“There is no doubt there are certain types of stories that I’m less capable of getting, in terms of developing contacts, than I might get if I had a partner with me.” Scott Broom in AFTRA Magazine Summer 2009 ((pp 16-17))
In her recent article for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists magazine, AFTRA national manager of communications Leslie Simmons takes on the labor union’s struggle with the coming age of the One Man Band in major market local television.
Simmons quizzed me and my WUSA colleague Bruce Leshan for some insight into what its like in the trenches of reporting shooting and editing unassisted. We both agreed that despite the important focus on workplace issues like compensation for additional work, the most critical part of the debate for reporters and society is the impact on journalism itself.
As my quote above indicates, at WUSA in Washington D.C. its undeniable that One Man Bands can be at a disadvantage.
But not always.
The journalism with a capital “J” debate is not as straightforward as it may appear. Trade-offs are being made and the search for equilibrium remains elusive.
Like other television outlets, WUSA is attempting to strike a new balance by adopting the “Information Center” model. The WUSA version seeks to turn nearly all newsroom employees, regardless of classification or technical area, into “journalists.”
There’s been a lot of cross training. For example, photographers, editors, producers and assignment mangers have been educated (or re-educated) on the basics of writing, libel, ethics, and creating a beat. The goal is to create a news organization with a lot more professional “journalists” on hand.
In theory, the journalistic shortcomings of the One Man Band in the field should be balanced by the greater ability of the expanded team in the Information Center to collect and sift facts on any given subject.
Predictably, in practice this has been challenging to implement and has not yet fulfilled its promise. WUSA continues to work on it.
The best results were seen during a lethal Metro commuter rail collision in June of 2009, when the station was able to flood the disaster zone with more people than the broadcast competition and therefore collect more factual information more quickly.
In my case, thanks to the nimbleness of my gear and a strong wireless connection, there was a long period where WUSA had the only live picture of the scene. It was being fed from my camera to a laptop I’d carried to the location, solo. This was long after live trucks and their crews had been shooed away by rescuers. (Helicopters were also excluded thanks to the no-fly zone around Washington). It was a nice win for WUSA’s TV and web products.
Later I was able to interview Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty as he walked through the area and turn a reaction package unassissted. This freed other colleagues to focus on everything from medical triage to rider reactions.
In this case, and other notable spot news events, our journalistic efforts were helped rather than hurt by the One Man Band model. The next step is to flex this into more sophisticated endeavors such as investigations and daily enterprise where more coordination and back-up from the newly-trained “team” in the information center is needed.
As Bruce Leshan put it in AFTRA Magazine: “There are stories that require a tremendous amount of journalist work. If you’re driving and shooting and editing, you just don’t have the time in the day to do the old journalist stuff.”
Meanwhile, Simmons reports that AFTRA is now adhering to a principal of “gaining something of substance” as it negotiates the implementation of Multimedia Journalists (a.k.a. MMJs or One Man Bands).
In this regard, AFTRA has it right. For instance, a deal with WRC in Washington to give explicit primary AFTRA jursidiction over the internet and secondary digital channels is a reasonable bargain. Membership and future bargaining power is strengthened. The overall quality and professionalism of the people creating “content” will be higher. In the end that will be a critical factor as we flex new technology to defend the capital “J” in journalism.