Cranky, magnificent bastards

That’s what talk show host Craig Ferguson called us over the weekend, and it was a compliment. The host of the CBS Late Late Show entertained a packed crowd at the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington on Saturday night. Mixed in with the jokes about Vice President Cheney already moving out of his official residence (“it takes a long time to pack up an entire dungeon”) , there were a few barbs and bouquets for the press.

First, he took a shot at The New York Times for not buying a table:

They felt that this event undercuts the credibility of the press. It’s funny, you see, I thought that Jayson Blair and Judy Miller took care of that…Now let me try this: Shut the hell up, New York Times, you sanctimonious whining jerks!

But Ferguson saved his best line for last. Telling the audience he knew that the room would be full of contentious and contrary people, people who argue all the time, he reminded us “we need that.”

Please never ever ever agree with each other, never stop arguing, never stop fighting, you cranky magnificent bastards. God bless you and god bless America,everyone.

Watch it!

Personal note: I used to go to this dinner all the time when I covered Washington. It’s a very different event now–more Hollywood than DC–complete with red carpet, velvet ropes and screaming fans wanting pictures and autographs. The dinner has long raised questions about the ethics of journalists getting too chummy with their sources. But that was back when invited guests were mostly politicians or high-level government officials. These days, the place is packed with “celebrities,” although some of them must have wondered why they came. As I was leaving I saw Kal Penn of Harold and Kumar fame standing by a table looking a bit lost.

The Washington Post says the “the see-and-be-seen ethos of the event has overtaken its original purpose: to give awards.”  I’ll say. One other sign of how things have changed: Because the President almost always attends the dinner, you could usually count on seeing a knot of protesters outside, opposing some administration policy. This year, the only protestors I noticed had a different complaint: liberal media bias. Bizarre.


Going solo

VJ, one-man band, sojo, mojo. Is there a distinction? Pete Liebengood, president of the VJ training company OnQCo, says the only real difference is that a one-man band uses more gear than the others. In his opinion, a VJ, sojo or mojo only needs a camera and a laptop to do the job. What, no microphone? Anyway, at last week’s RTNDA convention, Liebengood said the “spiraling” VJ movement has both an upside and a downside:

People like the idea of ownership of the story. It’s a motivational force for them to come to work each day. The other thing is, it’s hard. Some of them don’t have time to eat during the course of a day. I’m concerned about the burnout issue. It’s physically hard, mentally hard, it’s stressful, draining.

In a video presentation, two journalists from all-VJ KOHD-TV in Bend, Ore., offered a similar assessment. “It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be but it’s also rewarding being responsible for all of the elements,” said Lauren Biskind, although she also admitted, “Some days I just want to back away from the computer and go home and go to bed.” Brian MacMillan had experience as a shooter before becoming a VJ.I think you have to love what you do, be excited about news, and it’s tough to get in there every day and do this. If you’re not excited about it you’re going to burn out.”

KOHD (market 192) launched its all-VJ news operation a little over six months ago. If their reporters are already exhausted, how long can they keep it up?

Reporting for graphics

Developing a good graphic depends primarily on the quality of the information, according to New York Times graphics director Steve Duenes. In an online chat with readers, Duenes said one of his rules is “don’t invent,” by which he means “no guessing.”

We have software that lets us create photo-realistic renderings, but it can be a problem if we don’t know how everything was configured or what it looked like. This may seem like an obvious point, but back in 2003, when Saddam Hussein was captured, just about every news outlet did a diagram of his small hiding place, and not everyone got it right. It happens all the time. We frequently work from building floorplans, photographs, satellite imagery, but as often as possible, graphics staff members go to the scene of a story to do their reporting.

When they get to the scene, staffers make sketches, take photographs and note details that will help them reconstruct an event in a graphic. The next step, Duenes says, is to organize the information clearly and eliminate superfluous detail.

So, if the story is about someone firing a gun in City Hall, we want readers to look at our diagram and quickly understand where the event occurred in the building, and where the important players were when it happened.

“Quickly” is key.  Some people will take time to study a graphic, but the best graphics convey the central point at a glance–kind of like a billboard on the highway.

Most of us won’t have the luxury of working for a news organization like the Times, which has 30 people in its graphics department, plus a whole lot more in its multimedia department. But if you keep their principles in mind as you report for multiple platforms, you’ll produce better work. Collect all the information you need at the scene to create an accurate graphic and then keep it simple.  Simple enough.

Video sharing

It’s not a new concept. TV networks have done it for years in Washington, where it’s called “pooling.” But a report this morning on what two Philadelphia stations are doing made me sit up and take notice. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, NBC-owned WCAU and Fox-owned WTXF are sharing video this week in an experiment that has far-reaching implications.

The two stations involved are at the bottom of the ratings heap for local news in Philly. The story says they plan to cooperate on newsgathering in the field at news conferences or other events that both stations would cover anyway. They’ll also share helicopter video to avoid “safety issues” in the skies over breaking news scenes.

The last thing we want to do is reduce competition,” Fox29 general manager Mike Renda said in a phone interview, adding that sharing nonbreaking video would have a “viewer benefit” because it would allow each station to devote more resources to enterprise coverage.

Sounds good, right? But the skeptic in me wonders if this deal is really more about saving money than boosting enterprise. If they can get the same content using half as many people, why would they keep those people on staff?

Beyond that, I worry about the effect the arrangement will have on news content at both stations. In D.C., the networks often don’t send a reporter to an event that’s being covered by a “pool” camera. An in-house producer just watches the video as it’s fed in live. The problem? There’s no one on the scene to ask questions, follow-up on leads or do any real digging. If TV news wants to reaffirm the perception that it’s all about scratching the surface, expanded pool agreements may just do the trick.

The “beeb” converges

The old, staid BBC is no more.  “Auntie Beeb” got a new look this week and, more importantly, a new structure.  The visual rebranding features slick new graphics, including a swirling red globe that has some viewers complaining of nausea, according to the London Times.  The network also rebranded its all-news channel.  What was “News 24” is now simply BBC News, part of an attempt to bring “coherence” to the huge operation.  Peter Horrocks, the head of the BBC’s multimedia news operation, described the changes as “an evolution, to enable audiences to recognise BBC News whenever and wherever they receive it.”

Behind the scenes, the changes are more profound, according to the Guardian newspaper:

The cosmetic improvements are part of a more fundamental change: radio, television and internet journalists will now sit alongside one another for the first time, working more closely across every platform.  The aim is to deliver a better service for less money, and reinvigorate the BBC’s sprawling news empire by giving it greater clarity of purpose.

No longer will the BBC send multiple journalists out to report the same story for different platforms.  In the new converged newsroom, one journalist will file for multiple platforms.  At the RTNDA convention last week, the BBC’s Maxine Mawhinney said the company’s College of Journalism, launched in 2005, is now training young journalists to do just that.  It’s hard to find much evidence of that on the BBC’s training and development site, however.  I see only one course–Web writing–that’s clearly not broadcast-focused.

The state of multimedia

For a long time convergence and multimedia were dirty words in many newsrooms – and that may still be the case for some.  But there is more evidence that journalists are simply embracing the idea that having more ways to distribute their stories can actually improve the quality of their work.

At the Broadcast Educators Association Convention in Las Vegas, a group of convergence researchers came together to talk about the state of multimedia.  Janet Kolodzy of Emerson College referenced a Pew Research Center report from March 2008 that indicated nearly half of all journalists now say working for the Web has made their journalism better.

But Kolodzy also warned broadcasters that “newspapers woke up in 2006, but TV is still somewhat somnolent. ”  Kolodzy went on to say that she’s seen much more evidence of “newspapers growing their own video sources vs. TV growing its own text and photos.”

The Pew research seems to support the argument that newspapers are putting more of an emphasis on the Web than their broadcast brethren.  Just 10% of those in local TV say the Web has the highest priority in their newsrooms, compared to 18% in local newspapers.

Ken Killibrew of the University of South Florida says that U.S. media are also falling behind European journalists when it comes to convergence.  He says many European publications are buying into the idea of the “news river.”

“We don’t live in a world where we put out newscasts and newspapers – we live in an ongoing stream of news,” says Killebrew.

How does that change things for journalists?  According to Killibrew it puts more of an emphasis on conversations with the audience and innovation in terms of news coverage.  He sees more use of Twitter and social networks among European journalists, as well as a belief in the “wisdom of crowds.”

He also says it can change the newsroom structures from teams to “cluster work,” in which a newsroom “works more holistically.”  For example, under this scenario, you might find a health reporter working with a business reporter and a sports editor to develop a story about the impact of a star player’s knee injury.

To learn more about what’s going on across the pond, check out the European Journalism Centre.

What’s legal online and off

With so many outlets for content these days, broadcast lawyers are busier than ever. Jerry Fritz, legal counsel for the Allbritton stations, says the vetting process for TV news is actually faster and better than it used to be because he can read scripts and watch video online before stories go on the air. But Fritz told a session at the RTNDA convention last week that some things are more complicated in a 24/7 news world.

Rewriting scares me. For the morning news, they’ll change “third degree sexual assault” to “rape” to save time. But one’s a misdemeanor and one’s a felony. I’m reluctant to let Web people rewrite sensitive stories I’ve already vetted.

One of the most common questions today is about using material from the Web, broadcast attorneys say. “A Facebook screen grab is okay,” said CBS attorney Andy Siegel. “YouTube video? I’ll take 10 to 20 seconds.” But CNN counsel David Viglante warned that videos set to music are problematic. CNN wanted to air videos produced by soldiers in Iraq but decided not to because many of them included popular songs and there’s no “fair use” exception for music.

If you do use something you found on the Web, Siegal said, remember that the original poster still owns the content. “Fair use is a defense, it’s not permission. And when you take something without permission, don’t put a ‘courtesy of’ tag on it,” he warned. “It’s a lie!”

The attorneys told a few hair-raising stories about questions they’ve been asked by TV journalists. For a story on airport perimeter security, one local reporter wanted to do a stand-up near an airport holding a fake automatic weapon. The lawyer’s response: “How much do you value your life?”

And then there’s the legal danger that might be lurking in your email in-box. Imagine you get an email alleging someone is involved in child pornography and it includes a link. If you click on the link, you’ve possessed child porn yourself. And if you forward the email to anyone–even your news director–you’ve distributed it. “There is no wiggle room in the law,” Vigilante said. “If you get an email about child pornography, don’t open it. Call your lawyer.”

Passing the job interview test

Be on time. That’s the first rule to keep in mind if you’re lucky enough to get a job interview at a TV station. Rule number two: Allow plenty of time for your station visit, news directors say, because you’ll still have a lot to prove.

Be prepared to take a current events quiz and a writing test. You’d better know who represents the area and the state in Congress. One news director asks, “Who is John Roberts?” [Hint: He’s not talking about the CNN anchor.] Post’s writing test asks “not only for broadcast but AP style because you’re going to be writing for the Web.” And bring some story ideas if you interview at Neal Bennett’s station, WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, Va.

I have reporter interviewees show up before our morning meeting and I’m going to call on you and you’d better have a good story idea. And it can’t be localizing a national story.

“I like them to spend time in the newsroom to see how they get along with others,” said Mark Kraham, news director at WHAG-TV in Hagerstown, Md., during a panel discussion at the RTNDA convention in Las Vegas last week.

“You won’t just meet with the news director,” said Jerry Post, news director at KXLY-TV in Spokane, Wash. “After you leave, I’ll ask everybody what they think.” He tells applicants to make sure they learn about the market and the station ahead of time so they can ask informed questions.

Chris Carl, news director at WDEL in Wilmington, Del., urges applicants to be honest with themselves about the demands of a job in news. “Are you willing to work nights and weekends, to stay at the station for days if there’s a big storm?”

Be prepared for obvious, big picture questions like: Where do you want to be in five years? What are your goals? What kind of stories do you like to tell? “Don’t say you like people stories,” Post said. “All of your stories will have people in them.”

And if you do get a job offer, be prepared to sign a contract for two years, iron clad. What’s negotiable in a first contract? Nothing, said Post.

You’re going to give it to your parents’ lawyer and they’ll say, ‘They own you.’ But we’re taking a risk on you. We’re going to make an investment in you and give you training.

My two cents: Make sure the station really will help you get better. Talk to “alumni” about their experience. Find out what kind of gear the station has and how much you’ll do live. If you’re going to sign away two years of your life for a shockingly low salary, make sure you’ll get everything they’re not paying you for.

Producing for the small screen

If you need a reason to think about producing content for mobile devices, consider this:  The cell phone industry estimates 30 million people in the U.S. will be video subscribers in 2009.  That’s 30 million people available to watch your stories on the go.

So, what do you need to do differently to capture this new audience?  It depends on who you ask.  At the Broadcast Educators Association Convention in Las Vegas, Sean Thomas, Senior Producer for Disney’s Hollywood Studios told the audience, “Don’t change a thing!”

“Stick with what’s appealing, what works on television will work on the Web or on a cell phone,” says Thomas.

But Thomas also cautioned against producing long-form content.  “By the third minute, you’ve lost your audience,” Thomas went on to say.  Instead, he suggests you produce shorter stories and then create a link to additional content for people who want to go deeper.

On the other hand, Bonnie Buckner, president of MicroFocus Media, suggests that “small screen production requires you to expand beyond the limitations of the technology.”

Approaching small screen production requires more than simply scaling down a visual display, whether Web Page or movie.  Because the size and amount of available visual information is reduced, and the often distracting and attention-demanding settings in which small screen productions are viewed, there are more challenges to our ability to perceive and comprehend information on a small screen.

Certainly, TV journalists are used to competing with distractions – but now we must also think about producing stories that work both on the wide screen and the small screen.  Do you have to re-think the way you create graphics if you know someone will be viewing the story on an iPod?  Does this increase the pressure to produce visually strong stories?  The answer is probably yes, but the end result may be more effective television that can break through the clutter we often find on the air.

So, who is doing it right right now?  Garry Hare of Peer English Networks says check out the Discovery Channel and its podcasts

Va. Tech multimedia tribute Roanoke Times marked the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings with an extensive multimedia tribute, including “the sights and sounds of the events of April 16, 2008, as captured over a 24-hour period.” The “day in the life” concept is well executed, visually compelling, and deep. It includes video, time-lapse photography, blogs, maps, and reflections from survivors. There’s also a guest book where visitors to the site can add their memories and comments to those that streamed in immediately following the shootings [it now runs over 4,000 pages]. And there’s a link to the archived coverage of the events one year ago and what’s happened since. Take a look at how that coverage is organized into featured sections on wounded victims, deceased victims, investigations, the campus community, reactions and accounts of the shooting. It’s the kind of package any news organization can and should put together online for stories you can anticipate and plan for, like an anniversary.