“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.
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.