For years I’ve pled with any news shooter who would listen to diversify their skills, to master the script and the timeline as well as the lens. No longer can a TV news photographer afford to specialize, I’d say - for a revolution is at hand, one spurred not by a quest for better broadcast journalism but by shrinking technologies and the lust for smaller budgets. Most often, my exhortations were laughed off as folly, even as heresy by some in the camera community. This derision never bothered me much, as while the other photogs were babysitting Sally Joe Hairstyle down at the courthouse, I was back at the station, putting together MY story the way I wanted to. Now, I have the extra pleasure of actually being right. Since that doesn’t happen very often, I feel compelled to expound. Still, this is not a victory lap, or told-you-so, but rather an extended survey of the quaking media landscape.
Just weeks ago, KRON in San Francisco chocked many in the broadcast world by announcing they were joining the VJ movement, forgoing the traditional two-person crew for a multi-tasking news-gatherer with a laptop and a lens. Under the tutelage of (the much-reviled in camera circles) Michael Rosenblum, this approach has already swept Europe, and small-market reporters have been shooting their own stuff since the dawn of TV news. But KRON is a former giant in a major market. For a station of that size to employ a one-person approach to news would have been unthinkable not so long ago. In many sectors of the broadcasting planet, it still is.
Now, Young Broadcasting, KRON’s owner, is announcing that another of their stations, WKRN of Nashville, is jumping aboard the solo train. Not only that, WKRN is doing it NOW. Having already purchased 30 Sony Z1 cameras (at a mere 3 pounds apiece) along with 16 Dell laptop editors, KRN management announced an eight week training course that will transform 13 traditional news crews into 30 video journalists. While it isn’t yet clear as to just what reporters will shoot and what shooters will report, WKRN’s General Manager has divulged he won’t rule out letting any offended staffers out of their contracts. Wow.
As you can imagine, word of this has caused many in the newsroom to panic and twitch. Reporters I know have no desire to pick up a camera, most fellow photographers dare not pick up a pencil. I can’t really blame them, as they’re merely adhering to the model laid down by the founding fathers of TV news. Unlike myself, most photogs prefer working as a team, concentrating on the art of capturing moving images while the reporter gathers detail and perspective. Likewise, what reporter wouldn’t prefer being able to focus on the story at hand while his partner did all the heavy lifting? If not for my anti-social tendencies and diminished tolerance for histrionics, I too might like company in the news unit more than I do. As it is, I shoot, write and edit daily news reports all by my lonesome because I feel I do my best work that way. Call me an auteur. I’ve been called worse.
As entertaining as some of the teeth-gnashing, it may be a bit uncalled for. It’s a certainty that more and more stations will adopt the Video-Journalist model; you haven’t got to be Michael Rosenblum to see that. However, there are shades of gray involved. Affiliates will have to keep a certain amount of shooters on hand to produce more in-depth work, as well as to support the stable of front-line talent. Jill Reporter-Bunny might shoot her own stuff, but chances are Chet Graytemples won’t pack his own lens when he saunters off the set long enough for a series shoot.
If he does, then that would be a revolution, one in which the star-making nature of your local news factory might indeed crumble. Imagine a TV newsroom where even the top anchor schleps gear, thus tarnishing the artifice of suave superiority inherent in the dapper newsreader model. While that’s not likely to happen, one aspect of the changing times does excite me: the gradual transformation of local correspondents from overdressed poseurs to blue-collar news gatherers. Blasphemy you say? Perhaps, but a newscast focused more on stories than storytellers is one even I might watch. Might.
But I digress. What will most probably transpire is an amalgamation of the fears and concerns wafting over the internet right now. Depth and aesthetics WILL suffer, at least until practitioners of these new methods get the formula right. Even then, TV news won’t be the same. Higher story counts will be delivered with far cruder execution. Smaller, lighter lenses will open up new frontiers, but it will be a bumpy, often out-of-focus ride. Reporters will still go live(!) for no apparent reason, but they may be a little more out of breath from shooting and editing their own stuff. Legions of reporters and photogs opposed to cross-training will leave the fold, making room for a new generation of loners with lenses who will merrily take their place. Not so long from now, this group of 21st century newsies will sit around their magic laptops, wi-fi wristbands and sat-dish jetpacks, and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Until then, I’ll see ya in the camera scrum.