Never ask your most important question first.
That was the advice Today show producer John O’Rourke was giving.
First, you’ve got to shoot some “B-roll.” Then some softer questions. Then, the kill.
“You don’t want to be like, ‘Hi. So, did you kill your mom?’”
That got a laugh from the pupils gathered in a second-floor classroom at the New York Film Academy’s neoclassical brick building on the edge of Union Square on the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 20.
It was last summer that the school teamed up with NBC News to create a newfangled broadcast journalism program with a focus on digital journalism. Tuition for a semester of classes is $17,000. In exchange, the school immerses students in the new technology currently revolutionizing the television news business, including how to shoot video on Panasonic HD cameras and how to edit on Final Cut Pro software.
At the front of the room, Mr. O’Rourke, a slight, handsome man with 25 years of experience in TV news, readjusted his glasses. A few feet to his right sat Lyne Pitts, an erstwhile vice president of NBC News, who had played a significant role in forging the partnership between NYFA and NBC News. She had invited Mr. O’Rourke to speak to the class about field producing.
On a screen behind him, Mr. O’Rourke cued up a story that he had produced years earlier for Today. It was a piece about a heroic teacher in California, the kind of “O captain! My captain!” guy who inspires countless students, year after year. The editing, the lighting, the interviews—everything was perfectly polished.
The piece ended, and Mr. O’Rourke smiled. The package, he recalled, had been super-costly to produce. “We could never have done that story today like we did it four years ago,” Mr. O’Rourke said wistfully. “It was very, very expensive.”
From the back of the room, a student named Mac Bishop raised his hand. For the past six years, Mr. Bishop had been reporting for print publications overseas, including the Financial Times and Foreign Policy. Recently he had matriculated into the program, hoping to escape freelancing by picking up some marketable technical skills.
“As I watch the ongoing massacre in the journalism business, I’m told that if I ever want a job in the future that I need to be able to do everything myself,” he said. “But I realize I could never do a piece like this all by myself.”
Ms. Pitts, the former NBC News VP (who, like many of her veteran colleagues, recently took a buyout from the company), interjected. “I’m not going to concede your point,” said Ms. Pitts. Armed with the new tools of digital journalism, she went on to argue, a solo practitioner could achieve the same level of storytelling in the field as a traditional news crew.
Currently, the broadcast news business, like the newspaper business, is going through a tumultuous contraction. The advent of the Internet, the subsequent splintering of the news audience and the ongoing slump in advertising has resulted in the national news networks (including NBC News) and local TV stations (including NBC’s flagship station in New York, WNBC-4) shedding experienced employees at an alarming rate.
Though statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that networks and stations around the country are currently restocking their newsrooms with a new species of journalist: the “one-man band”—also known as DJs (digital journalists), APJs (all-platform journalists) and backpackers.
“In small crews or even solo, these intrepid reporters are the fastest-growing part of the journalism profession,” suggests the program’s Web site.
Gone are the days, goes the theory, when a TV station has to employ a specialized cameraman, editor, correspondent and producer to report a field story. According to believers in the new model, a single well-trained digital journalist armed with a laptop, a small HD camera and a tripod can now more or less replicate the job that was traditionally performed by an ensemble news crew. (Most of whom, it can be presumed, tend to belong to unions.)
But even ardent supporters of the new model have questions—namely, how can a single individual do everybody’s job without drastically sacrificing the quality of the story?
On Friday afternoon, Marian Porges, the director of the digital journalism school, leaned back on a couch in an office down the hall from Mr. O’Rourke’s guest lecture.
For more than 25 years, Ms. Porges has produced news at the network level first for ABC News and, more recently for NBC. Currently, in addition to running the new DJ program, she works as a producer on NBC’s special-events unit.
Not long ago, to name but one example, NBC News began asking veteran producers (including Mr. O’Rourke of Today) to take retraining classes on the new digital-editing software.
“In the past year, it has become starkly obvious that if people don’t have additional skills, they’re just not going to be able to maintain their job,” said Ms. Porges.
“You can’t walk into a newsroom anymore and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to be a producer!’” said Ms. Porges. “They’re going to say to you, ‘Great. What else can you do?’”
In December, Gannett executives announced that they would be replacing their traditional news crews at WUSA in Washington with solo digital journalists. Elsewhere, last summer, CNN launched a series of 10 mini-bureaus around the country, each of which will eventually be staffed by one APJ.
Over at ABC News, in the fall of 2007, executives hired seven digital journalists and dispatched them to cities around the planet. A year and a half later, network executives consider the experiment a major success.
“We are planning to expand the program both overseas and domestically,” Jon Banner, the executive producer of ABC’s World News With Charles Gibson, told The Observer. “This model has worked quite well for us, and it’s something we would like to replicate.”
At their flagship station in New York, WNBC-4, NBC executives have dismantled the traditional newsroom (and much of its traditional news staff) to make room for a digital “content center,” which will eventually employ a pack of digital “content producers.”
Recently, the old-school broadcasters at NBC have grown accustomed to the sight of the young DJ students toting laptops around 30 Rock and soaking up their institutional knowledge. On election night, Ms. Porges took all of her students on a field trip to the NBC News studios. And, every Tuesday, her second-semester students pair up, head over to 30 Rock and spend the day shadowing an employee at NBC News or MSNBC. Does that sound menacing?
Ms. Porges said that while the vast majority of NBC News veterans have been incredibly hospitable toward her students, some hard feelings are perhaps inevitable, given the recent widespread personnel cuts at NBC News, MSNBC and WNBC-4.
“We’re asking people to help us who, in some cases, feel we’re training people to take their jobs,” said Ms. Porges. “One thing that concerns me about the change in the business is, can we really train people to do all these jobs and have the quality not be affected? And the answer is no.”
The important thing was not to sacrifice the quality of the journalism.
“Where we should not be compromising is on researching, writing and telling a story and being fair and being objective,” she said.
“I can’t promise jobs to anybody,” she said. “But we would like to reap the benefit of what we’ve taught them. So we’d like to place them in NBC in some format. Our affiliates have expressed to us, ‘Please let us know when you have students who have completed the course. They are exactly what we are looking for.’”
Three days after Mr. O’Rourke’s presentation, Mac Bishop, the 32-year-old student with a background in print, spent several hours in a voice-training class, worked on a package about small businesses coping with the economic downturn and took an editing class.
He had been accepted to law school when he decided to enroll in the program, to give journalism one more chance. When he started the program back in January, he hadn’t known the first thing about cameras. Now, just six weeks later, he felt confident (“maybe overconfident” he joked) that he could shoot and produce a broadcast-quality newscast.
Not long ago, Mara Schiavocampo, a young, go-getter correspondent for NBC’s Nightly News, visited Mr. Bishop’s class. Ms. Schiavocampo told the students about how years earlier, she had ditched the traditional slow-moving career path in broadcast news, bought a digital camera, traveled overseas, shot some stories, returned to the states and landed a great job, becoming NBC News’ first ever “digital correspondent.” Along the way, she had become the network’s poster child for the future of TV news.
Mr. Bishop now wondered if he really needed a second semester of school. For less than the cost of tuition, Mr. Bishop estimated, he could buy his own digital equipment—including an HD camera—and start shooting stories on his own.
The idea was appealing. Then again, if he stuck around, he might have more time to network with the NBC News folks and maybe land a job.
But who knows? In the modern media business, nothing seemed certain. Maybe someday he would work for CNN or Al Jazeera or the BBC. Or maybe he would take his new technical skills and go to work for a “newspaper.”
Recently, Mr. Bishop attended a journalism forum during which managers at the New York Times and Washington Post video units had spoken of the future importance of the same tools he was now learning. If you compared the Web sites for CNN and The Washington Post, with every passing day, they seemed to look more alike.
“To me, it’s not really about becoming a one-man band for broadcast journalism,” said Mr. Bishop on Monday night. “It’s really just about surviving as a journalist in the future.”