What does a local investigative journalism team do when their paper, the Baltimore Examiner, abruptly closes up shop?
They re-incarnate themselves as The Investigative Voice, a web-based digital publication that has reporters collecting information, shooting photos and video, and posting online whenever anything new breaks.
In six short weeks, the team of Stephen Janis, Luke Broadwater and Regina Holmes have exposed the city’s pension board approving trips to the Caribbean during a fiscal crisis, uncovered the roots of a chilling gang-related killing in the leafy suburbs and broke national news of the Secret Service getting one of its vans booted and towed by Baltimore’s finest. (The agents are providing protection to former First Daughter Jenna Bush who, the team pointed out, is not entitled to such security service.)
With no budget and little more than social networking promotion, the site has acheived 20,000 visits and 60,000 page views. Clearly there is a long way to go, but the team is looking for collaborators in Philadelphia, D. C. and New York to broaden the market as quickly as possible.
They are the kind of “One Man Band” digital journalists evolving from both the print and broadcast sides of the business. Free from the superstructure of corporate ownership, they are evolving more quickly than anyone imagined, and proving to traditional media dinosaurs and naysayers that quality competitive journalism is entirely possible under this new paradigm.
“I think its going to be viable.” said Janis Tuesday, though he admits the team is getting by on savings and help from relatives for the moment. “Its basically the future, so one way or another we’re going to figure it out,” he said.
TV stations have already taken to copy-catting stories, and Janis now appears as a regular guest on one station, Fox-45 in Baltimore, to promote his content. It’s an indication that these are the kind of digital journalists television stations hope to create in the future for their own operations. A more extensive partnership with local television outlets is an idea the team is pursuing.
There is no question about the quality of reporting. Janis’ credentials include winning the 2008 investigative reporting prize from the Maryland, DC Press Association. Editor Regina Holmes is a 20-year veteran of papers such as the Miami Herald and New York Post and an alum of the Columbia Journalism graduate program. Broadwater has a fistfull of journalism awards as well.
They buzz-market their content by using Twitter, Facebook and email blasts when a new story posts. They are building web revenue in partnership with Advertising.com and by soliciting readers to become supporters. They are even selling T-shirts. The content is, and will be, free, according to Janis
“We’ve got several plans to make this work,” Janis said. “If this one doesn’t pan out, we’ll try another.” Janis said team can go afford to go about a year before they really need The Investigative Voice to bring in more substantial income.
But the revenue bar is low. It’s an almost no-overhead operation. The team has no office, and works in a “virtual” newsroom via laptops and cell phones. “We meet at Regina’s apartment when we need to be face-to-face,” Janis said. Yet the product is high quality, a bit edgy and certainly compelling.
My opinion: The Investigative Voice is a wake up call to traditional print reporters and broadcasters. As outfits like The Investigative Voice become forces by stealing eyeballs in their markets, big media owners will figure out how to copy and leverage the power of such “One Man Band” digital reporting. In the meantime, Janis, Broadwater and Holmes are showing the way.
The Gasbags on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show were at it again this week as they discussed President Obama’s prime-time press conference Tuesday. There was Rehm sniffing that the major networks provided “no analysis, no nothing” and a guest explaining ”they had to go right to entertainment programming and make their money.” Earlier a guest said of Americans, somewhat self-importantly: “most people do not absorb all the media that we in this room or your listeners absorb”.
The guest, of course, is wrong. Americans “absorb” more media than ever in history, just not the kind of media the gasbags think is “important” and “serious” enough for Americans’ own good.
Meanwhile establishment media got stiffed by the President recently, when Obama blew off their annual Gridiron Dinner and roast in Washington for a quiet night at Camp David doing – nothing. Talk about telegraphing to the self-appointed gatekeepers of information are they not nearly as important as they view themselves.
I point all this out, as we in traditional local TV newsrooms grapple with dramatic change. Many of us now being converted to “Digital Correspondents” wonder bitterly how its possible for the Internet to save us? How can buzz-marketing through Twitter and social networking – or blogging – possibly lure enough eyeballs to to pay the bills at a local affiliate TV station. Why are our owners slashing investment in the flagship TV product by turning us into “One Man Bands” and chasing the Internet with no proven model to monetize the product?
For the big picture on some of this, I look to no other than the President of the United States.
People today consume news as bits of information from mainstream and niche sources and from one another, driving a White House intent on shaping the news to an innovative communication strategy. Blogs, on-line news sites and ethnic media have grown dramatically in size and influence, even as newspapers disappear.
In recent days the president has bypassed traditional media by appearing on The Tonight Show and a Latin music awards show. He conducted an on-line “town hall” where more than three million votes were cast American Idol-style for the top questions to be asked. Via the Democratic National Committee, he e-mails millions directly. And yes, The President is on Twitter.
This is all in addition to the president’s traditional media appearances on 60-Minutes and his prime-time press conference (where, by design, he used up the entire allotted hour to prevent gasbag analysis by the networks).
Obama’s people are working all the angles. And that, it seems, is what I’m doing in my small media world too. Whether all the Twittering, live-streaming chats, blogging I’m doing as a “One Man Band” Digital Correspondent in an “Information Center” (formerly a TV newsroom) will amount to the eyeballs my employer needs remains to be seen. Recent data reported in Broadcasting and Cable raises new questions about blind faith in new media.
Indeed, there are a lot of days when I’m skeptical. Obviously, Obama is not. The question is, can we in the media business adapt as quickly and effectively as the President has without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
Let me take you to a big meeting room at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland one Saturday back in February. Here the Pooh-bahs of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Broadcast Steering Committee had gathered for exactly this uncomfortable conversation. Why, many of these distinguished broadcast professionals wanted to know, should AFTRA accept the coming of the “One Man Band”?
On one side, strong opinions that if AFTRA stood for anything, it had to stand for upholding the quality and professionalism of the work we do – quality that would be impossible to maintain with a do-everything underpaid psuedo TV reporter slinging a camera all alone.
On the other side, fear. Fear that if AFTRA didn’t bend to management, that the union might become irrelevant in a fast-changing media environment.
I was there too, although I felt a little like a zoo exhibit. I’d been invited to answer questions on the topic, since after 26-years as an Emmy-award-winning traditional “coat and tie” TV reporter, I’d recently made the transition to a one man band at WUSA TV in Washington. I’ve also been a loyal dues-paying member since 1991.
Some tried to hide their pity. A few barely concealed contempt. If not for me, then for the management that had insited that my local to accept the conversion of members into “Digital Correspondents” .
I was the only “One Man Band” in the room, and here’s what I told them:
“Jurisdiction is work.”
What I mean is that by accepting shooting and editing, AFTRA members will certainly be more likely to keep their jobs and maintain union presence in the workplace. Expanding the job classifications covered by the union stands to maximizes the percentage of employees in any given shop AFTRA represents. In the long run, both factors can only be a benefit by maintaining or increasing collective bargaining power.
Rather than fearing that AFTRA will become irrelevant by bending to management, the union arguably stands to become stronger.
Not exactly what most managements were hoping for, I suspect. Although it is certainly true I’m working a lot harder for no additional compensation, which is exactly the plan. (In leiu of going out on a destructive strike, AFTRA admittedly had few cards to play in this regard).
Same goes for technical unions such as IBEW. The goal should be the grab as much jurisdiction as the companies allow, even if members aren’t particularly interested in taking on new jobs for little additional reward. All this raises the interesting question of what happens when you pit two unions against each other over the same jursidiction. In my shop, IBEW gave up jurisdiction on shooting and editing which allowed AFTRA to fill the void.
As for quality and professionalism, I struggle with the issue.
I’m proud of my work but recognize that I can be at a disadvantage on stories that require more sophisticated relationships with sources. Instead of chatting up sources in the hallway, I’m busy checking audio and lights for a press conference.
On the other hand, there are opportunities to work smarter. The fact is, the lighter, faster, smaller and more nimble approach has scored me interviews with reluctant subjects who ducked traditional crews. It’s a trade off with mixed results. Compensation aside, I’ve been invigorated by this new chapter in my career.
But one thing’s for sure, whether One Man Bands are the right or wrong way to go — that’s where the business is moving. Unions like AFTRA should embrace them.
Gina Chen writes her blog “Save the Media” for newspaper reporters. But as the on-line boundaries between newspapers, television stations and blogs continue to blur, her immensely practical reporting and blogging tips resonate for journalists on all platforms.
Among her most recent posts, an “old media” versus “new media” imaginary newsroom conversation that resonates with any TV reporter who’s just pulled a bum assignment after a tired morning meeting in a TV news operation.
One excerpt reads:
“Old Journalism:“I’m heading to this town council meeting. Boy, will it be a snoozer. But, don’t worry, I’ll give you 18 inches if it kills me.”
New Journalism:“I’ll check in on the town meeting, and post an update to the blog. Don’t expect a story unless all hell breaks loose. Instead, I’ll double-team with the school board reporter on the hot artificial-turf vote. With both of us there, I can live blog it and tweet it, while she catches up with people to interview on video.”“
My opinion: as newspapers and their larger staffs ramp up like this, our local TV news culture isn’t changing fast enough to make our on line products competitive as true multimedia community information sources — which is what will be required for survival regardless of the power of our TV platform.
In an atmosphere of deep cutbacks, furloughs, and the highly emotional departure of dear and distinguished colleagues — it sometimes seems impossible to produce the flagship television broadcasts by deadline, much less worry about blogging on the website or Twittering our followers. Problem is, if we don’t move far beyond where most of us are on the on line product, we really do risk being left in the dust.
So much of what we now do is personal “micro-marketing”of our product via Twitter, Facebook and others, it seems as though much of the outcome depends on individual worker-bees in the news operation, as much as the mighty management above.
Chen’s blog helps me see how some of this is possible.
You’ve been a traditional television reporter for 6, 12 or even 20 years. You’ve hop-scotched through small markets to finally land where you can make a living. You love your job and you’re proud of what you do.
And now its ALL about to change.
Management has announced the staff will be turned into “backpack journalists” (BPJs), “mulitmedia journalists”, (MMJs) or “digital correspondents” (DCs). Whatever the title, they all stand for “One Man Band.”
We are not talking an entry-level “community” reporter, here. Management means to turn their front-line, senior “talent” into this new kind of journalist. Right or wrong, its happening. Cast your eyes now to WUSA in Washington D.C., where the transition is well underway, and where I’ve made the leap after 26 years as a traditional “coat-and-tie” TV reporter.
The crew is gone. I report alone, shooting and editing my own video. I write and deliver content on all platforms all the time. I file text, video, and photo updates to the Internet throughout the day via wireless broadband. I Twitter followers when anything new occurs to drive traffic to the website and broadcasts.
Oh, and by the way, I appear on camera, often live, and almost always in multiple broadcasts. Later, I’m encouraged to blog in an effort to solicit feedback comments from readers who’ll have additional information that might result in follow-up content.
Should such an announcement come in your newsroom, you’ll likely be trying to suppress emotions ranging from panic, to anger, to hopelessness. Getting another TV job or changing careers in this economic environment? Forget it.
If you’re convinced its the destruction of our industry as we’ve all known it, save it for the blogs. Buck up, Bucko. In my case, management had already made the call, and the union could do little more than negotiate the buyouts.
So if you’re facing a similar situation and trying to decide whether slinging a camera and laptop editing system is for you, here’s the first fear to set aside: YOU CAN DO THIS — AND YOU MIGHT EVEN LIKE IT.
In fact, in the abstract, you’ve already been doing the video part of this job for a very long time.
Remember, you have been on a thousand stories and screened uncounted hours of video. You’ve sat in the booth with your editor and watched over his or her shoulder for years. You know what a good shot looks like. (They look the same in a viewfinder) You know what a cutaway is and how its used. (Now you’ll insert your own.) You’ve cursed certain under performing partners for failing to sweeten your packages with nats and extra shots (Now there will be no excuse).
However, you’ll need to learn how to push the buttons yourself. A challenge, yes. Impossible, hardly.
Even so, you are right that this is probably not for everyone. There are those of us who decide to leave the business, and they do so with my respect.
The debate about the overall quality of our product is an important one. Keeping the capital “J” in journalism is clearly made much more difficult when you’re doing it all yourself and trying to feed the web and the broadcasts simultaneously. There are days when you just can’t make all the calls, and information is missed.
But on other days, I’ve found my more nimble capabilities allow me to cover more ground – and my reliance on new tools such as Twitter allow some information to move more efficiently. It’s been a trade off with mixed results.
Regardless, the bosses have already made the decision, so there’s not much looking back.
You just need to decide if you’re going along for the ride.
Here’s my 20-20 hindsight. Ask yourself why you like being a TV reporter, and be frank.
For many of us when we were younger, a big part of it was simply “being on TV.” The ego stroke. The stage actor’s thrill of “performance” and recognition. There is a little bit of Will Farrell’s “Anchorman” in all of us. The question is, how much?
For me, as I matured in the television business, I came to realize that I stayed in for a different reward – living my life through experiences.
When a big hurricane comes, I don’t want to watch it on CNN. I want to be there. Same goes for everything from a city council meeting to interviews with kids on a ball field. Being there and experiencing it makes my life richer.
I also like puzzles. Well, in this job, juxtaposing just the right pictures and sound in a limited space to make someone laugh or cry beats the daily crossword every time.
In the end, with a camera in my hands, I’m just as close, or closer, to the experience – and my ability as a storyteller has actually been enhanced.
Yes, I can look like a wedding photographer with my little Sony HV-1 and sound bag. Without the crew, there are times I’m treated like the help in the kitchen.
But, sometimes newsmakers say things in front of the help they would never say to the New York Times. And if you’re a storyteller, that’s when this “One Man Band” thing can end up working out pretty well.
When I first started in the TV business back in 1983, every now and then I’d “phone a friend” to alert them to a hot story that I was working on so they could watch it on the nightly news. Perhaps they’d even tell some other friends to watch.
My motivation at the time was vanity, not running up the ratings.
Now, its the other way around.
As a modern “digital correspondent”, not a day goes by that I don’t alert every “friend” I’ve ever had about what I’m doing that day, thanks to Twitter.
I Twitter the world (or at least my growing phalanx of followers) whenever an interview is imminent. “Questions for the Governor?” I’ll Tweet, in hopes of getting some “friend” engaged enough in the story to see if I’ll actually ask his question. Then hopefully that “friend”, and many others, will follow up by clicking through to my latest dispatch, photo or video as soon as it’s urgently posted on the television station’s website, and of course, Twittered again.
Later, maybe – just maybe — some of those people will actually watch the report with the Governor on the news that evening ! As they say on Twitter, “OMG!”
And then there is the Holy Grail. Something goes viral. All of a sudden your employer’s website recieves millions of hits from around the galaxy, all because your followers started forwarding to everyone they know about some snippet of “must-see” video that you just posted.
This is what I call the new micro-marketing of television news. Micro because each day it begins with a “tweet” to that first list of “friends”. It’s personal. It’s up to the individual reporter, not the organization, to drive eyeballs to the product. I’ve even been tinkering with live web cam chats out of my news car while driving to a story. I alert followers to log-in by Twitter, and sure enough, they come.
There’s no promotions department involved for this kind of personal reporter-to-friends mico-marketing. But there is a “Digital Development Director” who preaches the Twitter gospel and teaches staff all the tricks.
My colleagues and I use Twitter, Facebook, Linked-in — whatever social media is at our disposal to tell followers what we’re up to in near real time. It’s all in desperate hope of driving ever-so-fickle eyeballs to our employers’ websites and HD broadcasts. The vanity of phoning a friend is over. Now its about staying employed.
I’ve become a one-man personal promotions machine. On some days it seems, actually reporting the story is last on the list. Instead I’m scheming to churn out another little tease, er, I mean Tweet, to get the audience in the game. I try hard not to waste anyone’s time. It’s all news. (There are no “OMGs” about long lines at the bagel place, for instance).
Of course, this works in both directions. Followers send news of their own all day long. I’ve always said; “News doesn’t happen by magic. Somebody’s got to tell us.” Well, they’re tweeting away out there. The biggest challenge is finding the diamonds buried in the never-ending Tsunami of texts. “Send direct when u see news,” I like to Tweet to a new follower.
Many of those followers are PR professionals or marketers. Everybody’s in the game for their own reasons. I figure PR people and real estate agents have computers and TVs too. If that’s the audience, so be it. Tweets away!
For the following report, page views and comments jumped as Twitter was used to both solicit reactions and inform viewers when and where to see it:
Recently I was asked by a major Washington DC strategic communications and crisis firm to weigh in on the stunning changes now occurring in local affiliate broadcast journalism. I jumped to the conclusion that this might be a good starting place for my own efforts in the blogosphere to contribute to the conversation. The following is the discussion as it appeared in Levick Strategic Communications Bulletproof Blog on March 9th of 2009:
“Each Monday, Bulletproof Blog now features exclusive interviews with thought leaders on issues of critical importance to companies and countries. This series provides insights on current communications challenges, how best to deal with them, and what we can expect down the road. This week, we feature Scott Broom, Digital Correspondent for Washington D.C.’s CBS affiliate WUSA-TV.
Mr. Broom is a new breed of journalist tasked with accelerating the industry’s shift from traditional television news broadcasting to high-volume web-based, video, and text communications. An expert in how digital media are changing the local TV news landscape, he shared his thoughts with us:
Given the recent troubles that have befallen print journalism in the digital age, how is TV news evolving to meet the needs of a shifting media landscape?
Scott Broom: As “big print” collapses, TV operations believe they have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to compete as the dominant media force in their markets.
One evolution is the “information center” concept. This is a web-first philosophy that is designed to make the TV station the primary source of highly-localized, moment-to-moment text, graphic, and video news online as well as on television.
Because searchability is such an important part of cutting through the clutter of cyberspace – and because search engines put such a premium on newness and traffic – we know that a constant flow of new updates and content is absolutely essential to survival in the digital age.
This is one reason interactivity with users through Twitter, blogging, and other social networking tools is encouraged for all our reporters. User comments and submissions of photos and videos are all sources of “new” searchable content. The importance of interactivity was underlined when the first pictures of the “Miracle on the Hudson” landing came via a cell phone camera and Twitter. Meanwhile, our station culls the highest-interest and most visual content flowing through the information center for use in its traditional flagship television broadcasts.
As a reporter for a leading local news network, what does a story need to have to pique your interest and that of your viewers in this new environment? Are there specific elements that you look for when deciding what is newsworthy and what isn’t?
Scott Broom: Here is my list in order of importance: local, timely, surprising, visual, compelling, and “news you can use.”
In addition, there is a huge demand for stories that are likely to produce more “new” or “breaking” developments – anything that will repeatedly engage online users throughout the entire day is a hot commodity. In this regard, quickly placing a client as an “expert” to comment on events of the day can be as effective as it always has.
There is also demand for stories with linkable, interactive “news you can use” elements – such as a mortgage calculator for a report on falling interest rates.
The reason that most pitches end up in the “delete” folder is a failure to provide local, real-world context. For instance, I was recently pitched on behalf of a law firm’s divorce expert regarding how the real estate crisis has couples fighting over who “doesn’t” get the house. That’s great story – but not without a couple willing to be interviewed in front of a home. The firm couldn’t produce one – and, thus, got no story.
What’s next in local television news? Are there developments on the horizon that communications professionals should be aware of?
Scott Broom: I’m a prime example of what’s next. After 25 years as a traditional “coat-and-tie” TV reporter, I’m now what WUSA-TV in Washington calls a “Digital Correspondent.”
The crew is gone. I work alone, shooting and editing my own video. I write and deliver content on all platforms all the time. I file text, video, and photo updates to the Internet throughout the day via wireless broadband. I twitter my followers when anything new occurs to drive traffic.
Oh, and by the way, I appear on camera, often live, and almost always in multiple broadcasts. Later, I may blog in an effort to solicit feedback with additional information that might result in follow-up content.
If it sounds insanely busy, it is. This is one reason communications professionals need to have messages and clients more sharply focused than ever. There is very little time for “context.”
If I had to pick one development that is most important to communications professionals, however, it is to understand your adversary’s ability to undermine a positive report with the instant feedback we encourage. On many TV outlets, feedback offered in the form of tweets will even be used on the air.”