Aboriginal reporters in Canada embrace digital storytelling

by Timothy Large | @timothylarge | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 23 October 2015 14:18 GMT

First Nation journalist Willow Blasizzo puts the finishing touches on a multimedia video report. Photo by Timothy Large

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Journalists for First Nation news outfits explore innovative ways of engaging audiences through multimedia

Good journalists do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Jaydon Flett, a young reporter for Canada's Aboriginal People's Television Network, had been finessing an audio slideshow on the agony and ecstasy of Toronto Blue Jays baseball fans during historic playoffs. Just one problem. She was working on a borrowed laptop tethered to a desk in an office about to be sealed off for renovation. Minutes before the workmen moved in, she resorted to the ultimate IT workaround: bolt-cutters to snip the cable.

Geoff Shields, a freelancer from Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario province, was hot on a story about pressures on Toronto's homeless shelters. He'd heard of one homeless man who'd created a "people's library" beneath an underpass. For hours he slogged around the city of 3 million until he found his subject.

And Willow Blasizzo, a journalist from Ontario's remote Sandy Lake First Nation reserve, had a trove of video interviews on ImagineNATIVE, the world's largest international festival of indigenous film and arts. She also had a near impossible deadline to edit her report using newly learned techniques. She stayed up all night and turned in a finely crafted piece.

Jaydon, Geoff and Willow had more in common than tenacity. They all work for news organisations serving Canada's First Nations indigenous communities. And all were participants on a pilot programme by the Thomson Reuters Foundation to support aboriginal media outfits with free training in multimedia storytelling.

The reporters varied in age from 20 to 66. They came from as far afield as Calgary, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg and Bear Island.

Titled "The All-in-One Journalist: Multimedia Reporting in the Digital Age", the week-long workshop encouraged participants to eschew their comfort zones and explore ways to make stories more interactive, visually compelling and "non-linear" (a fancy way to say that audiences can choose how to navigate between text, pictures, video, info-graphics, animations and so on).

The goal was to produce publishable work using devices ranging from iPads loaded with simple editing apps to professional video cameras and state-of-the art software. The challenge was to think creatively about connecting with audiences, whatever your equipment and budget, while not compromising on editorial standards and ethics.

A key point was that journalists are, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, living in the best of times and the worst of times.

It's the worst of times because traditional business models have collapsed. Media staff jobs are rare. Audiences expect content for next-to-nothing - or more precisely, nothing.

This bleak picture is industry-wide but all the more pronounced in First Nation communities, where resources are extra scarce, training opportunities limited and local stories get little play on the national stage.

But it's also the best of times because new technologies and digital platforms - many cheap or free - offer unprecedented opportunities to create journalism that grabs audiences by the scruff of the neck and informs in surprising ways.

For journalists, it's a chance to differentiate themselves from the pack through stories that are visually rich and deeply engaging.

"It's a totally different medium to just straightforward journalism, to taking a couple of photographs and, hey, there's a bit of text and cutlines (captions) and all that sort of thing," freelancer Geoff Shields said. "So this is a totally new, I will say, trip - because it has been a trip. To me, it's given me more confidence to do what I can do."

He added: "Where I am at the moment, it's like being a large fish in a small pond. Coming here to Toronto, you realise you're a small fish in a huge ocean, and that's a good feeling because it makes you want to get out and embrace that wider sphere of journalism."

Participants got a glimpse of that wider sphere with a visit to the Globe and Mail, Canada's largest national newspaper, where Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley and members of his senior editorial team discussed digital strategy and offered a sneak preview of some exciting multimedia work in the pipeline.

They also visited Reuters headquarters, where Canada News Editor Jeffrey Hodgson gave a newsroom tour and shared insights on coverage of the big story of the week: Canada's election. Chris Arsenault, Thomson Reuters Foundation's Toronto-based correspondent, discussed his recent trip to Canada's frozen north to report on the economic toll of global warming.

Back in our makeshift newsroom in another Thomson Reuters office on the outskirts of Toronto, Thomas Szlukovenyi, former head of Reuters Pictures, delved into what makes great photojournalism and how visual storytellers can differentiate themselves in an age when everyone has a smartphone capable of taking high-resolution images.

Robert Steiner, director of fellowships in global journalism at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, gave tips on how journalists working for First Nation media can find an "edge" that sets them apart and gives their work greater resonance.

The workshop ended with a presentation of projects produced during the week. These included a hilarious video on how to break every rule of good multimedia and a pitch-perfect portrait of a Muslim mother and daughter whose choices over whether or not to wear the niqab veil encapsulated a debate at the centre of the Canadian election.

Oh, and Jaydon and her bolt-cutters?

In case anyone thinks Canada's youngest investigative journalist from a First Nation community was wantonly engaged in destruction of Thomson Reuters property, I take full responsibility for her "liberation" of a locked laptop so she could meet her deadline.

Anything to get the story.

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