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Going Solo: Doing Videojournalism in the 21st Century

Going Solo: Doing Videojournalism in the 21st Century

by G. Stuart Smith

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The traditional model of video news reporting has always had two separate roles: reporting and videography. For years, however, small-market news outlets have relied on “one-man bands”—individual reporters who shoot and edit their own video—for stories and footage. Lately, as the journalism landscape has evolved, this controversial practice has


The traditional model of video news reporting has always had two separate roles: reporting and videography. For years, however, small-market news outlets have relied on “one-man bands”—individual reporters who shoot and edit their own video—for stories and footage. Lately, as the journalism landscape has evolved, this controversial practice has grown more and more popular. With the use of video constantly expanding, many large-market TV stations, networks, and newspaper Web sites are relying on one person to carry out a job formerly executed by two. News outlets now call these contributors VJs, digital journalists, backpack journalists, or mobile journalists. But no matter what they are called, there’s no denying the growing significance of solo videojournalists to the media landscape.             Going Solo: Doing Videojournalism in the 21st Century details the controversy, history, and rise of this news genre, but its main objective is to show aspiring videojournalists how to learn the craft. While other textbooks depict the conventional reporter-and-videographer model, Going Solo innovates by teaching readers how to successfully juggle the skills traditionally required of two different people.             Award-winning journalist G. Stuart Smith begins by describing how and why the media’s use of solo videojournalists is growing, then delves into the controversy over whether one person can cover a story as well as two. He illuminates how, together, the downsizing of the media, downturn in the economy, and growth of video on the Web have led to the rise of the solo videojournalist model. Going Solo profiles TV stations and newspaper Web operations across the country that are using the model and offers helpful advice from VJs in the field. The book presents useful guidelines on how to multitask as a reporter-videographer: conducting interviews, shooting cover video, and writing and editing a good video story. Readers will also learn how to produce non-narrated stories and market themselves in a competitive field.             Smith, who started his career as a “one-man band,” insightfully covers an area of journalism that, despite its growing market demand, has received little academic attention. Going Solo: Doing Videojournalism in the 21st Century is useful for students learning the basics and those already in the field who need to upgrade their skills. By presenting industry know-how and valuable tips, this unique guidebook can help any enterprising videojournalist create a niche for him- or herself in the increasingly fragmented news media market.

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University of Missouri Press
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Going Solo

Doing Videojournalism in the 21st Century
By G. Stuart Smith

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2011 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1923-7

Chapter One

A Rose by Any Other Name

When Barack Obama delivered his inaugural speech on January 20, 2009, millions of people watched on traditional TV and cable news channels. Millions more tuned in from work on their computers. But they didn't choose news text services. They went online to see the speech streamed online, setting a record for people tuning into Internet Web sites to watch video.

As President Obama delivered his speech, furloughs, downsizing, and resource sharing were the watchwords for many industries dealing with the deep recession. With technology advancing and more than two-thirds of Americans telling pollsters that traditional journalism sources are out of touch with what they want from news, unlike past recessions, this downturn had long-lasting effects, permanently changing the ways news media companies gather and disseminate information to the public.

"The changes are going to be wrenching in the industry," says longtime magazine photojournalist and video convert Dirck Halstead. The general manager of WMAQ, Chicago's NBC-owned TV station, Larry Wert, warned: "There is a major sea change happening in this industry, and we've got to be proactive."

Many newspapers cut the staff of their Washington bureaus. Even though U.S. troops were still stationed in the war zone, television networks slashed personnel covering Iraq. To help remain competitive in international coverage, ABC News adopted a variation on the solo videojournalism (VJ) model, creating one-person digital journalists working from their own homes in seven foreign cities. The cost of all seven VJ offices was about the same as the fully staffed Paris bureau, which closed. The network added four digital journalists working in the United States in 2009. CBS followed suit, hiring a VJ to cover Afghanistan in 2009.

One-man bands, long a niche in the TV news business, began moving to a mainstream position as more stations cut two-person crews and adopted VJs to cut costs. The solo videojournalist not only reports and writes stories, but also shoots video and edits them.

Newspapers Relying on VJs, Too

VJs are playing a role not only in the traditional video news medium, television, but in formerly print-only organizations as well. As newspapers' circulation and revenue faced steep declines, some downplayed the printed product to concentrate on delivering news on the Web. As a result, video is becoming more of a dominant product across the Internet. Newspaper videojournalists and those with other multimedia skills are playing an increasingly important role in the business once dominated by ink and paper.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported 2008 was the first year that the Internet topped newspapers as a news source. In a survey in which respondents could select more than one choice, most people still got their national and international news from television (70 percent), but the Internet became number two at 40 percent, followed by newspapers at 35 percent. That continues a trend in which the Internet's share of the news audience tripled from 2001 while, at the same time, newspapers lost a quarter of their readers. And while TV news still seems to be king, television news saw a decline in viewers in the Pew survey as well.

A Gallup poll confirms the disappointing numbers for most news media in 2008. Even in the hotly contested election year, the Gallup poll found the audience shrinking for all news media except cable TV news and the Internet. The poll's conclusion: "These data suggest the audience may still be there for most traditional news sources, underscoring the need for media organizations to find new ways to turn eyeballs into revenue. For many, this may require discovering creative ways to capitalize on the growing thirst for Internet news."

Solo Videojournalists to the Rescue

In the face of those numbers, news managers increasingly are adopting solo videojournalists to remain competitive. At the NBC network flagship station, WNBC-TV in New York, managers revamped the news operation to launch a twenty-four-hour cable news channel that would rely on one-man bands. WNBC's use of photographer-reporter combinations for its so-called content center is designed to make news coverage more efficient. "With that," says the station's general manager, Tom O'Brien, "we're going to see some benefits of productivity."

At WMC-TV, which cut fifteen jobs in the economic downturn, news director Tracey Rogers has two one-man bands covering the outlying areas of the Memphis market. "All journalists need to have multiple skills in order to do their jobs," says Rogers.

Gannett stations WUSA-TV in Washington and WTSP in St. Petersburg, Florida, reassigned some of its news and sports reporters to be multimedia journalists, who are expected to write, produce, shoot video, and cover live events for the Web site and broadcasts.

A reporter working as his own photographer is not a new phenomenon. The TV news business used to call them one-man bands. Now, with so many women videographers, it's no longer a politically correct term. And others look down their noses at one-man bands as a small-market phenomenon. Plus, as TV stations and newspapers as well as other news organizations strive to find their niche in an increasingly competitive and downsized news and information market, more modern phrases are emerging to describe the work of those who are increasingly taking on the tasks of both reporting and shooting their own video. If one-man bands doesn't quite fit, what term does? Solo videojournalists? Multimedia journalists? Backpack journalists? Do Platypus, SoJo (solo journalist), MoJo (mobile journalist), APJ (all platform journalist), or digital correspondent aptly describe the functions?

As the video equipment continues to get lighter, cheaper, and easier to use, working as a one-man band, or VJ, is no longer a small-market TV phenomenon. KRON in San Francisco and WKRN in Nashville, both owned by Young Broadcasting, use solo videojournalists, or VJs, to cover stories. KGTV in San Diego calls its VJs digital correspondents; WUSA in Washington calls its reporter-photographers multimedia journalists and sister Gannett station, KUSA in Denver, uses the corporate moniker of backpack journalist (BPJ) for its one-person bands. Others using VJs by one name or another include the BBC, CNN, Associated Press Television (APTN), and some local cable news outfits such as New York 1 News and News 12 in the Bronx—not to mention dozens of small-and medium-market TV stations.

In fact, a 2010 survey by the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University found that 81 percent of TV newsrooms utilize one-man bands in some way. The survey discovered that nearly 15 percent of the stations in markets one to twenty-five mostly use one-man bands and another 46 percent in those markets use them to varying degrees. Stations in smaller markets use VJs with even more frequency.

"When I became news director, I became pretty frustrated with the number of people in the newsroom versus the number of people who actually leave the building to tell stories. I think all reporters should have some video capabilities," says Patti Dennis, the news director at the NBC-affiliate KUSA in Denver, who utilizes backpack journalists in her shop. "If we have one hundred journalists, say in our newsroom, and only thirty go out in the streets, something's wrong with the equation. We've got to get a few more story gatherers."

WUSA and KUSA are owned by the Gannett Corporation, a media giant that owns both television stations and newspapers, including USA Today. The head of the company's TV operations, Dave Lougee, says the challenge is to get more stories for his audiences without sacrificing quality: "Are we a better newsgathering operation with 20 $50,000 cameras or 100 $7,000 HD cameras? We've got our newsrooms actively, intellectually engaged in how to define quality journalism in a digital age, and how to utilize the tools available to us to get there."

Newspapers and Radio Adopting Solo Videojournalism

In this new age, now many radio stations are even requiring reporters to shoot video for their Web sites.

Not to be left out in this convergent media age, newspapers are pioneering new ways of video storytelling in an uncharted terrain of online video. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) monthly magazine, Quill, devoted a cover story and twelve pages to "Backpack Journalism," with tips for newspaper reporters who come face-to-face with audio and video recorders for the first time. In his overview article for that issue, a Nashville newspaper editor and then SPJ president, Clint Brewer, wrote, "Now, it appears there are three things certain in this life for journalists: death, taxes and video."

At the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, the newspaper's online entity is trying to compete in a 24/7 news cycle instead of a single publication each day. That means video is a key to success. "We've got people who, a year ago, were still photographers, and now the majority of their time is spent doing videography," says Plain Dealer editor Susan Goldberg. Detroit Free Press videographers produced a feature on singer Aretha Franklin, "40 Years of Respect," and ended up winning a News and Documentary Emmy, a traditional television news award.

Many of those newspapers are adopting the solo videojournalist model to tell video stories on their Web sites. Many just call their reporter/photographers videojournalists, but Gannett has a corporate name for its reporters sent out with a combination still and video camera: MoJos, or mobile journalists. Some newspaper and magazine photographers who are turning to video have adopted the name Platypus, which derives from the animal's unusual ability to survive in two different universes, both land and water, just as a solo reporter-photographer has to survive and thrive in two elements.

The Washington Post and other papers have armed some veteran print reporters with video cameras. "We would buy the camera and give them to reporters to shoot still pictures, record voice, or shoot video," says James Brady, the former executive editor of washingtonpost.com who instituted the changes. "It's a triple-threat device. It adds a whole different dimension than you can get on the print side."

At the Wall Street Journal, reporters are carrying video cameras to help publish twenty-five to thirty videos each day on the paper's Web site. The paper's deputy managing editor, Alan Murray, says that the Journal's reporters see and do a lot of interesting things. "And by putting video cameras in their hands, we have another way for them to tell their stories, another way for our users to experience what they're experiencing."

As a result, newspapers are threatening the domain that used to belong exclusively to TV videographers. In the process, newspaper Web sites, with less emphasis on reporter narration, unconstrained by television's timed newscasts and a willingness to experiment with video techniques taboo on TV, are also redefining what videojournalism is all about.

Yet even solo videojournalists in the newspaper Web industry are not immune to layoffs. Washingtonpost.com, among others, have restructured their multimedia organizations and downsized a number of their videojournalists.

Other newspapers experimented with various forms of videojournalism online, but have given up on the ventures. HamptonRoadstv.com, owned by the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, started its own Web cast, The Dot, aimed at eighteen-to thirty-four-year-olds; it featured a fast-paced roundup of the day's news, with news packages from the Web site's solo videojournalists. After some layoffs, the remaining VJs are still doing packages, yet after a few years of the experiment, the Virginian-Pilot dropped The Dot from its line-up. "We're still kind of figuring it out, what the model is," says VJ Brian Clark.

VJs Setting a Trend

Nevertheless, newspaper VJs have set a trend that will be hard to ignore in the future. A magazine writer, Kurt Andersen, profiling the surge in newspaper videojournalism indicated that TV needs to keep an eye on the usurpers: "I can easily imagine newspapers' Web-video portals becoming the TV-journalism destinations of choice for smart people—that is, in the twenty-first century, the dominant nineteenth-century journalistic institution, newspapers, might beat the dominant twentieth-century institution, TV, at the premium part of its own game."

One case in point: The Washington Post's Web site "was commended for general excellence in video coverage online," in a Radio Television News Directors Association's Edward R. Murrow contest, and also has won Emmys and a Peabody, all awards normally associated with broadcasting, not newspapering. 31 The newspaper's VJs also have walked away with a substantial number of awards for video in the White House News Photographers Association, often beating their TV counterparts.

Even smaller newspapers are getting into the VJ business: in Oshkosh, the Northwestern newspaper reporters are now heading out into the field with video cameras on their shoulders. A Northwestern news article gives management's pitch for the conversion: "Rest assured, video will only strengthen the newspaper's traditional role as a community watchdog. But it's guaranteed to give you a fresh, online reflection of life in your community, as you live it and it unfolds."

Some newspapers are even requiring their photographers to use high definition video cameras instead of still cameras on assignment. All they have to do for a single image for the paper or Web site is grab a high-quality frame from the video.

How It All Began

Solo video/multimedia/backpack/digital/journalists—one-man bands—who are producing news video for the twenty-first century have come a long way from those who pioneered the art. First there were the newsreel cameramen who documented events worldwide for audiences on movie theaters' big screens. Following in their footsteps, television news crews in the mid-twentieth century began broadcasting their stories to much-smaller home screens.

"TV is the most difficult news medium to work in that has yet been invented," CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood was quoted as saying in a 1968 book on television news. "It's mechanically more difficult, more cumbersome, it involves more people and uses more skills and puts more burdens on correspondents than either radio or the press."

That book, TV Covers the Action, describes a network news operation as using three or four people in a crew. One was the correspondent or reporter, another the film cameraman, with a third person operating the sound recorder for the film. If needed, the crew added a fourth person to do the lighting.

Getting everyone's ideas for how to handle the story became a crucial journalistic milestone: "All three must know how they are going to cover the action, must take into consideration the correspondent's own basic approach to the story and know what each can contribute. Then they must decide jointly how they are going to get it," the book's authors concluded.

In the 1970s networks and stations phased out film coverage, which took a half hour or more to chemically process the film. Instead, stations adopted electronic news gathering (ENG). Those were electronic cameras and recorders that recorded moving images and sound on videotape, which gave news crews instantaneous access to images without developing. Even with the cumbersome arrangement of having the video camera attached to a three-quarter-inch videotape recorder by a cable, local stations cut the soundman out of the equation to simplify and make TV news gathering more cost efficient. The reporters concentrated on gathering information and interviews; photographers, with the camera on either a tripod or one shoulder and the recording deck, that some referred to as "boat anchors," on the other shoulder, managed to shoot video, get usable sound and do lighting set-ups if needed.

"The camera was powered by a battery belt that resembled weights that scuba divers wear," recalls Mickey Osterreicher, who shot with an RCA TK-76, an early ENG camera, at WKBW-TV in Buffalo. "An additional battery belt was needed to power a 250 volt Frezzolini light. It is amazing to think that with all of the connecting power and video cables not to mention mike cords that we were able to get anything shot. But we did."

As cumbersome as that was, many got their start in television news working as one-man bands using that gear.

Later, Betacams mounted the video recorders on the back of the camera and scaled down the size and weight of the ENG equipment considerably. Networks usually dispatched a soundman along with a correspondent and Betacam videographer, but at local stations, two-person crews became the norm. Yet at many small-market stations, Betacams made working alone as a reporter-photographer far easier in this second generation of ENG.

One Person Getting Closer to the Story

Working with such equipment in the 1980s, Jon Alpert turned one-man banding into a TV news art form, using a cinema vérité style to get up close to people and do stories with angles few others were able to get. As a freelancer, Alpert sold many of his stories to NBC News, where he became a regular feature on the Today Show. Reporting and shooting in places that NBC crews could not or would not go, such as Cuba, China, or Vietnam, his reporting won several Emmy awards as well as a duPont-Columbia award.

Alpert often injected his personality into his stories, which many critics decried. Yet a Columbia Journalism Review article in 1991 said, "Alpert hung around with his subjects long enough for them to let something human shine through the camera lens."

The Today Show executive producer at the time, Steve Friedman, found Alpert's approach refreshing compared to the pieces aired by the traditional network news crews. "I thought, this is the kind of stuff that we can't get, because we can't spend that kind of time with people," said Friedman.

Today Alpert has moved on to do long-form documentaries, usually with a crew, but his style of reporting, working one-on-one with subjects, gaining rapport where two-person crews can be a crowd, became a model for many solo videojournalists.

Solo Videojournalism Goes Mainstream and Online

As Alpert's run on the Today Show was ending, the miniaturization of video cameras, or camcorders, began and solo videojournalism as a movement started to take its first baby steps. Although it could also mean "video jockey" as in disc jockey, the term VJ as videojournalist first was used in Britain in 1994 as Channel One pioneered the art form. About the same time, former CBS producer Michael Rosenblum became an advocate of reporter-photographers using Hi-8 cameras, getting up close and personal with people, spending more time on stories and developing quality videojournalism stories.


Excerpted from Going Solo by G. Stuart Smith Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

G. Stuart Smith is Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations at Hofstra University. He has produced two documentaries, working mostly as a solo videojournalist, and has won over two dozen awards for his work as a videojournalist and documentary filmmaker. He resides in Freeport, New York.

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