‘May you live in interesting times’ - the fortune cookie’s message read. I crumpled the paper into a tiny ball and signaled for the check. As the old Asian man in the corner snapped to life and headed my way, I looked out the window at my dusty news unit and bit into the cookie. Interesting times, indeed...
In the fall of ‘89 I stumbled into my first television station, a small market affiliate sporting the very latest in 1970’s newsgathering equipment. Three-quarter inch rigs - large, bulky cameras attached to oversized field decks with heavy cables - were the weapon of the day. With a front-heavy camera perched on one shoulder and an ancient VCR-in-a-bag hanging off the other, making television, and deadline, was an aerobic event. Still, the lenslingers I knew ran hard, schlepping that ancient gear through drug dealer living rooms, down sun-baked railroad tracks and up lofty fire towers.
Amazingly, most of us slinging this museum-ready gear were also our own reporters, producers, editors. I wrapped up many a shoot with by slipping on a tie and stepping before an unmanned camera. Shooting your own stand-up was tricky at first, but far from impossible. The hardest part was always figuring out what to say, since you’d spent all your time on scene with a face full of viewfinder. Nonetheless, I’d always manage to record one or two passable passages before scrambling back to my bureau where an aging electric typewriter and a newfangled fax machine connected me to Mother Newsroom.
There I’d review my footage, banging my thoughts into the heavy carbon paper while chain-smoking Marlboro Lights. Once my script was approved I’d roll my antiquated office chair to the tape-to-tape edit bay in the corner and try to magic of the material I’d gathered. Less than an hour later, I’d spin the jog-wheel back on the control panel and cue up a finished piece. With a quick call to the tape room engineer thirty miles away, I’d flip a heavy toggle switch and microwave-feed my humble story home. Most nights, the stories led the newscast, forcing me to set up a live shot in the tiny bureau office.
I remember many nights of frantic movements just before airtime, plugging in the microphone, leveling the tripod, framing up that same old shot If I was lucky I’d have a few spare seconds to run my fingers through my hair before the director back at the shop punched my camera on-air. There I’d appear in a relative tight shot, tape-filled shelves and crooked station logo in the background. Tapping my inner Brokaw, I’d deliver the words I made up a few minutes earlier into the unblinking lens. When I finished my intro, the director would roll the tape with my story on it. As my brilliance (or stupidity) of the day played out on the black and white screen across the room, I’d sit motionless for fear of bumping my shot, mumbling words to myself I’d soon speak to distracted viewers from the Capitol to the Coast.
When my outro was over and the anchor moved on, I’d break down my gear in my tiny office and think about my performance. Rarely was I satisfied with how I appeared on camera, but most days I was happy with the story at hand. However I felt, the one thing I knew for sure as I rolled up microphone cables into the tenth hour of my shift, was that I’d have the chance to improve my shtick the following day, when I’d start the whole exhausting process over again.
Even back then, working as a one-man-band wasn’t the preferred method of the day. It was however, simply the price of admission if you wanted to be a TV reporter in my hometown at the dawn of the 90’s. Did I ever. Over the years, my quest for microscopic fame subsided and I hung up my necktie and overcoat. But I kept shooting and writing and editing. As I honed this one-man three-act play, I surprised a lot of coworkers with my penchant for working alone. I can’t help it - it’s how the Newsroom Elders reared me. I started that way by means of necessity, I continue those methods because I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Which is why I can’t help but smirk a little when I hear others bemoan the death of the two-person news crew. Truth is, those double-headed monsters will always roam the news landscape - as well they should. But soaring technology and shrinking budgets will greatly reduce the herd, making way for a laptop-packing, zoom lens-swinging, new age journalist, who despite his (or her) high-tech moniker and mind-scrambling gadgets, looks an awful like their predecessor - the late eighties one-man-band. Many will play, some will suck - but most will flourish. In the process, a new form of television news will be forged - hopefully one solely authored by the tech-savvy auteur and devoid of the on-scene pomp of the overdressed talking hair-do.
Hey, a cameraman can dream, can’t he?