Call them VJs, backpack journalists, or “one man bands.” Whatever you call them, these do-it-all reporter/photographers are turning up all over at stations trying to cut costs, broaden coverage, or simply put more flexibility and options in the news director's toolkit.
The ideal VJ knows how to report, write, shoot, and record good sound, then edit the resulting video on a laptop computer and transmit the story back to the station – typically using a broadband cellular modem rather than a traditional microwave truck.
A few stations, like KRON 4 in San Francisco, have gone to an all-VJ model. Many more are introducing the concept selectively. They may ask all their reporters and photographers to be able to go into one man band mode in a pinch, yet employ dedicated cameramen for the more important shoots.
At first glance, the KRON story looks like a cautionary tale because the VJ model was one of the things that was supposed to make the station successful in an format dominated by 9 hours of news coverage. But Young Broadcasting [http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6539686.html], which bought KRON in 2000 and severed the station's affiliation with NBC, announced in January [http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6522345.html] that it was looking for a buyer to take the money-losing station off its hands. In fact, it wanted to make the sale in the first quarter – that is, before the end of March – but so far, no buyer has emerged.
News Director Aaron Pero said he could not comment on the issues of finances and corporate strategy related to station operations, except to say that, judged on its own merits, he believes the VJ model has succeeded at creating a leaner and more effective news gathering organization. On a typical day, he has 10 to 15 reporter-photographers available to report the news, and he has been able establish beats with reporters specializing in topics such as transportation and real estate.
“When it comes to breaking news, we can just inundate a scene,” Pero says. “We've had a couple of examples in the last year or so. We had a guy in San Francisco who was driving down the sidewalks, and we had 14 VJs on the story that day. During the [Lake] Tahoe fires, we had 8 VJs and two satellite operators working the story, and we were able to have 8 reporters on the air. When we have earthquakes, we go wall-to-wall with it – we send our VJs out so they can start picking up different angles.”
The station wins strong ratings during those periods of crisis because viewers know KRON will have the most thorough coverage, Pero says. Where the news channel struggles more is in its day-to-day operations. Where other local newscasts benefit from having a strong lead-in, such as a popular sitcom or sporting event that viewers have tuned in to watch, the KRON news team is pretty much on its own because of the lack of a network affiliation.
At KGTV in San Diego [www.10news.com], News Director Gary Brown said he visited with KRON when he was planning his own VJ initiative, but he hasn't chosen to duplicate its wholesale conversion to the VJ model. But since the fall of 2006, he has been training reporters to operate in VJ mode when it makes sense.
“We're not necessarily going to say, everyone's going to be a VJ today, but some days a reporter might work with a photographer, other days he might not,” Brown said, and photographers are also being cross trained to report their own stories. Some reporters and photographers are adapting better or more enthusiastically than others, and he tries to take their strengths and motivation into account when making assignments. “This is not a one size fits all strategy,” Brown said.
Brown said KGTV, an ABC affiliate, is adopting the VJ model less as a cost-cutting initiative than as a way to extend its coverage and create a wider variety of content for the station's web site, as well as its broadcasts. Like Pero, he cited breaking news such as a recent road collapse and wildfires in the region as cases where “we have more video from out in the field because of these people.”
But VJs are also helping the station improve its enterprise reporting. For example, there was the Feb. 20 incident where police found La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid falling down drunk by the side of the road, and the city worker driving him home also intoxicated. The story revolved around whether the police acted properly by driving the two home without charging either, and KGTV's first day coverage of the story was better because it had a beat reporter VJ in La Mesa who found out about the story and was able to catch the mayor at home and interview him on camera, Brown said.
“You can't do beats easily in a TV station when you have 2-person crews,” Brown said. “So stations can't support coverage from all their geographic regions on a daily basis. But you can with VJs.”
For entry level TV journalists, VJ skills are proving essential. During a Society of Professional Journalists conference at his alma mater, the University of South Carolina, WPDE-TV reporter Graeme Moore talked about “one man banding” at the Florence, S.C., bureau of the Myrtle Beach station.
He sees the job as a way of paying his dues, he said, but there are definitely times when he is working on a big story and finds doing all the reporting, writing, video, and audio himself overwhelming. “Those are the times I wish I had someone else,” he said. He finds himself spending so much time worrying about the quality of the video he is producing that he has less time for reporting, he said.
Still, Graeme was able to show some respectable video clips. Typically, his stories start with a stand-up from the bureau office, where he records himself standing in front of the camera on a tripod. In a feature on the economic challenges facing independent truckers [http://www.wpde.net/news/videoplayer.asp?v=news/~truckertolls], he managed to get a shot of himself climbing into the cab of a truck by first positioning the camera on the seat of the truck.
But KRON's Pero says VJs shouldn't necessarily always try to produce the same sort of stories that a traditional reporter photographer team would turn in. “Yes, my people have tripods, and they have lights, and they do their stand-ups themselves. But we also try to make sure that we're only doing stand-ups for legitimate reasons, make sure we're showing some actual information,” he said. “We don't do live shots in front of a dark building,” like a court house where a ruling was handed down hours earlier, he said. “There are some crazy old television rules that we've broken, and we're proud that we've broken these rules.”
Chip Mahaney, the news director at WTVR and WUPV in Richmond, said that although he has not imposed a VJ model at his station, he already has three people who work that way as a personal preference. Certainly, he is thinking about the benefits of that model and looking for those skills in new hires.
“What I'd like as a news manager is flexibility with the staff I have,” Mahaney said. “On the other hand, I still want to have skilled professional people. If I have the best reporter in the market, I just want him to shoot. And there are people who are great reporters who have no business behind the camera. But my mission is to get as much content as I can on the web and on the air, and that may require more cameras on the street.”