Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The 21st Century VJ(or One Man Band or BackPack Journalist or....)

Smaller stations in smaller markets have always set the benchmark for getting the most out of an individual, but over the years the One Man Band concept has gradually crept its way into the larger markets around the nation.

As the equipment gets smaller and the quality continues to rise, more and more TV News Stations or Cable News outlets are hiring reporters who shoot for themselves.

Call them what you will, One Man Band, Video Journalist, Backpack Journalist, the definition is the same; A Television Journalist who shoots, writes, edits and voices his/her own stories. A slight variation on this idea is a photojournalist who will do all of the above except voicing the story, instead letting an anchor or another reporter lay a polished voice track on these self produced pieces.

There is probably at least one Solo Crew at every TV station in North Carolina. And many photojournalists, like myself and Lenslinger shoot and write stories on our own all the time.

Here in the Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point, NC market there are a several One Man Band VJs at all the stations.

Most notably however was when Gannett owned WFMY advertised last year for 2 of what they titled Backpack Journalists. This position was a reporter/shooter position where the shooter would use a Sony DVCam Handycam unit to gather news video and edit in the field on a Laptop NLE computer.

vj Heidi 5

One of the Backpack Journalists that WFMY made was Heidi McGuire. She is a local girl who grew up right here in Thomasville and has now made her way back from South Dakota where she was also One Man(woman)Band at KSFY.

I ran into her recently on a shoot and asked her about the appeal of being a OMB VJ and her answer was simple and straight forward.

vj Heidi 2

"When it looks good I get all the credit, but when it looks bad it's all on me too."
She also said something about not having to work with grumpy photographers, but I was too busy griping with my reporter to care what she meant. ;)

Today's Video Journalists like Heidi are carrying a much lighter load than the one man bands of the 80s and 90s. The pictures on a $3000 'Handycam' that weighs about 8 pounds are nearly identical to the picture produced on the 16 pound, $30k shoulder mount like I carry.

vj Heidi

I personally like my bigger camera and wouldn't want to work with such a small camera everyday and it has nothing to do with masculinity(OK, maybe a little).

My beef with a smaller camera is about quality and ease of holding a steady shot. The capacity to have full manual control of the camera is also important to me and I don't like having to deal with itty bitty controls.

But on the other side of the coin, McGuire would rather let the camera do the work while she focuses on the journalism. She says lugging around a gigantic camera while trying to perform the delicate dance that is news, interaction with the public, gathering information and keeping up with a bunch of heavy equipment is just too consuming when there is this smaller alternative.

And as far as shooting steady video, she says she has gotten used to the feel of the smaller camera. It just takes a little more finesse.

vj Heidi 3

Her equipment list is fairly simple. The 8 pound camcorder with a wireless microphone setup, a shotgun mic, a lightweight tripod and a small light kit for indoor interviews.

And then there's the VJ Van from which she can write and edit her stories and wait for a photog who brings her a Live Truck and shoots any Live Shots.

VJ Van 2

With moves like the one KRON is making in San Francisco by only having one person news gathering crews on the streets, you may think McGuire is in favor of filling up her shop with a bunch of other VJs. But she says it's a bizarre step to eliminate 2 person crews and not the way a TV station should approach news gathering.

She is more than happy and up to the challenge of gathering stories solo, but there are those days when being alone makes getting the story nearly impossible to do well, if at all.

vj Heidi 4

While Heidi and other VJs love what they do, I would have to agree with reporter Caron Myers, who I work with the most, who put it this way..."As a VJ there is going to be a compromise, whether it's the video, the journalism or the on air appearance of the reporter. Something's gotta give."

But for now I will say that Heidi and Gail, the other VJ Back Pack Journalist at WFMY, are doing a great job, in spite of flying solo on a flight sometimes meant for a crew.

Now about the VJ deal at KRON. Coming in the next few days...An interview with a former KRON photojournalist who is currently working at another TV station in SanFran.


Anonymous said...

hmm, this doesn't seem all bad ... not sure I would call a $3000 camera a 'Handycam' anymore.

Anonymous said...

Do you believe this will give rise to the freelancer? I can just imagine people with small fast light rigs putting together stories and selling them locally on a piece by piece basis. Or possibly as contract work.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect to Heidi and the other VJs out there who-- I'm sure-- (as you suggest) work hard and are doing great jobs, I worry where this trend is going.

General managers with primarily sales and promotion backgrounds along with the bean counters who see this as a great way to save money will start saying, "hey, why don't we replace this last reporter who left or we fired with a VJ." There is a possibility that this could result in newsrooms where reporter/photojournalist teams are things of the past.

The main problem arises when you get a really complicated story: the triple murder with multiple figures, union negotiations with several different sticking points,the major spot news story on which the newsroom expects a different package for each newscast, trying to explain the latest stem cell research in plain English and the story airs in two hours.

Not great examples, maybe, but those are the stories where -- for the sake of accuracy and the other elements of good journalistm--you need a reporter focusing mainly on content and performance and a photojournalist focusing primarily on shots, lighting, editing, and feeding. This is the team approach at its best.

I know for a fact there are a lot of people within the Gannett family who worry the company's using WFMY as a test market for this concept and that it could lead to stations eliminating reporter/photojournalist teams altogether.

Don't get me wrong, I think VJs can be a good utilization of personnel. But please don't assign them the really complicated stories and don't eliminate the team concept entirely.

Kenneth said...

How about a VJ that has to shoot their own live shot. Don't laugh. The OMBs at my station in the 28th largest tv market has to shot their own live shot. We don't have an office for reporters who work in our bureaus, we give them live trucks and expect them to do it all. Talk about the quality suffering. Not only does the video suffer, you have live shots where the reporter has too much head room and are off center. I can't believe what we air half the time.

Anonymous said...

This is going to happen and it is going to happen everywhere. It is going to make for a much better kind of television journalism - one that allows authorship. Because the cameras are so cheap and easy to use (and so are the edits) it allows local stations to put more reporters in play every day. That buys the journalists more time to actually report and craft a story, and working alone, it allows a kind of authorship that simply does not exist in television news to arise. This change is going to engender much larger changes in how television news looks, how the newsroom works, even the nature of what we output and what the ultimate platforms are. But surely, there is massive room for improvement. I have built VJ-driven stations and networks all over the world. They work, and they work well. Different, but well. This is about a lot more than just replacing big cameras with smaller ones or sending out the odd OMB>

-Michael Rosenblum

Anonymous said...

Seems like a couple of steps up from a "stringer" to me. That should, as you well know, only lead to bigger and better things. I would certainly not like to see things move for total change in that direction. As an avid newsfan I think I could perceive the drop in quality.

Anonymous said...

Heidi is so hot!

vj360 said...

I am a VJ in a 30's market. It is definitely tough. Some days are almost impossible. However, I have yet to fail or come up empty handed. I agree, this is a trend. But I highly doubt that the news team will be totally eliminated. The best part is having the credit all to yourself when something great happens.

Unlike Heidi, I do not work with an 8 pound camera. Mine is the regular, heavy-duty, rough-tough-and-gruff Sony that all the photographers in my shop use. Talk about a work out.

The only part I really don't appreciate about my job is dressing up, or at least wearing a long sleeve shirt and dress pants when it feels like 200 degrees outside. There has to be a VJ clothing line out there somewhere!