By Jim Colton

When it comes to photography, many image makers subscribe to the rule of the three C’s; Content, Composition and Color. When it comes to newspapers, a different set of C’s must be adhered to; Comprehensive Community Coverage. This is the building block that is the cornerstone of any successful newspaper. 

But what happens when your community is also home to the world’s largest naval base? Naval Station Norfolk supports 75 ships and 134 aircraft alongside 14 piers and 11 aircraft hangars. The base houses the largest concentration of U.S. Navy forces in the world and according to a staggering 351,387 military personnel (including families) populate the Virginia Beach, Newport, Norfolk, Hampton and Portsmouth areas.

Does that demographic change the way a newspaper has to cover local events? How do you balance items of military versus civilian interest? This week, Photo Journal looks for answers to these questions and more as we take a look inside the photo operations of The Virginian-Pilot through the eyes of its very spirited Director of Photography Randall Greenwell.

Jim Colton: The Virginian-Pilot has always featured its staff photography well. Can you give us a breakdown of your photo department staffing? Photographers, editors and freelancers?

Randy Greenwell by Kat MarshRandall Greenwell: There’s me (Director of Photography), two picture editors (Bill Kelley III and Martin Smith-Rodden), nine full-time photographers and one part-time. It’s a talented group: Brian Clark, Vicki Cronis-Nohe, Steve Earley, Stephen Katz, Hyunsoo Leo Kim, Amanda Lucier, The’ Pham, L. Todd Spencer, Ross Taylor and Bill Tiernan. On the freelance side we have four people that we rotate through regularly and another four or five that pop in from time to time.

JC: The market area of the paper is rich with military history including the world's largest naval base. Is the local community a priority and does that affect the kinds of stories the Pilot chooses to cover? 

RG: We are first and foremost a local news agency and the military figures largely in our coverage mix. There seems to be an endless stream of departures and homecomings and many of the truly memorable images from our staff revolve around those milestones. Since the military travels all over the world, it’s easy to find local angles to international stories. We end up doing one or two of those a year. Beyond the military, the Hampton Roads area is a vibrant, interesting place to live and cover. There is an intriguing intersection of East Coast and Southern culture, all the normal goings-on of a large metro area and of course, the ocean. 

JC: What is the relationship of the print version of the newspaper vs. the web version? Is there a lot of energy placed on creating galleries and multi-media for the web version? 

RG: Like everyone else, we started with two separate teams for print and online. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been consolidating the teams and the processes and retraining all of the print-only people to work in both worlds. This year we’re making a big push to establish (see link below) as a premium online product and photography will be playing a major role. We’re building in more time to curate the galleries and we’re polishing the design and other visual elements. We want to make sure the user experience online leverages all of the visual excellence that the print product is known for. 

JC: Can you walk us through one story in particular that you were very proud of producing?

RG: We recently finished up a huge project on the inactivation of the first nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. We actually started collecting the photos and video footage over a year ago. In the final weeks before the inactivation ceremony, we sent Brian Clark to Italy so that he could drop in on their final voyage back to Norfolk. He was onboard for several days and collected vast amounts of video, stills and time lapse imagery. Once he got back to the office, he moved his editing station into a quiet area out of the normal flow of the department and did nothing but edit for the next two weeks. He wove together historic Navy imagery, the best of the Pilot coverage of the ship from the last 50 years and all of the new high-definition footage collected from his trip. 

We also sent Hyunsoo Leo Kim down to Florida to get him on the ship for the final voyage back into the docks at Norfolk. When they rolled in, we had Steve Earley and Brian Clark on the dock and I was in a helicopter overhead. Two weeks after the final ceremony we had produced a DVD that included a 20 minute documentary on the ship’s history, a collection of the best time lapse videos, and a slideshow of our outstanding photography and video highlights of the inactivation ceremony. It was delivered in time for Christmas and has experienced a great reception and strong sales. We couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.

JC: The five part special report the Pilot did online on the combat hospital in Afghanistan was very powerful. Did that coincide with a print version of the story and what was the reaction to the very graphic package? Editor’s Note: ePilot is the online display engine for PDFs of the paper. See links below to access both The Virginian-Pilot online and PDF versions of the print product. 

RG:A Chance in Hell,” was the brainchild of photographer Ross Taylor and writer Corinne Riley. They used our local connections to plug into the larger story of the war in Afghanistan. Many of the medical personnel from the naval hospital in Portsmouth, VA rotate through the NATO hospital on the airbase in Kandahar. Ross and Corinne spent two weeks there and we ultimately produced a five-day series for the newspaper as well as a great multimedia landing page online (see link below) and a collector’s reprint edition. Part of the proceeds from the reprints was donated to the Wounded Warrior Project.  We took great care in the edit to balance the sensitivities of the subjects and readers with the need to be true to the story. I think we found that balance and as a result, we had an overwhelmingly positive response from the subjects of the stories and from the public at large. 

JC: The Pilot has always done well in many photography contests. What do you attribute that to?

RG: It comes down to a few very basic things. First and most obvious is that the photographers are really good. They all possess a highly refined level of their craft, a passion to do the very best work possible and the drive to keep doing it over and over again. They are machines! Second is a top-down commitment to do photography right. Editor Denis Finley understands the power of visuals and makes sure that great photography and design is ingrained in our culture. Every editor and designer down the line takes that commitment seriously. 

And finally, the picture editors do a lot of advance work and prioritizing. The idea is to get the photographers into the best possible situation and to keep them there for as long as possible.  We identify the high-probability opportunities, adjust the assignment, and then juggle the schedule around until they have maximum contact time with the story. I am rarely disappointed with the results.

JC: Lastly, what does Randall Greenwell hope to see accomplished in the 2013? Any exciting new projects on the horizon that you're at liberty to talk about?

RG: In the coming year, The Pilot will debut a new tablet app, produce more multimedia projects on a wider range of platforms and crank out plenty of good old-fashioned documentary photojournalism. I am also really excited about tackling the online space this year. I want to make our digital user experience as distinctive and compelling as leafing through a copy of The Virginian-Pilot. It is great newspaper with amazing people and I want to make sure that what makes The Pilot special doesn’t get lost in the translation in the new digital publishing model. 

I think too many newspapers have forgotten that people enjoy a product with personality. We’ve all been shoveling our content into unappealing, overly-busy templates that suck all the life out of the experience and make readers work really hard to find things. It’s time to reexamine that strategy and invest in new platforms, technologies and people that allow us to recapture the pleasure of discovering beautiful stories and stunning visuals. The tools have never been easier or more accessible and the possibilities are limited only by the imagination. Let’s do this!


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