VJs — It’s not about being cheap

Permit me a rant.

By now you know that ABC News announced a big round of buy-outs and layoffs (300–400) and a switch to more of what they call “Digital Journalists.” At AR&D, we call this concept MMJs for “Multimedia Journalists,” but the original moniker was created by Michael Rosenblum. He calls them “video journalists” or VJs.

I wrote about the ABC announcement for our newsletter this week:

The decision has set off another round of arguing about the comparative value of “one-man bands” versus the two-person “crew” (reporter/photographer) of traditional newsgathering. Many, many people feel threatened by the concept of multimedia journalism (MMJ — our term) and see only the downside for themselves. In so doing, they can’t see past the threat to embrace certain positive realities about the concept, such as individual control over every element of storytelling, more feet on-the-street to cover the news better (yes, better), and that technology has forever changed the Hollywood model of newsgathering that we’ve had for 50 years…

…The VJ or MMJ or DJ model is going to be the standard model for most newsgathering in the years ahead. There will always be a need for “some” specialists on both the reporter and photographer side, but it just makes so much more sense — and not just from a cost standpoint — to go with the technological flow.

Now comes a Wall St. Journal article that calls the concept the “cheaper” way to gather news. Such ignorance! Here we go again.

Richard C. Wald, a former top executive at ABC News and NBC News, says the big broadcast networks suffer, in part, from offering a mass-audience product in a news environment that has splintered into niches.

“They absolutely must change,” said Mr. Wald, noting that Mr. Westin’s move to wider use of “one-man-bands” could spread: “The minute he has any success, it will be widely copied,” he said.

…The cuts have unleashed a wave of uneasiness in TV newsrooms.

…“Maintaining the quality, or enhancing the quality, but for much less money—I think that is a very viable business model,” Mr. Westin said.

So to the Wall St. Journal — and those “uneasy newspeople” — this is all about money. Money, money, money. Let’s do it on the cheap. Trust me, I’ve heard that for almost ten years, because I was an early proponent of this style of newsgathering.

The problem with all of this is that it’s not about money; it’s about a new way of gathering the news, and where it has been implemented, it gets rave reviews from both the managers and the street people. Why? Because they overwhelm the competition by putting more cameras and feet on the street, which is where the news battle is won. We have clients who are bursting with pride at the way they now totally dominate the market, so can we please drop the money-grubbing corporation meme and look at this realistically? Is it possible to save money? Of course, but that’s not the point. Welcome to the friggin’ 21st Century!

Look, nobody likes to change. We’re comfortable with what we do, but it cannot last, and I wish that media outlets covering the changes in our industry, like the Wall St. Journal, would get it right. To keep pounding the “cheaper” drum does a gross disservice to the many fine men and women in the trenches who are making this real.

Oh, and here’s another note for the WSJ: The Newark Star Ledger was nominated this week for seven (count ’em, seven) local emmy awards for their video work. All of them for VJs.

On the cheap? I don’t think so.

Comments

  1. Hi Terry,

    It’s not much of a claim to fame, but I think I own the title of first major market ND to have to figure out how to position VJ as a positive in the newsroom. Granted, it all turned into BS as the executive management at KRON had a change of heart, but here was my answer: TIME. We all know that when a reporter-photog crew gets an assignment at 11am and told no setup calls had been made and both the 5p and 6p shows want coverage, time is the main problem. Victory becomes making slot with not black holes. An MOS is quicker than sound from the true expert, afterall. Now that the number of daily packages needed to fill the show equals the number of daily stories assigned, this also impacts how stories are selected. Go for the sure-things, take no chances. This means we do the same stories we always do, because real journalism presents a risk of a story not panning out.

    When I had to sell a newsroom on the value of VJ, I had the luxury (believe it or not) of not simultaneously cutting the budget. We would have many more VJs working each day than were needed to fill the shows. So our approach was to be “4 total bases per week.” So, if a VJ wanted to keep doing a quick-turn piece almost every day, fine. If she had a really good piece of journalism going, that “home run” could be all she filed that week. She’d have time to actually develop sources and report. Combined with a beat system, this approach could enable VJs to do actual journalism. Oh, and imagine the web site you could produce if you had (as KRON was to have) 35 VJs, each assigned a geographical or subject-oriented beat.

    Of course, all of that exploded and KRON’s brief moment of really inventing something new faded. And if there are now no television stations (or now, networks) transitioning to VJ who aren’t seeing it as a way to cut budget, then these thoughts may be irrelevant. I don’t mean to dismiss Rosenblum’s rationale for going VJ: there is a terrific method of storytelling that the smaller cameras can bring to many (but not all) stories, and he’s a great teacher. However, unless we give our field people the time to actually do journalism, the size of the camera and the size of the crew matter little to the audience. Setting aside the big news day, the audience will be gone.

    Cheers, Chris

  2. i always thought that ABC news is even better than CNN when delivering up to date news-;-

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