One of Atlanta’s best TV reporters covered the funeral of Nelson Mandela — yet never once appeared on-air as part of his station’s coverage.
That’s one way to look at Jon Shirek’s trip to South Africa this month.
The other way to view it, as photographer Stephen Boissy related over lunch Christmas Eve (we shared the ridiculous beef rib at Fox Bros. BBQ) is that Shirek played a role in WXIA’s coverage that went beyond “essential.”
“Couldn’t have done it without him,” Boissy kept saying.
When WXIA decided to cover Mandela’s funeral, Shirek got a phone call asking if his passport was current — and could he leave the next day? From the get-go, Shirek says his role was “coordinating producer,” which meant he was a logistics and editorial wrangler for anchor / photog teams from Gannett properties WXIA and WUSA, Washington DC.
Both stations expected to do extensive live coverage in newscasts around the clock. “I wanted a coordinating producer who understands news crews travel issues, can shoot and edit and can write,” Ellen Crooke, our boss, wrote me in an email.
Who better than a smart, experienced one-man-band?
Shirek not only had the hands-on skills to handle those issues, but he’s also one of the calmest individuals in the western hemisphere. I’m convinced the man’s pulse never gets above 50 bpm.
It became Shirek’s business to solve equations: How to cover events, at times that often overlapped with live shots (11:30am to 2pm in Pretoria equals 4:30am to 7am in Atlanta); sorting the elements gathered by three photogs (including Shirek); and figuring out how to fold them into both stations’ coverage.
And– how to get credentials; where can they do live shots; how will they get around in an unfamiliar city; and what’s the deadline exit strategy for covering thick crowds of mourners?
“Brenda (Wood) and Stephen and Ellen suggested during that week that I do my own stories, too, if possible, and I would have,” Shirek wrote me in an email. “But I could see that the ‘fifth person’ role was working out well for our enterprise, and it was all-consuming; and, again, I was glad I got to be part of it.”
The role clearly demanded journalistic smarts, plus the technical skills of a photog / editor. For an on-camera guy like Shirek, it also demanded an uncommon selflessness. Throw a microphone in the air, and many TV reporters would leap like Bill Russell to grab it. Shirek is not one of those guys.
“Finding important stories and telling them well — on or off camera, by yourself or as part of a team — is always the mission, the goal,” Shirek wrote.
Shirek stresses that all five of them carried their own weight and then some, handling editorial and logistics issues, while largely setting aside issues like proper meals and a decent night’s sleep. It sounds like they experienced an extraordinary and exhausting news adventure.
One-man-bands became vogue in some big TV markets because of their cost savings. In this instance, Shirek ably expanded the definition — and was probably the most qualified guy in the building to do what he did.