Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Postcards from the Edge

The Washington Post is issuing digital cameras to their reporters, and it’s causing a stink on both sides of the lens. While some herald the move as the very future of the Fourth Estate, others see it as a desperate act of a dying industry. Now, I’m no lofty columnist or new-age citizen media expert - I’m not even a print guy, for Gutenburg’s sake! What I am however, is someone who has spent the better part of the past sixteen years practicing street level broadcast journalism, all by my lonesome whenever possible. I do so more out of contempt for the on-air reporter model than any urge to break new ground, mind you - but exposure is exposure. Along with my fierce dedication to solo-newsgathering, I’ve fostered a blog habit in recent years that has added a small digital camera to my arsenal. As a result, I know a thing or three about juggling cameras, notepads and agendas. It may be the future of the business all right, but I’m here to tell ya, it ain’t easy. Rare is the news scene I walk away from with incredible video, dazzling snapshots, imperative sound-bites and all the facts. Usually I manage to bag three out of four, with the digital still shots suffering the most. That’s okay by me, as the snapshots are really a blog-hobby kind of thing - whereas my moving pictures are tied directly to my weekly stipend. But this post isn’t about me - it’s about the compression of skills, the lowering of standards and the over-sold advent of multimedia journalism.

While most shooters I know (stills and video) are consummate journalists, most reporter types want nothing to do with the dirty end of the lens. Who can blame them? Image gathering is a strenuous business - one involving sore muscles, lousy weather and little glory. I’d pace around the perimeter with nothing more than a notepad too, if I could get away with it. Tragically (for my back, anyway) I’ve always brought a camera or two to go along with my press-pass, but it hasn’t stopped me from noticing how different scribes and lensers act in the wild. Whereas photographers lunge head first into the action, reporters tend to lurk on the edges. That’s where the long-view is I’m guessing, the place to see the story that’s unfolding as more than a series of close-ups and segues. Not withstanding the occasional uppity grump like me, this collaborative partnership between photog and reporter works quite well. With each partner free to pursue his part of the quest, the results can be visually stimulating and lyrically provocative, with a few actual facts thrown in for good measure. But what happens when the gifted scribbler is handed a lens and ordered to bring back viable images as well as vetted perspective?

I’m not quite sure, though I suspect some ugly pictures are in the offing. While that truly offends a student of image as myself, I’m guessing a generation of youtubers won’t really care - especially when they’re watching the resulting footage or stills on a screen the size of a postage stamp. What they will hopefully care about is accuracy, if not nuance - something that’s even harder to capture when you’re trying to decide what to do next, interview the witness or bag the wide-shot. As those whose assignments rarely take them away from the internet café like to tell us - taking pictures isn’t brain surgery. After all, what schlub couldn’t use today’s user-friendly cameras to click a few pix while still managing to gather their thoughts? Maybe they have a point, but it’s gonna take a new breed of print reporter - one not afraid to get in the way to get the shot - before anything close to revolution is captured on-screen. Until then, I’d look for lots of fuzzy photos to pop up on newspaper websites, accompanied by glowing text touting the dawning of a new, convergent age of media. Perhaps, but I’m guessing the smattering of amateurish images will be just that - postcards from the edge. So if you’re a print reporter soon to be saddled with an unwanted lens, stop by the scrum and say hi. I’ll be down there with the TV guys and gals - trading lies with my camera-wielding co-horts while we all silently plot to eat your lunch.


Carolyn said...

Okay, as a former reporter (and one I thought you actually LIKED) can I tell you your disgust for those in front of the lens pains me. We aren't all beauty contest ditzes.
Furthermore, I think having reporters shoot is a BAD IDEA. I always thought the one man band model was a stupid, stupid way to go about collecting news. I had the great fortune to work with some great photogs - and I never in a million years would have tried to do their job, because as with writing, it's not really a job, it's a bit of an art/gift. Plus, nothing replaces the synergy between a good reporter/photog couple. I could look across the street at my photog, see him nod imperceptably in one direction, and immediately get that he wanted me to go talk up the lady in house number three. He could chat me up on the two way while I was back at the bureau writing, and sound for all the world like a cheery, laid back guy on his way to get ice cream, but I knew him well enough to know that the sh-- had hit the fan where he was and I'd better get down there. The breezy act was for our competitors who might be listening in. I could write my ass off, but if the pictures sucked, the whole piece went downt he tubes. And with the two guys I'm thinking of, the pictures NEVER sucked. One man banding may be cheap, but the cheap shows on the air. But, hey, the guys who run the stations care about the bottom line, and not the product, so I'm sure it will only continue to get worse.

Anonymous said...

As a former tv news photog (69-97, the last 15 years in a top tewnty five market, I'd like to respond to the reporter above.

You are probably quite godd (sp? I meant good...is that freudian?) and I likely would have enjoyed working with you.I like that synergy. Unfortunately, most TV reporters today rely on "cute" alliteration and really hack writing to tell stories and make certain the hig point is their on camera standup. J school and agents don't teach writing or story telling anymore, they teach presentation. When I still shot, I'd have interns tell me they wanted their reels to be a series of standups with them in defferent outfits.

And how many have gone to NPPA boot camp? A handful. And how many would deign to help tote the tripod or light kit? Not too many. And how many would lower themselves to maybe run cable for a live shot if needed? I've yet to see that happen.

The experienced story telling reporters who actually teamed with their partners have mostly retired or left the business for a sane life. I know because I worked with people like you and thanked my creator for the pleasure. As the 80's segued to the late 90's, the hairspray jockeys forced the real journalists out of the newsroom.

Sorry. Had to Vent

HockeyPat said...

Sorry Carolyn, as a viewer I have to agree with Stu. It is increasingly hard to respect the overwhelming majority of reporters I see on local and national news broadcasts. I see ex-beauty queens and pretty boys so desperate for attention that it makes watching the news a sickening experience. The anchors are the worst. I can’t watch WRAL because they are so painfully shallow. I’ve completely abandoned the cable news shows. Stewart can tell you that’s a pretty big deal for me.

Have you ever seen an ugly woman on the TV news? Paula Zahn? Katie Couric? Any chica on FOX News?