Friday, June 03, 2005

The Revolution WILL be televised

I was ratcheting through footage from the North Carolina Zoo when Weaver stuck his head into my edit booth.

“Hey ya know Sandy Carmany?”

“Not really - I think I‘ve seen her blog” I said, staring at the frolicking polar bear on the two screens before me.

“We interviewed her today for a piece on The Generals. Got some shots of her blog. Nice lady.”

I nodded absent-mindedly as the furry giants cavorted for the camera. Weaver walked off and found his own edit bay to get lost in. A few second later, a woman’s voice emanated from Weaver’s bay. I didn’t think much of it as I ejected my disc and closed down my timelines. Walking across the hall, I logged into another computer for a few stolen moments of web surfing. As is my habit, I started with the blogosphere, scanning post titles like I used to do newspaper headlines.

‘Additional benefits of blogging’ read a slug. Still thinking of the polar bear sequence I’d just crafted onscreen, I clicked on it and jumped aboard someone else’s train of thought.

"Local TV reporters are reading my blog these days and using it as a "source" for stories. I've done two TV interviews today as a result of my recent posts. "

It took a moment to realize I was reading a transcript of the encounter Weaver had just described to me. Councilwoman Carmany went on-line to describe how a local camera crew had insisted on shooting her blog for part of their story. From Weaver‘s bay I could hear Carmany’s voice listing the merits of the local hockey team. On the screen before me, I read her thoughts on the brief press visit, hoping the photojournalist wouldn’t show too much of her messy office.

Weaver stuck his head out of the bay.

“Check it out - she was all nervous about her messy office.”

Looking back at the screen, the word ‘MESSY’ shouted above the alphabet din in all caps. I glanced over at Weaver. He’d returned to his footage at hand, reeling through clips like the edit junkie he is. Drumming his fingers on the edge of the keyboard, he tapped out an imaginary tune as the effects on screen began to render.

As the computer whirred and ciphered, I tried to follow the new media ping pong match I’d just witnessed. A reporter reads a politician’s blog and schedules an interview. Shortly afterwards, the politician blogs about the interview - commenting on the process and plugging the upcoming airtime, all before the photog involved - a blogger himself - can finish putting the report together. I was wrapping my brain around the chronology when Weaver stuck his head out of the edit bay and complicated matters entirely with the cheerful proclamation,

“I’m gonna blog about it tonight!”

I shook my head slowly to absorb the hit. Citizen journos, plugged-in politicians and an army of laptop-spondents are changing the face of media even quicker than the out-of-town experts predicted. From my street-level perspective I see it every day, age old barriers crumbling to dust, dissolving the chattering classes into the multi-tasking masses. Even in my modest mid-market, what used to be a one-way flow of information is now a churning sea of give and take. I’m not sure where all this is taking us, but the trip certainly won’t lack for documentation. The dawn of the Information Age is truly upon us. As a compulsive communicator, caffeine addict and chewer of thought, I couldn’t be more stoked, or more exhausted.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have about thirty websites to scan. After that, I may even turn on the TV...Naaaah!

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Hurtling Towards Burn-Out

Maybe it’s the relentless pace as of late, or the wicked summer cold my youngest gave me yesterday, or perhaps it’s the fact that I got some vacation looming in the near distance. Whatever the reason, your friendly neighborhood lenslinger is hurtling toward terminal burnout. Sadly, it’s a career stage I’m all too familiar with. Despite my ongoing attempts at maintaining a sunny disposition, my crusty photog shell solidifies about every nine months or so. When it does, I lose what little patience I have for the puffed-up import of the fruitless pursuit. Tiny details I contend with every day fire up my synapses and send me into an O.J.-like fury. No, I don’t chop people’s heads-off and then practice my golf swing. I just moan and grumble like the verbose curmudgeon I’ve reluctantly come to be. I try not to let it affect my work. Years behind the glass have taught me how to whine like a shrew while still producing top-shelf local television, thank you very much. (It’s not like I’m launching space shuttles for a living or anything.)

Still, my job is important to me - as is my hard-earned reputation as a low-maintenance, high-output employee. Besides, my business is littered with the hollowed-out corpses of once vibrant photogs. Chalk it up to the thankless nature of our work: long hours, lousy conditions, ever-demanding deadline cycles - all of which wears on the average lens-man (or woman) after enough time in the saddle. I’m not asking for pity. I signed up for this gig long ago, with full knowledge of what it is and what it ain’t. Now, fifteen years and three newsrooms later, I’m fully infected with incurable journalism. While I’d someday like to change the format from the moving image to the written word, I realize I am an insatiable communicator. This very blog is evidence of that. Just, please - understand the nature of my exhortations - for I am far from an unsatisfied soul, but a battle-weary warrior overdue for a little stateside R and R. Luckily I have that very thing planned - a yearly retreat to an undisclosed beach, where press conferences, murder scenes and live shots wash away with the incoming tide.

So if you run across my shell-shocked visage in the coming days, do not be alarmed. The bearded, frazzled expression, the inexplicable mangling of ten dollar words, the wrinkled yet festive tropical shirt - they’re all just signs that Stewie needs a break from the madness, a temporary reprieve from the desperate foot chase that is your average day behind the newscast. It’s nothing a week of body-surfing, freshly burned Delta Blues and the occasional tumbler of Maker’s Mark won’t cure. From my days as a uniformed sailor, I harbor a great love for the sea. Just being in its presence restores my soul. Before you know it I’ll be back on the job, cranking out TV news at it’s early-evening finest, complaining about how God-Awful-Hot Summertime in the Carolinas is - all while finding a way to blog about it in the process. But until then, BACK OFF! This camera is loaded, the disc is empty and the battery springtime fresh. So help me, I’ll use it...

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Sadie Takes a Bow

There’s an indelicate term that persists in my business - a two word rhyming phrase used to describe those impromptu camera clusters you see in courthouse hallways and on bad made-for-TV movies. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you...the gang-bang. Usually, these lightning rounds of elbow fiesta are played out around accident victims, politicians and the freshly convicted. But today me and three of my camera-swinging buddies rendezvoused at a secret location for a far more important V.I.P. That’s right, we’re here for the dog.

But not just any dog. Sadie, a golden retriever and licensed therapy pet, has spent the past six years bringing joy and diversion to patients from across the Piedmont. From Child Oncology to the Alzheimer’s Ward, this inherently lovable pooch has made very sick folks’ days just by showing up. However, at the ripe old age of eleven, her energy level just isn’t what it used to be. Now, her owner Joe Gangloff says it’s time for Sadie to cut back her schedule and pursue a life of leisure. So he notified the several hospitals Sadie visits and spread the word. You guessed it - the retriever is retiring.

Before the senior pet goes off to learn shuffleboard, there is the matter of the send-off. That’s where me and the rest of the lens-jackals come in. Eager for show-ending fodder, each newsroom dispatched a photog with the same mission. ’Bring back something for the anchors to chortle about while the houselights fade!' No problem, thought all - until we each arrived to find three motley reflections staring back in annoyance. Still, we all played nice, making small talk while the PR ladies insisted we stay hidden. You know, so we wouldn’t tip off the dog…

It must have worked, for Sadie didn’t seem any the wiser when she and her owner stepped off the elevator and into the spotlight‘s glare. She just panted agreeably as we swarmed her with our lenses, microphones and silly questions. With a squint and a backpedal we rotated positions, from the outstretched overhead pan to the move known to millions of chop-socky fans as Crouching Photog, Hidden Hernia. By the time the cameras’ top lights faded, each shooter had what he came for: footage, interviews and a just a trace of warmth in our cold, cold hearts. Of course, we’ll all regain our well-honed callous status the next time we all gather at the edge of some tragedy and chat about something innocuous, like the time we chased that golden retriever through that hospital lobby. What WAS that dog’s name, anyway?

Monday, May 30, 2005

The Watery Plight of Bell's Mill

Before this morning I’d never heard of Martha McGee Bell and her famous mill, but by two in the afternoon I was a budding expert on the Revolutionary War heroine. It started first thing, when the assignment manager accosted me at my desk, uprooting me from a comfy slouch with talk of flood zones, map-books and lost treasure. Before I could wrap my mind around what my colleague was babbling about, I was processing through stop lights on the South side of town. Stealing glances at the crumpled printout before me, I dialed the number as I drove. A male voice answered a scratchy connection.

“Hi Mr. Strader, This is Stewart from Fox 8, ya got a minute to talk to me?”

I hurtled down Highway 311, listening intently as the warm and informed voice on the cell phone filled in a few centuries of detail. After scratching out directions on notepad, I convinced the concerned viewer to let me meet him later at his place of employment. I hung up and squinted through the windshield at the TV tower in the distance. Yet another jaunt into the Great Unknown, I thought - a strange way to spend Memorial Day I‘ll grant you, but that’s quite simply the gig I got.

A few minutes later Walker’s Mill road ended abruptly. I parked and unloaded, setting my tripod high on the roadside perch. Across the crumbling asphalt, a wide open expanse of rolling terrain stretched out toward a tree-ringed horizon. Sweeping the vista with my lens, I tried to decide where to start. I settled on a burbling creek to my right , honing in and pressing ’RECORD’. While the laser inside burned the water’s image on optical disc, I kicked at the clay and went over the details in my head. According to my new cell phone friend, this was the location of Bell’s Mill, site of a fabled act of loyalist defiance in the closing days of the Revolutionary War.

Martha McFarland McGee Bell was the wife of a continental Captain William Bell, who owned Bell’s Mill, located near Muddy Creek in Randolph County. While Captain Bell was off fighting redcoats, Mary ran the Mill. In 1781, after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Lord Cornwallis himself rendezvoused with troops there for a two day rest. During their hostile bivouac, feisty Mary approached Cornwallis, and inquired as to whether he intended to burn her mill (as was his habit). Before he could answer, Mary proclaimed she would burn it first to deprive him the satisfaction! Quite ballsy for a woman in the 18th Century, but I suppose fierce patriotism knows no gender. Cornwallis left the mill unmolested that day. It stood for many more years before being lost to history. Only recently had it been uncovered, the hand-stacked stone wall remains unearthed by bulldozers clearing the way for the soon-to-be-formed Lake Randleman.

Scrambling down the ditch bank with camera and tripod, I looked around for things to take a picture of. To my untrained eye, it was all rough terrain, hard-scrubbed land about to be submerged under fathoms of water. I’d covered the Randleman Dam before, knew that engineers were finishing construction on the mammoth wall upstream that would swell the Deep River and create a much-needed water-source for many Piedmont cities. I just never knew it was going to drown a little history in the process. That’s where Gary Strader came in. A Randolph County native with a penchant for history, he’d e-mailed the station with news of the old Mill’s plight. No doubt he’d be able to answer many of my questions when I met him later. For now though, I had a monument to meet.

The heavy granite slab sat bathed in shadows of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. Runners passing by just feet away would never see it. In fact several jogged by unknowingly as I hunched over my tripod and wrestled with a tricky focus. Slowly pushing the macro button across the breadth of the focal tube, I forced sharp edges on the wavering shapes in the viewfinder. ’HEROINE’ , it read. Bingo, I thought - just the kind of easily digested visual I needed for my story. When you’re condensing events spanning 250 years in ninety fleeting seconds, you needed all the compression you can get. After bagging a few more iconic shots, I dragged my gear over a low fence and captured footage of all the normal people enjoying their normal holiday off. Some walked family pooches, others jogged to the beat of their iPods. Kid and Grandmas ambled along and teenagers worked up a good hacky-sack sesh. Meanwhile, I loitered in the leafy shade, stalking statues and profiling pedestrians. While I could let that bother me, there’s no time for that now.

Instead, I left the leafy sanctum of the manicured park for the growling exhaust fumes of the urban sprawl strip mall parking lot. At a large garage with a household name on the side of the wall, I found the service technician I was looking for. Gary Strader happily punched out and joined me in the parking lot. Using the only green backdrop I could find, I framed the stranger in front of a verdant slope of fresh cut grass, being careful to crop out the Chik-Fil-A sign in the upper right corner. As the tally light shone from the sanctity of the one inch screen, I found myself liking Mr. Strader as I listened. The self-avowed history buff knew his stuff, using five years of research to answer my series of inane questions.

According to him, I’d been standing on top of the mill during my morning visit to the site. That didn’t make me feel any better about my skills of perception, but from the way he described the location in aching detail, I took his word for it. In the end, Strader was a television journalists’ delight - informed, authoritative, and mercifully succinct. He even coughed up a juicy detail to spice up my copy: Legend had it a band of loyalists buried a gold-filled cannon somewhere around the mill. If the area was flooded without proper excavation, the mythical treasure would disappear forever in a watery grave.

Overall, not bad fodder for an evening newscast feature OR a midnight bloggering, eh?

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Strawberry Fields Endeavor

Okay, so not EVERY assignment is an exercise in hustle and calamity. Some gigs are quite tranquil. Take the fifteen minutes I spent in a Guilford County strawberry field last week. Please! I don’t especially like strawberries. Sure, I ingest the occasional Wild Berry Pop-Tart, but I never enjoyed gnawing on this particular brand of nature’s candy. Still, I paused among the back rows of Ingram’s Strawberry Farm late that day, ignoring the screech of cell phone and pager just long enough to officially linger. Before I knew it, I was staring at a berry, lost in thought and enjoying the quiet.

Four rows over a group of migrant workers chortled at the gringo at the edge of the field. When I first pulled up in my rolling billboard, the men among them came alive, gesturing happily at the familiar logo on the side of my ride. They probably hoped a leggy news model would hop out. Imagine their dismay when all they saw was this grumpy schlub, lugging gear and late for the edit bay. I waved from a distance and set up my sticks, wishing they‘d ignore my incongruent appearance. A few minutes later they went back to filling their white buckets with the plump red orbs. When they did, I fell into the viewfinder.

I cut my broadcasting teeth on farm news coverage. Under the tutelage of the great John Spence, I prowled the sun-blotted tobacco field and the hazy shade of the selling floor. I’ve attended countless tractor shows, documented festive hog killings and profiled plucky poultry producers. If it grows in the Tar Heel State, I’ve pointed a lens at it. Along the way, I’ve many an ornery farmer - from leathery landsmen in Depression-era coveralls to their younger men who cannot imagine farming without their laptops and Chevy Silverados. I like both kind, as there’s rarely a trace of subterfuge or fakery among them - qualities I get more than my share of with this thing on my shoulder.

A long Spanish soliloquy awoke me from my daydream. Whatever the younger man said amused his cohorts; even the old ladies laughed as thewy stooped over to fill their buckets. I chuckled too, at the absurdity of it all. A high-winding motor wailed in the distance. Shaking off any idling thoughts, I got busy collecting assorted angles of said berries, more than enough to supply the forty seconds of edited video the desk wanted. As I gathered up my tools and prepared to leave, a young man rolled up on a 4 wheeler and began chattering with the workers. I was halfway through packing up my car when I realized they were answering him in perfect English.

Go figure...

The Tar Heel Tavern

The Tar Heel Tavern, a floating compendium of the best blog-offerings from around the old North State is now up and running at Iddybud, an honorary Tar Heel and lady who I recently had the pleasure of meeting face to face. So swing on by and see what's on the mind of all those fellow state taxpayers suffering from a raging web-fetish. Remember, a blog posting is a terrible thing to waste...