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One-person news crews

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.”

Great enablers

Several technologies have converged to make the single-person newsgatherer more effective in the field. High-quality, relatively low-priced HD cameras with good low light sensitivity, solid-state recording media, easily transferrable files, powerful yet affordable laptop computers and nonlinear editing programs that likely are the same ones that are being used back at the station have all emerged to enable a single person to report, write, interview, capture and edit stories.

Perhaps the most important enabler to have emerged, however, is IP transport of content. Whether for live or edited stories, IP transport is delivering reliable contribution from the field without the complexities associated with setting up ENG and SNG shots, aspects of traditional field contribution that make them less well suited to the multimedia journalist approach.

“IP connectivity is the backbone of the world of communication outside of broadcasting,” says Mark Aitken, VP of Advanced Technology for the Sinclair Broadcast Group. “IP offers standard interfacing and a selection of product from countless vendors.”

He adds, “IP transport is universal, and as long as you have an IP connection, you have the ability to fling that content wherever you want it.”

IP connectivity also offers two-way communications, which reporters in the field can use for phone and Internet connectivity. The studio can use this same two-way connection for IFB and PL.

It also offers a way for the one-man-band journalist to take his or her desktop into the field via a virtual private network.

“The newsroom computer system really needs to be thought of as something that lives both inside the station and on the laptop of a reporter in the field at the same time,” Ocon says. “IP connectivity allows us to extend the reach of the newsroom system, which opens up a lot of possibilities.”

Several broadcast groups met in Austin, TX, in September to learn more about Gray Television's GrayMax 2GHz hotspot contribution system deployed in College Station and Bryan, TX, under an FCC experimental license.

Not only does extending the NCRS into the field offer reporters access to newswires and rundowns, but in theory it gives them access to all of the resources they would have if seated at their desk back in the newsroom.

In mid-September, a number of station groups — including LIN Media, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Capitol Broadcasting — were invited to Austin, TX, to learn about a new way reporters equipped with IP newsgathering systems may one day be able to use the 2GHz Broadcast Auxiliary Service band. Gray Television demonstrated for the broadcasters GrayMax, a two-way IP communications system that in essence provides Internet hotspots in 2GHz BAS spectrum. Deployed under an FCC experimental license the in College Station and Bryan, TX, GrayMax is an intelligent pipeline that allocates bandwidth as needed to support differing contribution requirements.

“Our intention is to make this an open standard along with other stations,” explains Ocon, who says he is hopeful the FCC will see GrayMax as an effective way to share spectrum and thus protect broadcasters from possible reallocation of 2GHz spectrum currently assigned to ENG. Sockett, who first learned of GrayMax earlier this year, says the concept makes a lot of sense.

“When Ocon told me about it in the spring, it seemed like a great idea,” Sockett says. “If we can start getting out of the mindset that you only have two ENG channels per market for yourself, we’ll all be much better off.”

The broadcast engineering community takes up the challenge of IP networking and content transport.

It is tempting to say baseband video around the station is in decline, headed towards a distant demise. However, even the biggest proponents of what IP technology can do for contribution, distribution and workflow acknowledge that as long as there is a need to transmit ATSC digital television, baseband video will have a place at the station, even if it is in the form of an IP-to-ASI encoder to feed the transmitter.

Even with its advancement in recent years, some traditionalists in the broadcast engineering community cast a wary eye towards IP. Wayne Pecena, assistant director of educational broadcast services in the Office of Information Technology at Texas A&M University, says such skepticism grows out of a lack of understanding and experience with IP technology.

Pecena, who serves on the board of directors of the Society of Broadcast Engineers and is chairman of the society’s education committee, has spent the past three years training broadcast engineers online and in person in IP networking technology. What he has seen over that period has been a slow, steady increase in how much broadcast engineers know about IP technology and an overall desire to learn.

At a recent event in Los Angeles, Pecena asked his 50 students, made up of broadcast engineers from around the area, to describe their IP expertise.

“One person considered himself at the advanced level, 10 said they were at the intermediate level, and the rest said they were at the beginning stage,” says Pecena, who has trained hundreds of broadcast engineers in IP networking since embarking on this mission in 2010. “I think that is pretty representative of where the industry is on the whole.”

Pecena notes that while using Ethernet for control and monitoring of various pieces of broadcast gear has been done for some time, the idea of relying on IP as a transport technology at the station to improve workflow and share content among various departments — such as news, promotions and creative — is rather new.

“Moving content around by IP would simplify a technical plant,” Pecena says. “Clearly, this is where the industry is headed. Eventually, as a few more areas get a little better sorted out, you will truly have interoperability between different manufacturers’ products like you do with ASI.”

With the efforts of Pecena and other trainers, broadcast engineers are well under way preparing for this eventuality.

Editor’s note: SBE offers two IP-related certifications: Certified Broadcast Networking Technologist, an entry level certification, and Certified Broadcast Networking Engineer, a professional level certification.

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to Broadcast Engineering. He also writes several e-newsletters for the magazine and is a frequent contributor to