Monday, Aug. 10, 2009 | She’s a veteran TV newswoman, but Allison Ash feels a bit like she’s back starting out at her first job in North Carolina.
“I’m shooting my first solo stand-up in more than 20 years,” she said while standing in a parking lot outside 10News’s studio. A small video camera whirred on a tripod, shooting Ash’s mock report as a trainer stood by with tips about the art of self-filming.
Once again, Ash is learning to do double duty as both reporter and cameraperson. This time, the camera equipment weighs 10 pounds instead of 60. But the newly hired 10News reporter still has to relearn the basics of TV photography.
Not that she minds. Ash, now one of a new breed of video journalists, is happy to relearn skills that she long ago outgrew as she moved to larger TV stations. “The way things are now, if I don’t do this I’ll be obsolete,” she said. “I refuse to be a dinosaur.”
Not long ago, the idea of VJs would have seemed the ultimate in insanity to many TV journalists who were accustomed to teams of reporters and photographers. Double-duty was something reporters only did at their first jobs in smaller towns with cash-strapped stations — think Bakersfield and Yuma — before moving up to the big leagues to a place like San Diego, which ranks among the 30 largest TV markets in the country.
But VJs save money, and cost-cutting is the name of the game in local TV today. The wider use of VJs, in fact, is only the beginning.
In recent months, local TV newsrooms have begun outsourcing the weather, sharing helicopters and even swapping news coverage with each other. At least one station even used a laptop computer’s tiny internal camera to shoot video.
With one or two exceptions, viewers may not notice much difference. “The main thing is that we’ve got to be out covering news. How we do it, what the resources are, that’s not what [viewers] need to worry about,” said Greg Dawson, news director of NBC 7/39, a voiceofsandiego.org media partner.
One newsman says rival local stations risk lowering the quality of their newscasts if they simply cut and cut. “There’s not this sense of ‘We can do anything.’ It’s ‘Let’s hunker down, let’s not think big,’” said Steve Cohen, news director at KUSI, which touts itself as offering more serious coverage than its competitors.
TV newsrooms don’t like to release their staffing levels for competitive reasons, so it’s difficult to know precisely how much smaller they are than in the past. But layoffs have been common, no surprise considering that national TV station revenues are expected to decline more than 17 percent this year.
Just as in the newspaper and radio worlds, the reason for the slump is simple: Advertisers are advertising less.
To complicate matters, companies that still have money for advertising are demanding new ways to put themselves before viewers outside of traditional commercials, which viewers can easily skip with digital video recorders. At least one station, CBS 8, places advertiser logos on a corner of the screen during newscasts, and sponsoring of specific segments — like the weather — appears to have become more common locally.
Most of the biggest changes, however, are coming behind the scenes.
News-sharing agreements, for example, are becoming more common. A total of six local TV stations offer English-language newscasts in San Diego, and all of them share at least some content.
In the past, each of the three major network affiliates — 10News, NBC 7/39 and CBS 8 — had its own helicopter. Now, stations share video from two helicopters. In addition, NBC 7/39 and CBS 8 in May began sharing video from news events like press conferences; 10News and San Diego 6 also share video. This level of “pooling” coverage is unprecedented.
Other cost-cutting measures are taking advantage of improvements in technology. Fox 5 sent a reporter to cover a San Diego Chargers game in London last fall, and he shot video of himself with the camera in his laptop computer, said news director Rich Goldner. The reporter also sent video via computer lines, allowing the station to avoid spending hundreds or thousands on a satellite uplink, Goldner said.
Perhaps the most noticeable recent cutback has come at NBC 7/39, where weather anchor Pat Brown left to make way for Los Angeles-based Fritz Coleman of KNBC. He now provides forecasts, many of them pre-recorded, for the station’s evening newscasts.
Weather segments are “the No. 1 driver for local TV newscasts,” said 10News news director Joel Davis.
That’s the case even in a city known for its endless sun, and local stations have long tried to turn forecasters into well-known local personalities. Names of weathermen like Bob Dale and “Captain Mike” Ambrose are imprinted in the minds of viewers who grew up here in recent decades.
Dawson, the news director, said the station never directly misleads people into thinking Coleman is in San Diego when he’s not. But he acknowledged that “we don’t necessarily highlight that he isn’t” here either.
Of all the cost-cutting moves in local TV news, the greater use of VJs appear to be the most controversial. Several local stations use them, led by 10News, which has a reputation as a VJ pioneer.
Davis said the station will boost the number of newsroom employees who are trained to be VJs. He added that savings have allowed the station to avoid layoffs due to the economy.
To others, however, the use of VJs is an affront to the unique skills of camerapeople and reporters.
“The overall product suffers greatly” when stations rely on VJs, said retired local TV reporter Doug Curlee. “A photographer is not a trained reporter, and a reporter is not a trained photographer. The end result is all too often the story comes out looking and sounding like something produced by the local middle-school TV class, and people notice that.”
The man who considers himself the father of video journalism, not surprisingly, thinks Curlee is out of touch.
“If you think you need years of training to shoot video for local news, you have not been watching local news,” said consultant Michael Rosenblum by e-mail from Europe. “Any idiot can shoot good basic video.”
Rosenblum, who developed video journalism in Sweden about 20 years ago, said he can teach someone how to shoot and edit video — along with “basic storytelling” skills — in about five days.
For now, the VJs and news-sharing arrangements seem in no danger of disappearing from local stations. Layoffs still remain a threat. But at least one newsroom, the one at 10News, actually brought on a new employee recently.
“We have just hired a new chief meteorologist,” Davis said, “and beefed up our weather staffing so we cover weather more effectively.”
Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at email@example.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.