The Big Video Debate: Rough or Slick?

    by Roland Legrand
    January 23, 2009
    My colleague Jan standing next to a fixed camera in the newsroom. (Photo by Sarah Godard)

    Video is one of those new practices we have to get used to as newspaper journalists now working in a Web 2.0 world. One of the key issues is the quality of the video. Do we always need slick, television-style video, which require more specialized skills, or will our community accept “rougher” video, made by amateurs using less sophisticated cameras?

    At the Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo we use five main video techniques now: prosumer cameras, consumer-type camcorders, Seesmic (webcams) and Flip cameras, and two Sony cameras on a fixed installation for interviews in the center of the newsroom.

    My colleagues at L'Echo were so enthusiastic about the Flip that they produced more video in one week than in the whole year previous."

    I will briefly discuss who is doing what with which cameras, concluding with some issues we are debating these days.


    Cameras for slick video


    Prosumer cameras are mainly used by our two experienced full-time video journalists. One of them filmed this interview between a newspaper colleague and the Israeli vice-prime minister Meir Sheetrit. It is web/TV-style, and the newspaper interviewer seems to be a bit nervous in his new role as video interviewer.

    Another notable prosumer video piece is this company portrait of the brewer Duvel Moortgat.
    These videos require knowledge and skill regarding composition, light, sound, camera movements. Most newspaper and Internet journalists are happy to leave this work to their two specialized colleagues, limiting their contribution to appearing on camera as an interviewee or an interviewer.

    There are some exceptions. Some young newspaper colleagues learned the basics of video production (camera work, Final Cut Pro, etc.) at school, and would like to produce video. The workload of the print and online production does not allow them to do so. However, we hope to reorganize the workload in such a way that the Internet desk journalists will have more time to practice their video skills.


    Even though ultimately we would like all journalists to have some basic video skills, we now want a group of specialized Internet journalists to acquire all kinds of multimedia and social media skills.


    We use yet another type of camera, two fixed Sony cameras (see the picture at right with my colleague standing next to the camera). They are used for interviews between journalists in the midst of the newsroom. The sound technique is advanced enough to get good audio results despite the considerable background noise. Recording is not difficult but involves three people: the interviewer, the interviewee and one person at the technical desk.

    Cameras for less slick video

    We did some experiments with a regular Canon HD camcorder, for instance, this interview with a left wing protester. I integrated this video in a blog post. The HF 100 HD Canon is easy to use and has the advantage that one can use a headset to monitor the sound quality. Alas, even this camera seems to be too intimidating for those colleagues who don’t have a camcorder at home — and there are surprisingly many of them.

    One of the very nice aspects of blogs is that one can experiment without disturbing your more apprehensive newsroom colleagues. Seesmic is a video conversation service, a kind of video-Twitter that lets you record video messages with a webcam.

    Its advantage is its simplicity: just push a red button and your webcam activates itself, you deliver your message, check the result and publish. The nicest aspect is that people can just as easily video-respond to your message. I tried this out at a conference, interviewing people in front of a webcam.

    There are some problems as well. The standard laptops in our newsroom are office laptops without webcams. Journalists seem to consider it rather weird to start talking to their laptops. Most disappointing is that even though nobody in the community objected to the rough format, nobody responded with their own video message either. So much for interactivity!

    The reasons for this may be specific to our community. Many people who work in financial institutions visit our website during work hours. While reading texts on a business website is acceptable in their offices, watching videos is not, and responding to them even less so. I also suspect that their computers may not have webcams installed.

    There is a saying regarding online anonymity: “Nobody on the Internet knows you are a dog.” This does not apply to Seesmic. Many of our site visitors like to speak out using nicknames when they are discussing sensitive financial matters or professional issues, but I would guess they don’t like to make their comments with their faces visible on camera.


    While the prosumer cameras and the whole process of editing and uploading the video materials is intimidating for most newspaper journalists, this is not the case for the toy-like Flip cameras. Recording is just an issue of pushing a button and uploading is very easy.

    For the moment we do not use the HD-versions of the Flip; we’ll have to import them. The regular Flips we use are clearly less sophisticated in image and sound quality than the prosumer cameras (I’m not sure where in the process this loss of quality happens, because the net result on YouTube is much worse compared to the original file on the Flip camera).

    For an example, have a look at this interview with a colleague Peter about the banking crisis. I have to hold the camera rather close to his face to get good sound (there is no jacket for a clip-on microphone on my Flip), but it somehow captures the feeling of being in the midst of the newsroom.

    Another important aspect: This video is embedded in the blog post. It is more informal, and context is given in the text.

    Rough Versus Slick

    My French-speaking colleagues of L’Echo were so enthusiastic about the Flip that they produced more video in one week than in the whole year previous. They decided not to embed the videos in blog posts, but rather to attach them to main news stories on the home page.

    The multimedia producers were not pleased, and neither were some newsroom managers. L’Echo and De Tijd are business newspapers and want to project a slick image. The Flip videos are very cool but rather rough. They look unprofessional, some say. On the Dutch language website, we embed the “rough stuff” (Flips, webcams, camcorder) in blog posts, a practice which seems acceptable to everyone.

    Until now, the audience has not complained. The reactions I got on our Flips all concerned content. I also have the impression that it helps to deepen the relationship between our community and the journalists, who literally get a face and a voice. People respond on the videos by mail, addressing us by our first name and initiating very informal and friendly conversations.

    The question is: Should rough video work be solely embedded in a blog context or is it all right to publish it on the home page? Or, even more fundamentally, is a Flip a poor excuse for video, a kind of we-would-like-to-do-video-but-we-cannot?

    I, for one, love the Flip. We are constantly struggling for time and the workload seems to get heavier every week. The Flip (or similar cameras such as the Vado) is easy to use and above all it allows for very fast video production. You can slip in into your pocket and this small, easy-to-use camera will not intimidate either the journalist or the interviewee. In one word, it is fun to use. Maybe it is a good stepping stone to encourage journalists to go further and start using more sophisticated cameras later on.

    The issue boils down to this: Newspaper journalists in our newsroom have no training at all in using video in a sophisticated way. We can set up a training program, but that will take time and still only a minority of journalists will feel inclined to make video a priority. Using simple cameras and a rough style gives immediate results; more videos are published and the community seems to appreciate this additional connection. Finally, those first steps with easy-to-use cameras can convince more people to acquire better skills.

    I’d love to hear about your take regarding “rough video” and the Flips of this world. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

    Tagged: camcorders cameras communities flip seesmic vado videos
    • There’s a place for rougher video on news sites — but orgs need to be careful about pushing themselves over the cliff. What happens when the consumer can’t tell the difference between “pro video” on a reputable news site and YouTube consumer grade stuff?

      If you say it’s all about the content and not the presentation, why not get rid of those expensive presses and run down to Kinkos and have the paper printed?

    • Eric Hess

      As a videographer for the last 25 years (for instance, i have used or currently use ALL the cameras you feature) i think ANY video (regarding a news story) is GOOD video. In fact my fellow shooters and i agree that, when concerning news, rough video is actually better than slick video. It gives the viewer more of a “you are there” aspect to the whole story.

    • @Chris @Eric interesting reactions… I agree that we should indicate clearly who we are (which news organization, that we are journalists etc). The context of the videos gives that information on two levels: the added textual information and often the setting of the video (the newsroom for instance).
      I certainly agree with Eric that the “you are there” aspect is very important. Not only on the scene of some news event but even in the newsroom – video can make the news gathering process more transparent, journalists can explain their doubts and questions about a developing issue – presenting the “making-of” the news story.

    • First up, I have issues with this ongoing notion that “TV=slick, Internet=rough”. We need to stop describing visual quality as TV, because it just locks us in to thinking in a set format, e.g. TV news story. I get sick of seeing supposedly “internet video stories” that mimic a 1 and a half minute TV package. The internet needs to stop using TV as a benchmark and set some new ones of its own.

      Second, your journalists would no doubt pounce on a colleague who wrote an article using poor grammar, spelling and syntax. Well, video is a communication form, no different from words and speech. It’s all well and nice to say “rough video makes the experience feel more real”, just like reading YouTube comments makes me realise I’m dealing (arguing) with average people and not a professional with a clearly communicated argument. And there are times where that sort of conversation can be great, exactly the sort of thing to match the video content.

      However if you’re going to be a professional communicator then you need to learn how the elements on screen pass information to the audience, and do what you can to reduce noise and boost signal.

      Visual communication is not a new thing. We have thousands of years of constructed images to learn from, and over a century of moving image studies. Things like framing, lighting, editing, etc. are not the sole prerogative of television, or cinema, just as words and letters don’t only belong in a newspaper. To be an efficient communicator we need to open ourselves up to appreciating and understanding the grammar of the image and using its power to its full potential.

      It feels like you’re saying “The Flip is great because we don’t really have to try”. I agree that simple is great, but it’s worth making sure that facilities are in place to help train people make those incremental steps towards “quality”, while being as unobtrusive to their workflow as possible.

      I still feel my point is lost in there somewhere, but I’ve ranted enough.

    • I mostly agree with Leonard, in that ‘rough’ doesn’t make it real, what makes the story is the story or the talent. In our experience of producing on line audio and video (podcast and vidcast) they must follow the same rules of publishing any material, in that the video must connect, communicate and mostly, be interesting. The look of the video is secondary.
      The experience of a good communicator with an editor is generally what keeps an on line video relevant, interesting and to the point.
      Production values are secondary to the fact that boring is boring is boring!

    • @Dave, the problem I have when people say that is it gives the impression production values are irrelevant. I know that’s not what you’re saying, but when you play the “Content is King” card it devalues the power of effective visual communication, just as telling a great text story is diminished by sloppy grammar and spelling, or telling a hilarious joke is stymied by poor timing and irrelevant tangents.

      Production values should take second place to the story, no doubt about it. My concern is when we take it the next step and say “I don’t need to improve my production values because the content will take care of itself”. That’s just lazy.

    • I worked as a TV news manager and producer for more than 20 years before going online fulltime. Without question: Don’t let the production values get in the way of the story.

      I see newspapers and others trying to do oldschool TV-style “packages” and I shake my head sadly … the reason the old media is in trouble is, among many other things, because they tried to overpackage the story. I was guilty of it too, of course. Let people hear the full interview. Run a LONG section of sound. Just shoot the event and post it – in chunks – here’s this part, here’s that part. Don’t deprive people of the chance to choose what they want to see, which is what oldschool TV-news-style 2-minute packages do.

      Even before I left TV a year ago, we were evangelizing “run more raw video” – time was the only obstacle, a 30-minute newscast with tons of stories to squeeze in – Online, you have no such obstacle.

      Instead of spending one person’s entire day editing some beautiful slick production, cut the video into chunks, post it contextually into the story, and make your time better spent covering MORE news.

      You can lament this reality if you want to, but it IS reality. If you really want to agonize over production values, do spend money (if you have it) on better cameras, mikes, and lights when needed, but not on overprocessing what you capture WITH that camera.

    • This is a great topic, and one I’m often thinking about these days. Here’s something that I’ve been rattling around a bit lately:

      I’m wondering about the ‘middle ground’ here, since there really seems to be one. What about encouraging video to be filmed by such ‘non professionals’ with non-pro cameras like the Flip, and then passing the footage on to the editors to work with as source content?

      I’m sure that this ‘happens’ a bit in reality, but I’m rather emphasizing this here just to open it up for consideration a bit. This way you can still benefit from the immediacy of ‘off the cuff’ filming by non-pros, while also granting those in post production the opportunity to work the footage into a context that everyone will be happy with…

      As we all know, big things can happen in an editing room. ;-)

      Just a thought!

      …Dan Dashnaw

    • @Dan sounds like a great idea, but of course it implies one has something like an editing room and editing colleagues.
      It seems to me that the current thinking is more like “why invest in extra video editing capacity when the money should go to producing even more print, online and video stories.”
      The only reason would be that a well edited video story generates (much) more clicks – are we sure this is actually the case? It seems to me timing and relevancy are all what counts here – have the the CEO explaining why his bank failed immediately after the news breaks, and you’ll generate tens or hundreds of thousands of clicks – no matter how the video looks like – but in order to have that story, you need reporters out there, not desk (video) editors – and in these times of cost cutting you cannot have them both.
      Now I am writing this, I must admit I don’t feel that good about it, but I am afraid it is reality.

    • I think that I’ll have to agree with Dan on this one.

      The most intriguing video footage that I’m seeing is the grainy, just a little bit too much movement, but it seems genuine.

      Just my two cents.

    • I think it is a significant step to improve music side.I like it.

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