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SXSW and Storytelling

March 19, 2012

I’m sorry if you haven’t heard from me during the past nine days. I fell into an alternate world that descends onto Austin, Texas, every March. It’s called South By Southwest.

This year, I had a badge and was excited to go to the Interactive Festival. There were several panels on digital storytelling, and their presence in the schedule of the hottest tech conference in the country means that digital storytelling is a hot topic, with widespread interest.

On Monday, I sat down to a talk in the Austin Convention Center called “Cinematic Storytelling.” It featured Michael Senzon of CNN Digital; Olivia Ma of Youtube News; Blake Whitman of Vimeo; and Katy Newton, who is a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, and a former documentary filmmaker and video producer at the LA Times.

They opened with this highly entertaining video that’s completely worth watching:

My background is in journalism, and I’ve seen the shift from this type of formulaic TV news reporting to what’s being called “cinematic storytelling,” first-hand.

The bottom line is that people are not just getting their news from traditional outlets like TV, newspaper, and radio. Big players like YouTube (see Olivia Ma) have stepped in, and now anyone with a cellphone camera can create news. And people are turning to Vimeo (see Blake Whitman) for the most creative video and multimedia that’s being produced around the world. These forces are re-defining what audiences want to see and come to expect from the media they consume, and traditional outlets are trying to keep up.

I can certainly understand that. My first experiences with creating videos were for a media company born as a traditional news outlet, and there’s no manual for understanding how to adapt to a rapidly changing media landscape. Katy Newton (I believe it was her) mentioned that some newspapers initially thought, “Hey, we’ll have our reporters shoot videos and it will be great!” only to realize that it’s an entirely different format from print, and not every video is worthy of being on the LA Times website.

I had hoped for a discussion of what the term “cinematic storytelling” really means and how it’s being done now, because presumably the idea of telling a journalistic story like a movie isn’t a new idea. It’s called a documentary. But like most journalism-focused panels I attended at SXSW, it ultimately came down to a discussion of “old” media’s business model.

Are people with cellphone cameras and Instagram undermining the work of documentary photographers? Is a citizen journalist as valuable as a trained journalist? Do people prefer watching cat videos over the six o’clock news, and if so, will Boxing Kitteh and his ilk bring down the New York Times and CNN?

My feeling is that this conversation will be moot in few years, when we can all agree that these things (including cat videos) have different values in our culture, and the high-quality stuff is worth paying for. The important thing is figuring out a way to pay for it.


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