Thursday, April 17, 2008

You'll never reach your potential without a photog (or, why working as a one man band won't help your career)

In my fourteen years as a reporter, I remember my single experience as a one man band very well. I was the only person in the newsroom during the dinner break when I heard a tremendous commotion across the street. I looked outside and a huge fire was consuming a downtown building. The fire department hadn’t even arrived. This was in the days before cell phones and beepers, so I decided to grab a camera and deck and ran across the street just as the firemen arrived. I framed up some great shots; a fireman running up a ladder and breaking a window, flames leaping into the evening sky. I heard great nat sound of part of the building collapsing. I was writing the story in my head as I shot the video, and that would come into play later. When it was over I ran back to the newsroom, hoping to impress my News Director with my hustle. I popped the tape in the playback deck, hit the play button and saw video of only one thing.

My feet.

I had “reverse rolled.” When I thought I was rolling, I wasn’t. When I thought I wasn’t, I actually was. The camera was on my hip, pointing down. While I was trying to be a reporter and photographer at the same time, I couldn’t fully pay attention to either task.

But then again, what would you expect? I was not, and still am not, a photographer.

While everyone can operate a camera, not everyone is a photographer. There is a very big difference.

Now I don’t want to get off on a rant here (apologies to Dennis Miller), but this one man band trend is a bad idea. There are some who will argue, “This is the future of television,” to which I say, “This is the future of ordinary television.” Sure, there are a few companies trying this out in big markets, but let’s be honest. This all has to do with bean counters that have no concept of quality television trying to save a buck. (At this point the pencil pushers usually put out a corporate memo asking people to "embrace" the VJ concept. You know, give it a big hug even though you don't want to, like some overripe relative at Christmas. When you hear the "E" word from corporate, run like hell.)

So, thanks to people who throw nickels around like manhole covers, we have news that no longer comes from a team, but from a collection of reporters who are sadly deprived of the advantages of working with photographers. Are there people who are good at being a one man band? Sure. Are there reporters who are talented shooters? Of course. But most often reporters and photogs work better as a team.

As some stations switch from two person crews to one man bands, the industry is ending up with veterans who are being squeezed out. In most cases, it is a lot easier for photographers to become reporters than vice versa. Most photogs I’ve known tend to be very smart and usually ask questions on a story anyway. Most reporters really don’t pay much attention to the camera and gear.

But, let’s get to the reason for this article, and it is not about news philosophy. Lately clients who get more than one job offer at the same time are asking me a recurring question. Is it better to be a one man band in a bigger market or opt for a reporting job at a station that has photographers in a smaller market?

As in all instances in which you have two job offers, you have to consider all the factors. (Money, location, size of Maalox bottle on News Director's desk.) But if you’re a young reporter just starting out, the answer should be a no-brainer.

Take the job at the station with the photogs.

Let’s make this a hypothetical situation. Sarah is a 23-year-old reporter working in a 100’s market. She has one year of experience. She receives two job offers at the same time. The first is at a station in a 40’s market in which she would be working as a one man band. The second is at a 60’s market at a station that has a world-class photography staff.

Let’s take the other factors (money, benefits, etc.) out of the equation, because we want Sarah to focus on two things and only two things; what is best for her career long term, and which station will give her the best opportunity to have a better resume tape. (I know for those of you with college loans eating ramen noodles every night a few thousand bucks seems like a lot, but not if you're in this biz for the long haul.)

Now let's take a ride in our time machine and flash forward to the end of Sarah's contract two years in the future. She's now 25, with three years experience. At this point in a career she should be ready to make the jump to a decent market.

If Sarah took the one man band job, she probably has an acceptable tape, though it lacks the creativity and flair provided by a photog. She doesn't have any creative standups since the camera has never been able to move with her. No walking standups, no pans, no tilts, no zooms, nada, bupkes, zilch. Nothing but static shots. She's probably gotten ticked off putting her resume tape together because some of the standups she wanted to use weren't entirely in focus. Her face was never lit properly, and half the time she looks like she's auditioning for the road company of Phantom of the Opera. Sarah is really attractive but her tape makes her look like the bad lighting girl from Seinfeld. The result? Sarah may get a decent job, but her chances at making a great first impression were hurt because her video didn't put her work in the best light.

Now let's move on to our second scenario. Sarah spent two years working in a smaller market and never shot a single frame of video. She got the benefit of working with creative photographers who presented her in the best light. She has a resume tape filled with creative standups, and her packages feature great video and editing. Many of her stories have incorporated ideas provided by photogs while she was doing her story. She's reaped the benefits of working with a better staff, because, let's be honest, News Directors who don't employ a one man band system attract the best people. Sarah is now ready to make the jump to a very good market, and when she gets there she'll be a well-seasoned reporter. She understands the value of teamwork in the field.

There are other intangibles at work. As a one man band you are often isolated, and, I'm told, this can be a lonely existence. You miss the camaraderie. As part of a crew you have a partner and very often a friend for the day. You'll trade ideas that will make your story better. Remember, a photog wants his work to look great, so chances are he'll try his best to make you look great. Quality is a high priority with most shooters.

And trust me, photogs don't seem to have the backstabbing chromosome that so many other news people do. They will become your close friends. I flip through my Rolodex after years in the business and it seems as though half the names belong to photogs.

Finally, just remember that major market News Directors have tons of applicants, and they are looking for quality. You want your resume tape to make you look your best.

The best way to do that is to have it shot by a professional.

1 comment:

joey flash said...

great stuff, grapevine! as a photog, i like having a "friend for the day", and i hope my reporters feel the same way.