WXIA’s backpack journalists

About a year ago, WXIA launched a somewhat revolutionary concept in the Atlanta market. It began using what it calls “backpack journalists,” reporters who tote and shoot their own cameras, as well as write and produce their own stories. It’s revolutionary, all right. Kinda like 1979 Iranian revolution. It’s disturbing, destabilizing, and nobody wins except the mullahs in the bean-counting divisions of media companies like Gannett.

Most TV reporters begin their careers as one-man-band reporter/photographers in tiny markets. LAF began in Tupelo Miss., just a few weeks after the American hostages were seized in Teheran. The TV station was owned by some dude who had enough revenue to fund a 10-person newsroom and produce a half hour at noon, six and ten each day. Those of us in such work environments were highly motivated to escape to the big-time, where news was more plentiful and where a professional photog would actually shoot our stories.

Fast forward to the 21st century. At WXIA, three reporters are now designated as backpack journalists. Catherine Kim and Julie Wolfe are youngsters, fresh from markets like Buffalo and Chattanooga.  They went on the WXIA payroll knowing their fate.   Jerry Carnes has been with WXIA since 1988. He volunteered to revert to his one-man-band roots. No doubt, Carnes would admit to a slightly masochistic streak.

This trend began in San Francisco at KRON, a station desperately on the ropes in 2006. The station’s experiment with backpack journalism was deliciously chronicled by the SF Weekly in an article called “KRON’s Last Gasp.” But WXIA isn’t gasping. Though consistently third in the ratings, it’s got strong personnel and presents a quality product, as local TV news broadcasts go.

WXIA’s motivation is pretty simple: Make one person do the work of two. It’s a concept dating back to the steel barons of the late 1800s. But there’s no question, it puts WXIA’s backpack journalists at a disadvantage. It means they have to navigate, make phone calls, load, unload and operate equipment while their competitors are focusing solely on story development. It means they can’t collaborate with photographers, who know news as well as (and may know the story better than) the reporter does. Unless the backpack journalist is doing a story that’s off the beaten path, away from a competitive environment, it means WXIA’s viewers get cheated.

Wolfe and Kim are talented young reporters. They’re not bad shooters. Carnes is one of WXIA’s best. But when you see their work, keep in mind that they’re working with one hand tied behind their backs. And by the time their stuff airs at 6pm or 7pm, the mullahs in Finance are already on their commute home.

14 thoughts on “WXIA’s backpack journalists

  1. bob

    I’m enjoying your blog and I’m cheering for your opinions. Sadly, I don’t think news consumers care enough so that voices such as yours will make a difference. However, I’m sure there are still many journalists who agree with you. Hopefully you and others like you can make the mullahs feel some sense of shame. But the idea of journalism as a public service is fading away very quickly. I don’t think it can be stopped as long as corporations and boards of directors — tasked with increasing profits annually — control local TV newsrooms.

  2. Rick Smith

    I agree with you and also enjoyed your blue-collar attitude against greedy, unreasonable, short-sighted management. It’s sure to evoke a few grunts of assent from the photog lounge and elsewhere.

    But you may not be the best person to speak on this point. Didn’t you cut your own stories? (Read no further if I’m wrong. There is at least one other reporter at your old station who continues to do that).

    So where do you draw the line? You make it sound as though, maybe, you and your photog remained together, a great team, all the way through the day. And who wouldn’t be the poorer without that sort of professional relationship?

    Instead, you were okay with the photog carrying the big, heavy camera and focusing and framing the shots and figuring out how to visualize the story, with you offering your own input, no doubt. But you thought it would be quicker and more creative to send the photog off for some coffee so you could turn into a temporary one-man-band and edit the story yourself.

    Why not collaberate with the colleague you respect so much, and let the photog edit the video he/she shot and express his/her own journalistic and creative vision, while you work the phones some more, do reporter stuff, set up stories for the next day, work a crossword puzzle, whatever? You must have liked the way the stories turned out. You must have thought you were doing what was best for the viewers and that you were not putting your station at a competitive disadvantage compared with the stations where the photogs edited while the reporters maybe did reporter stuff.

    Management and their “BPJ” toadies see someone like you and think, hey, there are some veterans who are creative, go-getters, too, but we can even do more, we can DO IT ALL! Edit AND shoot! In fact, you are absolutely correct, it’s not good for a story, for a newsroom, for the viewer, if everyone is a one man band all the time. But we have no choice if we want to stay in whatever TV news is becoming. Everyone is going to have to know how to be a one man band (again), even if everyone is not a one man band every day. Heck, I think we should have, long ago, followed the network model and had at least four-person crews — photog, sound person, field producer and reporter.

  3. liveapartmentfire Post author

    I edited packages in the field frequently, but not always. If a photog wanted to edit, I always let him/her. My motivation for editing was mostly that I knew I would make the deadline.

    Was I part of the problem? Possibly. Was management aware that I was editing packages in the field? Barely, if at all. It certainly didn’t add to my value, if they did know.

    If I needed to develop the story or work the phone, I always asked the photog to edit.

    You’re right– TV news gathering is best done as a collaboration. The WXIA BPJs don’t have that benefit.

  4. br

    fascinating. I had no idea that this was a growing trend, though it would make sense from a bean-counting perspective. is this a step in the direction of viewer-generated content on broadcast news, a la Al Gore’s channel?

  5. shawn

    Wolfe and Kim are talented young reporters….

    Doug, are you high?! My wife & I have nicknamed Kim “the Train Wreck” for repeated use of “Umm” during her live reports, and the hair blowing in her face. She’s gotten better, but it still happens. Isn’t there some kind of skills test before they put you on live tv?

    Her reporting compared to Elaine Reyes is like the Falcons compared to the Patriots.

  6. bsteve76

    Isn’t this a TV version of the “mojo” (mobile journalist) concept that the AJC uses in its suburban editions, like Gwinnett? It’s in keeping with the “hyper-local” coverage that news organizations use to compete with the Internet and citizen journalists on that medium.

  7. rustytanton

    Hey Doug,
    I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now and enjoy it immensely. Some of the best media criticism I’ve read in a while.

    I had no idea 11Alive was experimenting with backpack journalists.

    I did know about WKRN in Nashville switching entirely to this format a few years ago. They didn’t just switch to backpack journalists, though. They also had everyone write a blog. It was really an overhaul of the entire philosophy of the place, which doesn’t appear to be what’s happening at 11Alive.

    I think the jury is still out on this approach. WKRN has increased their web traffic dramatically, though they (unless things have changed since last year) haven’t jumped much in the ratings. And they have yet to figure out how to monetize that web traffic, as they recently made the (dumb) decision to shut down its popular and well-respected Volunteer Voters blog.

    If the motivation is “make one person do the work of two,” then I’d agree it’s doomed to failure. If the motivation is to broaden coverage, then there’s a chance it could work, but I’d concede that hasn’t been proven yet.

  8. jcburns

    News managers can stand up in newsroom meetings and claim that it’s about increasing coverage, but they can’t deny the budget-spreadsheet appeal.

    But what they’re discovering in some markets is that the number of finished packages per day goes down—there’s a lot of multitasking stuff that a good team of two can do that isn’t strictly in one or the other job description.

    Seems to me broadcast journalists fall into three overlapping camps:

    Those who can write and report and tell a story, but who have trouble making the visuals happen—they might be able to “visualize” but they can’t get the gear to make what they see in their brain.

    Then, those who are visual savants, brilliant at making images and assembling streams of compelling chunks of video, but who have a pedestrian command of the language, and tend to think of the words as crude captions for the pictures, filling in the gaps.

    And finally, those who can thrive in one-person-band situations, but they do so because they have natural skills at working visually and sculpting a story with an easy command of the technical skills involved. They can spin together verbal poetry along with visual clarity.

    And boy, they’re rare, in my experience. Maybe training young reporters from day one makes a difference, but I think they will always sort out into those three groups, perhaps just in different numbers.

    The thing I don’t see managers thinking about as much is: if backpackers are a given, how can we change the fundamental nature of the show to take advantage of it? Maybe (one scenario) we need to have folks out there bringing in an ocean of b-roll, with an eye toward a finished product that is NOT a small batch of reporter narrated packages but a larger collection of images that can be narrated by anchors? Or maybe we just go out and get bites, lots of bites? Or maybe we make the broadcast more of a newsmagazine, and drastically reduce the story count requirements?

    It it sure doesn’t make sense to drastically reconfigure the news gathering process without recalibrating the finished product to take advantage of what your folks can do without killing themselves daily.

  9. liveapartmentfire Post author

    I’m under the impression that backpackers got sold a bill of goods: they’d be allowed to stretch out and tell less-pressured stories, in exchange for doing twice the work. Mostly, that doesn’t appear to happen. But if that premise were honest– then yes, the nature of the broadcast needs to be changed to take advantage of it.

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