Monday, December 22, 2008

Archival tips

For those who haven't checked it out, please visit, the blog that Kenn Rabin and I established as a companion to the book, Archival Storytelling. Some news, tips, and resources on the use of third-party materials by media makers working in a range of platforms -- worth a look!

Monday, November 10, 2008

When to work for free? Almost never.

Here's a link to When to Work for Free, a November 9 article in The New York Times by freelance writer Michelle Goodman. Her conclusion: It doesn’t matter if you’re a dog walker, a Web designer or a tax preparer. When you agree to work for free, you reinforce people’s misguided ideas that the self-employed are independently wealthy hobbyists. Don’t degrade your profession by letting a cheap client take advantage of you.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Objectivity and balance in public broadcasting

"In October of 2007, CPB announced a Request for Proposals on seven mutually-exclusive research topics regarding objectivity and balance in public broadcasting..." -- read more, and find the resulting reports, at

  • The Accountable Guardian: Concepts in Tension - The Challenge of Ensuring both Objectivity and Balance and Editorial Independence by Jeffrey A. Dvorkin and Alan G. Stavitsky, Ph.D.
  • Objectivity and Balance: Conceptual and Practical History in American Journalism by Alan G. Stavitsky, Ph.D. and Jeffrey A. Dvorkin,
  • Objectivity & Balance: How Do Readers and Viewers of News and Information Reach Conclusions Regarding Objectivity and Balance? by Natalie Jomini Stroud, Ph.D. and Stephen D. Reese, Ph.D.
  • Objectivity & Balance: Today's Best Practices in American Journalism by Joel Kaplan

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Archival Storytelling is published!

Archival Storytelling, written with Kenn Rabin, has been published!

Copies can be ordered through Focal Press, Amazon, and other bookseller. And if you like the book, please be sure to post a review on Amazon -- thanks!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Thanks to WEVA

A big thank you to the folks at the Wedding & Event Videographers Association International, who invited me to their 18th annual expo to talk about the tools of documentary storytelling!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Ingrid Betancourt rescued

As was widely reported last week, Ingrid Betancourt, a candidate for president in Colombia when she was kidnapped in 2002, has been freed, along with three Americans held hostage since 2003. For those of you who have not seen the film, now would be a good time to buy ($29.95 home vide0) or rent The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, a powerful, feature-length documentary released in 2003 by filmmakers Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes, who were interviewed about the film in the 2nd edition of Documentary Storytelling. The filmmakers also produced Held Hostage in Colombia about the Americans; see their website,

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Getting Paid for Content

A post I made to the Doculink listserve got a bit garbled, so I'm revising it here. There was a discussion about Current TV relying heavily on user-generated content, holding out the promise to "have your voice broadcast in 51 million homes in the US." It appears that some completed productions are rewarded after the fact (i.e., the filmmaker assumes all upfront costs and risk, on the chance of getting some pay later). But other programming offers no payment at all. The "make TV in <10 minutes" solicitation, for example, says, "We generally don't pay for these (look for those that do) but they're the easiest way to TV! "

If this were an issue at this one site, it would be one thing. But it's a problem across the new media landscape, and it's mirrored by a growing problem within more traditional cable and broadcasting venues as well. Independent producers creating works for hire for television (virtually all documentary programming is outsourced) face ever-shrinking budgets and schedules. They're expected to bear not only the cost of self-employment but also the burden of production insurance, overhead, licensing fees and more.

And then, as independents working on their own films, as many are, these same producers may find that they have no choice but to ask others to accept minimal or deferred salaries, because what little money they've earned as freelancers or raised from funders has to go to equipment , licensing, and other "unavoidable" expenses: it costs money to make documentaries.

And so the cycle continues, and the sense that the content creators can and even should be the last paid (if at all) becomes ingrained.

But here's the thing: This is not a low-earning industry. The revenue just goes to more prioritized areas. How many of the advertisers, marketers, lawyers, salespeople, and executives working in broadcast and cable venues would be willing to forego living wages and benefits for the sake of working in television? According to today's Washington Post, Discovery's new CEO, David Zaslav, was paid more than $18 million in 2007. Chairman Jon Hendriks was paid in excess of $30 million. Isn't the thrill of bringing nonfiction media to 1.5 billion cumulative subscribers around the world enough? And Current TV, founded only in 2002, has yet to make a profit, according to the Financial Times, but founder Al Gore earned $1 million from the company in 2007.

Some documentaries can be made inexpensively. But many cannot; their subject matters and complexity require time and skill if they are to be meaningfully researched, with innovative, relevant, and up-to-date content. It takes additional time and skill to tell these stories both effectively and ethically; to find drama within the story, and not simply warn of sharks around every corner. All of this requires that the content creators -- the filmmakers -- have sufficient resources. That they, too, earn a reasonable living in the ever-expanding media marketplace. In fact, most can't; the number of talented, senior producers leaving the field is disheartening, or at least it should be.

In a speech made fifty years ago, reporter Edward R. Murrow warned about the danger that excess commercialism posed to a medium that had tremendous potential: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful."

Fifty years later, with a multitude of channels and media outlets Murrow couldn't possibly have imagined, the potential remains. But only if those creating meaningful content are given the resources they truly need to do the job. It's up to us as documentary creators to insist on being paid fairly for our work, and to do a better job of educating audiences, teachers, and policy makers about the work we do--and what it takes to do it well.

And to those tempted to uplink documentary material for free, I'll end with a reference to an opinion piece in The New York Times by computer scientist Jaron Lanier: "Pay Me for My Content." There's got to be a way.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Archival Storytelling!

Archival Storytelling, a new book I've written with Kenn Rabin, is out of our hands and into the publisher's! Focal Press, a division of Elsevier, will be releasing it in October 2008.

Featuring conversations with industry leaders including Patricia Aufderheide, Hubert Best, Peter Jaszi, Jan Krawitz, Lawrence Lessig, Stanley Nelson, Rick Prelinger, Geoffrey C. Ward and many others, Archival Storytelling is an essential, pragmatic guide to one of the most challenging issues facing filmmakers today: the use of images and music that belong to someone else.

Much more than a how-to, it explores practical, creative, and ethical issues surrounding the use of third-party materials, and defines key terms—copyright, fair use, fair dealing, public domain, orphan works and more. And it challenges filmmakers to become not only archival users but also archival and copyright activists, ensuring their ongoing ability as creators to draw on the cultural materials that surround them.

For a preview review, go to Spoke Digital Films. Thanks, Dustin!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It took almost a million dollars... clear the rights and get ALL 14 hours of the landmark civil rights series Eyes on the Prize back to air -- if your local PBS station isn't carrying the rebroadcast of Eyes II (airing on four consecutive Sundays, Feb 3, 10, 17, and 24), call and ask them to do so.

Eyes II begins in 1965, picking up where Eyes I left off. "Eyes on the Prize II covers a divisive period in American history that is highly relevant to what is happening in the political landscape today," said Judi Hampton, sister of the series' late creator, Henry Hampton, in PBS press materials.

Sam Pollard and I produced, directed and wrote two films for Eyes II, "Two Societies" and "Ain't Gonna Shuffle No More." The latter film won Emmys for both writing and editing (they were edited by Betty Ciccarelli), and the series won the George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism. It's worth tuning in!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Watch EYES II on PBS in February!

Finally, the second season of Eyes on the Prize will return to public television -- tell everyone you know! These eight hours cover a range of stories, from Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali to the Black Panther Party, the Black Arts Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign, and more. The series is being aired as a special presentation of American Experience.

Eyes I (six hours, covering events from 1954 to 1965) premiered on PBS in 1987 and was rebroadcast on American Experience in October 2006). Eyes II (eight hours, 1965-1984) premiered in 1990, and returns for the first time this February.

As has been widely reported, both seasons fell out of distribution as underlying rights to third-party visuals and music expired--a routine occurrence in the world of documentary. (For more information, click here.) In the case of Eyes, however, public outcry and grants totalling nearly a million dollars (from the Ford Foundation and others) enabled rights to be renewed, allowing for rebroadcast and for educational release of the series on DVD. (Print materials for teachers wanting to use Eyes in the classroom are available online; see also Facing History's website.)