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.