Top-Ten Tips for Backpack Journalists
As a major market One Man Band television reporter, the question I’m most often asked is something like: “How the heck can you do anything that passes as legitimate TV reporting if you’re busy driving, shooting, editing and posting to the web?”
Washington Post and CNN media critic Howard Kurtz recently spent part of a day with me and arrived at this conclusion: “A one-man band is cheaper, quicker and more nimble — but cannot produce the deeper sounds of a small journalistic orchestra.”
Many of the readers who commented were not nearly so kind.
Obviously, the answer to putting the “multi” in multimedia journalism is efficiency in how I do my reporting; how I shoot and edit; and in how I put new technology to work.
As critics of One Man Banding always point out: “there is only so much time in the day”.
But the “wireless revolution” and a new model for TV news reporting can, on some assignments, allow me to do more after coffee than I used to do in an 8-hour shift.
Even so, it’s not all Back to the Future. I also rely on the tried-and-true, time-saving, shooting and interviewing techniques that experienced reporters and photographers have employed for decades to collect solid video and sound that is easy to edit in a hurry.
The balance boils down to this: Every minute saved in logistics, shooting, editing and producing, is another minute I can devote to collecting information.
With all that in mind, here are the Top-Ten Tips that have helped me become a more efficient One Man Band multimedia warrior:
1) GO TO THE NEWS not to the Newsroom: My Blackberry means I don’t need to waste time being in a newsroom to “set up” a story. I’m also empowered with a vehicle and take-home gear. That way I can ditch the “morning meeting” and drive immediately to where NEWS is happening. I make calls on the way. Web research and email is done on the handheld. No source ready to talk yet? I might get out of the car and knock on doors while waiting for the returned call. People who see me shooting b-roll may approach with information. Bottom line — (with some notable exceptions) being there almost always beats being on the phone at the station. My office is my vehicle.
2) Leverage Your Digital Tool Box: My Tool Box includes a laptop with wireless broadband capability and AVID Newscutter editing software. This laptop is my lifeline because once in the field, it allows me to stay in the field to finish the job. Broadband Internet access makes it a virtual office. I can edit my packages without returning to base. With a strong cell signal, and FTP capability, I can feed my edited video without even going to a live truck. In a pinch, I can even go live via Skype from that same laptop — no truck or crew needed.
3) Always Edit and Feed from the Field: Where I work in the Washington/Baltimore area, driving back to the station to write and edit can cost me as much as an hour behind the wheel (traffic willing). As a traditional reporter, I used to be able to write while my partner drove back to base. Not anymore. Thanks to my digital connectivity, the solution is to STAY IN THE FIELD until the very end. A nice side effect is that the longer I’m at the scene of a story, the more late information that might come my way to distinguish my story from others who have left for home. If I am not assigned a live truck, my digital tool box allows me to feed a video file wirelessly, or via whatever WiFi I can find nearby.
4) Post to the Web First Whenever Possible: For too many TV reporters, the web is an afterthought. It shouldn’t be. Writing to the web first serves as an early outline for my TV story. It focuses me on the most important elements of the story. What’s the lead? What are the critical facts? Writing an early web story helps me take a moment to clear the clutter of logistics and shooting to focus on the information. Occasionally, I realize there are questions I have failed to ask. If I write early, I’ll have time to recover if I’ve come up short.
5) Don’t Waste Time Shooting Stuff You’ll Never Use: This is always easier said than done, but it’s a critical skill to develop. I try to think about the emotional hook every good story needs and build the shooting around that, rather than the press conference or “official” sound bite. For instance, a school board event about test scores is really about kids. That’s why 3 cut-aways and a single soundbite from the superintendent is all I need. Then I’ll muster the courage to quit rolling tape and bolt to a school or library – where I can use the time and tape saved to shoot sequences with kids that capture the pride (or disappointment) as they experience success (or failure) trying to read for me aloud.
6) Ask Open-Ended Questions: A good line of questioning starts with: “Tell me about ….(X) ? - or- “What are your thoughts on …(Y) ? -or- How would you characterize ….(Z) ? These kind of open-ended questions force the interview to put their thoughts into a declarative statement that’s more likely to produce a productive sound bite that can also be held up to scrutiny in follow-up questions. In short, don’t waste tape on video note-taking (Who? What? When? and Where?) – that’s what pens and pads are for. Instead get to the point and ask an open-ended question that gives your interview a chance to shine (or hang himself) in the shortest time possible.
7) Reactions are Just as Important as the Action: A burning barn is compelling action, but the reactions of the people watching the fire are equally important to compelling storytelling. Laughs, Tears, Shock, Fear, Anger and Joy are all reactions. To get them you’ll need the judgement and courage to turn away from the action just long enough to capture some of these moments in video and sound. No matter how compelling the action — don’t forget to think about the reaction.
8) Don’t Waste Tape Panning and Zooming: There is a time and place for panning and zooming — but too much of this can make your story look like amateur video. In addition, pans and zooms can be time-consuming to shoot and hard to edit to the rhythm of the short broadcast sentences you write. Better to build your story with sequences of solid tripod shots: 1 good wide to establish the scene and context; then a series of tight shots to focus on surprising details. Hold them all for 10 to 15 seconds – perhaps just long enough for some action to play out in the viewfinder. You’ll thank yourself for the time saved in editing.
9) Ask “Show Me” to Create Action: I create action in my stories by asking people to “Show Me”, rather than asking them to stand still for an interview while holding a stick mic in their face. Instead, I put a wireless lavalier mic on them and ask for a little tour with questions like: “Show me where the car ran off the road?”; “Show me what’s left of your barn after that tornado?”; “Show me where you heard the gunshots?” Afterward, shoot some tight shots to match what your interview just said to use as cut-aways in editing. It will all feel a lot more real to the viewer.
10) Listen Carefully, but Pretend You’re Deaf: There are lots of times I hear someone say something that would be great in my story, but they said it while I was shooting something else. This is when I swing the camera around, cock my head like a spaniel and say: “ I don’t hear so good. What’s that?” Many people will automatically regurgitate their comment without thinking they are being recorded. If you are lucky, and close enough, you’ll pick up this pure gold on your shotgun mic. Moments like these put the reality in the original reality TV.