MTV goes mobile for Campaign 08

MTV’s political coverage has come a long way from its Rock the Vote “Boxers or briefs?” days back in 1992.  This year, the network got funding from the Knight News Challenge to hire 51 young citizen journalists (one for each state plus Washington, DC) to cover the campaign online.  According to supervising producer Liz Nord, reports from Street Team 08 can then “bubble up” to any of MTV’s broadcast networks.

Writing in the latest issue of Nieman Reports, Nord says the project has allowed MTV to try some experiments using new technology:

The most ambitious of these happened on Super Tuesday, when we had reporters in 23 primary and caucus states doing live mobile-to-Web broadcasting with Nokia N95 video phones and an alpha version of Flixwagon’s embeddable player. While the video quality of the pieces was poor, the relevancy and immediacy of the reports was hard to beat.

Nord says the Street Team has dug up local political stories of interest to youth that MTV never would have had the time or resources to cover in the past.  But there have also been challenges:

Many of our young reporters are immersed in blogs with very firm ideological orientations, and on those the lines between “news” and “opinion” are blurred almost beyond recognition. One of our biggest tasks then becomes finding ways to get them to uphold journalistic values, including a commitment to accuracy, while still taking advantage of the less-structured nature of the Web so their own personalities can come through in their reporting. After all, the point of this project is to give young people a voice and a platform to air their political concerns.

After reading Nord’s report, I can’t help but wonder if there’s an obvious reason that MTV has had trouble helping the team understand the difference between “personality” and “bias.”  The company recruited a diverse group, many of whom apparently had little or no journalism training and few multimedia skills.  Nothing wrong with that if you’re going to train them yourself, which MTV did.  But the training–a “journalism boot camp” in New York–lasted just three days.  Seems to me there’s no way to avoid the kinds of challenges Nord describes if you’re sending people into the field as “reporters” with that little preparation.

Web story airs on NBC

A quiet revolution is underway at NBC News. Earlier this month, a story about a baby penguin that was created originally for the Web aired on the weekend Nightly News. Tim Peek, executive producer for new media at NBC’s Peacock Productions, calls it “one of those small events that may well mark a watershed toward a truly cross-platform world.”

We’ve already noted the work of NBC’s “digital correspondent” Mara Schiavocampo, who files stories both online and on the air.  What’s different now is that NBC has aired a story that was shot, edited and voiced by a Nightly News producer, Clare Duffy. That may not sound like such a big deal, but it’s a radical change for a network news division.

In a post at MediaShift, Peek says NBC has been “pushing the digital journalism agenda as a way to cast a broader newsgathering net and lower production costs.”  Many long-time journalists at NBC have been wary of the effort, he says, worrying that it may compromise quality.  As Peek himself notes, the digital journalist method is efficient but “something’s got to give.”

Not even the best digital journalists can shoot, edit, write and report as well as the dedicated teams of experts who still dominate TV news production. The biggest compromise comes in technical quality. The video from DV cameras is softer than beta; the sound is not a sharp. Producer editing on low-end systems is a stripped-down affair; straight cuts and dissolves. Stand-ups and tracking from producers also can suffer. And time pressure puts everything under the gun — even though the DJ model is more efficient, it still often takes more time to get it all done well.

But in many cases, Peek argues, none of these compromises make much of a difference, and the result is a story that’s plenty good enough for any medium.

This has the potential to dramatically alter the economics of network news production by allowing much broader use of these web-oriented stories. It also means that news organizations can more easily use their content on whatever platform makes the most sense, without recutting, revoicing or repackaging to meet the quality standards of the high-end platforms (stories can now just as easily travel up the quality stream from web to broadcast as down it).

I can hear some VJ advocates now, saying “Duh!” and “About time!”  But even Duffy, the producer/reporter of the NBC penguin story, has concerns about a wholesale move to “solo” journalism:

What I do worry about is the loss of the collaborative nature of what we do…There’s a reason the best TV has been made that way since its inception and it’s something that should not be chucked out wholesale as irredeemably ‘old media’ simply because people are overly entranced by the idea of saving money. Losing that will yield a product that’s not worth very much.

There’s truth is, they’re both right. Some stories are best told by a solo journalist with a small camera; other stories turn out better when developed by a collaborative team.  But the “digital journalist” revolution is already well underway, and it’s good to see some recognition of that at the network level.

Audio and video tips

Mark Luckie over at 10,000 Words has posted a couple of handy tip sheets from the UNITY conference in Chicago: 15 tips for shooting video and 9 tips for recording audio for the Web.  The tips should all be familiar to anyone who’s read the book, but it’s always useful to review what works.

Both lists stress the importance of using an external microphone and always using headphones. And both make it clear that simpler is better.  Thanks, Mark.

Women, minorities take charge in TV news

A new study finds that more women than ever are running local TV newsrooms. According to the annual Hofstra/RTNDA survey, women now hold well over one quarter of the news director jobs.

At 40.2 percent, there was no significant change in the percentage of women in the television news workforce in 2007, but the number of women news directors reached an all-time high of 28.3 percent. Furthermore, women are as likely to be found as news directors in the largest markets as in the smallest, something that has not been the case in the past.

Minorities also made gains in 2007. The percentage of minority television news directors also reached an all-time high of 15.5 percent, up from 10.9 percent the year before. And almost a quarter (23.6 percent) of local television news staffs are minorities, up from 21.5 percent in 2006, and the second highest percentage since the peak in 2001. The number of Asian Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic journalists all increased, while the number of African Americans remained steady, the report says.

The bad news? Little or no progress in radio newsrooms, where minority employment edged up only slightly and the percentage of women in the work force and in leadership declined. The survey was released one day before the largest convention for journalists of color, UNITY, opens in Chicago.

Journalism and consulting don’t mix

The Fox station in Detroit officially parted ways with a highly-paid morning anchor this week.  Fanchon Stinger was suspended last month after reports connected her to a controversial city contract that’s now under federal investigation.  According to the Detroit News, Stinger’s “media consulting and public speaking company” was hired last fall to place ads for Synagro, the firm that eventually won the contract. In a written statement, Stinger denounced what she called the “malicious dismantling” of her reputation and career:”

At the conclusion of the federal investigation it will be apparent that the scandalous allegations pertaining to my personal involvement with Synagro are misleading and without factual basis. At that time I will also be free to correct the blatant misrepresentations and tawdry allegations that have been attached to me.

Stinger co-anchored the morning newscast at WJBK-TV and was paid over $300,000 a year, according to the News.  Synagro won’t say how much it paid her company for the ad contract.  But money isn’t really the issue here.  Even if the work was pro-bono, the conflict of interest would be patently obvious to anyone–except Stinger herself, perhaps.

Independence is one of the most basic ethical principles any journalist should live by.  The Radio-Television News Directors Association’s ethics code couldn’t be more clear:

Professional electronic journalists should understand that any commitment other than service to the public undermines trust and credibility.

The lesson here is simple: If you want to do media consulting, get out of the news business.

Big-time TV salaries disappearing?

The evidence has been building for a while. As the latest cover story in RTNDA Communicator magazine points out, the broadcast economic is facing a perfect storm, which has led to staff and salary cuts, even for top anchors and reporters:

Those moves may come as a shock in some newsrooms, says Sandra Connell, president of the recruiting firm Talent Dynamics, because news staff have been in denial for years. The era of the “unreasonable paycheck” for big name anchors is over, she says. “Talent need to get real about it all,” Connell says.

For years, layoffs at local stations generally meant a leaner, meaner production crew and fewer video editors, but high-profile anchors and reporters were left untouched.  Not any more.  A case in point is last week’s layoff of WFLA-TV (Tampa) health reporter, Irene Maher.  Maher, a former anchor for the station, has been there for more than 20 years.

Now, a TVNEWSDAY article takes a closer look at what’s happening at the higher end of the TV news salary scale, quoting talent agents who say the economy and shrinking audiences are at the core of the shift.  They say it takes longer for reporters and anchors to get jobs and that they’re now getting lower salaries.

Some of the agents feel that even when the current economic downturn ends, TV newsrooms will have undergone a fundamental change with the survivors those workers who can work multiple jobs on multiple platforms.

On the flip side, Bob Papper of Hofstra University does an annual salary survey for the Radio-Television News Directors Association – he says for now TV salaries are fairly stable.

“There is no question that there are stations, which have let higher priced talent go,” Papper says. “But in the scheme of things, that doesn’t show up in the salary numbers.”

In the last two or three years, Papper says salaries have increased “relatively modestly,” right around the rate of inflation. They have not been going backward.

Then again, salary surveys reflect the past and these changes may be part of TV’s future.

Want to report for CNN?

Okay, not exactly “report for” CNN.  But the network is now soliciting “iReport” stories about the presidential election with a “carrot” attached.  The best of the user-generated video submissions will be featured on Anderson Cooper 360 and other programs.  And there’s more:

20 finalists will be selected by a committee composed of CNN producers, iReporters and students from film schools and high schools across the country.  Those 20 films will be posted to CNN.com, where the site’s users will vote to determine the winner of the CNN Audience Award.  The finalists also will be judged by a panel of professionals from the television and film industry for the Festival’s Grand Jury Award.  Winners of the CNN Audience Award and the Grand Jury Award will be invited to travel to Washington, D.C., during the Presidential Inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.

Videos can run no longer than 8 minutes and must be uploaded to CNN no later than midnight, Sunday October 12.  So get started.

Journalism at the crossroads

No, this isn’t another post about the economic woes in newsrooms.  It’s a tip of the hat to Robert Courtemanche, who teaches high school journalism near Houston, Texas, and runs the blog TeachJ.  He was inspired by another blog to create this graphic (we used to call these Venn diagrams, I think).

Robert’s comment: scary how close journalism is to tatoos!

Gain invaluable skills

Times are tough in newsrooms all across the country.  Dragged down by a sagging economy, TV newsrooms and newspapers are laying off staff and cutting their coverage.  If you’re a young journalist, it may be hard to keep your fears about the future at bay.  Was it a mistake to get into this business?  Not at all, says reporter Meranda Watling, who covers education for the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Indiana.

Although it’s far more traditional a journalism job than I ever envisioned myself taking, I get to do most of the things I want to do. When I took this job I was upfront with everyone including myself that I wanted it to give me a solid base for whatever job I take next. I don’t expect or want to be a “newspaper reporter” forever. But I do believe no matter where I go, the skills I’m learning here are going to be invaluable.

Among the skills she’s learning: how to work fast in multiple media.   Case in point–a story she broke online after getting an email tip at 4:30 p.m.

Because the editors were in the daily budget meeting, I had another reporter read over it, and then I had a copy editor post it asap so I could begin chasing the sources who were leaving their offices at or before 5 p.m. After I reached those sources, I wrote into the online version and updated. When my editor got back he swapped it out and posted it in the No. 1 spot online.

I went to my board meetings armed with notebook and pen — AND a laptop, Internet card and my Blackberry. I continued to report and write during the meetings. On my drive between the two meetings? I made calls on the A1 story.

When I got back to the newsroom around 8:45 p.m., I made a few more calls and banged out the A1 story and then two more about the meetings I’d covered. All before the 10:30 print deadline. I made cop calls, and half-way down the 10-county list we heard a shooting over the scanner. I went there and called in a Web update from the scene.

That is a sampling of what “newspaper” reporters are expected to do today, at least at my newspaper.

I don’t see any mention of shooting photos or video–something many newspaper reporters are also expected to do.  But I do get the impression that Meranda is making the most of her first full-time job.  Just hope she uses that cell phone with a headset and isn’t trying to take notes while driving!

Visual ethics – Part 2

It’s not only still photos falling under suspicion this week, but video as well.  An Associated Press story outlines concerns about tornado footage that may have been altered.  At issue is video sold to the AP by a freelancer who says it depicts a recent tornado in Nebraska.  However, another news photographer contacted the AP to suggest it was actually video taken during a storm in Kansas four years ago.

The AP had sent [the] video Sunday to nearly 2,000 Web sites that subscribe to the company’s Online Video Network, and more than 60 large digital customers that buy AP’s online content individually. Upon seeing the evidence, the AP eliminated the video from OVN and contacted its other customers to urge them not to use it, said Kevin Roach, the AP’s acting head of domestic broadcast news operations.

“We never want to mislead people,” Roach said. “Based on evidence provided to us, we believe that the video was not authentic.”

Roach said the AP looked at the two video streams side-by-side, and examined individual frames of the footage in making its determination. He also asked for opinions from a photo editor and third storm chaser, Roach said.

“It was rather definitive for us,” he said.