Koci: Story of a multimedia guru

Guru: Teacher of wisdom, literally, one who takes you from darkness to light. Richard Koci Hernandez seems to fit that description in the realm of multimedia.

I first met him at an ACP conference in San Francisco last spring. It was the most inspiring seminar I'd ever witnessed. He talked about breaking the rules and going against the grain. He shared his views on the future of HDV instead of DSLRs. His message was sincere and presented in a fresh way. Since the conference, I've kept a close eye on his blog and am always interested in what he has to say.

The following is the result of a recent e-mail interview with him:

The written version:

Where it started

When Richard Koci Hernandez took a family trip to Yosemite as a child, he saw nature photographs by Ansel Adams and his life was forever changed. Koci Hernandez took a Nikon FM film camera, which his uncle had traded his lawn mower for, and set out on a quest to be the next Ansel.

"I sucked, of course, and soon found my family members as better subjects than the rocks," Koci Hernandez said.

At the time, he was in a Catholic seminary and wanted to help people. Because he loved photography, he felt journalism was the best way to continue to help society while doing what he enjoyed most.

"A little naive," he admitted, "But that's what got me started."

Koci Hernandez attended Ventura Community College's liberal arts program until 1990 and graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in journalism in 1993. He started his professional career as a photojournalist in 1989 and has worked at the Ventura County Star, Kansas Wichita Eagle and San Jose Mercury News.

Taking the initiative

About four years ago in 2004, Koci Hernandez and another Mercury News photographer Dai Sugano embarked on a six month journey to teach themselves Flash, Final Cut Pro, CSS, HTML and more to create a multimedia site for the Mercury News.

"That's the short version," Koci Hernandez joked.

In a lecture at Berkeley in 2007, Koci Hernandez explained that he and the other staff photographers felt the need to create the site when there was no more room for their photos to run in print.

"You were lucky if you came back and you got one photo in the paper," he said at the lecture.

Tireless hours went into learning all the basics on their own. The Mercury News was very anti-multimedia at the time, so the photographers set out on a journey of their own. After presenting their mockup to the Web team, they, once again got a negative response. They were told that hosting their photo site on the newspaper's server would "crash everything."

For $9 a month out of the photo budget, they bought the server space from an outside company to host their work. The result was MercuryNewsPhoto.com -- a site that housed photography and multimedia projects by the Merc staffers.

"This was not for glory, we never got anything for it. We did it all on our own time," he said at the Berkeley seminar. They never promoted the site, but quickly started to see the number of pageviews go up. When the stats were high enough, the Mercury News agreed to start linking to some of the photographers' work from the main site.

Two years after MercuryNewsPhoto.com launched, Koci Hernandez's title was changed from "staff photojournalist" to "deputy director of multimedia, photo and video." As of 2007, the site was getting 100,000 visitors a month -- half the newspaper's circulation.

"When I realized that the future of newspaper was an online model, I knew that photographers and their images -- mixed with audio -- was going to be a valuable way to inform the public and tell deeper stories," Koci Hernandez said.

Newsroom to classroom

In August 2008, Koci Hernandez made the leap from the newsroom to the classroom. The National Photographer's Press Associated reported in August that he left his deputy director of multimedia job at the San Jose Mercury News to accept a Ford Foundation multimedia fellowship at the UC Berkeley with a goal of developing digital news sites for under-served communities.

When asked if he made the switch to get out early before the journalism industry goes up in flames, Koci Hernandez said, "Kinda, but not really." He's a newspaper optimist and said he still believes in a strong future for journalism.

"I guess I have a naive vein in me," he said. "But I thought I might actually be able to 'save' journalism or do something positive in my new role here at Berkeley, more than I could have by staying at a newspaper."

He's currently teaching the J200 class-- intro to reporting -- to help maintain community news sites through multimedia, audio, video and interactive production. The switch from newsroom to classroom has been easy.

"I was already teaching in the newsroom, so it was a seamless transition," Koci Hernandez said. The best part, he admitted, was that students still see the world of journalism as a glass half full. But, he still misses the daily grind of newspapers and the rush of deadline.

Winning an Emmy

In reflecting on his journalism career so far, Koci Hernandez said his favorite and most famous work was a multimedia production he co-produced at the Mercury News before he left. Titled "Uprooted," the video chronicles the story of two families as they were evicted from their mobile home park to make way for new development. The piece recently won him and former colleague Dai Sugano an Emmy. Even though it was created collaboratively, Koci Herandez said it's his best work.

"Good things are done in groups," he said. "No one is an island in this world of multimedia."

HD video instead of DSLR

Koci Hernandez regularly attends conferences and gives lectures on the use of HD video instead of traditional still frame photography, a technique he's switched to in recent years.

"I woke up one day about three years ago and had a personal epiphany," he said. "It's not about the tool, it's about the image. It's not about what brush I used to paint the picture, it's about the picture."

With that in mind, he left behind the world of DSLR and moved on to HD video.

"Video is just still photography on speed. It means I have the fastest motor drive around," he said.

But his innovative epiphany hasn't gone without resistance from traditional photographers.

"Everybody is afraid of change," he said. "Mostly, people are afraid of picking up a tool they are not familiar with and failing to make great images right off the bat."

He said the process of getting better is about failure, and that the experiences he's most proud of are the times he picked up a camera and failed.

One the side

In his spare time, Koci Hernandez maintains a blog at MultimediaShooter.com which provides tips and tricks for producing multimedia. He also shares interesting productions there for inspiration to others. He enjoys spending time with his family and is currently building a real, working, old-fashioned photobooth with his daughter for her 11th birthday party.

The future of photoj

As for the future of photojournalism, Koci Hernandez said there will be fewer traditional opportunities, meaning fewer jobs with newspapers and magazines.

"We are living in the most visually stimulating culture that feeds off images of all kinds," he said. "There will be opportunities around, but in areas we might not be used to entering or have yet to be created."

He is convinced that the industry is at its most creative and innovative peak in history and that student journalists shouldn't be discouraged.

"The industry has been preaching doom and gloom for years," he said. When Koci Hernandez was in school a decade ago, people were telling him the same foreboding stories of a dying industry that many students are fearing now.

"If you want to tell stories bad enough . . . if you have the passion, you will get work, I promise," he said.