TVNEWSDAY FOCUS ON JOURNALISM
VIDEO JOURNALISM TAKES ROOT IN LOCAL TV NEWS
TVNEWSDAY, Aug. 8, 8:08 AM ET
The idea of replacing or at least supplementing news crews with reporter-photographers is finding some adherents among broadcasters who are trying to cope with budget pressures and increasing demands for content. But as VJ evangelist Michael Rosenblum concedes, it’s still a fringe movement with a long way to go.
At the opening session of the Radio-Television News Directors Association’s conference last April, New York-based consultant and video journalism evangelist Michael Rosenblum told an assembly of TV journalists that many of them, for business purposes, “are dead” and that this is “the end of the old world.”
Rosenblum referred to the conventional ENG gear, sometimes costing tens of thousands of dollars, as “paperweights.”
“So, the barbarians are at the gate?” asked moderator Miles O’Brien, of CNN.
“No, no, no,” said Rosenblum. “The people are at the gate; the barbarians are going to be unemployed.”
Despite Rosenblum’s passionate, sometimes inflammatory and frequently off-putting proselytizing, he has converted a few broadcasters to video journalism—the idea of replacing heavily equipped news crews with more lightly equipped individuals who can both report the story and capture the video.
Perhaps more important, Rosenblum has caused other broadcasters to do some soul searching about the way they collect news and prompted academics to rethink the way they are training TV journalists.
They are beginning to see the potential of low-cost, lightweight cameras and laptop editors and the increasing availability of wireless Internet access.
Combining those factors with constant corporate budget pressure and a ravenous demand for content, some suggest, could make wider adoption of video journalism inevitable.
But, right now, even Rosenblum admits that video journalism is still no more than a fringe religion in the U.S. “We’ve moved forward a little bit,” he says. “But it’s no great drama. I’m getting rejected by a better class of clients. But at least they’re talking to me.”
It may take a generational shift within the industry, Rosenblum says.
“The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, not because they were lost, but because everybody with a memory of slavery had to die.”
Rosenblum distinguishes between the video journalist and the one-man band.
“The VJ concept is to ’empower’ a journalist to translate their voice into video,” says Rosenblum. “It strives to bring a sense of creativity and authorship to television journalism.”
A one-man band can be an inexpensive way of imitating what a crew does, he says. Video journalism requires more time working a story than traditional crews that produce a couple of packages a day can often afford.
The VJ movement has perhaps made its biggest inroads with Young Broadcasting at its stations in San Francisco (KRON) and Nashville (WKRN). Rosenblum was hired to train reporters at both stations.
Two McGraw-Hill stations, in San Diego (KGTV) and Indianapolis (WRTV), have begun moving in that direction, also with Rosenblum’s counsel.
Gannett is providing its own training in an effort to add VJs to its stations’ news staffs, and other stations and station groups are considering ways to incorporate the concept, driven perhaps by technology, budgets or even Rosenblum’s rhetoric.
Recently, the ubiquitous and influential Associated Press advertised for applicants, using both the terms “video journalists” and “one-man band.’
KRON’s ratings haven’t changed since it went with the VJs in 2005. The MNT affiliate is still fifth out of five stations doing news in San Francisco.
Early local criticisms complained of poor video and sloppy editing. Others said the stories looked good, sounded good or were well written, but seldom all at once. Some suggest an MTV-hand held look.
Some KRON veterans stayed on board; others left the station, often to competitors.
KRON General Manager Mark Antonitis disputes the negative local and industry perceptions, insisting that going VJ at KRON was never “about cutting costs as much as about productivity, using resources.
“We’re producing more news with fewer people, but it’s journalism that better speaks to the needs of the audience,” he says. “The audience doesn’t care how many people did the story.”
“If anybody expected instant ratings impact, they have no idea what this is about,” Antonitis adds. “We’re still in transition; we produce more stories than anyone else in the market. We’re building an organization that’s efficient and effective. We have greater flexibility now. This is about local television.”
At the other Young station that moved to VJs, new WKRN Nashville General Manager Gwen Kinsey, says that the station news staff is mostly, but not all, VJs.
Kinsey’s predecessor, Mike Sechrist, left the station in the spring and now works with Rosenblum training stations.
Sechrist says that WKRN became far more competitive and efficient through video journalism. And it opened a new advertising revenue stream by creating compelling content for the Web.
“When I left, we had 12,000 videos searchable on the Web,” he says. “Our Internet sales people sold 10 second pre-rolls.” It’s not TV news-size margins, he acknowledges, “but it’s money we ignored for a long time for content we already had.”
Wally Dean, broadcast/online director for the Committee of Concerned Journalists, says that while he sees little interest among stations in completely converting to VJs, he sees some value in the industry’s limited experience so far, holding Young’s Nashville station as an example.
“I think it’s fair to say that WKRN increased the number of boots on the ground,” he says.
“It did lead to a broader, more diverse agenda of news items from which they could choose. There were more enterprise stories for each newscast.
“The question then became: was the quality of stories good enough to compete against the kinds of stories produced by traditional means.
“I think it was an uneven quality. They tried to do it a lot with their old staff; they tried to retrain them. That’s a different, greater challenge that hiring new people who are trained in this.”
McGraw-Hill’s KGTV San Diego had already committed to VJ training when News Director Gary Brown joined last year, but Brown is on board because he sees where the industry is going.
Brown says video journalism is necessary for feeding the KGTV beast, which now includes the local ABC affiliate, its Web site and the local Azteca affiliate. Already competitive, KGTV had a particularly strong May book.
“For us, the whole reason behind it was flexibility. Newspapers have figured out they can do local TV. In most markets, the newspaper has the most popular Web site. They figured out they can do video cheap.”
In fact, Copley’s San Diego Union has committed to training its staff in video.
“I think the VJ concept has the ability to be in every newsroom in some form,” Brown says. “Will it be the same? No.”
Earlier this year, Gannett Broadcasting began recruiting and training the first class of between 20 and 30 “backpack journalists” for its TV newsrooms.
Applicants-trainees were expected to pay for transportation to Gannett headquarters in McLean, Va., and lodging, with some scholarships offered to offset costs, and the best candidates were offered positions.
Gannett is also recruiting this week at the National Association of Black Journalists conference in Indianapolis.
Gannett’s longtime local powerhouse, KUSA Denver, has not yet reaped the benefits of the company’s new hires, the station’s news chief Patti Dennis says the concept of one-person crews is not new there.
The station has always had a small contingent, each capable of imparting a compelling story, she says. It’s a small part of the 100-plus person operation, but that could change.
“In today’s environment, how do we get more people on the streets collecting news?” she asks. “We need more information and more efficiency.”
The newsroom at KUSA now produces content for three TV stations and a cable operation and their Web sites, all without proportional increases in staff.
“We’re all in a bit of an experimentation phase,” says Dennis. “Nobody knows what it’s going to look like. We’re going to have to have a lot more people on the streets. We’ll be reshuffling a lot of jobs.”
Yet, she adds, “we haven’t gone in whole-hog like KRON.
“We’re not going to abandon anything, she says. “We’ve got a rich tradition here, one that includes revenue and ratings.”
Hearst-Argyle, another TV group with a long and storied history in TV news, is taking a measured step toward video journalism, starting with an effort to improve its competitive position on the Web.
“Newspapers are on the verge of making a comeback,” says Joe Coscia, news director at Hearst-Argyle’s WPBF West Palm Beach, Fla.
“They’re turning reporters into digital correspondents, sending video cameras out with stories, and sticking additional stuff on the Web,” he says. “As we look at the TV audience continue to erode, getting older, the new generation is Internet consumers.”
Coscia hired three video journalists last year, giving them the title “TIgars”—television Internet general assignment reporters.
“We take these one-man bands and integrate them into the news process here,” he says. “We didn’t displace other reporters or photographers. We increased our news gathering resources.
“TIgars are like bureaus. They each have a beat. Their job is to go out and cover stories.”
They use the Internet to send video back to the station, he says. “I can get it on the Web before they come back to the station.
“With portable gear and nonlinear editing, they can cut their material, write their script and bring their stories to television as well.”
The Internet demands speed, Coscia says. “People go to the Internet for breaking news. Prime time now is during the business day. Internet users are looking for breaking news, on demand and on-the-fly.”
Video journalism may not have taken KRON from the basement to the top of the news rankings, but former news director Chris Lee of KRON, now working for a Bay Area video technology company, feels there’s a lot to learn from early experiences with video journalism, and that it may yet reshape television news.
Stations need to be clear why they’re moving into video journalism, Lee says. “You can go into video journalism to save money. Or you can go into video journalism to create some kind of coverage advantage.”
Lee recalls the station’s thought process: “We’re the fifth station in a five station market. How do we do something different? Well, we can put 35 cameras in the market. We can assign a video journalist to every 200,000 people in the Bay Area; instead of two cameras in SanJose, we could have seven or eight.”
Lee sees video journalism as a way to return to more of a beat system and to do more stories you won’t see in newspapers.
Critics of VJ note that it’s not really a two-for-one exchange. Reporters may be able to report and shoot video simultaneously, but they can’t write or produce while they’re driving the car.
The Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins says that “there’s nothing new about the one-man band concept. I did this in the 1970s in Bowling Green, Ky. What’s different about this is that we’re talking about wholesale change with an entire newsroom.”
Journalists, says Tompkins, “will need to know how to produce stories in a multimedia world, and they’ll need to know enough about the world to report them. “Sometimes it helps to have someone with you; someone to bounce ideas off of, ethical questions…. You’re asking one person to do a lot. There’s a danger.
“If I were at a first-place station, I’d be reluctant to change everything. The news business is generally a younger person’s game. We just had a class of college students here. They’re not intimidated by the notion of constant learning.”
Recognizing the likelihood of careers serving multiple platforms, journalism schools are increasingly blurring the lines in course offerings for those who shoot and those who report. Video technology and convergence training abounds.
Syracuse University journalism professor Dow Smith said that the Newhouse School curriculum includes classes in multiplatform skills.
However, Smith says, education for TV news could get confusing, as many among the current generation of cameramen-turning-journalists not only lack journalism degrees, but also college degrees.
“But some cameramen tell the story very well through video,” he adds.
At Boston University, future journalists are invited to take broadcast courses that are not intended for broadcast majors, says BU Professor Bob Zelnick.
Although best known for his two decades at ABC News, Zelnick himself has crossed over into print and radio as well as television. “It doesn’t hurt to have across-the-board skills.”
But while Zelnick recognizes some gains made by video journalism, the veteran newsman sees a loss as well. “I think quality suffers,” he says, and one skill doesn’t necessarily fit all.
“Camera people were very important to the stories I worked on. It wasn’t that the cameras were too heavy. We recognized the special skills of good camera people, good producers,” Zelnick says.
Video journalism has its place, he says. “Is the quality of the product as good? My observation is that it’s not.
“But we have to prepare our students to thrive in whatever the marketplace demands. We’re not going to engage in a form of civil disobedience.”
Dan Trigoboff teaches media studies at Elon University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.