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March 30, 2009, 9 a.m.

Hitting the right note when news sites mix music and journalism

If you check out the videos and slideshows at most major newspaper websites, you’ll find fascinating stories, probing interviews, and even reporters who don’t sound half-bad narrating an audio script. What you won’t find much of is music.

Whether for ethical concerns or a lack of experience in the medium, newspapers have generally shied away from setting their stories to a beat. In the video above, Amy O’Leary, a multimedia producer at The New York Times, discusses how the newspaper got past those issues to use music in two recent projects.

O’Leary, who was previously a producer at This American Life, offered audio tips in a video we posted last week. Be sure to stick around until the end of this one for her excellent suggestion about collaborating with independent artists.

A full transcript is after the jump.

[Clip from video]

Kit Seelye: From the very beginning, this election inspired voters to turn out in record numbers.

[End of clip]

Amy O’Leary: We put together this roughly 15-minute video called “Choosing a President,” and it was released in two stages. The first stage was on Election Day, where we tried to recap the whole campaign season, which was a two-year process. And then we released a second part that showed the outcome, which came out on November 5th.

That video was really — to me, it broke new ground, in terms of being able to bring together all the elements of New York Times reporting into one package. It was a full overview of the photography the Times had done. We had Katherine Q. Seelye did — she sort of mastered the narration and walked us through the election from her perspective. And it was also a multimedia treatment. We were bringing lots of different sources that we’d worked through all on the campaign. So in a way, you could say that that video took two years to make.

[Clip from video]

Voter: I’ve never seen this much interest in the caucuses.

Voter: I care about this country. I love my issues.

Voter: I vote today because I’m interested in the future.

[End of clip]

O’Leary: We used music in that video, and there wasn’t a lot of push back to use music in general. But they wanted to make sure the music was really right. We do have access to the stock library of music that we use in many of our videos, and everybody who uses it complains that it’s a little cheesy, it’s a little outdated, it’s hard to find something that’s really fresh. And because we poured so much energy into this video, we really wanted every aspect to be customized and special and elevated. And so for that, the editor on the project asked me to do custom scoring for it.

So using Apple Loops and GarageBand and Soundtrack Pro, I would develop a baseline score — so sort of a feel for a couple of the chapters. There were slightly different feels for the intro and the middle chapter and the later chapters. And then, after the piece was fully done, at the last minute, I would go back in and tweak the score. So I would make sure that a certain, you know, a cello hit would happen right when the photo was appearing and really adjust the score so that every moment was weighted, and that it was pulling out at the right moments and coming in at moments that were interesting. And trying to really — you know, it’s the difference between an off-the-rack suit and a custom tailored suit. It fits much better when you give it that level of detail and attention.

[Clip from video]

Voter: I’m supporting Obama. I don’t see any change with McCain, and Sarah Palin is just flat out scary.

[End of clip]

O’Leary: Everything I learned about using music in a piece, I learned from working at This American Life, where they have a really — for more than ten years, they’ve used music in a lot of innovative ways. And they definitely have a specific style that works really well for that show. At the Times, music is a little bit of a more complicated issue because I think there is so much concern that, you know — whereas This American Life is all about personal voice, and there’s a lot of writing in the first person, and sort of point-of-view — you know, the Times has long traditions and long standards that they’re trying to figure out how to apply to the new media landscape.

And music is one of those tricky areas where some people are a little uncomfortable with the thought of, OK, if we put really sad music under these photos of environmental destruction, does that mean the Times has a point of view about environmental destruction? So at the Times, these decisions are weighed much more carefully, and nd we have a policy about music where, anytime we use it, we make sure that multiple editors listen to it and sort of sign off that it’s not heavy handed.

[Clip from video]

Seelye: In the debates, he kept his head down, and he took the opportunity to learn from a pro.

Barack Obama: You know, Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.

[End of clip]

O’Leary: One of my favorite thoughts about music in film and documentary comes from the great film editor Walter Murch, who in a book called The Conversation[s], writes that music is a little bit like steroids. In the short run, it makes you go faster and better, but in the long run, it can be unhealthy for the organism. And he really believes that music shouldn’t produce emotion itself. You shouldn’t use it as a shortcut to make people feel sad. The music should channel the emotion that’s already there.

[Clip from audio slideshow]

O’Leary: There was a series called “Choking on Growth, and we had these amazing photographs from Chang Lee. I mean, they were the most beautiful pictures of environmental damage I think you could imagine. And they wanted to find a way to present them that was special. And so they asked me to find some music that would work to sort of, to play underneath the images.

And I looked for a long time. And what I wanted to do is find an independent artist, musician whose work was sort of spare. I’m usually looking for music that has kind of got a relatively neutral feel. But we knew this was a very serious subject, so we were also looking for very serious tone.

I had the good fortune to stumble along — and I found — I thought a cello seemed right. And a lot of times that’s where I will start. I feel like I’ll hear, kind of, what instrument might be appropriate. You know, if it’s light percussion, or in this case, I thought strings were appropriate and cello.

And I found this a great artist, Zoe Keating, who does a lot work with — she composes and then loops her own cello work on top of each other, so there’s a lot of sort of themes and motifs that recur, which is great for scoring, because you can build. And then there’s kind of a narrative in the music itself, where you start out with an idea that builds to a motif, and it develops over time and then goes to a resolution.  Zoe was incredibly generous and let us use any of her work, basically, with the exchange that we provide a link to her website.  And as an independent musician, this turned out, she said, to be great for her because it exposed a lot of people to her music who then went to her site and bought her CD.

So even though we didn’t pay Zoe for it, or we didn’t have the budget to do that, she was able to really get new business, which I think is a great model for independent musicians and multimedia journalists who want to collaborate. If you can give people that exposure, it makes sense for them as a business to give you their permission, which worked out really nicely.

POSTED     March 30, 2009, 9 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Nieman Narrative Conference 2009
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