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June 15, 2020, 1:13 p.m.
Reporting & Production

How The New York Times is producing quarantine videos without being live and in-person

“The intimacy that you can build with your character when you’re doing a FaceTime interview instead of having a big camera crew in their living room is great.”

In one episode of The New York Times’ miniseries Quarantine Diaries, 32-year-old Najee Wilson makes the best of quarantining alone in his Crown Heights apartment while being totally out of work.

Wilson is an artist’s muse and models for other artists. Because modeling requires being in a room with other people, his bookings and other freelance gigs were cancelled when New York City went into lockdown in March. In trying to make the best of his new normal, we see Wilson practicing yoga, talking to friends, and trying to figure out how to file for unemployment.

Because of social distancing measures, Wilson shot all of those scenes himself on a smartphone.

Quarantine Diaries is a collaboration between the Times metro desk and the video team. The goal is to tell stories about how everyday New Yorkers are dealing with isolation, illness, and the big life events that were unavoidable (like giving birth during a pandemic).

“We weren’t able to go into their apartments, so we had to fall back on this set of production techniques that we’ve developed over the years to help us capture these stories in an intimate and complete way, despite the restrictions,” series producer Alexandra Eaton said. “That involves a lot of Google Hangout interviews. It involves working with the character to get them to shoot stuff on their iPhone, so basically they become the B-roll shooter.”

Eaton said the team found Wilson by attending a Zoom meeting for tenants who wanted to learn to organize rent strikes. Metro desk reporter Corina Knoll followed up with several attendees, and Wilson’s story piqued her interest.

“It was interesting to see how remote organizing is working right now, and a great opportunity for us to see what people look like, how they speak, see if they would make good subjects,” Eaton said. “It was kind of like a dream casting session, in a way.”

While the project is new for the Times’ video team, Eaton said that they had inadvertently been prepared for this. Even though they have been giving their characters a shot list of videos, The Times has been doing virtual interviews through FaceTime for the last two years for its Diary of a Song series that takes a deep dive into popular music. Eaton said they opted for FaceTime because it was difficult to set up in-person interviews with celebrities with active travel schedules.

Eaton said that while the technical aspects of producing the series haven’t changed much, she can’t join in on the FaceTime interviews. Previously she would be in the same room as the host Joe Coscarelli to make sure they got everything they needed, but now everyone’s social distancing, and there’s no aesthetically pleasing way to edit out a third person from a group FaceTime.

“The [other] thing that I can’t do now is sit in an edit room with the editor,” Eaton said. “We’re very fortunate to have an amazing editor, Will Lloyd, on that series. We do a lot of mind sharing already. But the little tiny details of moving things around? That finessing can’t happen. A positive thing is that you really learn to trust your coworkers and their instincts and and know that you’re going to do a great job.”

Video producer Barbara Marcolini works on the visual investigations team. Because she usually produces breaking news videos or investigations in war zones where a shooter can’t be there to film, she’s accustomed to getting creative with whatever or whoever is available. Sometimes, that means coaching a source via video chat on how to get the images she’s looking for.

“It’s great that other journalists are also learning and exploring this, because I feel the power of having someone with a camera in their hands. They can film what they’re seeing and you can see the story through that character’s eyes,” Marcolini said. “It can bring much more power to the story. The intimacy that you can build with your character when you’re doing a FaceTime interview instead of having a big camera crew in their living room is great. It gives you the ability [to see] what’s happening through your character’s eyes, through what they are experiencing. You’re taking a journey with them.”

In one video about how Italy’s doctors were handling the coronavirus, all of the interviews were from recorded video calls. Doctors Enrico Storti and Francesca Mangiatordi contributed some photos and B-roll from inside their hospitals. Both were credited at the end of the video.

“I like the roughness of the image. I like the style of it,” Marcolini said. “You want it to look like the person was shooting with their phone because that was what they were doing — we don’t want to manipulate in a way to make it look better. We treat that footage as evidence for investigations, for example. Or in a breaking news situation, like a hurricane, the person who’s shooting might be anxious or nervous because they’re going through a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You want the shakiness and the granularity of the image.”

Zainab Khan, the Times’ audience strategy editor for video, said newsroom video views went up 140 percent in March. She said that there’s been a particular influx of new viewers on the Times’s YouTube channel. In an effort to retain those viewers after the pandemic, video producers introduce themselves in the comments section and give some information about the reporting process. Then, for the next day or two, they answer viewer questions.

Things like using Zoom call interviews or answering viewer questions might seem small, but they help create more intimacy with the viewers during such a fraught time.

“When we’re forced to replicate how people are communicating in their daily lives in our reporting, there’s a barrier that’s no longer there,” Khan said. “[Normally] there’s the reporter-to-subject relationship, but then there’s also the reporter, subject, and audience relationship. Now everyone is experiencing things in a very similar way. We speak of the fourth wall, and I don’t think there is a new wall because the way that I’m watching a video is the same way I’m calling my mom.”

POSTED     June 15, 2020, 1:13 p.m.
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