Covering the news still means interviewing credible sources, verifying and arranging the facts, and delivering an accurate story to the public as quickly as possible; however, I would be doing my students a disservice if I expected them to bang out their stories on manual typewriters, the way journalists did a century ago.
What Is a Multimodal News Package?
A multimodal news package simply means “using more than one mode,” typically the written word + some other medium. Exactly what goes into a multimodal news package is negotiable.
Editors and journalism instructors will each have their own expectations. But my go-to starting point is
- 800-1000 words
- on a newsworthy topic
- driven by direct quotes from at least 3 newsworthy sources (or more, if more sources are necessary to capture the full range of stakeholder viewpoints without oversimplifying)
- depending on the format, many of these words might be spoken (in videos or audio files) rather than written
- presented in time-sensitive segments (to be determined by circumstances; see “Examples” 1-3 below)
- 2-3 original images (photos, charts, maps, infographics, etc.) with detailed textual descriptions, which will not only add visual interest to the web page that houses your story, but also are used on social media to promote your story. (Even if the bulk of the story is a video or an audio file, search engines are much better at using words and images to connect people to the content they seek.)
Depending on the skill level I expect from the students, I usually ask students to construct a “news package” that incorporates anywhere from 2-5 of the following:
- 200-word preview (published the day before a scheduled event)
- 10-12 social media posts (published during an event)
- gallery of 6-8 photos (not just the snapshots everyone in the room can take from their seats, but carefully executed works of photojournalism, with detailed textual descriptions)
- breaking news updates (frequently updated page with bulletins describing the reporter’s developing understanding of a story; the page shouldn’t post anything that hasn’t been properly verified, and should include clarifications and retractions as necessary)
- 600-word followup (with fresh interviews conducted after the big event is over, and a new lead that emphasizes the latest developments, including reactions from decision-makers)
- media file (video or audio, following the conventions of reporting in that genre)
- infographic (with original research, meticulously sourced; not just a rehash of what Wikipedia or Google tells you)
- multi-page print layout
Example 1: Preview/live coverage/follow-up
- The day before a scheduled event: publish a 200-word notice that a nationally-known guest speaker will be coming to campus tomorrow.
- You might publish this on your own social media platform; or you might be attending the event as a student journalist, and thus you’d be working with the timing and content guidelines set by your online editor. (Don’t expect to submit the story to an online editor at 11:55pm the day before the event.)
- At least a week in advance, ask for a photo and a quote from whoever is hosting the event.
- If you can’t get a quote from the speaker, then at least get a quote from whoever organized the event. Ask what are the organizer’s goals for the event, and what should people expect if they come.
- Don’t repeat all the ticket and parking details. Just link to it.
- On social media,
- mention that you’ll be covering the event tomorrow, and invite people to follow your live social media coverage.
- clarify whether you’ll be attending the event in order to write about on your own social media platform, or whether you will be attending as a representative of your student news organization.
- Include the hashtag you’ll use during your live coverage (if applicable, check your editor, so that if another journalist is covering the same event your hashtags will match);
- During the event: 10-12 social media posts
- all should include the appropriate hashtag (see above)
- some should include your observations about the environment, reactions of the crowd, etc.
- some should include fun facts about the speaker or the event, that you’ve researched ahead of time, and that you can post during slow stretches.
- some should include direct quotations from what the speaker is saying during the event
- some should include pictures — but if your picture just looks like a snapshot taken over the backs of people’s heads, it will be boring. (Get up, move around, and take pictures from unusual angles. Perhaps the organizers will let you meet with the speaker briefly before or after the main event.)
- the images should include informative descriptions, following AP Style conventions for photo descriptions.
- some should include direct quotes from organizers and leaders.
- some should include direct quotes from audience members.
- the last one should tease a follow-up story that you will be published tomorrow.
- As soon as possible after the event: 600-word follow-up (with 2-3 images, with AP Style descriptions)
- use the quotes and observations you gathered during the event, along with a fresh interview with the organizer now that it’s all over, to wrap up your coverage. (Did the event met expectations? How many attended, how much money was raised, etc.)
- as soon as the follow-up story is live, mention it on social media.
- the professionals would file this story before going home the night of the event.
Example 2: Breaking/updates/second-day
You can only do so much advance planning for a breaking story. Yes, you can prepare yourself if there’s a big snowstorm on the way, but you won’t know in advance that a fire will break out or a scandal will affect a sports team. This option emphasizes your quick response to a developing story.
- Breaking the story: Your original coverage, in images, and media clips, as the story breaks. (Pictures of smoke pouring out of a campus building, fire trucks arriving, people being loaded onto stretchers, etc.) Interspersed with as much verified information as possible.
- Developing the story: An online page that is constantly being revised to reflect the most current information.
- You might work with a partner on this, with one person in the field bringing in live details, and another updating a story marked as “Breaking News” or “Developing” story.
- The breaking news story should compile, in a single place, what information you’re sitting on, and what sources you’re relying on (Names of the injured have not been released by campus police; however, @GusGriffin tweeted a picture of himself in an ambulance, writing “Dumbass just threw a table offa Admin balcony and hit me on the head. #mondaysucks”.)
- Social media posts and the web page that contains your developing story should refer to each other.
- As the story winds down, clean up the “Breaking News” page and turn it into a timeline.
- If you posted any rumors that turned out to be untrue, make the corrections explicit, but don’t repeat any damaging falsehoods. (“An earlier update gave the wrong name for the first officer on the scene. That name should have been Jim Smith.” [Try to avoid repeating the error, without making it look like you are trying to cover up the fact you made a mistake.]
- If you must delete a tweet, admit that you did so; (“…should have been John Smith. An earlier post with the wrong name has been deleted.”)
- Second-day follow-up: The next day, write a new story (about 600 words) emphasizing the most recent developments.
- Don’t lead with the fact that people saw smoke a little before 7 and fire engines arrived at 7:10. That story is old by now.
- Instead, lead with the news police are now searching for an arson suspect in connection with yesterday’s fire that caused $50,000 damage to a classroom. (Note — by now, it’s “the fire” not “a fire.”)
- Flesh out your story with quotes from experts and decision-makers, not just random people who heard the sirens.
- On social media, promote both the fresh story, and also timeline you developed last night.
Example 3: (multimedia feature)
- It includes interviews with at least 3 newsworthy people.
- 2-3 still shots (image macros, pull quotes, etc.) with detailed captions, adding up to about 200 words, so that people searching the internet for topics related to your story will find it.
- Social media promotion: Use these images and captions to promote your story on social media and to provide visual interest to the layout of your story’s web page.
- Media component. This might be an audio file, a video, or an interactive map or other simulation.
You might create a 5-minute audio podcast documenting an in-depth conversation with an expert, or perhaps a 10-minute conversation among a small panel of experts.
- Audio stories can benefit from field recordings, livening up what would otherwise be people droning on.
- If you are doing a story on a high school marching band, have them march past you as you record. Bonus if you can get a stereo recording and capture the sound of the band members marching from one side to the other.
- Doing a story on pets? Record people talking to their pets, record the sounds they make in return; get the mic up close to capture the sounds of a dog’s nails on a tile floor, and the thump-thump-thump of a tail wagging against a chair leg.
- I once did a radio story at a craft fair; when I asked a women to describe how she weaves a basket, I got the microphone in close so we could hear the crackle of the reeds and twigs she was manipulating with her fingers, along with her words.
The media component might be a video (about 2.5 minutes) documenting, for example, the recovery of an injured athlete, or showing freshmen moving into the dorms, or Homecoming Weekend.
A good video component would include
- Interviews with at least 3 newsmakers. (Decision-makers and experts, or passionate leaders/survivors/authorities, with compelling stories to tell.) (Note — asking random people to come up with on-the-spot answers to your questions is more of an entertainment genre than a news genre, but it could be part of a package that also includes interviews with experts.)
- Titles on the screen identify the topic of the report, the name of the reporter, and the name/job/newsworthiness of interview subjects.
- Action footage that shows the news, not just shots of heads talking about the news. (If the story is about exam-week study tips, actually record people while they study, or eat a healthy meal, or exercise, or get ready for bed at 9pm; don’t just record taking heads.)
- Establishing shots and transition shots (think of how a sitcom will play a bit of music and show the outside of the house or the restaurant, so that we know where the various scenes are taking place; likewise, if you record a student in the library, include a shot of the outside of the library; if you interview somebody in their office, show the name and title on their door, or show a close-up of their name badge, or show the logo of the organization on the building’s front door, to establish that person’s credibility.
- Efficiency. Traditional prose journalism doesn’t waste time with “To find out more, I stopped by Founders Hall to visit the office of Dr. Hugh Gee-Goh, Elizabeth Mount University’s leading expert on wasting words.” A stronger story would probably just cut to him saying something newsworthy, identifying him on-screen with a title.
Notes on Video
I usually don’t have time in class to cover video interviewing in any detail, but if you’re interested in applying your iMovie and YouTube experience to the world of journalism, this might be an attractive option.
- Don’t shoot a subject in front of a bright window, or with the sun behind them.
- Move so your subject is facing the light.
- …but if you make them face the sun, they’ll squint.
- Get closer. Your audience will want to see the faces of people you interview. But most people move and gesture when they talk, so a shot that includes the head and upper body.
- I just Googled for pictures of “video interviews”. Note the framing in these examples. Head and shoulders, with enough space so your subject can shift position and gesture without going out of frame.
- Rather than straight-on looking at the camera, it’s better if the subject is off-center, looking towards the center of the frame. (Position yourself so that your subjects are looking at you, so they can react to your facial expressions.)
- Get closer. We want to hear what your subject is saying.
- Put a mic close to your subject’s mouth, so that we hear their voice, not the background noise. Your living ear is very good at filtering out background sounds, so you might not notice just how distracting those sounds will be when you try to edit clips into a narrative. (Move someplace quieter.)
- If you record audio from a smartphone that you place on a table just outside of the frame of the camera, you’ll probably get better audio than you get from the mic on the camcorder that is on a tripod across the room.
- When you are editing your piece, you can import the audio from your phone and the video from your camera and synch them up easily enough.
- Note — a video news piece is a carefully-composed arrangement of brief clips from a combination of sit-down interviews, slice-of-life action videos, and reaction shots.
- Traditional news does not emphasize the reporter. The reporter’s voice might narrate, and the reporter might appear on camera briefly to provide information that doesn’t have an obvious visual, but a more immersive documentary style might instead include flashes of text that unfold the story.
- We might see a black screen and hear moody music, and see the text “Jan Smith hasn’t walked since she broke her foot three months ago.”
- That text fades away, and as the moody music swells, we see the words “She’s determined to tend goal at next week’s field hockey game.”
- That text fades away and we hear the sound of screaming, giggling little girls; the text reads “She’s also the first to admit that she’s totally nuts.”
- Then we fade in on Jan wearing a goofy hat, riding a unicycle with her foot in a cast and a ukulele in her hands, surrounded by shrieking little girls at a backyard birthday party.
- Compare with this blander option: A reporter looks into the camera and announces: “Jan Smith is not only a serious athlete facing a difficult recovery from severe injury, she also has a lighter side, and enjoys riding a unicycle and playing a ukulele.” (Which would you rather watch?)