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|| News Item: Posted 2007-11-11

Dissecting Basic Training
By David Carson and Elie Gardner, Post-Dispatch

Photo by David Carson / Post-Dispatch

Photo by David Carson / Post-Dispatch

Specialist Ben Corbett sounds off during evening formation in front of his barracks during basic training at Fort Leonard Wood.
From photographer David Carson's point of view:

I was surrounded by a bunch of young Army recruits with freshly shaved heads and slightly nervous looks on their faces. They were at the start of nine weeks of basic training and in a way, so was I. Only they were issued a rifle, and I was handed a video camera. None of us could shoot straight with our newly issued equipment.

I was inspired by the video storytelling that papers like the Dallas Morning News, San Jose Mercury News, and the Washington Post were doing. But while I was excited to try video I was concerned because I had no idea what I was doing. The paper had no money in the budget for video training before we started the project. So I learned from my mistakes and early on there were a lot of mistakes to learn from.

The idea for the project I was working on, called "Reporting for Duty," came to reporter Phil O'Connor months earlier. At Christmas, he covered the exodus of soldiers who had flooded the airport in St. Louis on their way home to see their families. He was struck by how many thoughtful and insightful things the recruits had to say. It made him want to know more about the people who were volunteering for the Army in a time of war. From that short daily story, Phil pitched his idea for a project to the editors.

There were two major aspects to this project: the traditional newsprint and the online versions. Before we wrote a word or took a picture, we made a decision that the multimedia component would be designed to give readers a broader understanding of the universal experiences recruits share at basic training, while the print version of the story would focus tightly of two recruits. While either branch of the project could stand alone without the other, we designed them to compliment each other and add depth to the overall package.

In the early planning stages, we jotted down specific ideas for the multimedia site like message boards, live chats, video, slideshows, scanned-in letters from home and the ability for visitors to the site to share the content. This pre-planning was important because it helped shape the content we knew we'd have to gather to build the site.

Photo by David Carson / Post-Dispatch

Photo by David Carson / Post-Dispatch

Video of Carson getting gassed:
The team for the online version of this project consisted of six core members:
Project editor Jean Buchanan
Reporter Phil O'Connor
Photographer David Carson
Online photo/video editor Elie Gardner
Flash programmer/designer Rich Rokicki
Copy editor Mike Florio

Additional members of the newsroom were involved with the story in print. Namely, print had its own photo editors and designers: Larry Coyne, Sid Hastings and Gabe Hartwig.

When we started, it's fair to say video was in its infancy at the Post-Dispatch. Technical limitations shaped how we approached this project. We only had four standard definition video cameras and one wireless microphone for the entire staff and no shotgun mics.

Because we didn't have an HD video camera, frame grabs were not an option. This meant we had to pick and choose what would be video and what we'd cover with stills - and when we'd do both simultaneously, something we try to avoid at the Post-Dispatch.

Entering the project I was really concerned I would miss a lot because I was attempting to juggle both the video and still cameras at the same time.

But because we defined the project so well at the beginning, it made my job easier. The print version of the story would focus heavily on two main recruits. So when they were actively doing something, we shot stills of them.

Later, as they sat and watched other recruits going through training, we shot video of the others as our main guys sat and watched. There were times when I wish I had been shooting stills when I had a video camera in my hands and visa versa. But overall it wasn't as bad I feared it was going to be.

From editor Elie Gardner's point of view:

Photo by

Basic Training project on
Phil and David hit the ground running before basic training started. The Army gave them names of recruits from the St. Louis area. After a couple of dead ends, they came across Ben Corbett, who would become one of two main characters. They were able to spend time with him before he left for Fort Leonard Wood. He and his squad became the entry point for the package and gave Phil and David a chance to build a relationship with Corbett before he arrived at Fort Leonard Wood, about two hours southwest of St. Louis.

Along the way, David captured and logged most of his video to keep up with the sheer volume. Early in the project, like most photographers getting accustomed to video, he shot too much tape. We also kept a running list of the videos we wanted to publish. Many of the training drills leant themselves to video - lots of motion and emotion.

The editing process started with David pulling clips and roughing out an audio track. I then came in and helped with sequencing, technical aspects such as fades and cross fades and basic finessing. I tried to edit a piece or two independent of David. His editing was much stronger. I watched his raw footage again and again, but I would still miss some of the best clips, despite being familiar with the content.

We learned that the person who shoots the video is the best first-round editor. The person who doesn't experience the event - me, in this case - had a better sense of what to cut after the first draft was put together. I could better call out what made the piece drag and clips that David was emotionally tied to.

About two months out, Flash artist Rich Rokicki met with the team, and we brainstormed navigation. We kept a list of what elements would hit the Web as best we could and mapped them out. We learned that formally budgeting these items and constantly updating the budget would be more efficient than sending e-mails back and forth with updated content lists.

David and I fed Rich photos, audio and video. Jean and Phil fed him the copy-edited text. We all scrutinized the layout, font sizes, video compression, speed of loading, etc. Rich made updates as necessary, and we asked for a lot of tweaks. This was another thing that, in retrospect, we should have formally logged. With the Internet, fixes constantly need to be made. It's "buggy" by nature, and Rich would come to work to dozens of e-mail requests for small fixes. Logging and prioritizing these would have made life better for Rich.

As an experiment, we posted the multimedia part of the project about a week before the story ran in the paper. The idea was to see if we could generate interest in the print version of the story by giving people access to part of the multimedia site first. When the print version of the story ran, we promoted the multimedia portion of the project in the paper.

Photo by David Carson / Post-Dispatch

Photo by David Carson / Post-Dispatch

Dellis Baskin, left looking up, performs push-ups with the other recruits to the drill sergeant's cadance before lunch. Baskin's misbehavior often led drill sergeant to punish him and the other recruits with exercise.
The series ran for six days, starting on a Sunday. We updated the site live each day with new content as the print version of the story unfolded. We experimented with video sharing techniques by creating a channel on YouTube ( that contained all the videos in the package. This served two main purposes.

It gave us at STLtoday another point of entry if someone first discovered the content there, and it drove them to our site; It also gave folks a way to share video content in a familiar and easy-to-use way. We also faced technical limitations with our own site, since we do not yet have a player with sharing capabilities.

The project stands at 30,658 page views to date. When compared to other multimedia efforts on our site, this comes in as the second-most all time visited site for STLtoday. When you add 4867 YouTube page views, the number of eyeballs exposed gets better. Its universal topic gives it shelf life, and it will continue to get hits.

While 30,000 hits seems pretty good let's put that in perspective. The circulation of our printed paper during the six-day series reached 1.8million people. Thirty thousand page views is a lot for our site, but we need to find ways to reach more people with online storytelling. We also acknowledge that page views are only one measure of success for a web project. Changing and challenging policy and opinion are goals, in addition to page views. Unfortunately, we don't have a stat counter to measure this indicator of success.

Since the completion of the project, the newsroom has ordered an HD camera for every photographer on staff. We haven't sent a photographer on an assignment with a still and a video camera since this project. HD frame grabs run in our paper almost every week.

We've implemented video training, open to all in the newsroom, three days a week, headed up by Assistant Director of Photography Gary Hairlson. We're still in basic training, but we're learning to shoot and getting closer to the target every day.

Link to the Basic Training project:

(David Carson is a staff photographer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Elie Gardner is on online photo editor for

Related Links:
Basic Training
Elie's member page
David's member page
David Carson gets gassed

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