Thursday, November 26, 2009

TV News is Dead

So says a guy trying to sell it a resuscitator. "Burn down the buildings," says Michael Rosenblum on the Mark Joyella's LocalNewser blog. Rosenblum is a consultant who claims that his VJ newsroom model, in which traditional two-person reporter/cameraman crews become one-person do-it-all video journalists, will cut costs and increase content.

I have nothing to fear if the buildings burn down. Though I've spent most of my career on camera, I own cameras and am happy to do freelance jobs as a one-man-band, especially since it means I don't have to share my fee!

However, I'm struggling to understand Mr. Rosenblum's math when he claims that local stations have two-hundred newsroom employees yet put only eight cameras on the street. First, where are these local newsrooms with 200 people? Second, where are these newsrooms that have only eight cameras?

But if you market yourself as a media messiah, you need the faithful to feel the doom. Before you sell the cure, you have to sell the disease.

Not that TV news doesn't have its ills. But it's interesting that the lynch pin of Michael's solution is to get rid of the photographers — half of the people who are generating video content — when it's not too many people on the street we have but too many special projects producers, executive producers and anchors who only anchor that bloat newsroom staffs.

Michael would be cheered to learn that stations have gotten rid of sound men.

Unfortunately for Michael — and for the increasing number of TV stations that have decided that two-person crews are a luxury — operating a video camera is not equivalent to using a pencil. That is evident in the video on this page, in which Michael is nearly in silhouette thanks to a distractingly bright computer monitor in the frame and no light on the subject.

If no camera light was available, it would have taken approximately ten seconds to find a darker web page to display on the monitor and another ten to put the camera's iris on manual and open it up to brighten the subject's face so it wouldn't look like we were trying to hide his identity.

This matters because video quality affects how viewers judge the product's credibility. If you don't have 20 seconds to get the camera shot right, how can I think that you took the time to get the facts right? If your video looks amateurish, the reporting will too.

Competent camera work doesn't require a PhD but it does take more than two days of training and a week of practice to master. In a business based on video, I'd look for other fat to trim before I started cutting the source of my best pictures.


Rosenblum said...

Hi John
The lynchpin of my idea is not to get rid of the cameraman, per se. Rather it is to get rid of almost everyone. Or at least everyone who does not actually manufacture the product we are selling. Most TV newsrooms are vastly overstaffed, not only with cameramen, but also with producers, associate producers, assistant producers, production assistants and God only knows who else.
I run 3 very successful local operations in the Northeast, but the first thing we got rid of was the building. The newsroom. The offices. The desks. The carpeting. The parking lot. The heat. Everyone works from home, producing content on laptops and uploading it to a central server where an editor assembles the shows and returns them to be broadcast. Does it work? So far, so good. With limited resources, I am all favor of cutting back on carpeting and desks and lunchrooms. I am all in favor of putting all our money directly on the screen.
Like I said, so far, so good.
But it's no easy transition for an existing newsroom to undertake. Far too traumatic.
But ask yourself, if and when Google gets into the local video news business, what will their operation look like.
Start there and work ahead.
Don't look back.
There's nothing to see.

Ike said...

Michael, I have defended you on forums about as much as I have questioned your training.

I applaud you for looking ahead, and I agree that the industry is swirling down the toilet. (I, like John, am no longer jockeying to still be in the bowl after the flush.)

However, John raises an interesting point: when your students start turning in product that looks that poor, it does impact the credibility of the news organization.

If Bubba at home can tilt the table lamp and get better lighting (which thousands of Bubbas do, in order to make their chroma key work at home), then it impacts credibility.

Your argument to get rid of the newsroom is on the money, but that isn't the argument you need to make. You need to sell the industry on real, hard data that shows that viewers aren't as swayed by "quality" of video, or even quality of storytelling.

You need to quantify how 60% of the budget is going toward activities that only make a 10% difference -- and that the margins of profitability are at stake.

The onus is on you to make that case, because right now I am seeing John's side of this: the credibility of the organization is up for grabs, and bland storytellers with bland video can't compete with young kids dressed as hookers and pimps.