Lisa Lambden provides one of the missing voices in the discussion of whether the VJ movement is viable for local television or just some gimmick to save money. She is the manager of VJ training and implementation for the BBC's national network across the United Kingdom and a veteran of the BBC's switch to video journalists.
Lisa joined the BBC as a newspaper journalist more than 15 years ago and worked initially in radio and then television. She has been a reporter and presenter (anchor) and a producer of news program and documentaries. As a manager, she ran local television newsrooms and converted them to the VJ model. She was what we would call in the US, a news director.
Ms. Lambden recently led a gathering of VJs from all over Europe and is currently in the US working with Michael Rosenblum in the Young Broadcasting transition of WKRN-TV and KRON-TV to the VJ model. (Disclosure: Both stations are clients.)
As a news manager, what were your original thoughts about the VJ system when it was handed to you?
As a programme producer and editor I had long been frustrated that we couldn't set our own news agenda and were too often forced to cover 'guaranteed' stories from press releases and newspapers because of a lack of resources. My experience was that the team always worked incredibly hard but when the big story broke, we simply couldn't be in all the places we wanted or indeed needed to be.
Of course as a manager I was aware of how video journalists had been used by other broadcasters in Britain and the constant fear that it was a way of cutting costs and quality at the same time. This was certainly not the case at the BBC. This was a way of increasing both the breadth of our coverage (newsrooms would have around 40 cameras) and the depth of our reporting by being able to spend more time on those stories that required it.
I saw the VJ system as a way to completely change the way television news was being made in BBC Nations and Regions. (The local division of the BBC.)
Your Nottingham newsroom is thought of as the most successful in incorporating VJs. How is 'success' determined by the BBC and what made your operation more successful than others?
Success is measured in terms of both the audience figures for a programme and the number of VJ reports they put on the air each night.
Although there are 'newer' programmes in BBC Nations and Regions which are entirely staffed by VJs, Nottingham has been particularly successful at making the conversion from conventional programme making to the VJ model. In Nottingham we started with a blank page and asked ourselves how we would make the programme given that almost all our TV staff, journalists and technical alike, would soon be able to shoot and cut their own stories. We developed a completely new staffing structure based much more around people working in the field and not having to return to the main news centre to edit and feed their stories. The key to this process was flexibility and detailed management.
In the coverage of news, where do VJs outperform the traditional model?
I think the most obvious way in which they outperform the traditional model is the breaking news story. For example, when the bad weather hits and homes and businesses are flooded we can field five or six times as many cameras as our opposition. We are able to get really close to the people affected and our stories are more powerful as a result. VJs can also outperform in terms of access. We've had many examples of where a VJ with a small camera can get access on a story where a conventional two person crew can't.
Where do they come up short?
We currently can't use VJs with small cameras to report live and it's difficult for them to cover sporting action although the Belgians use small cameras to do absolutely everything and it's hard to tell the difference! At the BBC we have very strict health and safety rules about 'lone working' and for example we would never send a lone VJ to a situation where there was likely to be a public order problem.
A lot of people view the VJ concept as "all or nothing" and make arguments against it based on the logical assumption that there are certain places and situations where a two-person crew are needed. In practice, how does this work? Is it all or nothing in Nottingham?
At the BBC we use our VJs flexibly and deploy them in a way which is appropriate to the assignment. For example, when a story breaks and there are several angles to chase, we can assign several VJs to chase different elements. With more than 600 VJs in play across the UK every day we don't really think in terms of conventional working versus VJ working, only the best way to use the vastly increased resources at our disposal.
What are the keys to managing a VJ newsroom? How do you make it work?
I think managing the process of VJ conversion presents many more challenges than training does. To be honest, the training is very straight forward.
The key to successful implementation of a VJ system is 'micro-management'. You have to pay attention to every minute detail on a day to day basis.
First you need to have a clear vision of what you want to put on the air and then you need to organise your resources accordingly. You need to forget old ways of structuring the newsroom and restructure based on the fact that now, almost everyone can shoot and cut. It pretty much changes everything from the assignment process to how you produce your programmes and bulletins. My advice would be see this as an opportunity to change the way you do things for the better.
How is the architecture of a newsroom different in comparing the VJ model to the traditional model?
I think the biggest mistake you can make is keeping the existing architecture of a newsroom and trying to make it fit the VJ model. For example, there is an enormous benefit to the production process to have your VJs editing in the newsroom alongside their colleagues and the producer. Your producers should be encouraged to 'walk the floor' and see how each report is coming together. It is the chance to have real editorial input.
In the VJ driven newsroom, only a tiny handful of staff should need to stay in the office each day. The majority should be out there gathering stories.
In the U.S., most newsrooms are what we call "producer-driven," wherein a staff of show producers and managers determine nearly everything about what goes on the air and how. Is this the role of a producer in the VJ model?
Yes the producers really hold the key here. Just as in the conventional model, in the VJ model they are instrumental in deciding what gets covered, how, when and what it looks like when it hits the screen.
Since you have managed both types of newsrooms, would you ever consider going back to the traditional model and why?
I found the conventional model too frustrating to consider going back. The lack of resources constantly compromised what we could put on the air and ultimately it was our viewers who suffered.
As you know, this is a very divisive issue currently in the U.S. A lot of people who work in newsrooms fear for their jobs and view the VJ movement as cost-cutting only. What advice do you have for these people?
My advice would be take the training and future-proof yourself. It is natural to be concerned, however if you look at the way this has been used in the BBC and elsewhere in Europe, it has not been a way to save money. On the contrary it has been a way to cover more stories, to do more in depth and original journalism and ultimately to win the ratings war and offer viewers more engaging content. Ultimately we are all facing the same problem...fewer and fewer people are choosing to watch television news and we have to do something to change that.