Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Blast From the Past ...

Edison Carter Lives Here

As print and broadcast news operations evolve, bean counters, not journalists, rule. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? But, it’s the bottom line that seems to be motivating news managers’ decision-making processes. More and more, it is leading to a new hybrid-sort of reporter. Lean profit margins lead to layoffs, but the news beast must still be fed. Who will feed it?

The answer seems to be a blast from the past: The “One-Man (or Woman) Band.

When I started in the business back in the stone age, KCEN TV’s news director handed me a black-and-white film camera (I got a cool Bolex with a three-lens turret because everyone else like the simple Bell and Howells.) and a black box with a “mag-stripe” sound camera in it. They sent me off to slay the dragon and feed the beast. Shooting my own film, I “wrote” as a shot and “edited” in the camera. It was very economical. For a “stand-up”, I’d stage it and ask someone passing by to look into the lens to determine if I was in the shot.

That’s the ticket now for NBC owned and operated TV stations and others big and small. The gear is now digital, but the concept is the same.

Did you ever see “Edison Carter” the reporter on the classic ‘80s TV show “Max Headroom”? We’re there. Edison Carter could have been what they’re calling a “backpack reporter” who shoots back stuff with a lap top computer live via broadband.
KXAN TV is using that technique now with varying degrees of quality. Tuesday (February 3, 2009) KXAN News aired the aftermath of a SWAT stand-off in Kyle. Viewers might have wondered about the jumpy, digitized quality of the video since no one indicated that they were using that technology. I suppose it’s common place now, so it doesn’t have to be explained. And they didn’t even have to send a live truck to Kyle to accomplish it.

Of course KXAN has used the one-man band concept for years. Jim Swift shot, edited, and wrote his own stories for years, not so much as a throw-back to the past but as a creative path. Also, the first Hill Country bureau reporter, David Harder (Now working for a Christian satellite network based in Cypress) did it all before finally getting a photographer. The station is going back to that philosophy now advertising for a “multi-platform bureau reporter”. “The position,” the ad says, “will originate from our Hill Country bureau and be responsible for field shooting/producing/publishing content for our TV and digital platforms.” In other words, a one-man-band. Only nowadays, that one man or one woman must play many instruments—some of them at the same time.

Further, News 8, the Time-Warner news channel, has utilized the one-man-band concept from the very beginning. It is noteworthy to add that News 8 over the years won many awards. They will use a reporter/photographer team on occasion.

The what-was-old-is-now-new-again concept is popping nationwide. TV photojournalists are being hired by newspapers to bring video to their web pages. But, is this a good trend? At least one professional photographer who cut his teeth here in Austin doesn’t think so.

“Management says that with the great technology of computers, one-man-bands are the way to go, and there's no reason for a 'two-man crew' anymore,” says Kenny Kaplan. “Of course you can do more with the computers, but the workload and stress is tremendous and the quality is going downhill. And you know what, they don't care! Saving money is their main goal. While quality was important not so long ago, you can say that those days are gone!” Kaplan was chief photographer and sports photographer at KVUE . He now works in New York City.

It’s the quality that concerns Kaplan. In the not too distant past, local photographers competed regionally and nationally in National Press Photographer Association contests and attended workshops to improve their craft. Perhaps, they still do, but Kaplan claims stations no longer support photographic excellence. Feeding the beast is more important.

You say, “Oh, Kaplan’s concerned because he’s a photographer. Nobody else cares.” Actually, people do care. Lou Prato in the National Journalism Review wrote of these same concerns more than a decade ago in April, 1995:

“Charles Cravetz, who oversees the five-state New England Cable News channel based in Boston, respects New York 1 but says the one-man-band concept is not for him. ‘I think it's a wonderful product for what it does,’ says Cravetz, ‘but I think you compromise your reporting and you compromise your videography.”

And Prato, a former news director and then professor, quotes a news director at that time in Houston: ‘You don't get good storytelling with one-man bands, for the most part, but you get good B-level meat and potatoes that is very, very cost effective,’ says Mike Crew, news director at all-news KNWS in Houston.” These words were written fourteen years ago before our current technology existed. His contemporary’s conclusions? As younger J-school graduate, they will embrace the “one-band-man” concept more and more. Prophetic.

But, what about the audience, the users/consumers of the media? Will the audience care? If the audience doesn’t care, all is well. If they do care, where will they go?

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Anonymous said...

KXAN did mention they were "live via wireless technology." It was also reinforced with a graphic below the live bug that said "wireless"

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Note: When I'm watching the news in Austin, I'm generally watching four TVs at the same time. Really. Usually, I have the volume up on only one. So, I must have been focused on a different story when KXAN noted they were "live via wireless technology" and showed the graphic. It was the video that caught my eye, and I turned up the volume. That's the way a lot of people "watch" the news, however, isn't it? No, they don't have four TVs, but they have other distractions. At any rate, the facts still stand. It is less expensive to send content on broadband, and it doesn't take more than one person to do it. Also, at the present time, the vidio and audio quality is not at the same level as a live truck. It did catch my attention, however.