How Photojournalists Transition to Video Production for Companies, Brands and NGOs

June 27, 2018

By David Walker

©Gabe Silverman/SideXSide Studios

A screen grab from a video Gabe Silverman of SideXSide Studios directed for the Starbucks "Upstanders" series.

For newspaper photographers with video production skills, assignment opportunities outside of journalism are expanding. Companies, brands, NGOs and other clients are looking for help telling their stories with short-form video.

Among those who have made the transition from journalism to commercial work are video journalist Gabe Silverman and producer Jamie Coughlin, who co-founded Washington, DC-based SideXSide Studios in 2015; and photographer Jordan Stead, a former Seattle Post-Intelligencer staff photographer who is now chief in-house producer of photo and video content for Amazon’s public relations team.

“Companies and brands are hiring teams to produce storytelling content. That’s everything now, everywhere you look,” says Stead, whose work (including the first video below) often appears on Amazon’s Day One blog. For companies trying to tell their brand stories, Stead adds, “it’s a natural inclination to bring in journalists who have spent their careers telling real-life stories.”

Unlike the pathway into journalism work, which runs through internships, the path to branded content and other types of freelance video work “is way less clear,” Stead says. It also requires a tolerance for some risk and uncertainty, and hustle. But he insists that it’s more accessible than many journalists think.

“I”m not special. There are many people who could be working this role,” he says. “I urge [journalists who want to transition] not [to] feel trapped by their former careers or titles.”

The skills required for journalism translate easily to storytelling for other kinds of clients, he explains. “The skills don’t determine the job. They’re an excellent foundation, and from that foundation, you can build any job you want to build.”

Stead attempted a freelance career right out of college, in 2011, because newspaper jobs were scarce. He started a “visual production company,” focused on brand storytelling. He did projects for Chevron, Ikea and some editorial assignments.

But Stead had always wanted to work as a staff photojournalist, so when he was offered a staff job with the Post-Intelligencer, he took it. Because the Post-Intelligencer publishes only online, Stead learned to analyze web metrics. Checking the traffic numbers gave him insight into what attracts and holds audiences—a skill that has served him well at Amazon.

One of Stead’s P-I colleagues, Josh Trujillo, also left the newspaper to produce branded content. He joined Starbucks. “We’re in companies, serving a similar purpose we did in journalism: finding character-driven stories, telling them honestly and effectively.” (Trujillo didn’t respond to requests for an interview.)

One of Stead’s first big freelance assignment after he left the Post-Intelligencer was for the tourism board of Jordan. He got the assignment through National Geographic Traveler’s branded content division on a referral from a friend who had shot for National Geographic. His industry connections also helped Stead land his job at Amazon in 2017, he says.

But those opportunities didn’t just fall into his lap. Stead made a sustained effort to find them. “When I returned to freelancing, the first thing I did was write down names of everyone I knew, where they worked, and what I could do for them as a photographer, a videographer, and a storyteller. I had 200 or so names, and I reached out to every one. I got 3 emails back,” he says.

It was enough to get going, and Stead adds, “Being open to new opportunities is really big. Every change I’ve made in my career, it was a huge cliff to jump off of.”

Professional relationships have also played an important role for Silverman and Coughlin in the success of SideXSide Studios. They both had successful journalism careers at The Washington Post and USAToday, respectively. But since meeting in graduate school in 2011, they always had in the back of their minds an idea to launch a production company together. “We looked at the market opportunities, and figured [2015] would be a good time to make a go for it,” Silverman says.

Their first challenge was getting clients. “Building our client list has been very similar to building a beat in journalism,” Silverman says. “We didn’t put out ads or do a marketing campaign. We went out and we talked to people. We took coffee meetings and made relationships face-to-face. We also reached out to a lot of organizations who we believed were doing good work, whether they traditionally produced video or not.”

Their initial projects came through referrals from their journalism colleagues and friends. In 2016, they reeled in a big client—Starbucks—through one of Silverman’s Washington Post connections: Starbucks senior VP of public affairs and executive producer of social impact media initiatives, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, had previously been an associate editor at the Post.

SideXSide won assignments from Starbucks in 2015 and 2016 to shoot several episodes of “Upstanders,” a series about people from all over the country who are affecting positive change in their communities.

Starbucks Upstanders Ep 8 – Love for All in Utah from SideXSide Studios on Vimeo.

The work they did for Starbucks, Silverman says, “has been helpful in showing other clients what is possible.” Among those clients are various NGOs. Because the cost of quality video production has fallen significantly, NGOs “can speak directly to constituents”—especially donors—“with honest, well-told stories,” Silverman says. “If you’re an organization that needs to raise money from people, they need to understand what you do.”

Much of SideXSide’s business comes from referrals: one client will recommend them to another. But video storytelling is new for many NGOs, so Silverman and Coughlin have had to educate clients, and manage their expectations. “One thing we have to do with [NGO] clients is build a culture of video storytelling,” Silverman says. “At the outset of every project we ask two simple questions: what’s the goal of the video, and who is your intended audience? When we get answers like ‘we want a viral video that reaches our donors and a general population,’ we have to gently push back.” He explains that videos for NGOs don’t often appeal to general audiences, and that “going viral” isn’t the best measure of success. Instead, reaching (and converting) a few big donors is what brings much-needed funding to NGOs.

Besides NGO and commercial work, SideXSide continues to produce editorial work. For instance, they’ve produced short videos for The Washington Post, The New York Times and The New Yorker. And their first feature-length documentary, TransMilitary, won the Audience Award at the 2018 SXSW festival. Editorial work, Silverman says, “helps feed our souls and keeps us in [the editorial] world.” But the editorial work doesn’t do much to sustain SideXSide Studios financially.

“Freelancers often focus on big [editorial] outlets: I want to shoot for The Times, I want to shoot for the Post,” Silverman concludes. “I understand that. But the world is a massive place that needs a large amount of content right now. Just be creative about how you approach it.”

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