Re-education camp

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:

Expect less.

This corrects an earlier version which mistakenly reported that Crawley attended the school this month. 

14 thoughts on “Re-education camp

  1. FmrProducerMkt82

    Julie Wolfe normally does a good job, but I am wondering how much the one man banding is getting in the way. For example on last nights 11pm, she vultured a piece from WSB about a incident between A Clayton County Fireman and Clayton Co DA Jewell Scott, her svengali hubby Lee Scott and a DA office employee.

    She totally left out the backstory which was the fireman is the son of the guy who killed himself after being brought up on charges (some say railroaded). There is a HUGE political angle and she either didn’t know or did not see the value.

    There is something to be said for the reporter being able to work the story instead of having to supply his or her own B-Roll and worry about lighting, sound and composition.

  2. Scott Hedeen

    Jon and Paul taught me alot. As a former WXIA cameraman my skills were transparent beside reporters with their experience and skills.

    They both know Atlanta inside and out. It’s a shame that they have to sweat the techincal side of the ENG process… rather than working stories.. and sources.

    I’m sure any story produced by either one of these amazing TV reporters would be the best thing out there… it’s a shame they can’t be used to their fullest capacity.

    My belief is … let the visionary veterans lead…the others will follow.

  3. Longgone

    Ouch –
    I know almost all of those involved… worked with them many years here… and moved on in the face of the eventual devolution of the product. I now do some of what they are being asked to do every day. I own my own video business and have to juggle a lot of newly acquired skills.
    There is no turning back… just as people went from film to video. The product will only suffer more.
    Have they figured out how to do one-man band live shots yet??

  4. bob

    I have to ask… what will the photographers who normally would shoot Jon and Paul’s stories be doing when Jon and Paul are off backpacking? Will they start gathering news, reporting and shooting their own stories? Will WXIA be increasing their story output by two additional people? I would like to think so, but I think not.

  5. JasonC

    “Have they figured out how to do one-man band live shots yet??”

    They had that tackled years ago! Don’t you remember watching Al Franken on SNL with the dish on his head? Actually, I hear UGA has ENG Scooters that is specifically for this purpose and has cameras mounted on the motorcycle.

    Ultimately this all comes down to management using the best methods to allocate their resources and clearly Gannett/WXIA isn’t doing that. Julie and Jerry do a great job, so let them do one-man-band, but why take the legs out from under the rest of your reporters and especially your photogs which is the strength of the station. It’s like having Dan Marino at QB, but deciding to run the wishbone.

  6. SSG Daly

    Julie Wolfe is a former “Runner Cam” intern and one of the best interns ever. No surprise she’s making a good career for herself. The last “Runner Cam” I did before leaving WAGA had a great intern run along with myself and Gail Deevers. I can’t remember her name, but she had the same type of guts as Wolfe and may be following in Ms. Wolf’s shoes some day.

  7. Cameraman

    Just to make things clear. Cal Callaway was forced out of his job. Bob Walker, the station President, has been looking for his replacement for months and this dog and pony show that Cal wanted to return to “day to day” news is a big cover. A new “Director of the Information Center” is in the wings.

    WXIA needs their reporters to do one man band duty because they are not replacing news photographers that leave. WXIA will never hire another news photographer. When the time comes Paul, Jon, Jerry, Julie, Catherine and whoever else WXIA can find will be doing their own live shots as well.

    Come October, no news photographer or OMB reporter will be able to drive their news car home after their shift. At that point, to cover a story a WXIA journalist will have to drive to the station and move their equipment into an available “pool” vehicle and go to their story.

    Gannett and WXIA has made it very clear, by all of this, that if it comes to providing the best news coverage for their community or saving a buck or two, where their priorities are.

  8. JasonC

    For 30 something years, everyone has been chasing WSB, now WXIA has a news strategy… knock 46 from the bottom of the pile. Interesting.

    I wonder if there were any shock waves felt at KUSA or KARE.

  9. Steve S

    The bottom line for WXIA and possibly most tv news of late is that the station is doing a balancing act. How many screw-ups will the viewers tolerate and yet still watch. Right now WXIA is making more money in advertising on their newscasts than it costs to produce their newscasts. Their goal is to bring down the cost even more (not replacing those who leave or if they do, they pull people in from small markets). As long as they can continue to sell air time to advertisers and that money is more than the cost to produce the newscast, then the newscast was a success. Being #1 is NOT the goal. Making a profit is the goal. That is the Gannett way.

  10. Scott Hedeen

    “Being #1 is NOT the goal. Making a profit is the goal.”

    It’s a hard lesson to learn. I got a great eduaction on that at a job I had in PA back in the 90’s. It’s a business. Journalism …GOOD journalism… is just a happenstance that stations get if their news crews can…or are given the chance… or take it on their own. It was true in 1990… same as it is here in 2008.

  11. Pingback: Is Television News Next? « The Brookhaven Bear Report

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