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Rise of the lone-person 'team' in TV reporting

Videojournalists are gathering the news for ever more affiliates. Is it just a cost-cutting move or a drive to expand and diversify coverage?

January 31, 2006|Rose French | Associated Press

SPRING HILL, Tenn. — As bulls munched hay in nearby stalls, Jerry Barlar steadied a small camera on his shoulder and posed questions to an agriculture center director.

Barlar would do all the reporting, shooting and editing for his cattle auction story, which aired on WKRN-TV, a Nashville station that last fall converted its entire newsroom to a system of solo "videojournalists" -- or VJs.

"It was a little unnerving at first," said Barlar, who was a cameraman for nearly 14 years before becoming a VJ. "The scariest part was the writing because I'd never done that.

"Now I'm doing the kind of stories I think are interesting, and you put more into it."

Ditching the traditional duo of an on-air reporter and a behind-the-scenes photographer for the one-man-band approach has been done for years at small TV stations, and it's commonly used by 24-hour news channels. But media observers say WKRN is helping to pioneer the practice among local broadcast TV news affiliates.

"We're the petri dish," said Mark Shafer, WKRN's managing editor.

After WKRN made the switch to videojournalism, its parent company, Young Broadcasting Inc., did the same thing at its KRON station in San Francisco.

Young Broadcasting's plunge into the format is being closely watched, and some are already questioning the quality of VJ-produced stories.

"When you throw a camera in everyone's hands in the shop, you devalue both videography and reporting," said Hub Brown, a former television journalist who heads the communications department at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. "This is not about improving the visual quality or the journalism quality of the newscasts. It's about cutting costs."

Using less expensive and less cumbersome equipment has already allowed WKRN, an ABC affiliate, to increase its news output and diversity of coverage -- the main goals behind the change, said the station's news director, Steve Sabato.

"This isn't an economic decision," he said. "Our company spent a significant amount of money in capital to buy cameras and computers and software and automobiles. We've invested a considerable amount of time in retraining our staff.

"This is an investment in what we believe is a way to improve the quality of our products and address systematic, chronic weaknesses in broadcast news."

The newsroom rolled out the VJ experiment in September following several weeks of training.

In the past, WKRN would send out up to five two-person crews each day. Now there are seven to nine videojournalists, and that doubles the number of stories produced to about 10 a day.

"We have enough stuff so that if one or two pieces fail, we can still get on the air," Sabato said. "Or even better, pull someone out and say, 'Go ahead and dig a couple of days.' We've moved from a same-day reactive news organization to a planning and proactive news organization."

Former CBS producer Michael Rosenblum helped WKRN make the switch. His company has trained thousands of VJs worldwide, for companies such as the BBC and 24-hour cable news channel NY1 in New York.

Rosenblum claims the "era of the cameraman, sound man, producer and editor is dead," and that "today, all it takes to make broadcast-quality television is a [digital video] camera and a laptop or desktop computer in the hands of a well-trained VJ."

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