Saturday, August 06, 2005

Thrift Store Reconnaissance

We split up as we entered the building. Ditching the sticks by the check-out counter, I headed to the back of the crowded store, leaving Charles to chat up the manager. Only a few shoppers noticed the bearded man with the fancy-cam gliding down aisle five. Most just shuffled behind battered shopping carts, staring fixedly at row after row of hand-me-down clothes and second hand doodads. North Carolina’s annual tax-free weekend was only a few hours old, but the feeding frenzy was well underway. Customers with wildly divergent checking accounts wandered High Point’s newest Goodwill Store, making it fertile waters for our particular mission. As Charles broke away from the manager and pretended to be interested in a wall of used coffee makers, I melted into the background of assorted knit tops and distracted housewives.

Or so I tried. It’s hard to be low key with Sony’s latest battle-axe on your shoulder. Still, I gave it my best 'camera mannequin' there by the pantyhose display, avoiding any real eye-contact with the slow parade of plodding bargain zombies. I was doing pretty well when a gaggle of over-perfumed Soccer Moms came by. Feigning disgust at my logo’d lens, they rolled their eyes in bejeweled repulsion. Apparently horrified at the thought of being filmed in a house of discount, they hurried by, hiding their faces behind designer purses. I let them pass unrecorded but watched them go, committing their forms to memory. As I did, two young girls with w-a-y too much midriff bared sauntered past before bursting into gum-smacking cackles. Next up, a leathery man in an old school pimp hat strutted past, flashing a knowing grin of gold teeth and mumbling something about ’Westside’. I was still processing the man’s intent when Charles’ voice poured out of the headphones permanently wrapped around my neck.

“You must be shopping for school supplies...” he said. Scanning the store, I spotted him across the brightly-lit selling floor, cornering a women and her three kid by a sagging display of faded book bags. Through the tiny speakers, I heard the women giggle like a school girl at the licensed meteorologist’s small talk. Leaving my post by the control-tops. I swam upstream through a stream of golden-hearted grandmothers and aimless miscreants. By the time Charles’ victim began answering his queries regarding her purchases, an unblinking square lens hood appeared over his shoulder. Her eyebrows arched a little but she kept talking as I leaned in on the chit-chat. Glancing down, she noticed the gleaming black microphone in Charles‘ outstretched hand. Without every agreeing to an interview, she chuckled when she found herself in the middle of one. As she expounded on the challenges of fashion on a budget, I watched the red light and thought about free pizza.

And so it went for the next half hour: Charles striking up conversations with those who looked talkative while I ‘moved through the room like an ambulance driver‘. Through-out our many inquisitions, no great camera work was committed and no new journalistic ground uncovered. But we plied our trade handily enough; as we filled my camera’s disc-space with the interviews we needed for the piece that was due to air in a few hours, I found myself admiring Charles Ewing’s patent low-tech approach. Anybody can bag man-on-the street sound, but some correspondents make it a heck of a lot more difficult than it has to be. His utter lack of histrionics made this simple mission as easy as it should always be - which is damn nice when there’s free grub waiting back at the station. After a half dozen more impromptu Q&A’s, Chuck signaled he had enough and turned toward the door. “You go ahead,” I told him as I eyed the clutch of Soccer Moms across the room, sorting through a box of ratty flip-flops and sneering loudly like the well-heeled shrews they were, “I’ll be out in a minute...”

Live Truck Rollover

Via b-roll, a scary sight from Denver where a reporter driving a KWGN live truck lost control of the top-heavy vehicle. How the red pick-up came to rest in the TV truck's windshield is unexplained, but the resulting image is enough to make me slow down when piloting these notoriously unwieldy beasts.The engineers at my shop do their best to maintain our ENG fleet, but tight deadlines, extreme conditions and just a little bit of adrenaline can make for bad trouble when behind the wheel. It's one of the many reasons I try to avoid them altogether, not just because they make me late for dinner.

In this case, a reporter was driving with an intern riding shotgun, delivering the live truck to a photographer at a working a grass fire. It's not the ideal approach to a breaking scene, but I've certainly orchestrated similar in the name of spot news. Not surprisingly, the reporter, intern and other driver were immediately transported to the nearest hospital. Luckily, no one was killed. I'm just hoping for everyone's sake, it wasn't the reporter's first time behind the wheel of a live truck, as no one should take the helm of these rolling billboards without at least a little orientation. Look Up and Live.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

And the Media Splintered...

I have a confession to make: I rarely watch TV news. You wouldn’t either if you spent the whole day churning out the damn stuff. Or maybe you would. I have co-workers who never miss a newscast, bouncing from station to station to see who got what when and where. Not me. Between the demands of my young family and the chronic laptop addiction, I find I have very little time for the neighborhood logo parade once my brain is off the clock. That’s not to say there isn’t material worth my viewing. Wedged betwixt all that tripe and banality, a smattering of viable storytelling is readily available for my evening consumption. I just rarely have the appetite anymore.

It’s the same with the paper. A fresh copy of the N&R hits my driveway before dawn every day, but I can barely manage a cursory swipe of the headlines before relegating all that hard-earned journalism to the laundry room recycling pile. Since I jockey for position with local newspaper photogs, I do make it a point to admire the work of the many stills-shooters I run into in the field (the nicest of which is hands-down Nelson Kepley). More often than not the front page offers photographic evidence of an assignment I covered twenty-four hours earlier or an article foreshadowing something I’ll soon point a camera at myself. For those reasons, I have only the slightest flirtation with the local rag - er, newspaper.

Still, this isn’t a hit piece on the local media. For the record, I recommend everyone read their daily newspaper from beginning to end, but only after a hefty regiment of locally produced broadcast news (exclusively on station’s with names that end in “8“). No, my beef with the Fourth Estate is mainly one of convenience, or rather the lack thereof. As loyal as I try to be, it’s hard to rely on my remote control (buried in a couch-cushion) or my home-delivered newsprint (scattered across three rooms) to keep me informed when I can reach over to the nearest mouse and fill a screen with highly customizable, up to the second, text-heavy and picture-rich coverage that more resembles an encyclopedia than a daily digest.

It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to determine which form of media will attract the most modern day-eyeballs; even this undereducated lenslinger figured it out. For a couple of years now, I’ve thought about this great splintering of formats and wondered what effect it will have on my job, as well as my children’s world. I’m no oracle, but I bet when my daughters are grown, leafing through a newspaper or waiting on a newscast will seem as archaic as those shimmering daguerreotypes from photography’s infancy feel today. But this seismic shift in the way we digest news has less to do with the way current events will be captured and a lot more to do with they way they’re delivered. Though I have long wrestled with these inevitabilities, I’ve yet to have a name to wrap around the concept - until now, thanks to a visionary article by Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg times.

In it, Deggans discusses the not-so-new trend of ‘news-grazing’- a practice in which the news consumer culls bits and pieces of interesting data from the global smorgasbord of information available 24/7. In his own words:

"Today's media consumers increasingly expect an on-demand universe, where podcasts enable commuters to download audio versions of newspaper headlines and video on-demand services allow digital cable TV subscribers to see missed episodes of their favorite series at any time. It's as if we spent 80 years assembling the largest mass audience in the history of the world, only to spend the next 20 years taking it all apart again."

Deggans’ article also examines the implications of all this isolated news intake, and ponders what effect it may have on society as a whole. After all, how will people of differing stripes and persuasions get along when we lack the common viewpoints provided by a mainstream media? As for me, I’ll be okay. I have a feeling there will always be a demand for the skilled image procurer, whether the finished product appears on a nightly newscast, cell-phone, Blackberry or a yet-to-be-invented eyelid chip. Either way, I’ll probably be squinting through a viewfinder well into the future - or at least until we bloggers figure out how to get rich off our midnight ramblings. Wish us luck.

(A dip of the lens to Neill McNeill for first bringing this article to my attention and suggesting I write about it. That’s twice now in the past week that my main anchor has orchestrated a particular dissertation for my humble site. If I didn’t know better, I’d count him among my half dozen faithful readers. Also, check out Greensboro News and Record Editor John Robinson’s blog for an honest take on what all this media convergence and audience splintering means to the newspaper business. A fascinating take from the other side of the fence...)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Scenes from a News Week

Hey, have you ever thread 300 feet of cable, dragged camera, lights and wrestled a tripod through the back door of a Target store - only to set up a crude television studio in the Back-To-School section in under twelve minutes? I have. Some would call such an exercise in controlled frenzy a crash course in guerilla broadcasting. I called it Wednesday. Then again, that's the life of a TV news photog: a labored footchase through the halls of mediocrity. If that strikes you as a tad sullen, so be it. Spend enough time lurking by the discount bin with a camera on your shoulder and you'll start whining too.

But I ain't here to whine. Rather, I'm here to expose, expound upon and hopefully shed some light what I know to be a very twisted craft. TV News is far from the glossy depictions you see in the cinema, especially on the local level. Whereas network correspondents may circle the globe in private jets, your neighborhood newsgatherer can be found pulling late-day u-turns in department store parking lots. Scenes of schlubs like me gettin' their McGyver on rarely make it to the Multiplex, but they are the very underpinning of your nightly newscast. If the construction seems a little shoddy, get in line with everyone else and blame the photog. I won't mind.

So why is my skin so thick all of a sudden, you ask? Simple, I'm a photog. Like my friend Chris Petersen here, I thrive on unplanned events, unlimited access and overused electronics. When we're not shooting the breeze at the college dorm groundbreaking, we're trading jabs at the meth lab takedown, swapping lies at the fatal fire. After a while alot od us stop paying any real attention to the subject matter at hand - even as we traipse around to capture it from every angle. I don't know about Chris here, but I can cover an Easter Egg Hunt or a school bus wreck with about the same amount of emotion on tap. It's not the kind of thing you list on your business card, but it's the jaded hallmark of any seasoned shooter.

Speaking of seasoned shooters, there's Bill Welch. Unlike many photogs half his age, Bill's kept a modicum of dignity about himself all these many years. In fact he's been showing newsbies like myself how it's done for more than three decades. That's a-l-o-t of news passed through the tube. I shudder to think I'll sling a lens for that long, but if I do - I'll count myself lucky to be as detached yet still humane as Mr. Bill here. Only problem is, there are no guarantees - as the elder Welch will surely attest. Just last week he found out he's soon to be unemployed; one of the many hard-working victims of the WXLV/WUPN newsroom shutdown.

I've no doubt Bill will soon find another outlet to point and shoot for, but the unforseen changes at the tail-end of his career do fill me with dread. This business of camera-portage is if anything a young man's game. At twenty three years of age, there was nothing I wanted to do more than live through the lens. Now, 18 months shy of my fortieth birthday, the luster has more than worn off. Which is partly why I've spent the last ten months blogging, even when like tonight, I had no real great themes to explore. Push button publishing won't rescue me from a dead-end career, but it's a start in a better direction. Guess it's time to get serious about that series of best selling novels I've been putting off for so long. It's the enchanting tale of boy wizard, you see...

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Merits of ENC DTV

If you think THIS site is the work of an obsessive media-hound, head on over to ENC DTV for truly compulsive coverage of local television news. There you‘ll find the meticulous postulations of one ‘George’ - a mysterious figure who monitors the many broadcast outlets of central and eastern North Carolina. But you'd better pack a lunch. Originally designed to explore how analog stations were dealing with their digital bandwidths, ENC DTV has grown into a full-service clearinghouse for George’s painstaking observations on more than fifteen affiliates.

From the Piedmont to the Coast, George scours the digital airwaves for production goofs, anchor shuffling and goofy weather trends - all with considerable flair and alarming exactitude. If you're even the most casual viewer of Downeast TV News, there's something you'll find interesting at ENC DTV. I especially enjoy the 'Remember When' sections, which feature the dated graphics and regrettable hair-do's of local broadcasts past.

All this, along with a cornucopia of screenshots from more stations that I realized existed make ENC DTV a great way to waste time and chew up bandwidth. No wonder George's sitemeter is going through the roof. I mean, where ELSE could I see current shots of old colleagues and Downeast legends like Alan Hoffman, Gary Dean and the Godfather of Soul, Marvin Daugherty? Wait, don't answer that.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

documentary: BLOG

Via Terry Heaton, news of a most intriguing project by documentarists Andrew Marcus, Tori Marlan, and Joe Farris. In documentary: BLOG, the trio point their lens at the intersection of blogging and traditional media, where a series of head-on collisions is racing to fruition. Andrew Marcus:

“Sometimes these worlds collide, and sometimes they discover ways to compliment each other,” says Marcus, “we are examining the effects blogging is having on media, and media is having on blogging, as well as speculating about the immediate and long-term ramifications of this new communication revolution.”

Such a production more than interests me, in both subject matter and possible film technique. The projects's spanking new blog doesn't reveal much about the production status, but I would implore the filmmakers not to attempt said epic without first visiting the region in which I happen to reside, considered by some the epicenter of the alternative mediaquake - an area dubbed by The Los Angeles Times as 'Blogsboro'.