Mark Stencel is the managing editor for digital news at NPR; he’s also the Howard Ziff Journalist-in-residence at UMass Amherst, which is a fund created upon Howard Ziff’s retirement from UMass that is devoted to reeling in esteemed journalists like Stencel for a week to discuss journalism with current faculty and students.
Stencel visited Steve Fox’s Multimedia Journalism class on April 19 to discuss with students a story produced in late-March by T. Christian Miller and Daniel Zwerdling of NPR as part of a five part series chronicling an investigation of five soldiers who suffered traumatic brain injuries from the same explosion in Iraq.
The story focuses on Brock Savelkoul, a retired Iraq veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, an epidemic that tens of thousands of people have suffered from since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and other combat areas.
The news package illustrates Savelkoul’s journey from a Purple Heart recipient to a paranoid war veteran suffering at the hands of PTSD. Stencel welled up after watching the video in class. “No matter how many times I watch it,” he said. “It gets me every time.”
The story took months to produce, he said. The photographers and reporters had to take original photos, interview Savelkoul’s family and friends, and also collaborate with the North Dakota Highway Patrol for footage and interviews.
“John Poole and Katie Hayes Luke used this kind of National Geographic photo style for news journalism,” he said. The entire package is about eight minutes – most of those minutes are still photos that these photographers compiled.
Stencel talked about the importance of telling a story in video journalism. There isn’t a lot of time to waste, he said. He pointed to the Savelkoul video package as an example saying that we can interpret his entire life story in the first two minutes. We saw video and still photographs of Savelkoul, but it also gave away the biggest mystery – whether Savelkoul was shot or not.
Stencel said the video came from the North Dakota Highway Patrol and the photos were manufactured under John Poole’s tutelage. “Photos are taken, not found,” he said.
And even though the video gave away the ending at the beginning, it works because the narrator tells the bare minimum throughout the entire video. He speaks as little as possible and lets the content do the talking, Stencel said.
“You’re caught up in the narrative,” he said. “[Danny] is as unobtrusive a narrator as he possible could be.”
He spent much of his discussion on the construction and presentation of this video package and highlighted a few interesting points about the current state of newsrooms.
The first being ownership. NPR likes to infuse its ‘digital signature’ on multimedia packages. Their signature bars any video from ending with a corny quote from the subject. “There’s something about keeping a signature on the work in terms of journalistic ownership, not copyright ownership,” he said.
The second point he made regards the size of a newsroom. Specifically how it influences the staff’s knowledge of particular aspects of creating news packages. “The smaller the newsroom, the more ambidextrous the staff must be,” he said. Conversely, “Larger newsrooms include specialists who work on one specific aspect of the package.” He considers NPR a large newsroom.
Mark Stencel boasts a pretty impressive career up to this point.
Stencel began his career at the Washington Post as an assistant to columnist David S. Broder and as a researcher for the newspaper’s national politics staff. He returned to the Post in 1996 to help launch the company’s first website: PoliticsNow, an election-year multimedia partnership involving ABC News, Newsweek and National Journal. As a senior editor on the newspaper’s breaking news desk, he served as a liaison between the Post’s print and online newsrooms, coordinating coverage of the 2003 Iraq invasion, the 2004 election and other major stories.
In addition to his work as an editor, Stencel was a vice president at the Post Company’s online division, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, where he directed the business side of early mobile and multimedia efforts and managed content partnerships.