An unsteady hand didn't stop Marc Kovac from becoming Capitol Square's favorite YouTube auteur. The former Statehouse reporter reflects on the end of the “shaky video” era.
Shaky video died on July 20, 2017, near Jennette's Pier in Nags Head, North Carolina. The official time of death was1:36 p.m.
Realistically, it was on life support for about a week and a half prior, but the door seemed to close for good as I stood in the surf and an unanticipated wave knocked my GoPro from my hand and into the cold Atlantic. I caught a final glimpse of it sinking and launched face first to the bottom, reaching wildly in the murky saltwater for a handhold. But it was gone, either swept out to sea, buried in the sand or picked up by some surfer dude who I'm sure will put it to good use.
There probably were still a few shaky clips on the memory card from my final week covering the Ohio Statehouse for the former Dix newspapers chain, which had just been purchased by GateHouse Media (also the owner of this magazine and the Dispatch). I'm pretty sure the post-budget-vote gaggles with Senate President Larry Obhof and House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger were still among the stored electronic files, as were hundreds of pictures and videos of my kids playing on the beach.
I fled to the Outer Banks a week after I began my new assignment—covering Licking County for the Dispatch—and I didn't take the time to erase the old files. I had already scheduled the time off—my first actual vacation involving extended days of rest and relaxationin two years—when I found out my capital bureau post was being eliminated. So, on the spur of the moment, I packed my wife and kids into the minivan and made a beeline for the ferry that takes vehicles to Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, where we tent-camped in a major thunderstorm near the ocean and closed the book on the unique journalistic shtick I've been living for the past decade—the more than 7,000 shaky videos, from the silly to the serious, that offered a peek behind the scenes at the Statehouse and beyond.
I've been a full-time newspaper reporter for 24 years, with stints covering business, agriculture, county government, special projects and just about every other beat, as is the lot of us who have worked at small or mid-sized dailies for any length of time.In January 2007, I was named capital bureau chief for Dix, where I kept tabs on state government and anything else of local interest happening in the vicinity of Ohio's capital city for dailies in Wooster, Ravenna, Alliance, Defiance, Cambridge and Ashland, not to mention the Youngstown Vindicator, which contracted with the Dix bureau for Statehouse coverage, and half a dozen or so weekly Dix papers, mostly in the Akron area.
When I moved to my new cubicle in the common print pressroom at the Statehouse a decade ago, I was old-school, still relying on pen and paper. I didn't even own an audio recorder until I moved to Columbus, but it seemed like a necessity when parsing the words of wily politicians.
Not so long ago, we print journalists wrote stories that appeared in the next day's paper. Over the past decade, that's changed dramatically. Our daily focus has shifted to multimedia, with added responsibilities of posting stories online in real time, taking our own photos, recording audio and video, creating and maintaining social media profiles and producing content well beyond the inked newsprint of the past.
I suppose Marc Dann deserves credit for the inception of shaky video. I started covering the Statehouse shortly after Ted Strickland was elected governor and Democrats secured most of Ohio's statewide offices, with Republicans in control of the legislature. The state and the nation were approaching the Great Recession, with budget cuts and tax hikes (that terminology is debatable, depending on which side of the political aisle you favor) in the works. Democrats also won control of the Ohio House for one term, in 2009–10. All of this created opportunities for headline-grabbing disagreements and drama during my early Statehouse days.
But the Dann scandal, which led to his resignation and criminal charges being filed against the former Ohio attorney general and others, is what really prompted me to start recording video. There's a photo from May 5, 2008, taken by Paul Vernon of the Associated Press, that shows a crowd of journalists questioning Strickland on the Statehouse steps after he requested that Dann resign. Look closely, and you'll see a thinner me, with lots more hair, holding my no-frills camera and recording the Q&A. That's how shaky video was born, when I realized I could record video with my point-and-shoot. Soon, I was documenting everything I attended and posting it online for the world to see. If there was a press conference or a gaggle with some official, or if I spotted the governor or somebody else in the Statehouse hallway, I was there with my camera hitting “record.”
I don't really remember whether I started calling my clips “shaky” or if someone else did, but whenever I uploaded footage, I tweeted something about a new “shaky video” being available. The descriptor was appropriate, since I refused to lug a bulky tripod around. Your arms get tired after holding a camera in someone's face for an extended period of time. I did relent and purchase a monopod, which could be easily maneuvered when pressed shoulder to shoulder with other reporters, but the resulting recordings still had enough sway to be described as shaky.
Nobody else was doing this sort of thing at the Ohio Statehouse when I started, and few people are doing it to the extent that I did even now. And with good reason: We're not talking viral videos of cute kittens here, or guys getting hit in the groin with footballs. Instead, my video library consisted of the more mundane workings of state government and politics. In the early days, few of my newspapers even took the time to post links to the footage I was creating because there wasn't a large audience for it.
But the regulars around Capitol Square quickly learned about shaky video and usually could rely on me to be places that they could not. That was one of the nice things about the Dix Statehouse bureau: Covering state government for smaller papers outside of Columbus, I was given leeway to write about anything and everything. Some days, I'd hit half a dozen events. I joked about my “shaky” video on Twitter (@OhioCapitalBlog, if you're in the neighborhood). Others played along, and “shaky video” gained a foothold. Lobbyists I didn't know greeted me by name and commented on my shaky clips. Statehouse reporters would include quotes in their stories from events I had attended, but they had not. Governors and other office-holders would either welcome me and my monopod or run the other way and refuse to answer questions, scared of being on record and online for all the world to see.
I started recording stuff to provide a service to my readers, particularly those outside of the Columbus beltway. I wanted to enable people to hear what their elected officials were saying and see what they were doing on a regular basis, unfiltered and unedited. Plus, the resulting body of work provided a means to hold public officials accountable—it's one thing to claim a reporter has misquoted you; it's another when there's years-old shaky video backing up what was in the newspaper. It became a robust living record of the state's legislative goings-on.
My initial shaky videos were filed directly to my newspapers' servers, but on Aug. 29, 2008, I started posting clips on the OhioCapitalBlog YouTube channel.
Those early clips are really shaky, the audio is terrible, and the pictures are often blurry. Like I said, I was using my point-and-shoot camera at first and having to compress the files. I upgraded to a camcorder (and still have a box full of tapes with the resulting footage), then a Flip Video camera and finally the aforementioned GoPro. I bought my own video equipment and most of my own batteries. At one time, I was burning through more than 50 AAs a month.
As of my July departure from the Statehouse beat, I had posted 7,197 shaky video clips, varying in length from a few seconds to more than 10 minutes. The vast majority are raw and unedited. To date, my videos have been viewed more than 1 million times.
The most-viewed shaky video is one of the Black Eyed Peas'will.i.amperforming at a 2012 Barack Obama rally at Ohio State University. Judging by the comments, the 69,000 looks were generated by those who don't think much of the musician's “Four More More Years” song. No. 2 on the list is a short clip of Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and his wife, Connie Schultz, dancing at a Jay-Z concert from that same year, also in support of Obama's re-election. And third is Josh Mandel's appearance ata Mitt Romney event at an eastern Ohio coal mine, where Mandel, from suburban Cleveland, briefly seems to speak in a faux Southern accent.
There are all sorts of clips, some serious and some comical—thousands of shaky videos, all accessible to the general populace, unedited and free of charge. Some have been included in political ads, some on TV news shows (and shame on those of you who broadcast them without including an attribution).
It was fun while it lasted.
During a Twitter wake for shaky video in early July on my last day at the Statehouse, dozens of my followers, including a number of Ohio's elected officials, tweeted their final respects. Politics aside, people from both sides of the aisle said nice things about my efforts—“a big loss,” “sad day,” “great work,” “you'll be missed,” “trailblazer,” and on and on it went.
Which brings us back to the afternoon of July 20, 2017, and that Outer Banks wave that knocked the camera out of my hand. I stood on the beach for a long time, near tears, hoping and praying that the waves would return my GoPro.They didn't oblige. A burial at sea would close that book. The next day, I packed the minivan and headed back to Ohio.
Postscript: You can't get rid of shaky video that easily. I still have my Flip cam and my no-frills camera, which I used to record footage following a shooting incident on Newark's north side the day I returned to work from my Outer Banks vacation. I'll likely buy a new GoPro once I save a few hundred bucks. I'll keep posting shaky video wherever I am. I still refuse to buy a tripod, though.