Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Journalism Idol

The traditional media industry is up in arms over the internet.  When fast internet first started zipping around the country, the traditional print media like the New York Times shot itself in the foot by posting its content online for free; this is nothing new - I've written about it in earlier blog posts.  A newspaper can't operate without paying its reporters, and online, subscription-free newspapers with little ad-supported revenue is a disaster waiting to happen.  
I want more people to have access to free online content just as much as the next American, but my family (I don't have one of my own yet, but when I do) comes first and if I can't feed them because I work for the Times and they barely pay me - that's a problem.
This is the dooms day scenario the traditional print media has dealt with, but the broadcast business has dealt with its own demons - citizen journalists.  
A big threat to the traditional broadcast boys and cable is citizen journalism.  Citizen journalists witness interesting things happen in their hometown, shoot some amateur shaky video of the event and post it online. The initial response from traditional broadcasters was to play nice with these citizen journalists by having them submit their content to the traditional broadcaster.  Not a bad idea - CNN gets free content from a citizen journalist, and the citizen journalist gets to tell grandma that his footage was on CNN.  A win-win!  Jon Stuart made fun of the lengths CNN would go to make citizen journalists feel welcome, a part of the CNN team.  
So, what's the problem if CNN is capitalizing on these amateur journalists? Nothing at all.  The concern is that these citizen journalists won't be treated by CNN as amateur videographers for long.  After all, what happens when these citizen journalists start to organize?  There's nothing threatening to traditional broadcasters when a couple techy people edit some sequences together on iMovie; however, CNN has a problem if these techy people form a techy coalition, through their techy blogs, websites and social networks to form a citizen journalism network, an outlet that can compete with the traditional media.  All of a sudden, a couple harmless videographers evolve into a huge threat for the traditional broadcasters like CNN.
Same old story: one guy sitting in his truck in a parking lot is a lonely man who can do you no harm; but, take ten grown men and put them in the back of a pickup and you have a gang.  Two weeks ago, these citizen journalists were as threatening as that one lonely man. But just this week Youtube gave these citizen journalists gang status.  
Youtube launched the Reporters' Center, which trains citizen journalists on how to shoot, edit and write stories.  It even has tips on how to market and distribute the citizen journalism content.  Youtube is acting like a Journalism school, posting five-minute videos of Katie Couric and Bob Woodward offering interviewing and reporting tips.  What's the point of the journalism degree if Katie can tell me how to report in five minutes?  
CNN, traditional broadcasters, and J-students like myself who spent a fortune on the prestigious journalism degree may be initially scared and angry at Youtube for giving amateur journalists a training ground and a distribution platform.  
However, I believe this to be the wrong approach to Youtube's invention.  
As traditional journalists, let's embrace Youtube and view it as an American Idol for journalists - Journalism Idol maybe?  Being a citizen journalist on Youtube isn't the traditional path into the broadcast business; but American Idol isn't the traditional path into the music business, and few people find American Idol threatening to the traditional music model.  
So, let's view Youtube's experiment, its Reporters Center, as a positive invention, as a breeding ground to discovering the undiscovered reporting talent, instead of a threat to the traditional news business.  I like American Idol, so I've decided to like Youtube's Reporters' Center.  

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Only I Get the Two-Legged Tripod

I'm not saying that I own a two-legged tripod, and I'm not saying it's bad if you do own a two-legged tripod; this blog's title - lame as it is - is simply my way of expressing that I have some bad luck with my tripod at times - only I get the two-legged tripod.
Just this week, I considered breaking my tripod's legs when I got to my interview and found that I brought with me a broken tripod.  The tripod had three legs this time, but the security latch on the tripod - the only clip that holds the camera in a rock steady position - was broken!  Little glitches are huge problems in this biz. 
This is a worse-case scenario when it comes to interviews.  Especially because I was interviewing the Chief Fire Battalion for Columbia, and he told me as soon as I walked in the door and shook his hand that he was busy and might have to stop the interview if he gets a phone call.  
The Chief stepped away when I was setting up the tripod and realized it was broken. I was so embarrassed to find I couldn't hook the camera to the tripod.  I told the Chief my tripod predicament, and immediately reassured him it would take me five minutes to drive back to the news station and get a functioning tripod.  
I was sure he'd just call off the interview and my entire story would collapse because of one faulty tripod - not at all; he forcefully grabbed the tripod from me, told me to hold down one of the buttons and then slide/lock the camera into position.  It worked! 
It turns out my story was on the Mid-Missouri Bomb Squad and my interviewee was one of the squad's three members, so it's not surprising he could de-arm my tripod like he de-arms a bomb.  But, I'm not taking his help for granted.   I thanked the Chief and made some quip - "well, sir, that's why you're on the bomb squad and I'm just a reporter - you can fix stuff" - to joke off an embarrassing moment for me.
Maybe embarrassed is the wrong word; I was humbled by the whole situation.  I learned not to act like a "know-it-all," because even us - I take that back - especially us, the media, have something to learn from the people we interview.  Even if it's how to fix a tripod.  Without that quick fix, I wouldn't have had a story that day.
The rest of my reporting shift went very well: I added another voice in the story I didn't think would speak with me, I returned to the station with plenty of time to write the three VO-SOTS, package and web story the producers wanted, and I turned over a cute story about the Bomb Squad's high-tech, remote-controlled robot.  
Now, if only my tripod was as high-tech as that bomb squad's robot.  Ah, who would want that - then my reporting shift wouldn't have been nearly as exciting.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Solemn News Week

When celebrities and public figures pass away, it's difficult to hear, but this week is especially challenging for me.  In one week, public figures I grew up with, names that my families talked and gossiped about, are no longer here.  Ed McMahon, Farra Faucet, Michael Jackson.  I know these peoples' voices, I've danced to their music and I've watched their shows.  That is why I'm focusing in this entry on how various media cover death, and how we as media consumers digest the death.
Last summer I was interning in the FOX News Channel newsroom when Tim Russert passed away.  I witnessed how difficult it is verifying that a celebrity passed away.  I remember the wires chirping louder than ever as the news streamed in.  We got the news one hour before our show, and we understood that if it was true, if Tim Russert did suddenly pass away, this story was our entire show.  In one hour, I called every number online, scrambling to find someone in the media business who would speak about Tim Russert as a person and newsman.  It's difficult with such sort notice to create a program that does justice to such well-known and great public figures, but we did our best for the situation.  
It's difficult to watch these sudden, unexpected deaths of middle-aged people and hear voices on television, television pundits, talking about the celebrity's life, when they didn't even know the person as a person.  Immediately after the announcement that Michael Jackson died, CNN had political pundits talking about the famous entertainer - they knew him no better than I did.  Wolf Blitzer asked the one pundit if she met him. I expected her to say she knew him in some more intimate capacity, but she basically said she saw him as a girl after one of his concerts. 
 It's unfortunate that in the 24 hour news cycle, the reporters are left with average commentary to commemorate great lives.
I remember when Tim Russert passed away, we had one of our pundits, who usually talks about the court system, talk about his life.  She remembered seeing him at a dinner party, and said he was such a nice man at the party - hardly a good story to commemorate a great man's life.
What's the solution to this problem of having an average pundit speak about the life of a great entertainer?  It's sloppy journalism in my opinion.  If we want to recall their lives, let's wait and put together specials and proper stories with research, and family members; let's use the television to communicate the heartfelt messages that it can communicate.  
But, I get it - when someone dies in a 24 hour news cycle, the cycle has to be filled; just understand, television producers, you aren't covering "someone" dieing, you are chronicling the life of a person who on a large-scale changed something while they were here. 

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Powerful Text Message

My report at KOMU this Friday was a different experience.  I didn't report on a new bridge or the next summer fair; I did a story that was serious and required all my thought, energy and humanity.  I'll give you a synopsis. A pastor from a small town in mid-Missouri called Moberly was accused by a sixteen-year-old girl of kidnapping and molestation.  The girl reported that the pastor kidnapped her from a gas station in Moberly and drove her to a motel in Columbia, where he molested her.  
This Tuesday, the Boone County Court ruled that Pastor James is not guilty of the molestation charge.  Now, a different county court is working on the kidnapping charge, and has not reached a verdict just yet.  Nevertheless, the pastor's family is ecstatic that their dad and husband was cleared of the molestation charges.  Caleb Wilson is the Pastor's nineteen-year-old son.  He called KOMU because he wants mid-Missouri to know that his father is innocent.
I was the reporter assigned to the story.  I drove to the Free Will Baptist Church in Moberly to hear what Caleb had to say about his dad's innocence.  However, Caleb did put some restrictions on what I was allowed to shoot.  Caleb said the church, which was basically a small home which also functioned as a religious school, was too messy so he didn't want me to film him inside.  I was perfectly fine with that request, so I interviewed Caleb outside.
Caleb told me how thrilled he was that his dad was found innocent, but I had no other interviews besides this and little video because I was restricted from filming in the church or even Caleb's house.  I decided to focus on collecting good interviews instead.  I convinced Caleb to give me his grandma's phone number. He did, and she gave me a sincere account of her nervousness on the day of the trial.
But, I didn't realize the importance of the story until it was all over.  While I was working on the story, I was too focused on thinking what video I needed, what questions needed to be asked, where the church was in Moberly, and whether the police officers would ever call me back, to even think about the significance of this story for the Wilson family and this small religious community in Moberly.
When I walked off the set after reporting the story at the top of the 6 p.m. newscast, I had a text message on my phone.  I assumed it was one of my roommates telling me I said the wrong word or looked cross-eyed into the camera - the usual jokes they tease me about - but it wasn't them.  Caleb Wilson texted me.  I was surprised.  The text was simple - he thanked me for covering the story.  At that point I realized what this story did for Caleb's family.  For months, Mid-Missouri wasn't sure if Caleb's dad, Pastor Wilson, was guilty or innocent of these charges.  The courts decided this week that he is innocent, and Caleb, as the oldest son in his family, wanted to make sure his family's name was cleared of these dirty allegations.  
Just by broadcasting this one short story, Caleb's family can move on from these terrible couple of months and rebuild their family and their father's reputation.  
I wonder if Caleb didn't text message me thanking me for helping his family, would I have ever realized the story's significance? I don't know, but I'm happy I get free texting.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Don't Go "All Newsroom" On Me Brian

As I start this blog entry, another blog that I track, TVNewser, announces that CBS anchorman and legendary broadcaster, Walter Cronkite, is seriously ill.  Cronkite is now ninety-two years old.  TVNewser cites CBS sources as the source releasing this information, including the tidbitt that CBS started drafting Cronkite's obituary last week.  So let's take a look at now at today's network news, always bearing in mind the vocal "footprint" Cronkite left on the broadcast news industry.  
Last night, I was attempting to do a couple crunches and sit-ups on my bedroom floor while watching NBC Nightly News.  I had to stop crunching once I saw what Brian Williams was doing on air.  Williams was not at his desk; instead, Williams anchored the entire newscast from the NBC newsroom, which I believe is the same newsroom for the cable operation - MSNBC.  Here it is: Newsroom. set reminded me a lot of MSNBC's Morning Joe show.  And not only was the entire show produced in the newsroom, but it was broadcast with limited commercial interruption.  
Kudos to the Nightly News team for experimenting with different ways of telling the news story.  Just this week in my journalism lab we talked about the different approaches producers take to telling a news story.  For example, instead of just telling the story in a straight Voice Over form or a straight package, producers sometimes put reporters onset so they can interact with the anchors.  This style often means the story is told in a question and answer format, which gives the broadcast some variety.  
But, did the Nightly News crew experiment blow up in their face or was it a commendable effort?  I would definitely say it was commendable.  I always wondered if the anchorman behind the desk approach would ever change.  Tom Brokaw tried the stand-up style for a couple years, but once Brian Williams took the reigns, the anchor chair returned for a time.  Until last night.  Once again, terrific idea - I liked watching foreign correspondent Richard Engel leaning on the news desk telling what he knows is going on in Iran.  This more casual approach to the reporter-anchor Q&A segment was more believable than when the anchor has the desk separating him from the reporter - the studio norm.  However, it didn't all go smoothly.  Before Williams chatted with Engel, Williams had to physically walk to Engel, who was awkwardly - kind of mysteriously - hovering in the background.  Williams practically had to turn his back to the camera, and walk to Engel in order to ask the question.  And just like peoples' body parts, we probably don't want Brian Williams' backside on camera.  
I picked up on a few other production mishaps, such as cameras and lights popping up in shots, but it didn't traumatize me.  I enjoyed the risk NBC took, but I don't think they should burn their studio set and shoot every newscast from the newsroom.   That would be nutso!  Let's just use the newsroom shooting for stories that have an international insurgency to them; stories that feed a consistent news stream into the newsroom.  Stories like the communication and revolutionary changes happening in Iran.  It was a perfect first story for Brian to share from his newsroom.  
Even though I like this casual story telling format, I understand that not everybody does.  NBC is not the first to broadcast from the newsroom.  FOX News started airing their noon show, LIVE Desk, from their newsroom.  I interned at FOX when they started this, and I was a big fan of the idea.  But not everyone was.  One of my fellow interns complained that it was too chaotic for her too watch.  The anchors and reporters scurrying around the newsroom, interviewing officials and writers in the newsroom, distracted her too much from the story itself.  I completely understood her point.  So, let's use the newsroom sometimes, but don't kill it.  Like a VO, let's use it as an alternative way to tell a story when the story fits that format.

Hiring Reporter - Bad Drivers Need Not Apply

This week I confirmed for myself that I prefer reporting over producing.  I'm not saying that one is better than the other because both are needed to make good t.v. news, but my personality is more geared toward that of a reporter.  I like when my environment changes, which reporters experience every day.  Sometimes, when I'm driving to a story, I think how unique it is to be a reporter.  For a couple hours everyday, my car becomes my office.  I make phone calls and talk to public information officers while I'm driving.  In fact, the other day I did have some important factual questions I wanted the Boone County Public Works PIO to clear up for me, so I pulled over in a subdivision in order to jot down some notes.  Just like that, my car became my office.  
Is there a chance I like reporting because I get to drive around all day? I sure hope not.  I like reporting for more reasons than just that, but the driving definitely makes the job fun.  I can't understand how producers are able to walk into the station knowing that they won't leave the station again until they're going home for the night.  And when you're putting in twelve hour days - that's a dreadfully long time to sit in one chair, at one computer.  It's tiring just thinking about it.  As a reporter, I get to do what I love - drive around town, radio on, thinking about my story, the video I want to shoot, the next interview I'm doing, and thinking how I'm going to make the mess of soundbites and facts gel into a coherent story.  It's such a relaxing way to spend the day.
Besides the driving itself, I enjoy seeing a new part of town everyday.  I shot, wrote and edited a VO the other day in a little town called McBaine.  In order to get to the town, I simply followed a road that I take everyday to school, but I simply continued until that big road became a back country road.  If I never traveled down this road that distance, I would have never known that this little town, McBaine, even exists; I wouldn't know that McBaine has a cafe called Lucy's that the locals visit, and I wouldn't have seen the expansive flood plain with a windy country road twisting through it.  If I wasn't a reporter, forced to leave the bubble I commute in everyday, I wouldn't know how Mid-Missouri really feels.
I also enjoy meeting and interviewing the people that make this small town run. I like talking to the school teachers, school board members, construction workers, PIOs, Public Works Directors and all the people that keep Columbia's engine humming.  I feel privileged to see how a town runs behind the scenes.  The other day, I interviewed the Interim Director for Boone County's Public Works department.  When I was interviewing him on a new bridge in town, he also let me know about the new GPS system the department is installing in every Public Works truck - pretty cool insider information if you ask me.
If I was a producer, I wouldn't have all these experiences.  I wouldn't be payed to drive my car around town, or talk to community leaders, or tour my town.  Reporting is for me because for eleven hours every day, I can focus on one story and learn about one thing.  Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by the information overload that I get when I flip open my laptop and read the news.  No information overload when the tables are turned and I'm the reporter.  When I'm the reporter, all these other news stories are out of my mind, allowing me to focus on my story, my one story, and the task of making it the most comprehensive and comprehendible story it can be.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Starbucks Gets the Cable Guys All Wired Up

The larger than life personalities of cable news are constantly at each other's throats.  For years, FOX's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann duked it out on the screen with Olbermann naming O'Reilly the "Most Hated Person" and Olbermann topping O'Reilly's "Pinhead" list every now and again.  But, the growth of cable news means more cable hosts are jumping in to the fray.  The new battle - MSBNC's Joe Scarborough versus Comedy Central's Jon Stuart.  I understand "The Daily Show" is not a news show, but it does provide commentary on the news business and is as much involved in the news industry as the other cable guys.  And in many circles, the Daily Show is more respected than the "real" news shows the other cable guys are producing.  That's why it was disheartening this week to watch Jon Stuart and Joe Scarborough - a comedian and a news anchor - go at it.
The scuffle started when Joe Scarborough's morning show on MSNBC cut a deal with Starbucks.  The deal: Joe, his co-anchor and guests sip on Starbucks coffee and lattes during the morning show and Starbucks cuts Scarborough's show a check, a big one.   At first, allegations swirled that that check would be made for 10 million, but the show quickly renounced that claim as not in the ballpark.  Essentially, this deal was seen by Jon Stuart as product placement in cable news, which is a whole other story, but I'll return to that later.
  Stuart poked fun at Scarborough for the Starbucks deal after Scarborough totally downplayed the product placement and the check his show would receive.  For Stuart, the simple fact remained - an ethical line is crossed when news endorses one specific product.  Scarborough reacted to Stuart's claims saying Stuart is just an angry man.  Scarborough says he likes many talk show people he doesn't always agree with politically, citing the women on The View, but he finds Stuart to just be angry.  Let's see if Stuart fires back.
Now, what about those million dollar Starbucks coffees that will sit on Joe Scarborough's anchor desk from now on.  Did Jon Stuart overreact?  Is coffee product placement really crossing an ethical boundary.  After all - it's just coffee.  Anchors have been sipping coffee on set for years.  I believe product placement is a problem, but not for Joe Scarborough's morning show on MSNBC.  Well, what makes Scarborough's show different from the others you may be asking?  First of all, the show is called "Morning Joe," so it's only appropriate that a big coffee sits on his desk.  But most of all - I watch "Morning Joe" quite a lot and yes they deliver news and have newsmakers on as guest-anchors, but it feels more like a talk-show to me than a morning news show.  It's more The View and less the Today Show.  And, obviously, a talk show doesn't have the journalistic standards of fairness that news shows must uphold.
But, if Scarborough's Starbucks coffee ever finds its way to Brian Williams' Nightly News desk, I'll have something fierce to blog about.
Jon Stuart has a point - product placement crosses an ethical line.  Scarborough will now think twice about reporting on problems within the Starbucks company, but Stuart doesn't see "Morning Joe" for the show that it really is.  It is more talk than news.  After all, Scarborough was a Republican Congressman from Florida before he broke into television, so the political bias other news reporters avoid is clear as day on "Morning Joe."But that's why people tune in - to see a moderate-Republican anchor on a network with left-leaning tendencies. This political bias is a brand just like that Starbucks cup. 
So Stuart, you have a point, but it doesn't apply to Scarborough's talk show, because it is just that - a talk show.  If you really are concerned about product placement, go over to the Today show and see what Willard Scott is doing with the people turning 100 years old.  Is he still pushing that Smuckers jelly?  Now, there's product placement on a morning news show!