Doing It All
Having the same person report and shoot the stories may save money, but at what cost?
By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (email@example.com) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.
The fear and loathing are palpable on TV industry message boards. On the Web site b-roll.net, some photojournalists call the phenomenon "cheap" and "lame" – and those are the polite terms. What's upsetting them is the spread of what used to be called one-man bands, common in small markets and local cable news, to stations in big cities across the country.
It's easy to see why requiring one person to do it all – report and write, and also shoot and edit video – could be seen as a threat to TV news photographers, most of whom now work alongside a reporter. "Someone is telling them, 'What you do isn't hard. We could have Sally Cheekbone do it just as well,'" says veteran photojournalist Stewart Pittman of WGHP-TV, the Fox station in High Point, North Carolina.
That was certainly the message Young Broadcasting sent when it converted all photographers and reporters at two of its stations into video journalists, or VJs. After a few weeks' training last summer on small high-definition video cameras and digital editing software, everyone at WKRN-TV in Nashville and KRON-TV in San Francisco was expected to shoot and report.
Young isn't the only broadcast group moving in this direction. Word on the street is that McGraw-Hill will soon have VJs in at least two of its stations, in San Diego and Indianapolis. Gannett Broadcasting has hired what it calls "backpack journalists" at about half of its 20 stations, including KUSA in Denver, a longtime bastion of great photojournalism. But Gannett's move hasn't raised nearly the ruckus that Young's did, because the company has moved slowly. Most of its stations using backpackers have just one or two on staff.
The benefits for the stations are obvious. For one thing, going VJ can be cheaper – a lot cheaper. The cameras can cost a tenth as much as full-sized professional cameras. And if more people shoot, the station should be able to cover more stories every day. So what's the problem?
Even proponents of the VJ model admit that technical quality can suffer, depending on who's running the camera, but that doesn't bother WKRN news director Steve Sabato. "If it's an interesting, compelling story the audience isn't sitting back saying the lighting doesn't look very good, it doesn't seem the focus is as sharp as it is on those other cameras," he says. "The audience doesn't react like that."
Perhaps not, but anyone who's spent thousands of dollars on a big-screen TV might notice if the local newscast looks like something a college station could have produced. Still, Sabato may be on to something. If the future of TV news isn't over the air but online, VJ video may be good enough for computer screens or cell phones.
What matters more is the quality of the stories. On breaking news, WKRN often assigns a VJ to do a "live walk-and-talk" with someone involved in the story. "It comes across as a very realistic, unaltered, edgy, exciting storytelling technique," Sabato says. It also may come across as shallow and incomplete. It's good television, all right, but is it good journalism?
"An all-VJ newsroom might give people pictures without telling them anything they didn't already know," says Pittman, who's kind of a one-man band himself, shooting and writing stories on his own but not voicing them on the air. He's happy to be the one solo journalist in his newsroom, but he gets to choose the stories he covers and he avoids hard news. An all-VJ newsroom, Pittman warns, will "soar to new heights of mediocrity."
And there's a bigger concern. Can one person, striving to shoot video that's in focus and capture sound you can clearly hear, also manage to get all the details right when working against the clock? That's what worries photojournalist David Carter of WFAA-TV in Dallas. "It's going to jeopardize accuracy," he says. If one person does it all, there's a greater risk of mistakes getting on the air, and as Carter puts it, "wrong facts will get you sued."
In the end, the real concern isn't the technology, it's the expectations. Even WKRN has realized that some circumstances require two people. Most of its morning and nightside crews now work in pairs, so they can go live or feed multiple newscasts on deadline.
Newsrooms aren't little Lake Wobegons, where everyone is above average and can do everything well. "There still are people who can shoot better than they write or people who can write better than they shoot," says Lane Michaelsen, a corporate news executive for Gannett and a former TV photographer. "A newsroom full of journalists who have a diversity of skills is a newsroom that I think is going to better serve the public."
No question the business is changing. Cost-cutting and new technology will inevitably push more stations to use VJs. But they'd be far better off making them the exception, not the rule. More cameras in the field is a good thing, but not if the underlying goal is simply to do news on the cheap.