Video Journalists: More Crews, More Coverage, More Ratings
By James Careless
Back when 3/4-inch U-Matic videotape was still cutting-edge, I was a rookie reporter at a rural TV station. It was a cinder-block studio where inhaling flies while on camera was the main occupational hazard; and yes, it did happen.
During the week, I produced a daily 1:30 TV news report; rushing through it so I could get on the editing suite before the 4pm rush. On the weekends, everything was different. We only had a late night newscast each night, so I was the newsroom; reporter, cameraman, editor, producer and occasionally even anchor.
Did I hate being a one-man band? Not at all. It allowed me to take risks and do things differently.
For instance, I soon realized that the newscast looked better with lots of announcer-read voiceovers instead of one 1:30 report followed by nothing but wire copy. Meanwhile, the wide-open editing suite meant that I could cut footage between outings; radically improving my productivity. Add the chance to produce off-the-wall reports at whim, and I was far happier working weekends. In fact, eventually I rejigged my radio duties so that I could avoid weekday TV news completely.
The point of this personal tale is to put the current ‘video journalist/VJ’ debate—VJ being a fancy term for a one-man band camera-toting reporter—into perspective. As someone who has worked both sides of TV news, I can personally say that being a VJ is a more creative, effective and satisfying way to cover the news. Moreover, for TV news directors wanting to do more without spending more, video journalism is an option whose time has come.
Michael Rosenblum, VJ’s Poster Child While I was busy covering three Santa Claus parades a day, Michael Rosemblum was pursuing more heady work as a producer with CBS’ Sunday Morning. But he wasn’t happy: “I became frustrated with the way TV news was made... all the people it took to do a single story,” Rosenblum says. “Before CBS, I had been a photojournalist who worked alone. I liked that, and started to wonder if I could produce TV news the way a photojournalist would, rather than using the Hollywood feature film model that dominated TV news then and now.”
So Rosenblum quit CBS, got an S-VHS camcorder, and parked himself at a Palestinian refugee camp. There he shot, voiced and produced reports for The McNeill-Lehrer News Hour.
“I shot everything and, because I was less intimidating than a three-person news crew, I got spectacular access,” Rosenblum recalls. “Meanwhile, as far as my producer at PBS was concerned, I was a bargain. He got exclusive TV documentaries for $25K each... all costs included.”
Michael Rosenblum’s success as a one-man band transformed him into an evangelist for video journalism. Over the years, he has been instrumental in creating VJ-based news operations at the BBC, The Voice of America, Video News International and New York 1.
Today, as CEO of Rosenblum Associates, Rosenblum teaches broadcasters how to transform their reporters, camerapeople and editors into VJs. It’s not just a matter of distributing camcorders, then sending them out on the street. Michael Rosenblum brings these news staffers up to snuff through a three week VJ Boot Camp.
“Teaching people how to use the camcorder is only 10% of the process,” he tells TVB. “90% is psychological. Reporters need to learn that they can shoot their own footage, while camera people and editors need to learn that they can report.”
Ironically, Rosenblum says camerapeople have the easiest time becoming VJs. It’s not just a matter of knowing how to operate a camcorder: Camerapeople are accustomed to thinking of news in visual terms. In contrast, reporters struggle with the VJ approach, he says, because putting visuals first is often foreign to them. Hence the reason for Rosenblum’s VJ Boot Camp. It’s a setting where everyone gets familiar not just with their own camcorders, but also with shooting and telling stories themselves.
Video Journalism: The Benefits First things first: Video journalism is not about making news staff produce three times as many stories, then firing two-thirds of them while still filling the 6 o’clock news. Video journalism is about radically increasing the number of stories a newsroom produces, to get an edge on its competition.
This is why Nashville’s WKRN hired Michael Rosenblum to transform their news staff into VJs. “By equipping everyone with Sony HVR-Z1 HDV camcorders, we can field 15 news crews a day instead of eight,” says WKRN president and general manager Mike Sechrist. “Since that’s more crews than available newscast slots, this means that we can take risks on the stories we cover, because not all of them have to work out.”
By freeing news crews from having to “Feed the Beast” every single day, Young Broadcasting’s WKRN can now operate like a newspaper; where reporters have the time to develop stories that won’t come to fruition today, this week or even this month. Where such freedom pays off is in investigative reporting, where stories can’t be turned around in 24 hours.
This is one reason why Sechrist—himself a former newsman—adopted video journalism. However, investigative reporting is just one aspect of WKRN’s plan to pull ahead of the local news pack. “Over the last ten years, the ratings for the three network newscasts have all dropped 30%,” he says. “Local news has also taken a hit, although the drop is not quite as bad. When we ask viewers why they’re not watching, the answers are the same: There’s too much repetition of the same sorts of news stories. As well, the practice of putting voiceovers first and video second isn’t lost on viewers. They know when irrelevant footage of empty buildings and the like are being used as visual wallpaper, and they don’t like it.”
“By going to VJs, we’re not trying to save money,” Sechrist concludes. “We’re trying to get our audience back.”
Young Broadcasting also wants to get its audience back in San Francisco as KRON goes VJ as well.
Meanwhile, at the BBC Considering the British refer to the BBC as “Auntie,” one might expect this public broadcaster to be hidebound and squeamish when it comes to trying new things. But that’s not the case. The BBC is a trailblazer when it comes to video journalism, having hired Rosenblum to turn 650 reporters and camerapeople into VJs. Today, all of the Beeb’s 16 newsrooms across their UK network are VJ-based; aided by the use of laptop NLE computers (another feature of the VJ concept), the BBC is now delivering a more personal, more lively form of news coverage that its viewers like.
“We showed groups of BBC and non-BBC viewers examples of VJ and conventional news reports,” says Lisa Lambden; head of the BBC’s VJ project. “Their reactions were clear. They found the VJ reports to be more engaging and more interesting to watch.”
Since implementing VJ newsgathering, the BBC has been able to venture into newer, bolder stories. “The small cameras—we’re now using the new high definition ones—are great for shooting video discreetly; allowing us to break stories such as Britain’s dirty hospitals,” Lambden says.
“Meanwhile, bringing camerapeople, editors and other behind-the-scenes staff into the story-making process has resulted in a far greater variety of ideas and approaches than when reporters and producers were the only ones pitching stories.”
Limits There is no concept that doesn’t have its limits, and video journalism is no exception. Specifically, “there are times when you need two-person crews,” says Stephen Hurlbut.
He’s vice president for news programming at Toronto’s Citytv, which has been using VJ crews for over 20 years.
In particular, “shooting at the Legislature requires a cameraperson and a reporter,” Hurlbut notes. “Someone’s got to be responsible for getting the microphone up to the politician’s mouth, while someone else fights for the camera’s two inches of visual space.”
VJ-shot footage can also look less professional than that taken by a conventional camera crew. In the old days, part of the problem was the small-format camcorders being used—they just weren’t as good as the larger Sony Beta SP machines. However, the advent of digital video—especially high resolution HDV—has eliminated this problem. “These days, VJ video looks just as good,” Rosenblum says.
The other aspect of “less professional” is due to the nature of video journalism: When you’re shooting and questioning too, the person being interviewed ends up looking into the camera. Such a direct stare into the viewer’s eyes violates conventional TV news style, where the interviewee glances off-camera while being interrogated by an unseen reporter. Add potentially shakier camera work and a lack of standups, and the viewer can end up feeling that he’s watching someone’s home movies.
The on-camera stares of VJ interviewees doesn’t bother Rosenblum: “The conventional rule of ‘don’t look in the camera’ is absurd,” he says. “It’s great for the reporter to have eye contact, but the audience only gets to see the person’s ear. We spend our television lives looking at people’s ears while they say the most important things. It makes no sense. I would PREFER that they look into the camera and thus into the eye of the audience.”
“Also, the VJ work is in no way ‘shakier’ than conventional work,” he adds. “It absolutely does NOT look like home movies. This is a really major point with me and with my clients. These little cameras are for video what Leicas were for photography. Just because the gear is small, it does not follow that it is inferior.”
Why Not Use VJs? Why not indeed? Do you really need a two- or three-person crew to cover the Santa Claus parade? Do you really think a veteran cameraperson hasn’t learned more about news than a wet behind-the-ears J-school grad; knowledge that can result in a different (and often more informed) take on a story? Does it really make sense to have eight crews on the street, when you could have 16; especially when modern camcorders and laptop editors can keep costs down while eliminating the 4pm rush?
Clearly, the answer to all these questions is no: VJs make sense for today’s newsrooms. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t preserve some two- and three-person capability, especially for live shots; “you need to have a choice of weapons in your arsenal,” says Citytv’s Hurlbut. But video journalism’s capability to provide more news for the same money is a truth not to be ignored; unless of course, your station has cash to burn.
James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at email@example.com.