In lean times, TV reporters must be jacks of all trades

Going it alone: Scott Broom of WUSA is framed by the camera shot he set up while reporting a story last week in College Park.
Going it alone: Scott Broom of WUSA is framed by the camera shot he set up while reporting a story last week in College Park. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010

Scott Broom turns his tripod toward the wall of gray mailboxes, adjusts the camera, walks into the shot and delivers his spiel.

"Here's how bad it is for the U.S. Postal Service," the WUSA reporter says as a handful of customers at the Garrett Park post office look on. Invoking the organization's growing deficit, which he just looked up on a laptop in his car, he puts a stamp on an envelope and declares: "At 44 cents a shot, that is a lot of peeling and sticking."

Broom then thrusts the envelope toward the lens -- and blows out the iris, which has to be reset so he can try the stand-up again. It's one of the occupational hazards of being a journalistic jack of all trades -- the equivalent of singing while playing the keyboard, guitar and drums.

At the same time, Broom says, "one guy with a handheld camera is a lot less intimidating to a reluctant interview subject than a full crew. I find people are a lot more willing to talk and share information when they're confronted with a one-man band."

Whatever the pluses and minuses, a trend that took root in local television is spreading to the pricier precincts of network news as well. When ABC News recently announced a massive wave of buyouts that could cut 300 to 400 jobs -- up to 25 percent of the workforce -- executives said its journalists would be expected to report, shoot and edit their own stories in addition to relying on film crews. All the networks, including ABC, have dabbled in the practice. But in an era of layoffs and shuttered offices -- ABC will have no physical bureaus outside Washington -- it is quickly becoming a necessity.

"I would not say cost wasn't a factor, but it was not the driving factor," says Alexandra Wallace, senior vice president at NBC, which began the switch in earnest four years ago. "Sometimes you can get an intimacy with a tiny camera that you wouldn't get with a 2 1/2 -foot camera sitting on someone's shoulder. . . . I mostly consider everyone here a digital journalist."

Upside and downside

In practice, the move spares networks and stations from having to hire freelance crews, or send out a typically large contingent: reporter, cameraman, sound man, satellite truck operator.

Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent, always carries a small, $3,000 camera with him. On military convoys, he is often separated from his camera operator.

"On the plus side," Engel says, "it gives you an extra pair of eyes and lets you spread out on a larger field. The downside is, I'm not a professional cameraman. My cameraman is trained to do this. It'd be presumptuous of me to think I can do what he can do. You'll never get the quality that he does."

Several years ago in Iraq, Engel was in a military Humvee that struck a roadside bomb. As the vehicle turned over and filled with smoke, Engel grabbed his camera: "I turned it around and did a stand-up. I got immediate reactions from soldiers in the vehicle to convey what it's like to be in an explosion." Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.

For Wallace, the practice has another payoff. "Journalists are control freaks," she says. "If you can shoot and edit your own stuff, you can tell the story the way you want to tell it."

Allan Horlick, WUSA's general manager, sees similar benefits. "One of the concerns we heard from the newsroom is that the quality has got to suffer," Horlick says. Actually, he says, "the quality goes up," and the staff generates more content than can fit in each newscast.

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