‘Despite its importance, local media is often overshadowed by national news. I wish to make a documentary. I wish to find out whether local media has a place in society today.”
The words are from Andrew Ni’s 2017 grant proposal to the William Welles Award committee at the Lawrenceville School, where Ni is a senior.
It was the first step in realizing his 30-minute documentary film on journalism, “The Shepherd Sings a Song” — set for a screening at the New Jersey Film Festival in New Brunswick on Friday, February 8, at 7 p.m.
“One of my idiosyncratic interests is that I like to read local papers — the ones one would get in my driveway,” says the Princeton resident and son of a finance professional at China International Capital Corporation during a recent interview at a Route 1 diner.
“I was curious my classmates in school don’t read them enough. Everyone knows about national news but not local. I wanted to explore a topic that was individualistic to me and explore and expand on the topic.”
Ni says he “always wanted to do a project on one of my interests,” and he saw an opportunity when he learned about the grant.
“It was going to fund the summer project. The school has a lot of (video and technical support) resources. So I saw the opportunity to use them. So I sent a proposal, and they accepted it because they thought it would be interesting to explore the Mercer County community – something personal to all of us.”
Ni says the original proposal is different from the final film. Initially he had planned a work encompassing local television, radio, and published media but realized “it was too broad a category to talk about. I could make a film about each one of them.”
Since he received Town Topics, Montgomery News, Princeton Packet, and sometimes the Princeton Echo, he decided to focus on the “struggles and initiatives” of print media, adding U.S. 1 and the Community News Service, U.S. 1’s parent company, into the mix.
He says the film’s target audience is people who overlook local news. “The reasons are related to cultural and technological shifts,” he says.
Yet rather than be negative, he adds, “The idea was to show concern and hope.”
He also needed to keep something else in focus, something former Princeton Packet publisher James Kilgore said about a news publication: “The first responsibility of a business is to stay in business.”
Ni’s project proposal also reflected a business approach: “This film is ambitious but not expensive. This project, being local, has virtually no travel expenses; most costs come from video-making software. I can borrow nearly all filming, lighting, and auditory equipment from (Lawrenceville video instructor Gil) Domb’s room in Pop Hall. I even own a DSLR camera that is very effective for interviews. However, I will need to purchase Adobe Premiere Pro to edit my video, which costs $239.88 with student pricing. Additionally, near the finishing stages, I may also need Red Giant Magic Bullet, a post-production program that helps gives videos a critical visual final touch. It is priced academically at $199.99. In total, expenses should fall below $499.”
Ni says that after doing research at Princeton Public Library, looking through academic reports examining media, simplifying his approach, and organizing questions, the work was generally straightforward — with one exception.
“For this project to work you need a lot of people to participate. And journalists are busy. So it took two or three weeks to get an interview. Some people responded once and never did it again. Scheduling meetings was probably the hardest part,” he says.
Overall it was a short production schedule with filming beginning in June. In addition to the interviews with Kilgore, current Princeton Packet publisher Joseph Eisele, Montgomery News editor Barbara Preston, Town Topics editor Lynn Smith, U.S. 1 and Princeton Echo editor Rich Rein, and Community News managing editor Joe Emanski, Ni also recorded scenes in Princeton and Trenton.
“When that was done I needed to edit it and work eight hours a day for about two weeks. After that I was just tweaking it. The finished product was done in late August.”
About entering the film in the NJFF, Ni says he had mentioned submitting the film to various festivals in the original grant application, and learned about the New Jersey Film Festival from video and film instructor Domb. Ni decided to enter.
“I wouldn’t have been able to make the film without (Domb),” Ni says. “He ‘proofread’ the work and was very supportive.”
Ni says he got interested in filmmaking when he took a video journalism class in his sophomore year and “stuck with it. I’m interested in the humanities. The great thing about filmmaking is it combines all the arts — visual art and writing as well as organizing and editing. It combines all my favorite topics.”
That also includes music. A classical pianist, Ni selected the works using a website with royalty-free classical recordings as well as one of his own compositions. The tone is often elegiac and nostalgic.
Explaining his choice of using the first movement from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #6, “The Pathetique,” Ni says, “Newspapers have hope. I chose a piece that’s not happy. It’s emotional – it’s not an elegy for sure. The music has a swell, but it isn’t a happy swell. It has a balance between not being overly optimistic yet has hope at the same time. Music plays an important role. Music was the skeleton to begin with and is the backbone.”
Another choice was the film’s name. “It was a placeholder title when I started the film. (Local newspapers) have a guiding responsibility — to guide the community and keep the community together. The idea is to express communal roles that a newspaper holds. I don’t know why I came to it. It was biblical and alliterative. It worked out.”
Looking back on the experience, Ni says he realizes that the local newspaper business “is a lot more nuanced than I thought. I thought they were struggling because they were old school and could change if they were more hip. But online newspapers are not that profitable. It is not as easy to shift into the new online newspapers.
“Also I realized there were many communal roles that newspapers have — to inform and create a close-knit society. It is the journal and or diary of a local town. At the same time it is fine balance — it is also a profit-making enterprise.”
“There is no replacement for the local news. What we’re at the risk of losing is researched local news without anything to replace it.”
New Jersey Film Festival, Voorhees Hall Room 105, 71 Hamilton Street, Rutgers University. January 25 through March 1. $9 to $12. “The Shepherd Sings a Song,” Friday, February 8, 7 p.m. 848-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com.
Strong and Silent
“Quakers: The Quiet Revolutionaries” will also be shown at the New Jersey Film Festival on Friday, February 8. The new feature-length documentary by Rocky Hill filmmaker Janet Gardner follows the religious group’s start in 17th century England, its arrival in the American colonies, and its important role in various social and political movements.
The Religious Society of Friends — the organization’s formal name — was a prominent proponent of the anti-slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-Vietnam War movements. The film also touches on the Quakers’ historical connection to New Jersey with scenes filmed at the Princeton Friends Meeting House and at the Mt. Laurel home of women’s suffrage leader and Quaker Alice Paul.
The film’s title reflects two interesting facts about the group. The term Quaker was first used to ridicule an early leader’s admonishment to tremble before the word of God, but members soon appropriated the name as a statement. “Quiet” reflects the Quaker practice of remaining silent until the spirit moves them to speak.
For more information, visit www.njfilmfest.com.