Wednesday, November 12, 2008

More journalism of the future

I have before posted some advice from Robin "Roblimo" Miller for journalists, and here I go again. The first post explored freelancing and queries. This is one is broader in scope, and focuses on the future of video journalism. Robin has grown a successful video service in addition to everything else he does and he's worth listening to.

How many of you routinely report both in text/stills *and* with video/TV equipment?

My hand is up. Any others?

Fine. In any case, class, let's begin:

It is hard, possibly impossible, to get as informative an interview when someone has a 72mm (or larger) lens pointed at them than when they're talking to an innocuous person holding a notepad or possibly a small tape/digital recorder. It gets even worse when they're being interviewed on camera by a makeup-wearing "TV personality".

I have interviewed many subjects on camera. More often than not, I did not appear in the finished piece. I try to stay out from in front of the camera as a general rule, not because I'm ugly (which I am) or because I'm ashamed of my appearance (which I'm not), but because the know-it-all on-camera reporter-presence is contrary to the old journalism ideal of the reporter not being part of the story.

Some time back, I wrote - in a story for the Online Journalism Review - that when someone wears more makeup to go on camera than they wear to go to the grocery store, they are entertainers, not reporters. Even since that ran, I have been getting a steady trickle of hate mail from on-air TV personalities. (Please note that I do not say "reporters" on purpose.)

In TV-land, the "reporters" are generally called "producers' and rarely/never appear on your screen. They are background people who make the calls to set up interviews, do the research, and write or at least outline the questions and scripts that the on-air people read from notes or teleprompters.

I have been a "TV personality" and liked it up to a point, but being well-known (locally) made it harder - not easier - for me to do what I call Real Reporting, i.e. ferreting out information your subjects may or may not want you to have. A bit of semi-anonymity or at least a non-threatening presence is important for this kind of work, along with a willingness to listen to people ramble in hopes of getting at least a few interesting words from them.

Personally, I believe a real TV reporter should stay behind the camera 90% of the time and only get in front of it to explain information that he or she has gotten from sources not willing to go on camera themselves or from non-verbal sources (a.k.a. online or book/periodical research) that can't easily be added to the piece in the form of lower-third titling.

Currently, TV "journalists" live and die and have their salaries determined by their Q scores more than by their reporting ability or any other factor.

It seems to be even worse on the cable channels. Look at what the "inside media" pubs write about how the cable crowd picks news shows and personalities. It has nothing to do with their ability to get strong, accurate stories, but everything to do with their likability and popularity.

We are starting to see a movement away from on-camera reporters in newspaper online videos, which tend to be made by newspaper reporters who are not used to being the focus of their own stories. I call this the "headless interview" style, and I've participated in several Online News Association panels about how to do it well. The TV/cable crowd is not jumping on this bandwagon quite yet. The "talent" (what TV producers and techies collectively call the often-vacuous faces in front of the cameras) is scared as shit that they will lose their paychecks and fame. And station managers have based so much of their ratings success and ad sales blather on having "top talent" on their stations that it's hard for them to move away from made-up celebs delivering speeches in stentorian tones, and toward having knowledgeable reporters running around doing one-man/woman newsgathering.

My personal term for someone sitting or standing in a studio, reading news, is "radio".

TV and other video forms are at their best when they "take you there", not when someone with a powder-covered face under a bank of 3K Kelvin lights is telling you about an event. And radio news, too, is at its best when it works from location, with ambient noise as part of the story, a style only NPR still seems to use.

Things *will* change in the news business, not because of politics or any of that crap, but because of money. It is cheaper for WTSP (Channel 10, St. Petersburg, Fla.) to pay me to cover stuff in my local area as a "headless interviewer" than to send their "talent" plus a cameraperson and a truck 30 miles. And they still can, and often do, screw up my stuff by having their studio mouths talk over the actual people I've interviewed.

If you want to sit around and complain about TV and/or cable news, fine. Go ahead. While you're complaining I'll be working on ways to produce visual stories better/faster/cheaper. I rode the wave of "Net journalism" into "citizen journalism", and zoomed past "Web 2.0" so fast I barely noticed it in my rear-view mirror.

So, as MSNBC and MSCBS and MSFox and MSCNN and the rest of that crew worry about "bias" and wring their hands over their declining audience, I will be moving forward, figuring out new ways to make and distribute news in various formats - not all of which will be successful, I might add - as the old MSM dies out and a new establishment comes to the fore, hopefully raising my tiny little boat as the tide of the future sweeps over the media business, swamping some and lifting others.

And that's our "Notes from the Future" segment for tonight. Please stay tuned for the season premier of the "Joe the Plumber Show". Tonight's scheduled guests are Sarah Fey, Tom Cruiser, and Jimmy Buffer, whose latest hit, "I May Be a Redneck but I Think Obama Will Be the Best President Ever, and It's Five O'Clock Somewhere So Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw Instead of Talking about Politics," is heading straight to the top of the country charts!

(Posted with permission.)


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