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Soundslides and the rise of the audio slideshow - Continued

Pauline Lubens says she's never been a fan of photographers narrating their slideshows, a feeling she attributes to the traditional idea among photojournalists that their role is to observe a story, not be in it. But she's beginning to think of that as an impoverished view of reporting. "I'm thinking more about doing what I call NPR [National Public Radio] audio where the journalist narrates when necessary to fill in the gaps. It's just being the journalist providing information. I think it would give our stories more depth."

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Treein' Coons: An audio slideshow by Josh Meltzer of The Roanoke Times. Click to view.

Questions of storytelling form and flow, hitherto much more familiar to writers, become major issues, says Josh Meltzer.

"You're always thinking about what you'll use to open your show, what you'll close with." The audio, rather than the pictures, will usually determine these things. If possible, he likes to open with a humorous or off-the-wall comment, rather than a straightforward statement of the topic and the names of the story subjects. It's a tactic often used by writers and known by the Latin phrase in media res, meaning to start "in the middle" of things.

"But you still have to have essentially your audio nut graf," Meltzer adds. "You still need the person saying, 'My name is so-and-so, and I'm a this', and that's something you can easily forget to record."

Related to these greater authorship demands is another by-product of audio slideshows, which may have been best summed up by a recent participant on an Internet forum who wrote that doing slideshows "will make you a better journalist."

"It requires us as photojournalists to push that journalist side of ourselves beyond just the caption," says The Mercury News's Hernandez. "You have this somewhat unlimited space on the web to tell your story; how do you want to tell it? You want to make it a better experience, a better story, and that does require you to interview the person, ask some additional questions, dig a little deeper, get to know them a little more."

On a more nuts and bolts level, there seems to be a general feeling that, except in cases where you've got a really dynamite story, a good slideshow should be no more than two or three minutes in length, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 25 pictures. Brian Peterson says he's found that eight to ten seconds is a decent general rule for slide duration. "You don't want to pull that picture away from their eyes before they're done seeing it," he says. "That's part of the delicacy of putting them together is finding that point."

Strong picture editing, as always, remains crucial. "Sometimes we're putting [pictures] in there just because," says Hernandez. "We're just way too loose. I don't mean to sit on a high horse, but we're doing so many [audio slideshows] as a staff, and as an industry, sometimes I can't sit through them. I think, 'man, if this was edited to just five pictures and a little quote, it would be amazing'. But instead it's a minute-and-a-half and there's just too much fat in there."

If there's a single way to sum up the appeal of doing audio slideshows among the photographers we talked to, it may be this: it gives them the chance to do more -- to take and show more good pictures, to do picture stories and do them deeper and bigger, to be a better journalist, and to be more completely the author of their work, rather than merely an adjunct to a reporter's story.

"I think as newspapers' news holes shrink, it's an opportunity," says The Star-Tribune's Peterson. "Quite honestly, our motivation has been selfish. We're losing space in the paper, and we still want to do stories. And online said, 'sure, we'll take 'em'. And they have no space limitations.

"And I think it also really preserves the integrity of the still photograph," Peterson continues. "I think we all feared as we got into multimedia that we'd all be shooting video cameras by now. [Instead], we've all kind of gotten into this slideshow mode. It's a different form, and video isn't necessarily better."

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Journey with Abdul Hakim: An audio slideshow by Pauline Lubens of The San Jose Mercury News. Click to view.

That form has surprising power, says Pauline Lubens, who saw it most clearly when she did a big story called Journey with Abdul Hakim about an Iraqi boy who was badly wounded in the fighting in Iraq and was later brought to the U.S. for treatment.

"When we ran the story in the paper, they gave it two inside pages. If there were no Internet, I would've said 'wow, this is really nice', but there is no comparison between the effectiveness of the multimedia piece versus what's in print. Hearing the little boy's voice. Hearing his dad's voice. The multimedia piece is so much more effective and powerful." (A second installment to the Abdul Hakim story was recently added.)

"I've been shooting photo stories a long time," continues Lubens, who has been part of teams that were Pulitzer Prize finalists at two different newspapers. "I was feeling like I was in a rut. I was feeling like I needed new challenges, and I would say the opportunity to do these audio slideshows has completely reinvigorated me professionally. I'm just having such a great time in a way that I haven't had in years. I love Soundslides. I hope he [Joe Weiss] becomes a billionaire off this program."

Many newspapers are still struggling with how best to integrate audio slideshows into the daily presentation of their news on the Web. The shows end up effectively hidden by obscure links and navigation paths; they disappear after a day; the website's 'search' function doesn't index them. Watching your shows disappear, or get quickly sidelined, can be discouraging for photographers at the many newspapers that are still finding their way with slideshows, Josh Meltzer says.

But he thinks the effort is necessary because the future is clear. "It's such an important skill. Just consider it practice for the time when the Internet becomes the most important way to spread the newspaper's news."

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