A Mystery in the Desert

The Star Ledger is very much alive.

Having resolved their union issues, the paper is back in business, and fortunately the video project is remaining a main focus.

Above, a 13-minute documentary on the disappearance of New Jersey woman in Nevada.

Produced by Star Ledger VJ John Munson working with reporter Kathleen O’Brien, it’s a very powerful piece of work.  Take a look. It’s not perfect… yet, but it is a great indicator of the enormous potential to be found in newspapers that have the courage and foresight to empower and unleash their staffs.

Great job all around!

27 responses to “A Mystery in the Desert

  1. 13 minutes? And you watched the entire thing?

    Don’t answer if it might incriminate you.

  2. Come on Peter. It’s a newspaper taking their first shot at long form. I think it’s pretty good. I am not saying its perfect, but it’s encouraging. They will get better in time, but look at what they’ve taken on here.

  3. Michael – I did not watch it so no criticism whatsoever of the work. I rarely watch web video unless it represents a niche interest of mine.

  4. I watched all of it. It kept my interest for the most part. I can see how doing stories like this could augment the headlines and let the reader go deeper into a story that interests them.

    The local news paper around where I live announced a couple of weeks ago that they are letting go over 100 employees and is cutting back to a 4 day paper.

    They have been experimenting with video but from what I have seen it’s been too little too late. One problem, as I see it for the news papers is that “we” don’t read any more. Another problem is the fact that most papers come from a far left point of view and I think that more than anything is leading to their demise.

  5. Two people working together.

    Reporter and photographer.

    I did watch it.

    Well, most of it.

    They need to learn a very basic video skill.

    Show what you are talking about.

    A very traditional effort that is no surprise.

    No VJ working alone.

  6. I enjoyed this – the characters involved are all pretty interesting people (for varying reasons). The cops clearly have a number one suspect, but not enough evidence to proceed. So perhaps not that big a ‘mystery’. But a good story, well told and about the right length. I thought the reporter was right to keep narration to a mininum – her subjects told their own stories..

  7. Dear $
    I am glad you watched at least part of this.
    The notion that a VJ must always work alone is a misnomer and part of the continual confusion between VJ and One Man Band. The VJ is simply a journalist who is completely literate in all aspects of digital television making and does not need a ‘crew’. It does not necessarily mean they are sole operators. VJs often work in teams, switching off between shooting, editing and writing. In this case, a former newspaper photographer accompanied a newspaper print reporter and turned around a 13 minute doc. I think its a pretty impressive performance, personally.

  8. Michael I don’t understand why you would put this up?
    I know ‘if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all’
    So I’ll stay silent on the actual story.
    Just if my camerawork/sound was that bad I’d never get any work.
    I know they are still learning but stuff this badly done will more likely drive viewers away than attract them.
    What worries me more is that you think they did a great job…

  9. Stephen
    What makes this interesting is that a newspaper is leveraging off its very considerable journalistic skills and taking it to a long form doc. This is not a one minute video for the web, but the taste of something deeper and more interesting. It is driven by the journalism, primarily, and while we can all agree it has a way to go on the video side, I think it is the tip of something that has enormous potential. The video and the production values will get better, but its a heck of a lot harder to make someone a good journalist. That they have in buckets.

  10. I see what you are saying but it’s not enough to have a story, you have to present it so people will want to listen. The writing, shooting and editing are all so stilted its boring no matter how good the content is or isn’t. I struggled to watch the whole thing and I had a reason to sit through it.
    Look I hope it works out for them and I hope they get better and go from strength to strength but instead of reinventing the wheel why not hire some people who know what they are doing and build from there?

  11. So which one was the VJ?

    The one holding the camera or the one writing and voicing the script?

    Seems like you would prefer a game of semantics.

    Which is the one versed in video storytelling?

    Both?

    It seems your term VJ is just another word for cameraman when I see that story.

  12. Let’s not forget editing.
    Why is it the editor is always left out in these discussions?

  13. They seemed pretty clear at the beginning of the story about who did what.

    And not one of them claimed the title of VJ.

  14. Well call them what you like. They’re the product of the VJ training bootcamps at The Newark Star Ledger.

  15. “They’re the product of the VJ training bootcamps at The Newark Star Ledger”

    …and thats the sad thing.

  16. Ah Stephen
    An easy and cheap shot. But in fact I have posted half a dozen video pieces from the Star Ledger here that are all quite good. Go peruse http://www.NJ.com to see as much video as you like. This first attempt at making a documentary is worthy of praise. It needs work, but who amongst us is perfect, particularly on their first time out?

  17. Dear Elitenicks of the Television World,

    Good grief, can’t you for just one stinking minute step down off the high horse? This piece may not be to your high- almost unobtainable standards. Most of us mere mortals could not approach your level of technical video fantastic-ness.

    We, the unwashed masses, who are trying to figure out this new world of video communication are simply not worthy.

    Please allow me to proffer the following:

    Some folks who want to learn a little more about this case may actually enjoy this video.

    I know that must seem like heresy to you but its true. They don’t care that it wasn’t technically masterful.

    What was it that caused your angst with this piece?

    Poorly written?
    Bad shooting?
    Too much narration?
    Not enough narration ?
    Violated the rule of thirds?
    Weak story line?
    Maybe you didn’t like it because “VJ’s” produced it.

    Who cares?…

    It communicated a strange even interesting case, a mystery about a family whose daughter is missing. Did you see the characters in this piece? My guess is no, you were probably looking for bad editing or something.

    TV would have a hard time inventing characters like that. The weird husband who comes off over confident and kind of slimy. The goofy cop with a funky goatee. The Sherriff with the Jersey accent (I don’t know, he seemed out of place in Pahrump NV) How about the father that seemed very “matter of fact” about the whole situation.

    Of course you guys are entitled to your opinion and like I have said before keep it up!

    Your incessant nay saying somehow brightens my day. I just hope that you would “man up” and admit it if you ever come across a piece that meets with your approval especially if it is produced by a VJ.

  18. I’m going to regret this but…

    I follow your link and what do we have?
    A story about bears destroying corn. It’s a cameraman’s wet dream, picture opportunity rich story, screaming to be captured… instead we get this:
    http://www.nj.com/multimedia/featuredvideos/index.ssf/2008/10/bears_destroy_corn_field.html
    Has the VJ got a shoe fetish? Could he sound more bored? How long did it take him to get out there and manage to avoid shooting anything interesting. It must have taken real effort to miss all the picture opportunities and get legs.

    As for the Ledger live stuff why is he reading off the laptop? Why is it mostly poor graphics and bad interviews? Where is the video???

    It’s at the end. The crossbow guy is over exposed, out of focus and off mic, not to forget the appalling jumpcut editing. How long have they been going now? This isn’t week two? How can you defend this? Why aren’t you there teaching them to do it right?
    This kind of poor stuff isn’t helping any part of our industry.

  19. The point that’s being missed is that this is a 13′ documentary made specifically for the internet. It makes no claim to be a high-quality feast of crafted widescreen TV. It won’t win awards, but for the few dollars it cost to make it is achieving a great deal. It’s telling an interesting story to a global audience.

  20. Paul: “It won’t win awards, but for the few dollars it cost to make it is achieving a great deal. It’s telling an interesting story to a global audience.”

    You assume a lot.

    What global audience?

    I guarantee you a global audience did not watch it.

    It was available to a global audience but did not garner it’s attention.

    In fact, many in that audience did not watch the entire story because of it’s lesser quality.

    Whatever money they spent to create this story did not achieve the real goal.

    To increase profit for a dying newspaper and hopefully keep it alive a little longer.

    I’m sure many applaud their effort.

    But that’s all it was.

    A weak effort that cost a company money to produce and now that company has to look at their investment and decide if they will do it again.

    The only reason a company will invest money is if they are going to make a profit on their investment.

    This story failed to do that.

    The people who shot, wrote, edited the story did a fine job for their limited ability.

    It was not a professional ability.

    Professional ability is easily on display and viewers choose what they do and don’t watch.

    Those choices generate revenue.

    This was typical Youtube fare.

    Free to watch and won’t make a dime for anyone who spent their time and money to create it.

  21. I can see the commentary by the opposing view is but a repeat of the same detracting statements – Avery – thank you for being a voice of reason

  22. Here are some of my notes:
    Hi John
    It’s interesting.
    It’s a very powerful story, and it’s well told.
    The fact that the paper would pursue such a deep and in-depth piece is very encouraging.
    A few points, (if I may).
    -the open does not work, for several reasons. The very opening bite with the woman is disconnected. you don’t know what she is talking about. She is badly shot for the opening shot, which has to be really powerful. Her head represents 8% of the frame. My eye is continually drawn to the bird thing on top of her. The following two bites also suffer. I don’t know what we are talking about. One would not start a newspaper story with three quotes in a row, and it doesn’t work for video either. I think the overpowering thing here is the starkness of the desert and that is where I would have started. Its kind of thematic to the whole thing. The emptiness. The desert shots are great. Begin with those. And add music. Have you ever seen Paris, Texas? Rent the DVD and watch it. That’s the start to your film also.
    -The arc of story is really well done once the narration gets going. Now you’re building a story. And its a good one. It reads like an HBO special. Or maybe CSI. You could have benefited from many more close ups. The interview with the sheriff, who is a great character, like something out of a Coen Brothers film, is also badly framed. All the space behind him is kind of weird in the wide shots. More details in the office, more b-roll of him. I would have built him into more of a character – the good guyvs. the husband, who is so clearly the bad guy. See no Country for Old Men.
    -I think you are beginning to touch on the filmic world here, and there is a lot more you can do with this. Longer, lingering shots. Music. more tension in the build. I think more stuff from the mother and the sister and brother in law. weave them in a bit more

  23. Thank you Michael. You are not video blind at all! Good notes, some good tips for John. I really hope they help him.
    But you might have to be careful with insight like that or you could be labeled as part of the media elite🙂

  24. Thanks Stephen.
    I appreciate it.

  25. Mr. Rosenblum: “The Star Ledger is very much alive”

    Technically you are correct.

    They have not shut their doors but laying off half of their staff, as reported in this article from the AP, is not indicative of a healthy business that is long for this world.

    http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5gZNapL_qKwtWcN1sDFSwS-p9YGzgD9415AC00

    Star-Ledger cuts newsroom staff by nearly half
    By ANICK JESDANUN – NEW YORK (AP) — The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., will reduce its newsroom staff by nearly half through voluntary buyouts as New Jersey’s largest newspaper seeks to return to profitability.

    Jim Willse, the Star-Ledger’s editor, said Friday that the newspaper accepted 151 buyout offers from its news staff, or about 45 percent of its 334 editorial employees. He said 17 buyout applications were rejected.

    Some staffers already have left, and others are leaving by year’s end, many after the elections.

    There is more from the article which continues to point out the Star Ledger is on life-support and their business life prognosis is not positive.

  26. This is sad but true. And needless to stay this is the state of newspapers all across the country. But be warned. What has befallen papers today will come to TV news tomorrow. Get ready now.

  27. A clarification: John Munson is not a “former” newspaper photographer; he is a Star-Ledger staff photographer who is branching out into video. He and I produced a page-one article with photographs, along with the video. (Neither of us attended a VJ bootcamp.)

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