Earlier this month, WXIA sent one of its most experienced reporters to backpack journalism school and scheduled classes for another. The reporters, Paul Crawley and Jon Shirek, began work in TV news during the film era. Crawley (left) joined WXIA in 1978, Shirek in 1980.
“Backpack journalism” is a 21st century term for a brutal concept typically reserved for the smallest TV markets: One-man-band TV coverage. The reporter also shoots and edits. And drives. And makes phone calls. “Backpack” refers to the lighter, less durable, less versatile cameras assigned to these souls.
WXIA already has three full-time backpackers. Jerry Carnes was a one-man-band at the station’s now-defunct Athens bureau when he started twenty years ago. He “volunteered” to do it again. Youngsters Julie Wolfe and Catherine Kim were hired as guinea pigs for the labor-saving experiment.
Apparently, WXIA is now asking reporters seeking contract renewal a question: Wanna go to backpack school? There’s only one correct answer, by the way.
Shirek spent three days in Asbury Park NJ with instructors produced by Gannett. The instructors were there to familiarize the reporter with the gear and the routine of the backpack journalist. He would learn focus and color balance. He would learn tape ingestion and non-linear editing.
WXIA has some of the best TV photographers in the Southeast, some nationally recognized. The seminar gives Shirek and Crawley three days to learn to do what their camera-toting colleagues have done for decades.
WXIA is no doubt emboldened by the success of Julie Wolfe, who has quickly begun to stand out on WXIA’s staff. The UGA grad has a keen eye behind the viewfinder and routinely shoots artful video that stands up well with the veteran photogs at WXIA. Wolfe is also a sharp storyteller. Her vocal delivery isn’t crisp enough yet. But when the assignment desk sends Wolfe out, alone, to produce a story, they’ll almost always get something solid in return. And they’ll certainly get their money’s worth.
Wolfe also produces with one hand figuratively tied behind her back. The information that yields a top-grade TV story typically doesn’t come easily. TV reporters at Atlanta stations are constantly making and fielding phone calls while their photographers are driving and navigating. Wolfe is driving and dialing.
This isn’t just about the obvious danger of compelling a reporter to look up phone numbers, dial and receive calls while changing lanes on I-285. Reporters make phone calls that go beyond that day’s newsgathering effort. They stay in touch with sources. They sound out stories for later in the week. They do it while en route to locations. They also do it while their photographers are shooting and editing. Wolfe, as driver, shooter and editor, is hamstrung as a reporter.
TV reporting isn’t rocket science. It’s not a science at all. There are many shades of grey, and they appear in different forms in story after story. Reporters have to make judgments quickly. Photographers help with those judgments, especially when the reporter is young and inexperienced. If Wolfe wants to bounce an idea off somebody, she has to make another phone call to WXIA’s newsroom.
Crawley and Shirek are certainly experienced enough to handle the rigors of backpack journalism and the challenges of solo newsgathering.
But WXIA is cheating itself, and its viewers. Its competitors are getting better information, by definition. By persisting in this sad experiment, WXIA sends a message its audience:
This corrects an earlier version which mistakenly reported that Crawley attended the school this month.