Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What ABC News Is Doing Is Bound To Happen Here

The cutting and slashing is going on right now at ABC News, where they’ve decided to do without the professional services of 3 or 4 hundred people. Most of those who will lose their jobs – or who have seen the handwriting on the wall and will “take the buyout” – are photographers and producers.

This is the future of TV news.

My wife was an on-camera TV reporter for many years, and before that, she was the Assignments Manager at Channel 3 in Madison. Before that, she hung out with some smart-mouthed guy on the radio (me). So I have some inside knowledge of how the biz works.

If you’ve ever been interviewed for a local TV news story, you probably met two people in person and possibly talked to another person on the phone. The person you may have talked to on the phone was the Assignments Manager; if not, it was the reporter, asking if he or she could do a story with you.

If you agreed, when they showed up, it was two people: the reporter and the photographer. The reporter asked the questions; the photographer ran the camera. Then they went back to the TV station, wrote and edited the story, and some producer massaged it a bit.

The way the network TV operations do it, it’s with THREE people: the reporter, the photographer, and the “producer” (or “field producer”). As I understand it, the role of the producer is to line up the story, coordinate the “shoot”, and get soft drinks or coffee for the “talent” (reporter).

Think of the movie “Groundhog Day”: Bill Murray is Phil, the weatherman/reporter; that pretty lady Andy McDowell is Rita, the producer; and Chris Elliot plays Larry, the photographer. Truth to be told, in the non-Hollywood world, it would have just been the reporter and the photographer, since they worked for a TV station and not a network; but that wouldn’t have made for much of a movie.

Things have changed vastly in the TV news business. Even here in Madison, more and more times, reporters have to “shoot” their own stories. They have to go out into the field to get the story, and they have to set up and run the camera.

This is not a good time to be a “photojournalist”. It’s not exactly what you’d call a growth industry. ABC News is the first of the network operations to downsize its in-the-field news teams, but I have a feeling the other networks will soon do the same thing. It doesn’t take a corner-office “suit” with an MBA to figure out that two people instead of three is cheaper; and one person instead of two is cheaper. One person instead of three is MUCH cheaper.

Through the years, I’ve come to know some Madison photo-journalists pretty well – been in their homes, partied with them, shared war stories with them, even borrowed power tools from them. Folks with names like Kathy, Don, Jay, Bill, Doug, and others. I stand in awe of their talent. They have an “eye” for pictures, and know how to tell a story with pictures alone, and how to enhance a story with the RIGHT pictures.

They notice subtle things that most of us wouldn’t, and have an artist’s eye for what’s a “good” shot and what’s not. It’s a real talent. It’s the difference between a “snapshot” and a “photograph”. But ABC thinks that kind of talent is dispensable.

Broadcast news is enduring the death of a thousand cuts.


  1. Actually, I've seen it where the camera person is the only one to show up and ask me questions. I kind of like it, they seem more informed and ask good/common sense questions without the contrived angle of the story. I've even had the reporter do the interview then turn to the camera person and ask them if they have any additional questions for me. (Ok, I'll duck now as the reporters take some swings at me.)

  2. So it's going to be radio w/pictures, all over again.

    Which medium is messaging, McLuhan??

  3. A good reporter on site will almost always ask a photo-journalist for suggestions. They work together and two angles is better than one. A second look might, for example, reveal that the interview subject isn't answering the questions, or has a contrived message.

  4. In many cases, the cameraperson has way more experience than the pretty reporter and more local knowledge by far. The smart green reporter will carry the heavy tripod and gear and listen to the camera person. And you're right about Jay and Kathy and the others. Pros, all.

    Barry (not the Alvarez)

  5. Dad29's comment about TV morphing into radio with pictures is an interesting image. Bur the late Prof. Marshall McLuhan would be in the same boat we're all drifting in.

    McLuhan's famous assertion that "The medium is the message" is as valid as ever, but the statement needs to be understood in its proper context. He was talking about how various media affect the story they are telling.

    Television, in McLuhan's analysis, is about the visual, so it is naturally easy to watch, but understanding what it is telling us is quite difficult. TV does not excel at presenting meaning. Even reruns won't be much help.

    Miss part of a radio broadcast and you've likely missed the story. Newspaper stories can be read again and again, but they make high demands on the reader's time and attention.

    Tell the same story via all of those media and each version will be perceived in different ways. No single medium can claim to be the best when it comes to delivering information, and that is a point worth remembering.

    It is possible we can derive a "message" from reports of the trajectory of the traditional news industry, or from observations about how the various media are responding to that arc, but the subject will be economics in a changing world.

  6. I started out as a one man band and when I moved to Public TV I missed being able to do my own shooting and having to explain what I wanted to a photographer. Now I'm shooting some things again and, given the nature of the story, actually enjoy it.
    This is a long story but it's relevant. The Reporter shooter model is, to some degree, due to the influence of CBS. They had a huge stable of radio correspondents (very good ones, I might add) and they hired photographers to take pictures to lay on top of what amounted to radio scripts. In fact they often were also delivered on radio.

    NBC, on the other hand, didn't have the radio staff. They tended to draw from the world of theatrical news reels. Under that model, you had a photographer who was in charge of the shoot and a "contact man" who took names, kept track of what shots had been taken. Those were edited, "picture first" and a script writer then came in and wrote narration as needed.
    Sixty Minutes followed in the early model where the correspondent was the star. NBC's early attempts at magazines, some written and hosted by such folks as Linda Ellerbee and Lloyd Dobbins) tended to be much more visually driven with far less reporter involvement.

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