Using “One in 8 Million” in the Classroom

This past semester, I integrated the NYTimes.com multimedia series One in 8 Million: New York Characters in Sound and Images into the regular routine of my Online Journalism II course.

When we started the semester, most of the students had limited experience recording and editing audio. Most had not taken a photojournalism course. And it was my first time trying to teach students each step of creating an audio slide show: how to record an interview, gather natural and ambient sound, take photographs, and then edit it all into a coherent story.dixonimg

I found One in 8 Million to be a great learning tool for all of us. It is a series of personal profiles presented as two-minute audio slide shows with photographs by Todd Heisler.

The subjects are characters, often with quirky jobs, backgrounds, and stories to tell. There is a profile of an urban taxidermist, a bus-depot barber, a mozzarella cheese maker, a singing waitress, and a maid who has cleaned up after four different mayors at Gracie Mansion.

The story index even gives the visual sense that the viewer is standing on a subway platform and the faces of the people appear in the subway car windows as it pulls into the station.

I did not plan out how I would use the material before the semester began. I stumbled upon a routine as we went along.

I often began class by shutting off the lights and showing the latest profile on a big projector screen. We would watch the profile and then discuss it for several minutes. Then we would watch it again and discuss it a bit more.

Then I would turn off the projector and we would just listen to the sound. We talked about why the producer might have put the sound of the cash register at that exact spot or why a specific anecdote had been included.

grajalesimgjpgThen I muted the sound and we watched it again. I asked students to pay attention to the composition, as well as the content of the photographs. “Why did the photographer focus on a person’s hand or a religious icon?” we wondered. “Why were the images arranged in that specific order?”

This process usually took about 20 minutes.

Basically, we broke down the audio slide show into its smallest parts – and we tried to figure out how the producers put it all together to make a unified whole.

We spent a lot of class time learning the technical aspects of audio and photography — and how to convert the files into the proper format. One in 8 Million helped us the focus on the storytelling.

I also stuck with the series because I like how the stories are presented.

  • The profiles are often of “everyday” people – a store owner, a guy with the cool sneakers, a teenage mom – that we routinely pass by on the way to cover a “real” news story.
  • The subject herself tells the story. The audience doesn’t hear the reporter’s voice, narration, or questions. There is no moral or kicker at the end saying what it means.
  • The person’s story is the story. There isn’t a news peg, just an interesting person with something to say.

The highlight of the experiment came near the end of the semester as the students scrambled to complete their audio slide shows. I arranged a live video chat (using Google chats, nothing fancy) with Joshua Brustein, an interactive producer at NYTimes.com. Josh answered student questions about the profiles he produced, how he found a specific person, and how he approached the interviews.

Here are two examples of Josh’s work: Paul Bockwaldt, who joined a predominantly gay rugby team to bond with his brother and Ra Ruiz, a former Christopher Street pier kid.

When Josh said he usually spent 10 hours collecting and editing audio for a two minute piece, the students were stunned. But they also seemed inspired that they were attempting to do similar work.

One thought on “Using “One in 8 Million” in the Classroom

  1. Glad to see this post. This past semester I taught a multimedia documentary class and also used “One in 8 Million” often for class discussion. One important thing to point out is that not all the pieces are perfect, and it was useful to prod students into discussing what could have been stronger. Oftentimes, the inescapable time pressure on the journalists prevented more diverse or extensive photography, for example.

    The breadth of the stories is also very useful to discuss in class. There are several in which the subject is retelling something from the past, which always makes photography challenging since one can only photograph the present. Seeing how they handled it in this series was informative.

    Finally, this series helped highlight the difference between a profile — which is really what these are — and a story with a narrative arc. During the semester, I came to feel that the latter is very rare in multimedia projects right now, while the former is more limited in its ability to hold a viewer’s attention beyond the standard 2-3 minutes. To hold interest beyond that amount of time, a viewer needs to be invested in both the character and the tension of not knowing how things turned out.

    Great post, and a great teaching/learning resource!

    Kevin

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