Remember video on the Web? It was supposed to be the next media revolution. A few years ago, the buzz was deafening. Good-bye, old media. Farewell, television. Hello, "streaming video"—the mysterious, evocative phrase that was on the lips of every tech hipster.
Then something unexpected and sad happened. The online public got curious and tried to watch some of that streaming video to see what all the excitement was about. And instead of the sparkling, mind-blowing digital images they'd been led to expect—On demand! Around the clock!—what most of us got bore a striking resemblance to a really bad dream: the weird, twisting pictures that always seemed on the verge of exploding. The audio out of sync with the video. And most scarily of all, those too-slow voice-overs that sounded just like the dentist when you're on laughing gas. Unless you had a really fast Internet connection—and who wanted to fork out for that?—it was hopeless. Even with a fast connection, which I've had at the office for years, most of the offerings were pathetic.
Like many others, I stopped clicking on the watch-video button long ago and never looked back. Until late last Friday, when I went online to see whether there was any decent coverage of the leftists who had been in town that day to march on the World Bank and other redoubts of the global capitalist conspiracy. I'm fascinated by these events, mainly because they never live up to their advance billing in the media. The hordes of protesters don't materialize, and those who do show are not fire-breathing Marxist monsters but a bunch of naive kids who really believe that the Gap and Starbucks are the Hitler and Mussolini of our time.
Warned again this year of the expected mayhem—shades of Paris in 1789, or Washington in 1968—I stayed well away from the protests myself. Now night had fallen on our embattled capital, and I was curious about what had really gone on. So I went to washingtonpost.com, where I found a color photo of the marchers, a couple of text stories, and a video offering. Normally, of course, I wouldn't have considered the video. But I'd missed the evening news and really wanted to see the heavily hyped protests. Having just started a free trial of America Online's broadband service at home, I figured this was a chance to test its worth. Was Web video still a nightmare?
The Web site's protest piece was the video equivalent of what feature writers call a "scene piece," except the scene isn't conveyed with words but with images captured by a handheld camera, edited, and put up on the Web.
Washingtonpost.com sent one of its videographers (as they're called), John Poole, out to observe the protesters as they marched, chanted, danced, and got arrested. The results, which you can view at www.washingtonpost.com/cameraworks, are surprising for a few reasons. First, this video has no narrator. The images and sounds Poole caught—protesters and police speaking to the camera, plus lots of captured scenes—speak for themselves. But this is no mere passive journalism of the I-Am-a-Camera school. It's clear the piece was carefully edited. Given that the editing was done on deadline (the piece was up on the Web site before 6 p.m.), the results are downright artful.
Several moments have stayed with me since the first time I watched the video. In one series of images, a young woman with a pierced nose and lips dances ecstatically to an anti-CIA chant, while another young woman stands behind her, unmoving and apparently unmoved. This gives way to the face of a handsome D.C. cop in an elaborate riot helmet, who seems to be scowling at something as the chants continue in the background. Next the camera pans slowly down a red-bordered poster of President Bush, first capturing the word INTERNATIONAL above his head, then TERRORIST below.
If there's a bias in this piece, for or against the protesters, I didn't see it. They are neither demons nor heroes. The same goes for the cops. There is a genuine pathos to every character in this little drama. It looks and feels like life, more like life than any narrated TV report I've ever seen, or any newspaper article purporting to capture such an event. And it has none of the thudding obtuseness that characterizes most TV and newspaper writing. Beside this two-minute video, the next day's newspaper stories on the same event felt abstract and unreal.
washingtonpost.com has been doing these unnarrated videos since it stumbled on the form while covering the 2000 presidential race. "At first we were mostly doing talking-heads stand-ups," recalls Mark Stencel, vice president for multimedia. "It very quickly evolved to this form of self-narrated video storytelling.... There were parts of the conventions where it was more interesting to have the delegates tell what was going on there than for us to tell you what the delegates were doing."
The managing editor who oversees the washingtonpost.com multimedia operation, Tom Kennedy, was previously director of photography for National Geographic. "It sort of is a carryover of a style of storytelling that I learned there," he says. "I thought that the methodology was translatable to video. In other words, letting the subject sort of tell their own story, rather than having a lot of mediation by reporters, voice-overs, that sort of thing. I wanted to see if that could work in a Web environment."
Work it does, judging from this piece and several others in the same format that I watched this week. Still waiting for the Web to ignite a revolution in video journalism? This is the one to watch.