Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Age of Convergence (part 2)

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.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

With Great Malice: The Video

In my business, I see a lot of surveillance tape. Bank robberies, gas station heists, fast food break-ins…if I’m not recording off some backroom monitor, I’m slowing down footage as police look on. But of all the smeary black-and-white images I’ve processed, nothing illustrates the casual brutality of man like a recent piece of tape out of High Point. If you live around here, you’ve seen it - a scratchy patch of surveillance footage featuring a callous act of savagery involving a fire extinguisher and a complete disregard for human life. If you haven’t seen it, you can do so HERE - but be forewarned - the violence captured within is more than a little disturbing.

Naturally, we newshounds wanted to speak with the victim, Marian McKinney. But he declined, saying he didn’t want to interfere with the investigation. Today, after learning police had arrested the husband and wife thought responsible, McKinney stepped in front of our cameras - nose broken, eye blackened, cheek swollen. Despite his injuries, McKinney listened quietly to our obvious questions. In a low voice, he spoke about the attack he never saw coming.

“I don’t have any memory of it, other than what happened in the aftermath. I remember the blood and you know, getting up and calling the police...”

McKinney said he’s seen the tape, but has no desire to watch it again. When we told him Ledeal Cockrane and his wife Shekia were each being held under 100 thousand dollar bonds, the gentle giant nodded knowingly.

“I hope they are put away for a long time...that was just a completely vicious attack on their part...”

Not one to elaborate too deeply on his feelings, McKinney kept reiterating how great 95 percent of his customers are. He plans to return to work at the convenience store, partly to show others how you cannot run from criminals, but mostly because it’s a paycheck he can’t do without. I found myself liking Mr. McKinney - his thoughtful manner and quiet stride belies his intimidating appearance. For one who was so brutally attacked, he’s not letting his justified anger get the better of him. For that, he has my utmost respect.

As for the Cockrane couple, here’s hoping the surveillance footage will do its job and help send them to the very bowels of Central Prison. If not, then our much maligned justice system is indeed broken beyond repair.

Through a Lens, Darkly

Through a Lens, Darkly "Ya ever go to like, murders and stuff?, the high school senior asked. "Sure," I said, "but they’re never as interesting as they are on CSI." The line got a laugh and a groan, so I moved on to another subject. Later that night though, I realized just how much I’d lied to the curious teen.

It was well below zero the day I saw my first body. In fact, the cold was what killed the old man found in the woods that January morning. The scanner led me there - to a vacant lot behind a bank, where a cop buddy let me in close for an unauthorized glance. Camera by my side, I approached the prone figure on the forest floor. Knees bent as if sleeping, the old man in the brown coat and gray beard lay on his side. A wind-blown mound of dead winter leaves covered half his face - the one visible eye open and unfocused. As I bathed in his blank stare, a bank teller’s metallic voice wafted in the distance. Looking around, I noticed the stacked cardboard, the tied-off garbage bag, the worn laundry draped over scraggly pine saplings. Only then did I realize I was standing in the homeless man’s bedroom.

A year or two later, I already considered myself a veteran. With growing skills and too much swagger, I wandered from one random calamity to the next. One warm morning, I followed the voices on the law enforcer’s frequency to a rundown house at the bottom of a hill, where chance and circumstance had claimed another victim. At first glance, the primer-gray Nova sitting cockeyed on the porch was downright laughable, until a familiar officer dropped the F-Bomb. Fatal. Suddenly I noticed a cop unfolding a large white sheet. By the time he draped it over the front of the car, I had him in my camera’s crosshairs. The fleeting shot led the noon that day - the forty second tale of a freak accident involving a speeding Chevy and an unlucky resident -a well-regarded grandfather who liked to sit on his front porch in the morning, sip coffee and wave at the motorists he knew.

Not long after that, I found myself on the edge of another violent demise. An early morning delivery man had sounded the first claxon, dialing 9-1-1 moments after finding a 24 hour convenience store clerk congealing in a pool of his own blood. I joined a fellow photog at the fluttering crime tape and fired up my lens. Behind us, a bloated summer sun peeked over the trees, bathing the store front in warm morning light. The bright orange shafts pierced the windows and lit up the store’s interior, lighting up the scene like some tragic diorama. A heavy detective in a too-tight shirt held his flashlight high, pointing his own beam to the floor as a second detective stepped into frame and snapped a few shots with an oversized camera ‘Bingo’ I said softly, observing the cinematic moment. For several hours I felt good about that shot - until I interviewed the victim’s mother and zoomed in on the tears running down her face.

For months the veteran nurse had mailed letters to anyone who would read them, swearing her ex-husband was going to kill her. When he finally did, I was there. To be fair the unhappy couple were already dead by the time I rolled up to the hospital parking lot. At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, only that a double shooting call over the scanner had interrupted my pork chop dinner. The cops were everywhere, their blue lights swirling amid the flash of red ambulance lamps. I panned my lens around a bit, trying to decide what to capture first. In the distance two cops stood over a covered body - the husband who’d followed his first murder with a last suicide attempt. Much closer to my tripod spot, a second sheet lay draped over a crumpled form. I rolled tape on both, before pointing my camera at a pair of woman’s blood-smeared eyeglasses. When I did, blue strobe lights danced in the scratched lenses of the broken frames. My heart raced, knowing the image would soon blanket the airwaves, leaving pain and outrage in its wake.

To say these victims haunt my thoughts would be an overstatement. In fact, I can’t even remember any of their names. But the visual touchstones that surrounded their deaths, the pictures that impacted a region and caused it to recoil, are still very much with me. Sometimes, in the pre-dawn hours of my suburban bedroom, these images splay out on the darkened wall, bringing to mind broadcasted tragedies past and causing me to wonder about the kind of karma I’m collecting.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Fire on the Mountain

Check out this photo, via richvid at I believe it's from a year or so ago outside L.A. (Any clue, beFrank?)

Whatever the origin, it's a damn frightening sight. As one who pilots the occasional live truck, whose older brother is a career firefighter/paramedic and who is deeply enthralled with the closing chapters of Fire on the Mountain, I just couldn't resist sharing.

Hey - it's MY blog!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Jami Turner - back in action!

Much love to Jami Turner upon returning to her post as main co-anchor at WCTI in New Bern, N.C. According to ENC DTV, 'Jami is back from a thirteen week maternity leave. Her new son recently had a portion of his kidney removed after a brief illness, but is now doing much better.'

Back before Jami moved Down East, she was a familiar face on my station's morning news. When I first arrived here, Jami and her husband Alan were among the few to welcome me with open arms. Jami and I worked together for six months on the punishing early morning shifts. Together, we faced blazing heat, crippling cold and endless bouts of sleep deprivation, all in the name of perky morning live shots. That very shift marked my return to news after a three year descent into promotions hell and there was no one better to run me through crack-of-dawn ENG exercises than the capable Ms. Turner. upon further investigation, I found her hubby Alan - a rock-solid photog and lighting master to be a great guy to hang out with. He taught me alot about medium market news gathering, soft boxes and live trucks. He even turned me onto mountain biking on the side. Not bad for a cat from Eugene, Oregon.

Now Jami and Alan are thriving Down East in the very news market where I got my start. I've yet to see the new baby, but if he's anywhere near as cute as their daughter, they sign that kid up for a cereal commercial. The last time I did see them, Hurricane Isabel was bearing down on the coast and I was delirious from a four day diet of granola bars and lukewarm Sprite. Ahh - the glamour of television! Congrats on everything Jami and Alan, we miss you...

The Blogs Thicken

While I'm struggling to get back into my pre-holiday groove, others who share my logo are rising up to carry the blog-load. Since the three of them have made a point of sharing their thoughts with me, I feel compelled to pass the favor on to you.

Chris Morton is one of our youngest photogs, but has quickly mastered the art of pretending to listen to self-appointed masters of the form. (Sorry about that, C-Mo). Along the way, he's finding time to blog about it in the strangely titled site, The Ear Has No Memory. Morton's efforts prove what I've always said: You haven't gotta sling a camera long to collect war stories by the pound.

Another fellow broadcaster who's bringing his thoughts to the blogosphere is Doug Taylor, long-time employee of El Ocho. Doug manages our tape room, keeping track of commercials, feeds and promos, all while fending off oddball requests from the news department. He considers himself a curmudgeon, but you'll never meet a nicer one. Drop in on him and decide for yourself . But be warned: you might leave with a case of Tape Room Blues

Finally, we come to a co-worker I've mentioned before. Jeff Varner grabbed national attention when he took on the Outback and the alliances of Survivor, Season Two. He didn't win the million, but he parlayed the opportunity into some high profile gigs in the frothy world of entertainment news. But the tinsel wore thin and soon Jeff decided to use his J-school degree from Chapel Hill for more than a conversation piece. The title of his budding blog explains the rest: The Making of a News Anchor

I'm delighted to welcome these three colleagues to the fold, as I think they're helping define just what a broadcaster's blog can be. But where does this revolution end? Will weblogs one day become as ubiquitous as e-mail addresses? Too early to tell, say the experts. Technology may come along and render the blog as antiquated as yesterday's cable box. One thing is for sure, the internet is quickly becoming democratized. While techno-wizards may one day replace our beloved format, they will never take OUR FREEDOM!

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some blue and white war paint to scrape off...

Monday, June 20, 2005

Coming Attractions...

Ah yes - the first day back at work after a glorious vacation. It’s enough to make your friendly neighborhood lenslinger reconsider his current career path. But how could I - when I spent my first returning shift huddling with geographers at UNC-G, hanging out of golf carts at Grandover Resort and chasing world class speed skaters around a High Point roller rink? I couldn’t make that stuff up if I tried! Looking back, each episode was fairly blog-worthy, but since I left my digital camera and laser focus at home today, you’ll have to use your imagination.

Tomorrow I’ll try and do better by you. Let’s just hope I’m not sequestered in some protracted board meeting or the like; those can be awfully hard to sex up for a good blog post. For now though, I leave you with a quick rundown of subjects I’m exploring but am far from finished with. Consider what follows the Coming Attractions posters outside the Viewfinder BLUES Cinema. Or don’t consider them at all. We’ll still be friends...

King of the Walkdown: The true story of one Paul Dunn - a skilled ex-news shooter who had the uncanny ability to psycho-analyze people in handcuffs while doing the one eyed back-shuffle. The only thing more familiar to Paul than the on-camera confession was the subpoena that soon followed.

Through a Lens, Darkly: Though it is certainly macabre to dwell on them, I’ve hovered over enough dead bodies to write a blathering essay about them. Frozen homeless men, unlucky pedestrians, slain convenience store clerks, murdered nurses…I come not to exploit these victims of tragedy, but to simply get them out of my head.

Adventures in Radio (The Stupid Years) : If my initial career plans had panned out , I might be a overblown FM hack in a track suit and gold medallions peeking though my chest hairs, instead of a battered photog with an aching back and a chronic case of diarrhea of her keyboard. Come to think of it, I’m not sure which is worse. What I do know, is I got a story to tell.

Ode to a Greasy Spoon: As much as I enjoy taking pictures and driving news vehicles, my true love is the country diner. From Seagrove’s JugTown CafĂ© to Pete’s Grill in Gibsonville, I like ’em authentic. Extra points awarded if the waitress has a moustache and calls me ’Shug’ while pouring sweet tea strong enough to melt windshield glass.

These shockingly true tales and other assorted camera fables will soon be hitting Viewfinder BLUES screens nationwide. Check local listings for showtimes. Until then, hit the archives, walk the dog and try to forgive a crusty photog for not getting his blog on this fine Monday at Midnight. I beg of you...

Sunday, June 19, 2005

All Aboard the Sea Thunder

At the risk of turning this into a slide show, I do have some vacation pictures to share. I’ll spare you all the sandy details but let’s just say Sunset Beach is a marvelous place to spend a week in June. For now anyway, the looming demise of it's trademark floating drawbridge will alter the island beyond compare. But that’s another post. For now, I got pixels...

On the last day our annual migration, the wife and I ushered our girls aboard what can best be described as a kick-ass speedboat. The skipper of the Sea Thunder was a jovial sort; he leaned back in his chair and cracked stale jokes over the loudspeaker as he piloted the brightly-colored craft with one hand. Minutes outside the channel, the skipper leaned on the throttle. My wife smiled at the horizon as I watched the kids react to their first high-speed lunge into the open sea.

Soon we were bobbing in the waters off Bird Island, ‘No Woman No Cry’ wafting over the boat’s many speakers. Scanning the shore for the Kindred Spirit mailbox, we gave up when a throaty rumble of a competitor’s craft hove into view. Obviously, the Sea Screamer was laden with the Great Unwashed, nothing like the erudite yet shirtless denizens of my fine vessel. Still, we stared at each other as both boats pitch and dove. Before either cruiser could launch a salvo, three dolphins splashed out of the water as if on cue.

Both crowds gasped as schools of silver swimmers cavorted about between the two boats. Executing coordination unknown to man, the gleaming divers danced in unison around the watery arena. The skipper goosed the engine for a better view and ran his best ‘Flipper’ material. Each attempt to capture the mammals with my digital camera was met with yet another shot of unfocused sea. Did I mention the first mate sold ice cold Bud Lights straight from the official Sea Thunder cooler? Dollar a pop - in port and underway.

After the swimming mammals hit the showers, The Skipper fired up the twin outboards, sending our sleek craft into a determined trajectory South, parallel to the sandy shore known as Cherry Grove. There our captain stopped and pointed out c-list celebrity homes, a Nascar driver, a has been and another sports figure I’d never heard of. Truth is, I spent most of my time watching my girls as they tasted the spray arcing off the boat’s sleek hull. I’m no more master sailor, but my time aboard the U.S.S. Mount Whitney did teach me the intrinsic value of daydreaming at sea.

In the end, we covered 15 miles of shoreline, from the northern edge of the Grand Strand to the weedy backwaters of workaday Calabash. At the turnaround point, Skipper held our position off north Myrtle and started talking of cannons and condos. I thought he was kidding until he sounded battle stations, causing First Mate Noah to look up from the cooler long enough to pull a cord. ’BOOM!’ went a midships cannon, it’s vibrating echo bouncing off the high-rises in staggered concert. As the returning booms washed over the boat, passengers squinted and grinned (minus one kid who was obviously sleeping off some late night Kool-Aid binge). I was among the awake and grateful, happy to be making memories that had nothing to with deadlines and live shots.

Remind me of that tomorrow when I’m hashing out my third vosot of the day.