Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fixing photo

The Orion photo staff had an outstanding week last week. Just look at this photo by Maisee Lee that played at the top of a feature about retired ag and biology professor Wes Dempsey. Nice composition, great use of selective focus, great expression on her subject's face.

So it's clear to me the staff has talent.

What isn't clear is why there aren't more photos like this, and more photos generally, in the newspaper and on the website.

I've come to know over the years this isn't a problem unique to The Orion.

Part of the trouble is the way photos are assigned. Like a lot of papers, The Orion depends on writers and editors (whose primary concern is words, not pictures) to make photo requests, an order for an image or images to illustrate a story. Then it's up to a photo editor to schedule one of the staff photographers to bring back something appropriate.

On a good day, the photographer and reporter go together to the assignment, talk about the story before they arrive, share ideas about what images might best match the yet-to-be-written text and even talk about the art after the story is written.

Unfortunately, that doesn't happen often enough. And even if it did, that's really a system designed for a print newsroom instead of one that produces stories for multiple platforms, which usually means the media organization needs many, many more images than can be assigned under this system, not to mention video when it's the best way to tell a story.


If "more" and "better" are on The Orion's wish list for photojournalism, here are some suggestions for how to make that happen:

Collaborative assignments - Instead of filling out a photo assignment after a story gets a green light at the weekly ed board meeting, invite the photo editor and even photographers to sit in and join the discussion when stories are pitched. They can help the other editors decide if a story should be just a photo and cutline, a page of photos, a slideshow or something else other than a photo-with-story. This approach works especially well when whole pages are planned at the initial story meeting (the Maestro approach) instead of at the end of a news assembly line.

Photo of the day - Wild art (photos not connected to a specific story) can be a wonderful addition to a website, a life-saver on layout-day deadline and a great opportunity to show readers and website visitors that The Orion is covering the campus...every day! Whether it's a photo of a planned event or something a photographer (or reporter) sees walking across campus, in Bidwell Park or downtown, having a fresh image on the website every day is a goal worth having.

Photo essays - Just as writers should be free to develop their own story ideas and projects, photographers should be encouraged to cover an event, a process or even a person through photos. Here's why:
• Readers love photo pages and slideshows when they're done well.
• Photojournalists expand their skill sets and portfolios.
• Photojournalists have an opportunity to express their creativity.
• Bonus: Both the paper and the website benefit from having a greater variety of visuals on their pages.

All three of these suggestions require a new way of managing the photo staff -- change that can be difficult. Enforcing the new responsibilities, though, will be crucial to doing it successfully.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

A home page ready for contest

Orion Managing Editor Ernesto Rivera has apparently been putting in major hours tinkering with the home page at theorion.com because it looks amazing. He's replaced some of the template section styles lower on the page and took a figurative screw driver to tighten up the opening page.

The image that fills the screen when visitors navigate to the site now shows two or three main stories on the left news-section module with little unnecessary white space. The photo gallery controls are still being unreliable about whether they're going to kick into a second line and create too much white space above the photo scroll, but otherwise all the elements work together to present an economic and extremely newsy "front page."

The big changes, though, happen down the page. Look at how the new arts and sports modules are configured.

Both use a representative photo under the section name to announce the type of content visitors are likely to see when they access this part of the page. The photo is flanked by the most recent four stories from the section.

Arts is actually a new addition to the home page, and the right-most position in this new module displays an important addition, the calendar, which has now moved from the print edition to online. The move makes great sense because the events listing can be updated daily instead of once a week. Arts Editor Nicole Santos deserves credit for making the calendar a focal point of the section.

The sports module isn't new, but it does employ a new style that also brings consistency to the lower half of the home page. The right-most column in this section is devoted to Tweets from the sports staff, showing off breaking game and match coverage that the section's followers have been enjoying only on Twitter, a strength of the section and its reporters.

This tweaking of the website comes just in time for the Associated Collegiate Press convention in San Diego at the end of the month and the national Pacemaker competition for college websites. I think the changes boost The Orion's chances of taking home some impressive awards this spring!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Two-question quiz

1. What's wrong with this section of today's home page?

2. How would you fix it?

(For answers, see the post below.)