WUSA-TV’s “multimedia journalists”

Warning: rant follows. I don’t get this mad very often, but this has been building for a long time.

WUSA-TV in Washington D.C. is in the news this week, because they’ve made the decision to go the video journalist route for their news department. That means the shop becomes mostly people who shoot, write and edit stories instead of the “specialists” of the good old days. It’s a budgetary move; the “multimedia journalists” will make less than the specialists did. Given what’s happening to local media companies these days, this is increasingly going to become the norm.

But you knew that.

Those of you who’ve been with me for awhile know that I was involved in the first attempt by a local station to do this — at WKRN-TV in Nashville. In the years that have followed, many stations have adopted some version of what we did back then. There are “backpack journalists,” “video journalists,” “multimedia journalists,” “MoJos,” mobile journalists, and more. Most stations have equipped at least some staff to cover the news this way, although not until the announcement from Washington this week have I heard of another station going “all the way” with VJs. In its article on the switch, The Washington Post quotes WUSA competitor WJLA-TV news director Bill Lord:

Lord says stations in Nashville and San Francisco have used multimedia journalists on an experimental basis in recent years but have backed away because of “falling quality” and declining ratings.

Failing quality? Declining ratings? Says who? With respect to you, Mr. Lord, you weren’t there. You know nothing, and you — and all the others who think they know anything about this — need to be corrected, and it is to this group that my anger is directed.

San Francisco got a lot of publicity, because it’s a big market, and the travails of KRON-TV had already been well-chronicled. But the only connections between what we did at WKRN and what was done at KRON are that both were owned by the same company and that the training was done by Michael Rosenblum. WKRN’s move was not done for financial reasons; KRON’s most certainly was. It wasn’t ratings or quality that doomed either; it was the financial struggles of the stations’ owner.

I’m mighty damned sick of and disappointed in certain elements within the industry for their relentless and automatic dissing of what was clearly a prescient and necessary move by a group of people with the stones to stand up and say, “We can’t keep doing things the way they’ve always been done and expect different results.” The handwriting was clearly on the wall back then about what was happening in the industry, and while many people talked about doing something different, few people had the courage to break the mold.

Under the leadership of Mike Sechrist and Steve Sabato, WKRN-TV blazed the trail that everyone will eventually have to follow, and while it may not have been — or be — popular with the people who like things the way they’ve always been done, we all need to wake up and smell the friggin’ coffee. Over and over again, I’ve seen well-intentioned professionals make fools of themselves in arguing why the VJ model cannot and will not “work,” when those views are completely — and I mean completely — irrelevant. The economy doesn’t care what you think. The forces of disruptive innovations don’t care what you think. Technological advances don’t care what you think. Rather than seize the inevitable, these people have set the industry back with pejorative references to “one-man bands.” Shame on you!

If you ever chose to actually examine how this is being done around the world, you’d understand that there will always be certain types of stories and events that require two (or more) people. Read the interview I did in the summer of ’05 with Lisa Lambden about how the BBC made the switch. For sure there were problems, and there still are, but where the industry could use the expertise and wisdom of its professionals in overcoming those problems, you have chosen instead to cast stones and treat with great disrespect those who were trying to make a difference ahead of the coming storm.

Now that storm is upon us all, and what can I say?

You can bet that the young people coming up in the industry will be trained with multimedia, VJ skills. Then, too, there’s the matter of a generation of video journalists who are growing up around you in your own communities. They didn’t go to school for it. They didn’t work in smaller markets and march their way to the top. But they’re getting better at what they do, and one day, their skills will match or exceed even yours, for they are not bound by the chains of nostalgia.

So when the economic forces of reality eventually rip that job from your narrow-minded grip, I will wish you well, but I will not feel one bit sorry for you. Michael Rosenblum has been vilified by an industry he has been trying to save, and the bullshit coming from the mouths of professional news people over the years since WKRN’s pioneering move is exceeded only by the arrogance with which it has been spread.

Comments

  1. i made mention of jfk’s 1960’s vision of landing a man on the moon (elsewhere) hoping someone would take me to task, but no one took the bait!

    dang!

    i wanted to point out that jfk had a line- “there are three types of people in this world; those that make things happen, those that watch things happen and those who say “what happened”.

    thankfully, you’re the first type.

  2. Bravo!
    Well said.
    And kudos to you, Sabato and Sechrist (as well as Anotonitis) for seeing and embracing the future long before anyone else. This is clearly going to happen. Let’s hope it happens in a good way.

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