Thursday, May 19, 2005

Rise of the One Man Band

Much has been said and even more written about KRON’s recent embrace of the One Man Band. Perhaps all the talk is justified, as the San Fransisco affiliate is the first major market TV station to adopt the solo newsgathering idiom. Some on-line pundits are calling KRON bold innovators while supposed insiders say it’s just the latest dying gasp of a once great station. Whatever the case, it really doesn’t matter. Smaller cameras, shrinking budgets and a surge of citizen journalism are bringing the One-Man-Band from the far flung reaches of local news to the teeming skylines of Big City TV. KRON may be the first major go OMB - but it damn sure won’t be the last.

And then we have Michael Rosenblum. According to this former CBS producer, cameras are pencils and two person news crews are hopelessly outdated. Instead, Rosenblum wants to fill newsrooms far and wide with ‘digital journalists‘. These loners with lenses and laptops will soon be covering beats sans partner, forging a new kind of stripped-down coverage that triggers fits of joy in the corner offices of corporate chiseler’s everywhere. To hear Rosenblum explain it, we TV news photographers are over-geared dinosaurs clogging up the scenery and wasting our company's money.

To which I say, "What the fudge does Michael Rosenblum know about being a TV news photog? His credentials may outshine mine, but having now heard his best sales pitch, I ain't buyin' - though I'm sure many station executives soon will.

In all honesty, I wanted Rosenblum to have a better argument. I work solo every chance I get, shooting writing and editing daily news packages. I started as a one-man-band 15 years ago, because my skinflint small-market bosses demanded it of me. I continue to collect news unaccompanied because I prefer it that way. Never one to enjoy toiling at another person's pace, I enjoy total ownership of my daily news product.

But it comes at a price. As much as I love stretching small visual moments into stand-alone reports, I'm careful to stay within the bounds of sensible solo news pursuit. When it comes to fluffy show-enders, b-block lead features and various franchise pieces, I'll put my work up against any two person crew and bring shame to their families in the process. But send me to a triple homicide, a contentious board meeting or Presidential stop, and I'll most likely call for back-up. That's not because I doubt my own abilities to cover top-tier news alone (I do so far more often than I wish) but because I understand the limitations of the solo-news gatherer. Most days my bosses do too.

To most TV news photogs, the idea of a big market shop full of one-man-bands is nothing short of heresy. Their commitment to proper image gathering, affinity for teamwork and aversion to writing bolsters their disdain of a dumbed-down approach to E.N.G., a world where white-balance, composition and pacing are occasional luxuries instead of bedrock principles. But it appears their dedication to higher-end production values and overall increased aesthetics is not shared by those in the power suits and the corner offices.

I'd like to think our kind will win this latest battle, but history has not been kind to the camera-jockey. We are often underpayed, overworked and only occasionally appreciated. Now we're being told we're no longer needed at all - that any bonehead working in the frozen food department of your local grocer can make equally viable TV news. How are we SUPPOSED to react this assertion? With rose petals and palm fronds?

As much fun as it is to vilify Mr. Rosenblum, I fully expect his solo approach to sweep across newsrooms, displacing photogs, hindering reporters and increasing the ever-downward spiral our business seems intent on pursuing. I spent enough time behind GM's doors during my Promotion stint to know the average affiliate executive's true opinion of the newsroom. If there is a cheaper way to fill the newscasts the chiselers will embrace it and the evening newscast will sink further into mediocrity.

So what can we as photogs do about it? I wish I knew. My advice (for what little it's worth) is different for the veteran than it is for the beginner.

First to all the journeyman shooters out there who have honed specialized skills far surpassing my own, I say keep it up. Your ability to make cameras do magic things will keep you around far longer than those just punching a clock behind a lens. Sure, the suits will thin the herd, but if you're truly a lenslinging bad-ass, stick with what you know. There's alot more cannon-fodder between you and the streets - like that guy who can't find his tripod but who now sports a necktie and a cheesy smile.

However, if you're fairly new to this insipid business, the time to diversify is now. No longer can you rely on your burgeoning camera-handling skills. You must learn to edit, write, field produce and, yes, even voice and front your own work. You may get lucky and work in a shop that doesn't require such multi-tasking, but to totally ignore new skills is a shortcut to obsolescence. Like it or not, the era of the shoot-only TV news photog is coming to a close. It may take a while for it to get to your neck of the broadcast world, but it is most definitely on the way.

Now if you'll excuse me, there's a dog in a funny hat waiting for his close-up...


mark Hamilton said...


Brilliant piece. Eventually, after we go through this corporate-inspired shakeout, we may arrive at the place where the newsroom is filled with the full range of talents, teams are fluid and whether the coverage is blanket or one-man, someone smart sends out what's needed. Oh, and where news is driven by the folks out on the street who are actually seeing the stuff. We can dream.

HockeyPat said...

I agree with Luke Skywalker. Great work. I hear daily reports about jobs being made obsolete. Most of the time it's never as bad as "they" say it's going to be. Just be glad you are not a straw-hat cleaner operator.

Colonel Corn's Camera said...

I used to think one-man bands were reporter/photog. Here at my new place of employment, one man bands also run the live truck. So you have a reporter who shoots out of focus video, and shoots an off center live shot with way too much head room. I can't understand how local tv news keeps falling into the gutter and still makes money.

The Colonel

Chicago Dog said...

Rosenblum's idea is less like the "obvious money-saving choice" he makes it out to be, and more like a diet fad from the '80s.

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Anonymous said...

I'm the One Man Band on the photo you used to illustrate your article. I appreciate the exposure, but would like to ask you to include the photo credit under the image, and a link to my website.
"photo: Tova Snyder, copyright"
(Since the article is about media and reporters, I'm sure you knkow about copyright....)

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