Pros and cons of sharing news video

It’s happening everywhere. Stations from Tampa to Los Angeles are forming local partnerships to share news video. The arrangements vary from market to market, but so far stations owned by Fox, Gannett, Scripps, Tribune and Meredith have jumped into the new pools.

The benefits for the stations are obvious. Sending one photographer to cover an event for several news organizations at once should save all of them money. The networks have been doing it in Washington, DC, for years. Among the other arguments in favor:

  • Video from pre-arranged events like news conferences all looks the same anyway, so there’s really no need to send more than one photographer.
  • Stations that participate in pools will have more photographers available to shoot enterprise stories that could make each station’s newscasts more distinctive.

Not everyone is buying it. Emily Barr, news director at WLS-TV in Chicago, is keeping her station out of the pool. She told the Chicago Sun-Times that sharing video could compromise her station’s independence and flexibility. It’s probably no coincidence that WLS is the top-rated station in Chicago. The number one station in Atlanta, WSB-TV, isn’t joining the pool arrangement there, either.

No market has been doing this long enough to measure the real impact on local TV news. But some concerns may be well founded:

  • Stations using pools could decide to cut their staff rather than redeploy them to cover other stories. That could make local newscasts even more alike than they are now.
  • Stations may decide not to send their own reporters to events that are pooled, so they won’t get any independent coverage.
  • Even if reporters are present, they may not be able to use a pool camera to shoot unilateral footage. That’s been a problem in DC for years. In my experience, it was almost impossible to get a second, independent camera sent to a pooled event.

My former colleage at Poynter, Jill Geisler, warns of other hazards, including the possibility that events designed to draw pool coverage will proliferate, as pols and PR types learn how to game the new system.

But video sharing appears to be on the verge of becoming the new normal. Should viewers worry that stations are saving money at the expense of quality ? Or will these collaborations actually improve local TV news?

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VJ interviewing tips

It’s not easy to prepare for and conduct a TV interview if you’re working alone as a “backpack journalist.”  Steve Mort should know. He reports, shoots and edits for Feature Story News, and says interviews are one of the most difficult things for solo journalists to do well.

On his blog, The One Man Band Reporter, Mort admits it’s hard to concentrate on what you should be asking while also worrying about your equipment. So he’s come up with a few strategies for doing the best possible job in the most common types of interview situations a VJ would face.

If you’re doing vox pops–interviewing people on the street–Mort advises using a tripod and a mic flag. “This enhances the perception that you are a legitimate news gatherer,” he says. “People are suspicious of anyone who stops them, let alone someone who is trying to point a camera at them.”

For a formal sit-down interview, Mort kills any overhead lights and sets up his own:

I always use two lights – an Omni and filter to light the interviewee, and a Lowell set low to the ground with an white umbrella to light the background. If your background is far away, you really need to light it unless it just looks dreadful.

To get a polished, professional look, Mort advises that you blur the background, if possible, by setting the camera for a shallow depth of field. 

Even if your subject is a few feet from you, always sit next to the camera so you can glance up from time-to-time to see that all is well with what you’re shooting. Make sure the camera is at the right height for the interviewee so you are not staring up their nose, or looking down on their bald spot.

One other point I heartily endorse: don’t use chairs that swivel or have wheels!

The big camera debate

Some veteran TV photojournalists have argued for years that bigger is better when it comes to video cameras. Only a heavy professional model could produce rock steady, broadcast quality images, the long-timers said.  Or at least they used to.

Oscar Valenzuela of KGMB-TV in Honolulu has been in the business more than 20 years and says he never really thought smaller and cheaper would take over. Until now.

At a recent police department stake-out, Valenzuela and his behemoth camera were set up next to a photojournalist from a competing station and his “baby-cam,” a Sony EX-1.

Right there in that precinct, at that very moment, change had finally come to pass.  We are now officially in the transition to what I believe is the job/appropriate equipment. These new smaller, lighter cameras can even shoot HD, on memory cards,  and can last a lifetime on one battery.

As if the presence of a “baby-cam” weren’t evidence enough of a sea change,  what happened next certainly was:

That’s when the intern from the other station arrived at the last minute, pulled out her cell phone from her purse and recorded video of the suspect, same as the rest of us, as the patrol car pulled into the garage. (along with the newspaper guy who took pictures and video with his Nikon DSLR camera!!!).

Need  more evidence? How about this story from KOB-TV in Albuquerque, N.M., shot almost entirely by reporter Jeff Maher using a tiny Flip camera?

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Think we can agree that the big camera debate is over?

Smart strategies for using VJs

TV newsrooms that are replacing reporter-photographer teams with solo video journalists might benefit from the experience of stations that have always had them.  News8 Austin, the cable news channel in  Texas, has used VJs ever since it launched 10 years ago. News director Kevin Benz told Poynter’s Jill Geisler that managers need different strategies to make “one man band” news coverage successful:

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Video journalist responsibilities

olsenBeing a VJ means that you are totally responsible for what the viewer sees. That’s how Eric Olsen, a video journalist at The New York Times, describes his job in a post at Digital Journalist.

I’ve always thought of it as something akin to an acrobat working without a net, but that’s not entirely the case for Olsen. While he typically works alone when shooting stories in the field, as a Times staffer he’s not exactly a solo journalist.

VJs actively seek each other’s opinions on the use of a particular shot or the direction of a narrative. We also have lunchtime viewing sessions where we watch and critique each other’s work, as well as the work of our competitors. This proves to be amazingly helpful, as almost every story has something about it that could be done better, and there are few people as good as a peer who faces the same challenges to set you straight and provide advice. We also get a tremendous amount of feedback from our senior producers, all of whom have substantial documentary experience and who have a remarkable ability to tease out the essence of a story and help you trim away material that (as naturally happens) you may have become too close to but which is not integral to your story.

That’s an advantage many VJs don’t have. But it’s a good reminder that feedback can help you improve. Even if you’re not working for a collegial organization like the Times, you can seek feedback from other photojournalists, like Angela Grant at News Videographer.

Olsen, a former ABC News producer, describes himself as largely self-taught, which took a lot of time and practice. What helped immensely, he says, were freelance gigs he took on before starting his job at the Times.

The Web has made this particularly easy, since there are many Web sites that are thrilled to receive video alone or with a written story. Short travel-related pieces worked particularly well for me. I also had one of my early pieces run on “Current TV,” which can be a great outlet for VJ work. The key is to always be working on something – shooting, writing, editing – whether it’s a paid project or not.

To be successful as a VJ, Olsen says you have to be able to think on your feet, plan your shots (especially if shooting on digital cards), and keep your footage organized.  Those skills help him produce stories like this one, a profile of the artist Maya Lin:

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Olsen says being a VJ is one of the most rewarding jobs in journalism. “Each one of us is still learning,” he says, “and it’s hard to imagine a time when that won’t be the case, given the rapid changes in technology.”

Tips for shooting breaking news

When all heck is breaking loose, how do photojournalists know what to shoot and for how long? WBFF’s Darren Durlach, the 2009 NPPA TV photographer of the year, has his own way of staying focused on a spot news assignment: he talks to himself.

Now that he’s won the most prestigious TV photojournalism award there is, Durlach might be forgiven for thinking he’s all that. But he doesn’t. “If mistakes were cool, I’d be Miles Davis,” he says. “I look at my stories the next day with a clear mind and always see things I should have done better.” His response: “Make a mental note and move on.”

One reason Durlach has done so well at a young age is that he doesn’t think of himself as “just” a photographer. He may stand behind the camera, but he also asks questions and gathers information. “To excel in this craft, you must not be afraid to fully immerse yourself in the story and be involved in every part of the process,” he says.

Durlach’s winning entry in the POY competition demonstrates his range, from breaking news to longer turn features. “Superior shooting and editing, strong commitment, strong inspirational character and emotion,” is how one judge described “Shane’s Story.” Watch the entire entry, and pay particular attention to the way Durlach has planned his shots so he can edit for eye movement in the piece, “Ghosts of the Civil War.”

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Three steps to good audio

One sure fire way to ruin a stunning slide show is to pair it with muddy audio. Capturing good audio isn’t rocket science, but it does take a little effort. Thanks to our friends at the Mobile Journalism Coalition, you can learn to improve your audio recordings in three quick steps:

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Not every audio recorder allows you to adjust input levels, but you can always follow the other two tips: wear headphones and make sure you position your mic correctly. Doing just those two things will improve the quality of the sound you gather and the stories you tell with it.