WUSA Goes VJ

This just in, courtesy of our friend Adrian Monck

WUSA Moves to One-Person News Crews

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008; Page C01

The march of technology and the shrinking economy are beginning to take a toll on the traditional means of television news-gathering: the TV news crew.

Under a new agreement reached this week with its labor unions, WUSA, Channel 9, will become the first station in Washington to replace its crews with one-person “multimedia journalists” who will shoot and edit news stories single-handedly.

The change will blur the distinctions between the station’s reporters and its camera and production people. Reporters will soon be shooting and editing their own stories, and camera people will be doing the work of reporters, occasionally appearing on the air or on in video clips on Channel 9’s Web site.

For decades, TV journalists have worked in teams, with the lines of responsibility regulated by union rules or simple tradition. Stories were covered by a crew consisting of a camera operator and a correspondent (and further back, by a sound or lighting technician); their work was overseen by a producer and their footage assembled into a finished story by an editor.

But technology — handheld or tripod-mounted cameras, laptop editing programs and the Internet — have made it possible for one person to handle all those assignments, station managers say.

The change is driven by increasing financial pressure on TV stations, as advertisers disappear from nightly newscasts and audiences scatter to the growing number of channels and Web sites.

In fact, separate from its new union agreement, WUSA — owned by McLean-based media giant Gannett — plans an across-the-board cut in reporters’ salaries as it increases their responsibilities. Multimedia journalists will earn 30 to 50 percent less than what traditional reporters have been earning, with salaries topping out at around $90,000 annually, according to people at the station.

Channel 9 — which is running last in the local news ratings — will switch to the new system early next year, becoming the first station in a major market to revamp its entire newsroom. Its agreement is with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents on-air reporters, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents production employees. Union members said they expect the agreement to be ratified.

Competitors are paying close attention. Another Washington station, WRC, Channel 4, is expected to begin phasing multimedia journalists into its newsroom later next year as part of a sweeping cost-cutting effort by its parent, NBC Universal. WJLA, Channel 7, has already used some of the work of multimedia reporters employed by NewsChannel 8, the cable station that is owned by the parent of WJLA, Allbritton Communications. A fourth local news station, WTTG, Channel 5, said it has no immediate plans to do something similar.

“We believe strongly that [this change] will raise both the quality and quantity of the product we’re putting out” on TV and on the internet, said Allan Horlick, the president and general manager of WUSA, in an interview yesterday. “The concept of a multimedia journalist, having his own beat, with an area of expertise, and a limitless virtual news desk is something we can get very excited about.”

However, the concept gets mixed reviews in other quarters. Veteran TV journalists say their concern isn’t the quantity of news that can be produced but the quality, because not all TV journalists are skilled enough to do a job formerly handled by specialists.

“There are some people who will be very good at this, and some not as much,” said Bill Lord, WJLA’s news director. “If you’re forcing everyone to do things against their skill levels and desire, your product suffers.”

Lord says stations in Nashville and San Francisco have used multimedia journalists on an experimental basis in recent years but have backed away because of “falling quality” and declining ratings.

Another concern: safety. With complicated, fast-moving news stories such as traffic accidents or civil unrest, people on a news crew watch out for one another, said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. “You need to be careful,” she said. “I think this could work fine for feature stories, but with breaking news, you may need a different approach.”

The newspaper industry has experimented with something similar — using “mobile journalists” or “mo-jos” to report and write articles and take video and photographs, which they upload to their newspapers’ Web sites.

The upcoming changes at WUSA have soured veteran reporter Gary Reels, who began working at the station in 1980. Reels has decided to take a buyout offer from the station and will leave Dec. 23. He doesn’t know yet what he’ll be doing next.

“It takes a lot of time to shoot and edit and write and prepare a story, and if you have one person doing all that, something has to give,” he said yesterday. “For those people who want to take the challenge of adding all that to their workload, my hat’s off to them. But it’s not something at my ripe old age that I care to venture into.”


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5 responses to “WUSA Goes VJ

  1. I’m just not getting the, “Multimedia journalists will earn 30 to 50 percent less than what traditional reporters have been earning.” Let’s see…Do twice the work and be paid less. Man, this business is really starting to piss me off.

    Michael, can you speak to this? Is it Gannett greed, or is this how all the other VJ ‘s at TV stations and newspapers will eventually be treated?

  2. Hi Colin
    I don’t really think it’s twice the work, because I think most TV reporters only work part time anyway. That having been said, pay cuts are pretty reprehensible, but many TV reporters are paid WAY over what they are worth. Its the unwinding of the Hollywood Star model for TV news. Lots of times those often grotesque salaries undercut the quality of the newsroom – the money has to come from somewhere, so I don’t mind seeing their salaries cut down to size.

    What I think is a mistake is to undervalue the talent in any news organization. In another era with another technology, it was the paper or the network or the station that was the valued property. The “brand’. The reporters were considered replaceable (except the on air talent, which was more akin to the building than the journalism). When cuts had to be made, it was the reporting staff that went first, because it was fungible

    Ironically, in webworld, where anyone can get into 2 billion homes for free – anyone, the primary asset of the paper or network is now not the brand, but rather the content and hence those who make the content.

    Its a complete reversal of valuation.

    Without the quality of the content, no one cares diddly about the ‘brand’. Note the music business (a canary in the coal mine when it comes to the web). When I go to iTunes, do I care squat about whether a band is signed with RCA records or Decca? Do I even know? Where is my ‘brand loyalty’? In the toilet.

    If Frank Rich, Gail Collins and a half dozen other writers at the NY Times were to packup stakes and write for their own blog, I would be there in a heartbeat, and the NY Times could join GM and Ford on the begging line.

    And maybe they should. Shorn of the overhead of the building and the press costs, maybe they would be better off?

    I don’t wanna plant any seeds, but its not such a bad idea.

  3. Well said Mr. Rosenblum!

    See!

    Sometimes we do agree on things!

  4. I quite agree, content is the brand.

    As for the NY Times writers, they would find it difficult to gather readers for their blogs if no one knew them. The NY Times gave them the reach to start with, that they can carry over to their blogs if they quit the paper.

  5. Three mantras for any media organization to pay heed to :-

    Cash, Content, Creativity

    Don’t bow to :-

    Tranche, Title, or Technology

    Each of the above is just a means to service the first.

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