The VJ experiment and cross training in the newsroom

Some folks in TV newsrooms across the country are keeping an out on the VJ experiments taking place at stations WKRN in Nashville and KRON in San Francisco. A good friend and former coworker is joining the effort in Nashville after the first of the year and looking forward to it. I think the brouhaha over this may be lost on some of those working in smaller markets. I know from experience in small markets, it’s not unusual for people to work as one-man bands or to even switch off. Those working in a switch off crew means one person will be the reporter on one story while the other person shoots the story and later in the day or the next day, they switch up jobs. IMHO that makes for a well-rounded person when he or she is ready to move up to a bigger market. It also gives a person some appreciation for the job that someone else is faced with. Back in the early 80s I worked occasionally as a one-man band. It was tougher then because the cameras were heavy and the record deck was a separate unit that weighed a ton. Add a heavy tripod, and battery belt for the camera or light and then try slogging through some mud. That’s some character building experience. After that, you’re a little more appreciative of what the shooters do day in and out. That’s why any videographer I worked with will tell you that I always offered to carry equipment from the camera or sticks to lights. Yet, I know some reporters whine about carrying a microphone or cable.

A few years back, there was a very brief effort down at the newsroom down on the river to “cross-train” everybody. The idea was a good one but it never really got going perhaps because of logistics. Anybody in a newsroom knows there’s nothing worse than a producer or assignment editor screaming about needing some video or a live shot in one part of town when you are way on the other side. Those folks who have never worked in the field sometimes get the idea that you should be there shortly after you get the phone or radio call. The folks who’ve never been in the field don’t know what it’s like to get caught in traffic or have to drag gear from the car to the scene, shoot it and then hoof it back to the live truck or sat truck for a feed. And if they’ve never had to power up a live truck, get the mast up, tune it in and feed tape, it makes the problem worse. They don’t care if you get a speeding ticket or maybe drive a bit on the reckless side.

Then there are those in the field who have never worked in the newsroom when the news director is trying to get folks scrambled so somebody can do a live report on. The producers have a ND, an assistant ND or executive producer breathing down their necks trying to beat the competition on the air. On top of everything else, the anchor about to hit the air or the reporter who just arrived on the scene is begging for information so they don’t look like a total doofus when that red light comes on. It’s pretty intense. That’s why I think it helps everybody to be cross-trained so they have some idea of the limitations and needs of everyone else. I’m talking about job swapping or at least job-shadowing. It helps people to not take someone else in the news operation for granted. Anchors need to get unhooked from the desk on a regular basis and go out and report and not just regurgitate what a line producer or field producer has written for them. I know reporters would sometimes like to remind anchors that there is more to reporting than just shooting a standup. Without reporters, anchors can get mighty lonely on the desk.

Reporters need to remember that without the video shooter, they’d just be just a voice…radio. (No, there’s nothing wrong with radio. I used to be a radio reporter). Reporters, also remember the shooter works with reporters, not for them. Ask to carry some gear.

Reporters and shooters need to remember to keep the folks in the newsroom abreast of what’s going on with them. Things such as where they are, how long it will be before they’re on the scene and ready to go. Producers need to remember that that the folks in the field are usually scrambling to get where they’re going and constantly calling them on the cell or radio isn’t going to do anything but add to the tensions. And those folks higher up on the food chain need to remember to not go into the production booth unless things are going to hell or you really don’t trust a producer. I’ve seen more than one producer along with the production staff get into a meltdown situation because a ND or EP decided at that time to come in and produce the cut-in or show over their shoulder. It doesn’t accomplish much and usually only aggravates a bad situation. After you get off the air is the time to ask what the heck someone was thinking, not during it.

And everyone should remember that if everything goes to hell, it’s the ND that the GM will be calling.

Just let me say, I’ve been there, seen that.

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7 Comments on “The VJ experiment and cross training in the newsroom”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I’ll be graduating from high school this year, and since I was 3 or 4 I have had my heart set on working in the broadcast journalism business. But, I have realized how stressful and competitive this industry is, and now I am not so sure that I want to get into this. After all your experiences, are you glad that you decided to enter this field?

  2. Joe Larkins Says:

    I wouldn’t take anything in the world for my experiences in the news business. I’ve seen some things and gotten to do things that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. Yes, it can be stressful and it is competitive but so are many other jobs.
    When I’ve spoken to communication classes I always ask these questions: How many of you like to work weekends or overnight?
    About half of the hands in class go up. Then I ask how many of you like to work holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and or New Years. Hands really start dropping then. Then I ask: how many of you want to do this for not a whole lot of money. Most of the hands fall. My next question is: Then why do you want to go into television news?
    Yah, it can be an ego rush at first and you get to see some interesting things. But if you’re looking for glamour and fame, go to Hollywood. Anyone who works in television news
    day in and day out will tell you, it’s a job. The only difference between this job and another is that people will see your mistakes when you make them live on TV.
    Job security isn’t what you might think and if you don’t want to do the job, there are dozens of eager and fresh young faces waiting to do the job your doing and they’ll do it for less than you’re being paid. That can be attractive to managers who have to watch the bottom line.
    I don’t know if the divorce rate is any higher in this business than any other, but the TV news business can put a strain on a relationship for a variety of reasons.
    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Many not in the TV business want to get into it and many of those in it, want to get out.
    I remember talking to a FedEx pilot and I told him I sure wished I could do what he did for a living and he told me, he wished he could do what I did. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
    I will tell you that in my experience, those who work in a newsroom are different from others you might ever work with. It’s hard to explain, but they’re people who tend to like the adrenalin rush of beating a deadline on a daily basis.They also tend to have a rather warped sense of humor.
    Bottom line: I’ve had some fun times and I’ve had some regrets. Go with you heart but be thinking about the realities and your future.
    Best of luck and let me know where you land.

  3. Joan Carr Says:

    Joe, I seem to recall that effort at cross training down at the station by the river never really got off the ground, at least not in the news department. The news director at that time gave some lip service to the need for producers and assignment editors to go out in the field with reporters to better learn their point of view, but when it actually came down to scheduling people to do that, it just didn’t happen. Since 3 like every other station was chronically short-handed there was no way they could take someone off their regular job for even just a day of cross-training. Since management wasn’t willing to put their money where their mouth was, the whole idea was just a cynical attempt (in my opinion) for the previous news director to demonstrate her allegedly “more sensitive” management style without actually accomplishing anything.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks for the info about the news business..definitely something to think about. I don’t want a job to seriously interfere with life outside of work, and I know that one in the news business can take a large toll on a family. But, this has been a life-long dream since I was little, what’s a kid to do?

  5. mike Says:

    I was pretty excited by the VJ idea, because it meant more reporters in the community and might mean more time to explore a story before going to air.

    But then I realised that when parent corporations realise they can fill the same air time with roughly the same stuff for less money by cutting the number of VJs to what they currently have in reporter/videographer pairs…. Well, the bottom line must be padded. 😦

  6. Joe Larkins Says:

    Good point Mike.
    It’s all about the bottom line. I remember when the production staff at one station where I worked was made up of full time employees. The higher ups discovered they could save a ton of money on benefits if they used part timers and kept their hours down so they didn’t have to pay overtime too. I still think you will see VJs in this market and others across the country as the news business goes through this latest transformation.

  7. jamey tucker Says:

    I want to weigh in on the vj concept (since I’ll be one before the next 5-day forecast plays out).

    Stations such as WKRN see the vj animal as a way to do more stories, that’s a given. However, KRN and KRON also are putting more of an emphasis on web based material than other stations. I understand that some of my stories may never hit the broadcast airwaves but could be placed online on both the KRN website, and my own website/blog. These stations see the future of tv journalism as being dependent on the internet, both for viewers and for advertising.

    How many times have you said, or heard someone say “If I watch more than 1 newscast from the same station I end up seeing the same stories over and over again”?

    Putting vj’s stories both online and on the air gives viewers more news content and thus, more reasons to tune in or log on.

    I agree that the vj concept could be used to cut the payroll and some stations will do just that. But those stations are the ones who are currently doing okay in the broadcast ratings (either 1 or 2) such as REG and MC. Stations that have foreward thinking managers who see the internet as a way to broadcast more news instead of more of the same old news, will keep vjs and the rest of the staff because things are going so well.

    KRN is bringing on a religion reporter (me), a real estate reporter (smart move) and other specialty vjs to cover the stories that are often overlooked by the stations covering the same old murders and politics.

    So, yes some stations will use vjs in order to cut costs, but I think the ones that do it right will see more news coverage of more and different stories, will benefit by keeping as many reporters and cameras in the field as possible.


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