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News loners — Part 1

Video journalist, one-man-band reporter, multimedia journalist … The labels may be different, but the idea is the same: Send one person into the field to shoot, interview, report and contribute live or edited stories from remote locations, thereby multiplying the “feet on the street” and ultimately offering viewers more stories.

With the help of small, lightweight, high-performance HD cameras, solid-state recording media, laptop computers, multimedia tablets, and an amalgamation of contribution technology — including Wi-Fi, WiMAX, bonded cellular circuits, IP satellite and traditional COFDM microwave transmission — it’s never been easier for a sole reporter to “do it all.”

While this approach to newsgathering is far from new, relatively recent developments in the industry and the availability of IP-centric solutions are taking the concept of what can be done by one person reporting in the field to a higher level. For years, many journalism grads landing jobs at smaller market stations have grabbed their camera and their kit, slung their tripod over their shoulders, and headed out of the newsroom for a story. Today, however, that kit is far smaller and lighter, and it certainly includes a laptop or tablet computer with Internet connectivity so that the newsroom’s resources are just a few clicks away.

Today, rather simply being a newsgathering approach relegated to entry-level television reporters, one-person news “crews” are valuable field resources complementing more traditional ENG and SNG setups at local stations of all sizes, network news operations and news bureaus in places as diverse as state capitals and the streets of Egypt.

The latest Hofstra University/RTDNA survey of newsroom staffing sheds light on where multimedia journalists stand in the minds of newsroom managers as they make decisions about who to hire. The results, released in July, show multimedia journalists ranked fifth among top replacement hires and tied for fourth among new hires with photographer and Web producer at local U.S. television stations.

While certainly not at the top of the newsroom managers’ hiring priorities, multimedia journalists were far from last. In fact, they essentially were in the middle of the pack, which included titles as diverse as anchors and Web producers.

Ups and downs

Multimedia journalism may offer news operations a variety of advantages, but for Jim Ocon, Gray Television VP of Technology, it all comes down to speed.

“This approach to news gathering provides a quicker path to air,” he says.

With IP-based news contribution, Gray reporters can grab a backpack and have one-button, bonded cellular circuit access to IP transport back to the station.

Another advantage is reach, Ocon says. Recently, the station group has embarked on a program of equipping its TVU Pack-equipped multimedia journalists with small, light Ku-band satellite setups from On Call Communications. Designed for IP satellite connectivity, the new technology removes one of the last hurdles for IP-based news contribution: lack of connectivity in remote areas.

“This gives our reporters in the field one-button access back to the station, from wherever they are,” he says. “It also provides them with Internet access and telephone access in the field regardless of their location.”

He adds, “The power of this approach is it lets us go places we couldn’t traditionally get in to with our SNG or ENG trucks.”

At Capitol Broadcasting, owner of WRAL-TV serving the Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville, NC, market, multimedia journalists complement the newsgathering activities of traditional reporter-photographer teams, says Pete Sockett, director of Engineering and Operations.

“Journalists in remote bureaus are doing one-man-band newsgathering,” Sockett says, “and we regularly deploy one-man band setups for Web-only streaming coverage of court cases.”

WRAL has deployed a combination of contribution technology to enable its one-person news contribution. Reporters in the field use LiveU IP-based newsgathering technology. Those in news bureaus simply use a setup based on an Evertz IP encoder to contribute reports.

“We have also begun dropping our own bandwidth into venues and walk in with IP encoders,” Sockett says.

Two examples are the Durham County and Raleigh Country courthouses.

“When they built the two new courthouses, they invited us in during the design phase,” Sockett explains.

The result was IP connectivity for news contribution paid for by Capitol Broadcasting, not the counties, he adds.

This type of deployment serve as an example of another benefit of the multimedia journalists equipped with IP connectivity — the ability to free up traditional ENG and SNG vehicles for more productive uses. Rather than tying up hundreds of thousands of dollars in mobile newsgathering resources at the curb of a public building, IP connectivity at the two courthouses in North Carolina allows newsgathering trucks to be reassigned to stories breaking elsewhere.

If there is a downside to the one-man-band approach to newsgathering, however, it may be the need to sacrifice greatness for being good enough. The chances that the same individual will consistently be a great reporter, a great shooter, a great sound person and a great editor are less than having specialists in all of aspects of news production.

Sockett says to those in the television business, there is typically a noticeable difference in the quality of the camera work done by a one-man band vs. a two-person crew. Interestingly, he says, for news photographers taking on the one-man band role, visual storytelling will be powerful, but other aspects may be lacking.

“One of our photographers in particular will actually do some stories on his own that are based on a human interest,” says Sockett. “They typically rely heavily on the visual. He will shoot the piece and send it in himself, but I don’t think he normally voices anything himself.”