of the week, but the future for the honest seltzer man is what? Is what?
06:18 – Nice bookend statement to recollect back to Walter telling her she looks beautiful and Mildred’s character and humor really come alive:
Mildred Blitz: So I think you’re beautiful.
Walter Backerman: God bless you baby, you’re looking pretty good yourself.
Mildred Blitz: It took me hours to get to look like this.
Music picks back up as we all have a little chuckle at how awesome Mildred is:)
06:55 – Same idea that we use:
Walter Backerman: It’s the same bottles that my father delivered to them, maybe that my grandfather delivered to their grandparents.
07:15 – “I like being the seltzer man” is a line I would have dropped, I think the line before was a stronger close:
Walter Backerman: You come into their house, for some reason for that moment in time, the husband is still there, the kids are still there, they’re young. Somehow, I bring in history.
It’s a great radio piece that gives Walter a voice in his own story with elegant use of natural sound and music. I was surprised, but happy, that they didn’t use a narrator.
The customer, Mildred, is a sensational character that brings great context to Walter’s story. The small footprint of the tools used to report the story and the fact that probably only one person did that reporting were key in creating such a strong radio product.
But, this approach only provides one media type to work with and, while that audio can be repurposed as text, without the visual layer it’s not possible to package this story for additional platforms, which would reach a larger audience and generate more revenue.
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Remember These Days from the MediaStorm Storytelling Workshop on April 12, 2012
For Walter Backerman, seltzer is more than a drink. It’s the embodiment of his family. As a third generation seltzer man, he follows the same route as his grandfather. But after 90 years of business, Walter may be the last seltzer man. See the project at http://mediastorm.com/training/remember-these-days
The Web Approach
The MediaStorm Storytelling Workshop is a weeklong collaboration in multimedia reporting and advanced post-production where participants work alongside MediaStorm staff to create an intimate, character-driven documentary. Participants apply eight weeks before the workshop and are selected six weeks before we meet in person at MediaStorm. The participant team is usually three people, and they come from varying backgrounds–radio, print, video, photography, writing. The participants work with the MediaStorm staff the month before the workshop starts to find a story and a character to cover during the week. Each team has two MediaStorm producers–one that goes into the field and one that works on post-production during the week. The workshop starts on a Saturday and we do a full day of intensive training in our approach. On Sunday the team goes into the field for the first day of reporting. On Monday the MediaStorm producer works with one of the participants (the editor) to hone the narrative while the rest of the team continues to report until Wednesday. On Thursday and Friday the entire team works together in a MediaStorm edit suite to put the piece together by Friday at 7pm when we screen the piece for the entire workshop group. The following week MediaStorm producers will refine the piece based on the Friday discussion and do the final audio mix and color correction. We had an exceptionally talented team working on Remember These Days. Workshop participants Frederic Menou and Galen Clarke shot the bulk of the video and photography with MediaStorm’s director of photography Rick Gershon working side-by-side with them in the field during three days of coverage. Galen Clarke conducted the interview with Walter and Marian Liu worked as the editor next to MediaStorm producer Eric Maierson in the edit suite. Tim Klimowicz handled the graphics package and Andrew Hida was an intern for this story. My role as the executive producer is to oversee the process from beginning to end. I don’t go meet the subject so I can be a little more impartial in the editing suite. I don’t know every detail of the scene; I only know what I have in front of me.
Deconstructing the Process
We start the story visually with the bottles and Walter’s poetic narrative about how his trade was once booming and now is dwindling:
Walter Backerman: At one time, there were about a hundred seltzer shops in New York City, maybe more.
At one time, there were thousands of seltzer men, maybe more.
At one time, there were millions and millions and millions of seltzer bottles, maybe more.
A rack focus technique is used to provide a point of view. The only thing that would have made this shot better is if the name on the top of the bottle had been Backerman.
We use the tight interview shot of Walter onscreen to show him holding his hands to visually reinforce his narrative lines:
Walter Backerman: Now, there’s a handful of seltzer men and I think if I put ten out that’s too much.
We take the opportunity to cut to the wide interview shot to show the number of bottles behind him as he says:
Walter Backerman: You probably will never see more seltzer bottles in one spot than the 7,000 right here.
We use a low angle of the boxes on the dolly to further Walter’s narrative line, “It’s like looking at a dinosaur walking down Manhattan.”
Gorgeous morning light, good natural sound and then the reveal of the title.
When your character’s body language is advancing the narrative it’s a good time to show them on screen with a video interview. You can see the passion that Walter has for his craft:
Walter Backerman: My canvas is my seltzer bottles.
I work them, I mold them, I create them, I fix them, I buff them, I polish them, and then I deliver them.
This is a good example of how we space out the narrative to let the natural sounds of scene come forward. After he says, “My ears are so sensitive,” there’s room for the sound of the box dropping. Then he continues on with “to the sound of the squirting,” and we give room in the narrative for the sound of the bottles squirting:
Walter Backerman: My ears are so sensitive to the sound of the squirting I could tell you if a tube is broke inside. It’s like someone who knows how to tune a piano.
This is the kind of story we look for in the narrative because it helps you understand the priority that he puts on his job:
Walter Backerman: My kid was born, I came to the emergency room when Joey was born, and my wife will tell you, she was going through labor pains and I said, “Zila I wished you had the baby already because I need to get to the route.” She kicked him out. It was 5 in the morning. I said, “Oh, he’s a cute baby.” I gave Joey a kiss. They cleaned him up and I said, “Look, I’ll see you later.” But that’s a seltzer man. You’re devoted no matter what.
We use music to help energize the piece and pick up the pace with a series of quick cuts that help the viewer see the process that Walter goes through each day. Notice too the use of the GoPro camera to provide a unique perspective.
A good technique to use in the reporting process is to ask your subject if they have any old photographs. These images will serve you well in covering stories from the past and will often help your subject recollect important details of a story:
Walter Backerman: I was born to a father who was a seltzer man and also I am the grandson of a seltzer man.
My grandfather Jake had a horse and wagon in 1919, so this business is over 90 years old.
This scene starts with great natural sound of the bottles and a line that Walter has clearly used on many of his customers:
Walter Backerman: You got beautiful for me, wide awake.
This segment of the piece with the customer isn’t as strong as I would have hoped. One of the challenges that we had with the customers is that we didn’t get much time with them and, as a result, they never really let their guard down. It’s tough to show up with several people and a few video cameras and get a subject to be themselves in just a few minutes. I wish we had found a customer as compelling as Mildred was in the Radio Diaries piece.
Detail images are a great way to give a point of view in your storytelling. They help isolate important elements and can provide sophisticated visuals to help cover abstract narrative lines. I really love the narrative in this section because Walter is speaking to the larger issue and delivers the key line that, “Sometimes, old is better.”
Walter Backerman: We live in a different world now.
We live in a society that accepts disposability.
You go to a store, buy a plastic bottle, fill a landfill.
Like my kids, they get a phone now, then they want another phone.
They want the fastest, slickest, newest, best.
What I offer for people is an option.
It’s called stability.
Sometimes, old is better.
There are things that were meant to last.
This section is a good example of mixing narrative with natural sounds that help put the viewer on the scene. Note how we give the space for the natural sounds to come forward in between the narrative lines.
Walter Backerman: In the 1950s, when I was a child, my father made three to four hundred dollars a week, which was like the equivalent of $4,000 a week now. It’s a funny thing about my father; he never was particularly fond of being the seltzer man. He never was proud of it.
This is a case where the image is abstract and is working to illustrate the narrative. Galen Clarke shot a series of really beautiful scenes around this idea as we already had the narrative and knew that we needed something to support it:
Walter Backerman: My route, it retraces the steps that my grandfather took. I have echoes in my brain. I feel my grandfather going up the stairs, and it’s weird how life is imitating the past. It’s almost like déjà vu; I’ve been there before.
Walter Backerman: The last conversation I ever had with my grandfather, he was 95 years of age. I said, “Grandpa Jake, I want to know what it was like to be a seltzer man in those years.” And he said to me, “It was a hard way to make a living. I wish you’d do something else.”
The first three shots help set the sense of place of the new location. Notice too how the direction of the bus entering the frame cuts so well with the bottles on the conveyor belt in the next scene to provide elegant continuity moving in the same direction and on the same plane. MediaStorm producer Eric Maierson is a master at making elegant edits like this one.
Great detail shot with powerful natural sounds from the location to make it feel like you are also there with Walter. This visual interlude gives us a break in the narrative and adds rich texture and depth to the scene. Visuals like these help set the sense of place and are super useful in the post-production process. Walter’s next lines tell the story of how and why he started in the business and what he gave up to do it. As an audio-only presentation, it’s powerful storytelling that I think could easily work as a radio package:
Walter Backerman: I was out of college.
I was 20 years of age.
I was about to start law school in the fall. And then a weird thing happened.
I was traveling all around Europe and then finally when I landed – your father almost died.
He collapsed going up the stairs. He had emphysema and it’s hard for him to do the route.
I told my father, “You know something, I’m not going to start law school now. I’m going to take a leave for six months. I’m going to give you a hand until you get your strength back.”
Six months became six years.
Six years became 37 years and now instead of being a 21-year-old kid with the world ahead of him, now I’m a 59-year-old man looking back at my life in retrospect, not regretting anything I did.
Interludes allow the viewer to process the importance of what Walter has just said. It’s not super important to the story visually–just two shots of Walter driving in his truck and having a little snack in between deliveries–but it helps to make sure the narrative doesn’t become relentless. This is similar to how the best radio show on air, This American Life, uses music after a super important line. The musical interlude allows you to process what you just heard and really let it sink in. Really great visual situation here with the mirror and Walter counting his money to support his narrative about his belief that people will always want his product:
Walter Backerman: Bad economy, good economy. Recession, depression, frustration. It doesn’t matter. People will still buy seltzer. I have people telling me: Look, I need your seltzer. It’s my medicine. I’d rather not go to the hairdresser or buy any new clothes but I’m not giving you up. I am so happy that people want what I have.
This is one of my favorite shots in the piece. I love how both Walter and the other person walk clean into the scene from opposite sides at the exact same time.
I wish this picture was stronger, but I like the idea of using a still image here as he reflects on the financial sustainability of his chosen profession because it allows you to stare at him and really listen to what he is saying:
Walter Backerman: When you’re done at the end of the day, you have some money to pay the bills.
But it’s never that you get really ahead of yourself.
I have to keep working because I don’t see any point in time where I just lay back and go on vacation like other people do.
This video portrait works really well to cover Walter’s line, “This is the life I’ve chosen.” Since we’ve used a couple of still images in front of it I think the viewer is looking at it more closely and is actually expecting it to be a still image. It’s a nice visual surprise to see his eyes blink.
This is the apex of the narrative. Everything in the story is building to this point. It’s the most emotional and compelling narrative in the piece. It takes time with subjects to get them to share this type of story with you and you have to build trust before they will let their guard down.
Footage of Walter driving his van late at night was used to cover the start of his narrative about his father on his deathbed. One of the many visual elements in Walter’s basement was this incredible portrait of his mother and father. Walter is on screen during his most emotional lines. This allows you to make a human connection with Walter and is one of the major benefits of shooting video interviews:
Walter Backerman: My father on his deathbed, he’s under medication, he’s being sedated.
So it’s just trying to make him comfortable at the end.
I remember I bought on his birthday, June first, a Father’s Day card.
And then by Father’s Day he was gone.
And, I looked at the card, and I said, my God, I want to bring it to my father.
But, you know, I want to bring it to him.
And I don’t know the address to heaven.
And then I looked at the card, and I put it down and I said, you know what, you will never be forgotten.
Because as long as I got a bottle to sell and that route and people who care about me, I’ll never forget it. Because you may have hated the route but we’ll never forget you.
This visual sequence of the bottles is so beautifully shot by workshop participant Frederic Menou. We could have easily used these visuals to open the piece, but we wanted to hold the strongest imagery for right after the apex of the narrative. At this point in the story you know why Walter loves these bottles and why they mean so much to him. Holding these shots until this point and then using them sparingly really helped them stand out more and create the visual exclamation point we wanted because they hadn’t been played out and overused. And, in seeing the bottles shot in this way it’s pretty hard to argue that they aren’t beautiful objects. It helps the viewer to see what Walter sees and make it become more relatable:
Walter Backerman: I feel that I have the obligation to take these bottles and preserve them. They’re as valuable as the pictures of my ancestors. Old seltzer men back in the days, you’ll see their names etched in here. It’s almost their tombstone. It’s a monument to these people, to their legacy.
We always use two cameras to shoot our video interviews. Both of these cameras are on tripods. One camera is wide to give the subject room to gesture and it does not move during the interview. The second camera is tight on their face to show emotion and is used to capture details or to follow the motion of a scene. This is what we call the high risk, high reward camera. As you can see from this scene, the second camera shot by Workshop participant Galen Clarke is tight on his hands and bottle and then moves to his face as he speaks. These moments, and Walter’s gestures, are really powerful as video and would be lost in a radio piece:
Walter Backerman: I mean here’s a seltzer bottle. I mean, there’s a horse and wagon on the etching. J. Z. Joseph Zelman.
Look at the bottle how smooth it is from age.
This is timeworn.
This is beautiful.
Here’s a bottle that’s on my route.
It’s a horse-drawn wagon, like my grandfather.
My God, this bottle survived 90 years.
It was used by people.
By my mother when she was a baby.
Abstract visuals can work really well when you have narrative lines that are hard to illustrate. Abstract visuals also allow the narrative to become the dominant element, which is what you want to have happen when you have a line as compelling as this one is:
Walter Backerman: As long as they enjoy these bottles, I feel that my grandfather and his legacy is preserved and I feel that my father also is remembered.
MediaStorm’s director of photography Rick Gershon adds. “I’m always hesitant to push people to shoot purely abstract visuals. I think there should be an effort to have them connect to the story in some way, shape or form. I like to call them metaphorical imagery; shots that are not so literal, but could stand for something else. This at least gets the shooter to think about how random visuals should connect to the story.” One picture, three generations of Seltzer men to support the line:
Walter Backerman: And that everyday that this product is enjoyed by people, it pays tribute to them.
Great shot of Walter walking down the street and a nice cut away of the bottles sliding into the truck. I like how a visual void is left in the shot as he gets into the van and says, “I don’t know if there will be anyone to fill my void.”
Walter Backerman: I have no plans to retire.
It’s the furthest thing from my mind.
I have plans to go and work tomorrow, work the next day, work in five years, work in 20 years.
I would hope that I could just keep working.
Whenever the day might be that I fill my last bottle of seltzer, I don’t know what’s going to happen behind me.
I don’t know if there will be anyone to fill my void.
This picture is a great example of the power of still photography. It captures a single, decisive moment. Video doesn’t do this as well as still photography does since the moments are fleeting. This picture could easily run in a magazine as much of the story is captured in this single moment.
We had limited coverage of the kids and I think that’s a real weakness of our report. They simply weren’t involved in the process at all during the few days that we spent with Walter. I think if we had spent more time reporting, we could have gained more access to them. We did do interviews with them and it was pretty clear that they don’t have any interest in taking over for Walter when he does retire. It seems that Walter has already come to terms with this fact. All he really wants now is for his kids to be happy and to pay respect to that which came before them, just as he has done. That is the great universal and relatable element of the story:
Walter Backerman: I don’t think it will be my kids.
I don’t know if that’s in the cards.
But, you know, if they choose to pursue it, they certainly got enough bottles to use.
If that’s their choice.
And I hope one day down the road, even if my kids are not seltzer men, and they, all they have is a few bottles from my father to remember the route, and us and these days.
My kids, both of them will say, I remember my father and he made me into what I am today and I’ll never forget him.
We approached the story with an open mind in terms of what Walter’s story was about. Our goal in telling Walter’s story was to give him a voice in his own narrative, and to find the universal issues that he is dealing with that our audience can relate to and learn something from in the process.
We didn’t have a set duration in mind; the piece is as long as it needs to be to tell his story effectively. In this case, that was twelve minutes and five seconds. It is a common misconception that video on the web has to be less than three minutes or no one will watch it. We have proven that to be false. Our video stories are usually in the 10-15 minute range and the average viewer of our stories has a completion rate of 65% regardless of duration. For us, it’s about producing a story that is worth your time. That’s what people will post, tweet and share and that type of recommendation has allowed us to continually grow our traffic despite the fact that we don’t publish very often.
Another key to our success with this story is teamwork. For many years the idea of the one-man band was all the rage. I don’t think that’s a journalistic decision, I think that’s an economic decision to try and do more with less. I don’t think that approach leads to quality. Our goal is to collaborate with experts, each of whom elevates the final product.
The Seltzer Man by WABC-TV News on August 24, 2010
The Broadcast Approach
TV news is all about the personality of the anchors and correspondents. They have the advantage of being able to set up a piece for 20 seconds before it plays, but they also want to be in their stories. To me, that is less interesting. I’d rather hear the subjects tell their own stories because it’s just more authentic. Due to the daily turnaround, they are also not given as much time for the reporting or post-production process, which leads to a less in-depth piece and forces them to rely on storytelling conventions that are efficient but not as nuanced as things are in real life.
Deconstructing the Process
My thoughts on specific elements:
00:00 – Anchors have a chance to set up the piece, which is advantageous.
00:20 – The classic walking down the street shot to cover time isn’t very compelling visually.
00:22 – I don’t understand why Walter doesn’t get to tell his own story, why the reporter feels she has to put his words into her own words. To me, this is less authentic and far less interesting.
00:25 – Dissolve from modern day to the old picture is nice.
00:28 – Rapid move on the image seems unnecessary, what is the rationale?
00:29 – The wipe is too much of a gimmick for my taste.
00:32 – Again, too much, becomes more about the technique than the story.
00:34 – Nice detail shot and ambient sound.
00:37 – “Have van will travel. Not to the end of the universe, but if you are going to make money, why not?” A nice sound bite, but honestly doesn’t feel core to Walter’s story. Sounds good in a few seconds, but what does it really teach us about Walter? This line makes it seem like he’s all about the money, which of course he needs, but there’s a bigger issue at stake in his story and I think this line misses the point.
00:39 – Yet another style of transition. Does this help the storytelling?
00:43 – The shot starts black and white and then fades into color. I think they are trying too hard in the post-production process.
00:48 – I feel like his son Joey only gets pulled out when the media comes to do a story. Granted, we did the story two years later and things could have been different then, but we sure didn’t see the kids engaged in Walter’s business.
00:59 – The light from the camera really ruins the scene. That’s just not how his apartment looks. And his short line really pales in comparison to the intimate conversation with Mildred in the Radio Diaries piece:
“The amount of pressure in there, the amount of bubble, it really makes a difference.”
01:12 – “A swig of history straight up or in an egg cream” is the only reporter narrative that I thought was compelling and it still didn’t seem necessary and certainly not as strong as some of the lines Walter offers up on his own terms.
01:19 – Love the kid’s reaction to drinking it.
01:20 – “For some people, besides the taste, for a lot of them it invokes memories.” Seems to leave quite a bit on the table in terms of the big picture issue of this story. Too short, not in depth enough to make me care or even understand what he means.
01:24 – Very informational shot of all the bottles. Makes you feel like you are also walking through his basement. Again, would have preferred to hear Walter tell me how many bottles he has instead of the reporter.
01:30 – Almost the exact narrative used in the MediaStorm piece. They use:
“Because I can fix the bottles, because I can fill the bottles, because I can deliver the bottles, I imbue life into them.”
“I work them, I mold them, I create them, I fix them, I buff them, I polish them, and then I deliver them.”
01:45 – Reveal of the Backerman name by having him turn the bottle doesn’t feel as elegant, or honest, as is the challenge with most setup shots.
01:47 – This is the shot that drives me crazy about broadcast TV. Why do I need to see the reporter walking down the street with Walter? What does that add to his story?
01:55 – They use:
“I feel very fortunate to be wanted. That’s the most wonderful feeling in the world when someone wants what you have and appreciates you providing that service or product for them so it’s great.”
“Bad economy, good economy. Recession, depression, frustration.
It doesn’t matter. People will still buy seltzer.
I have people telling me: Look, I need your seltzer.
It’s my medicine.
I’d rather not go to the hairdresser or buy any new clothes but I’m not giving you up.
I am so happy that people want what I have.”
02:10 – Bugs me that the anchorman responds to the $3.50 a bottle price before the reporter even gets the full price out of her mouth. Suggesting that you can get the same thing from Costco for less money is, in my opinion, missing the entire point of Walter’s story.
Because TV viewers have an expectation of what a story looks like and how long it should be, they take a complicated story and put it into a format they know. They also work under limitations that we don’t have (timeliness, newsworthiness). Because of this, the story isn’t as strong as I think it could be with a different approach.
Honestly, this story is a great example of why I don’t watch many TV news reports. I feel like I learned more about the anchors and the reporter than I did about Walter and it’s just not worth my time. I certainly would not tweet or post a link to this package. Imagine though if they ended their report with something like, “To see the full report, go to our website,” and there you would find a package like the MediaStorm offering. That would make sense to me and would have helped them have more powerful material to work with on air as well. Of course, taking this approach requires more time, effort and resource to succeed.
Reporting for Multiple Platforms
In considering the various results from each approach I’m convinced that reporting with an eye toward the web as the ultimate destination for our stories, and leveraging existing media outlets to drive awareness to the deeper and richer presentation on the web, is the right strategy.
Imagine if at the end of the radio piece there was a call to action to go see a more in-depth (and visual) story on the web? The same could be said for broadcast. Just because they lead with on-air talent and make personality their brand, doesn’t mean they couldn’t do more complete reports online and use their short broadcasts to drive awareness to longer and richer pieces online. I’m not suggesting this is the right approach for every story, but with the resources they have, why not always close the broadcast with one piece that makes their audience want to immediately go to their web site?
Of course, for those of us that don’t own access to the airwaves, our focus is on having a unique voice and leveraging smaller, but very passionate, audiences to help drive awareness to our offerings via Facebook and Twitter. Our goal is to syndicate our stories to other outlets as well. The audio from Remember These Days could easily playback on radio and the video package is ready for broadcast.
Quality, time and collaboration remain, in my opinion, the keys to great storytelling. If you want to learn more about our approach you should sign up for our online training or take one of our workshops.
Contributions to this story were also made by Eric Maierson, Tim McLaughlin, Rick Gershon, Lisa Jamhoury, Pam Huling and Tim Klimowicz.