TV News in a Postmodern World

The Rise of the Independent Video Journalist

by Terry L. Heaton
There's an old story about a father disciplining his son. "Sit down," the man says, and the boy refuses. "I said sit down," the father demands, but the boy continues to stand. The father grabs the boy's shoulders and forcibly puts him into the chair, whereupon the lad says, "I'm sitting down on the outside but I'm standing up on the inside."

As the cultural shift of Postmodernism continues to envelop authoritative logic in the West, new ideas and new concepts are emerging to fill the Modernist void. This is happening without the approval of those in charge, mostly because they're driven by an opposing worldview and can't see it. There's no secret organization meeting in some mountaintop hideout and pulling the strings of this movement. No marching on Washington or waving of banners. Driven by technology, the Postmodernist movement is occurring at a level beyond the reach of manipulation, where human nature itself calls the shots. It is a time in history when one must step back and take stock, because the status quo is crumbling under its own recalcitrant weight. It's sitting down on the outside but standing up on the inside.

Nowhere is this truer than in the world of television news. This elitist, Modernist institution stubbornly clings to 20th century concepts with the feigned confidence of a professional wrestler engaging a 40-foot python and being slowly strangled to death. Technology is evolving television news to Video news, which inevitably will evolve to Video News on Demand (VNOD).

The Video Journalist movement is sweeping Europe, thanks to Michael Rosenblum and his vision of television newsrooms that resemble newspaper operations. I've seen the results and heard from these VJs who're on the cutting edge of a genuine revolution in television newsgathering and the results are provocative and encouraging. Here in the U.S., Dirck Halstead's Platypus movement is bringing a similar revolution to print journalists who've discovered they're no longer bound by the rules of text and still photos. Multi-media is the name of the game in today's environment.

In a nutshell, Rosenblum's idea is to eliminate nearly all of the 2-person news crews in a newsroom, remove the edit bays, get rid of most of the ENG gear, and then equip everybody with small digital video cameras and laptop edit systems. The result is a reporter-driven newsroom that functions like a newspaper. Producers have much more material from which to choose for their programs. Field people aren't stressed by turning a package and a v/sot in half a day, and the reporter dynamic in the field changes, because a television crew with all their gear doesn't become a part of the show. The little cameras don't dominate the scene, and people are much less intimidated, which makes for better interviews, etc. Prima Donna reporters can no longer lean on gifted shooters, and the gifted shooters become the star reporters. Since everybody edits their own pieces on their own systems, everybody "thinks" television, and the quality of the work goes up.

And it costs only about $10,000 to fully equip a VJ.

TV news photographers despise the concept and go out of their way to vilify Rosenblum at every turn. This is lunacy, because the whole idea is built upon the recognition that video is the foundation of TV reporting - something news photographers have been preaching forever. What the VJ concept offers to photographers is job security and the chance for vindication in an industry that has increasingly rewarded pretty faces over quality work. Moreover, there are still live shots and places where 2-person crews are necessary. (Although Sony makes a wonderful and inexpensive little camera with face recognition software that'll follow a reporter's face in a crowd, perfect for those walking, talking stand-ups without a separate shooter.)

The VJ idea hasn't fully taken root in the US yet, although embedded reporters used it during the Iraq war with stunning success. It is only a matter of time. The economics of the move make it highly attractive to increasingly cost-conscious station owners. While cost savings may be the impetus that drives the American foray into this realm, it will be the new newsroom dynamic and product that keeps it around.

However, in a Postmodern world, the VJ concept takes on significance far beyond the newsroom, because it opens the video news door to anybody. Postmoderns (Pomos) reject elitist authority and the "thus saith the anchor" inference of typical 20th century newscasts. Pomos gravitate to the idea of tribes and a multicultural mosaic that doesn't have to make sense. All points of view are relevant and therefore worth consideration. Pomos don't want information predigested, like the mama bird of contemporary journalism provides. They feel they can do that themselves, thank you very much. Moreover, Pomos view as dishonest the idea of professional objectivity and choose instead to have their information needs met in other ways.

As such, the idea of Independent VJs who represent various points of view is very Postmodern and, therefore, inevitable as the evolution of video news continues. As with everything else Postmodern, technology drives the train for video news. For the Rise of the Independent Video Journalist to happen, four things need to be in place, all of which are already there or very close.

  1. Playerless video streaming technology and bandwidth provide steady, high quality Internet pictures that users of all ilk and hue will accept. Video doesn't drive the Internet yet, but by 2010 it will share the stage with the other efficiencies of a wired world. It's unlikely consumers will fully embrace the idea of combining their TV set with their computer until the same box runs both and the video quality of both is interchangeable.
  2. Video-on-demand (VOD) takes the place of broadcast schedules as the principal method by which people watch television. The TiVo personal video recorder (PVR) model is changing the way consumers relate to entertainment and information programming by empowering them to watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it. VOD makes sense in a Postmodern news world too, because it puts decision-making in the hands of the user instead of an Executive Producer somewhere else. Pomos want to participate in their world, and PVRs make that possible.
  3. Point-of-view journalism becomes an accepted part of information programming. Special interest groups representing specific points of view will get into the VJ business, because it makes economic and political sense for them to do so. Pomos think information should be free, so who's going to pay for video news in the 21st century? Advertising? Perhaps, but not in the form we know today. The first thing every PVR owner does is remove the commercials from their viewing. One day, an Independent VJ in, say, New York will be paid by the Sierra Club or PETA or Ford to insure their perspective is presented in daily stories about virtually anything. This is not to suggest the VJ will do only stories about Sierra Club or PETA or automotive issues; rather, that their perspective won't be omitted in the pieces he or she does do. Remember that Pomos embrace the idea of different perspectives as they continuously scan their surroundings in search of comfortable tribes. There is a subliminal honesty to point-of-view journalism that also fits the Postmodernist ideal, along with a realism and practicality that Postmoderns appreciate.
  4. Internet video news portals take the place of or supplement news organizations in offering Video News On Demand (VNOD) to users. Since the Independent VJs don't work "for" these portals and, in fact, may never visit the building that houses such, the Internet becomes the most efficient method of getting their stories to end users. Each Independent VJ could have their own Web-based Video BLOG or archive from which these portals would cherry pick the VJ's latest offerings. Google News has pioneered software that presents text-based news in a similar manner, and these video news portals could function in the same way. On Google, for example, the same story is presented from multiple perspectives based on the news organization providing the story. This gives readers a well-rounded view of a particular issue, especially when various international spins are presented. In the same way, video news portals would provide viewers with multiple points-of-views on stories based on the published biases of the various Independent Video Journalists selected by the portal.
Word-of-mouth, jungle drums and smoke signals aside, the news/information spectrum we have today began with a single tool, the printing press. Then came radio, followed by television, and now the Internet. Each has its own unique niche, something it can do better than any of the others, and that niche guarantees each a future. Printed news - whether newspaper or magazine - provides depth, which can be picked up and put down. Radio occupies only the sense of hearing, which means listeners can do something else while participating. It can provide information immediately too, but so can television. TV's niche, however, is that it occupies two senses and can "take people there" better than radio. The Internet bests its competitors, because it can provide all three forms of communication in addition to being a 2-way medium.

The extent to which television news is clinging to its niche while ignoring the natural transition to Video News On Demand (VNOD) via the Internet is both self-destructive and sad. Today, events drive television news, because covering events - especially compelling breaking news - is what TV does best. But where there is no event, TV operations attempt to create them through manipulative marketing gimmicks and hyperbole. Meanwhile, people, especially Postmoderns, are turning away in droves.

Local television stations are the natural choice to move VNOD forward and reap the financial benefits thereof. However, the price of admission to this dynamic new world is so reasonable that outside investors could easily steal the niche right out from under stations. This is a business threat that station owners should take seriously. Already the Platypus movement is training print journalists in the art of video journalism, and some newspapers are drifting into the video news business.

Marketing guru Craig Marshall gave six rules for managing change, and they are especially appropriate for television news leaders today.

  • Challenge the status quo.
  • Utilize consumer research.
  • Analyze your current strategy.
  • Recognize paradigm shifts.
  • Constantly monitor change.
  • MAKE the change.
  • Make the change, TV News. Stop standing up in the face of a vastly more powerful entity that is insisting you sit down.