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Multitasking multimedia multiplatformer

Chris Sweigart, WXIA (with his eggplant-cam)

Chris Sweigart, WXIA (with his eggplant-cam)

Last weekend, I had occasion to introduce a young man named Chris Sweigart to a bunch of old, grizzled TV goons.  “Sweigart is a reporter and director of social media at WXIA.”  The introduction was repeatedly good for a guffaw or a snort.  I suspect only a handful of other news folk in America, if any, have that title.

Despite our reputation as stuck-in-the-20th-century Mainstream Media throwbacks, most TV news folk are aware that their careers will be dependent on their presence on the web, and the monetization thereof.  They are still grappling with the business of how blogging, tweeting and Facebooking will fit into it.

Forward-looking readers of this blog ought to consider making regular visits to Sweigart’s blog as well.   Sweigart is a new-school jack-of-all-trades.  He’s a one-man-band “multimedia journalist.”  As WXIA’s social media director, he is also continually updating the station’s Twitter and Facebook sites (and his own), and riding herd on WXIA’s web presence.

Multiplatform:  Julie Wolfe, WXIA

Dressed to tweet: Julie Wolfe, WXIA

Recently, he noted the multiplatform presence of our colleague Julie Wolfe.  Wolfe produced a moving story about a child who’d waited for months for a donated kidney, then got it.

Days before the story aired, Wolfe promoted it on Twitter and Facebook by sending updates from the operating room where the transplant took place.  On-air, Wolfe said the preview updates helped build an audience for the TV version of the story.  Sweigart argues that Wolfe’s performance is evidence that a TV reporter can thrive as a one-man-band, concurrently producing timely information for the web.

I would add that Wolfe’s TV story was very well done, actually bringing a tear to the eye of an old, grizzled TV goon.

Wolfe’s story is below.  You can find Chris Sweigart’s blog under “Atlanta TV blogs” on the right toolbar of this site.

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24 hours in Eden

homeless womanReflecting the body politic, local TV news lost interest in the homeless decades ago.  Instead, the homeless are used as props.  When an Atlanta station needs to do a story about freezing temperatures, it’ll send a warm body to a homeless shelter.   When it covers stories about panhandlers, the storyline is about how they’re nuisances to respectable folk, rather than the demons, bad luck and / or choices they made that drove them to the street.

The last serious TV story we can recall about the homeless was when Ron Sailor walked the streets with Andy Young dressed in homeless garb.  Now comes Julie Wolfe (who was probably in grade school when the Sailor piece aired in 1987) with a two-parter on WXIA.  This is not a piece the WXIA consultants would have suggested.

Wolfe approached it admirably:  She spent 24 hours at a NW Atlanta shelter for women and children and watched the routine.  It left her without any “wait til you see what we captured on camera!” teaseable moments.  Instead, the story immersed the viewer in lives led in quiet desperation.  The routine tended toward an effort to restore normalcy to lives that had nearly fallen apart — meals, games, job searches.  On the surface, the storyline seems ill-suited to a medium drawn to the abnormal.

Alone in a darkened room: Julie Wolfe, WXIA

Alone in a darkened room: Julie Wolfe, WXIA

At a time when memorable moments define “great TV,” this wasn’t great TV  But this was the essence of TV journalism.  It helps that Wolfe, a backpack journalist, has a great eye with her camera viewfinder and a solid, understated writing style.   Delivered in a casual first-person, part one drew the viewer to the women and children in the shelter and not to Wolfe.  Wolfe showed her sleeping quarters, but never made the story about her.  It might have livened up the story had she done so (it worked for Ron Sailor), but Wolfe’s instinct against it was inarguably solid.

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Wolfe delivered a second piece focusing on the children staying in the shelter.  This series probably made an impression on only a fraction of WXIA’s viewers, most of whom are likely among the millions inclined to tune out the problem of homelessness.   It’s unlikely this story would have aired on any other Atlanta TV station.

But at a TV station that seems to prefer the real estate outside of the formulaic TV news box, this was good stuff, and long overdue.  Grade:  A

“Hybrid”

Original hybrid:  Julie Wolfe, WXIA

Original hybrid: Julie Wolfe, WXIA

WXIA was the first.  WGCL jumped in a few months ago.  WSB did it last week.  All of those Atlanta TV stations now employ “backpack journalists” a/k/a one-man-bands a/k/a “hybrids.”

The position seems to be a natural part of the evolution of 21st century newsgathering, where budgets have contracted alongside viewership and advertising dollars.  It’s regrettable in a big market, where both the reporter and photographer have challenging jobs.  It’s also inevitable, as the four Atlanta TV news directors seemed to agree during an Atlanta Press Club forum last week.

(It’s also very retro.  As WSB anchor Monica Pearson loudly proclaimed during the forum, “everything old is new again.”  Pearson told the gathering that in her first TV job in the 1960s, she reported, shot film, processed and edited film, then anchored the broadcast.)

Here’s what the Big Four had to say about one-man-bands.

Oh, wait– did we say Monica Pearson started her career in the 1960s?  We need to double check that….

“Hero”

Let’s say you’re in the US Army. Let’s say you’re back from a tour of duty in Iraq. Maybe it’s your second or third. You settle in for a little TV news. You switch on WXIA at 11pm Thursday.

You see a report by Julie Wolfe about an injured soldier. Within the story, the reporter uses the word “hero” to describe the injured soldier. Then she uses it again. “Hero.”

She attributes the characterization to the soldier’s crying mother. The emotion is real. The mother’s house is festooned with paint and ribbon honoring the injured soldier, who’s home as she rehabilitates her injury.

But then the details sink in: The soldier joined the Army only a few weeks ago. She is in basic training, meaning she hasn’t seen combat or even active duty. The injury to her leg— a stress fracture— occurred in boot camp. When she’s done with her rehab, she returns to boot camp to finish basic training, at which point her eight year commitment to the Army begins.

“Hero” is a word that the media loves to overuse. Wolfe’s story is a classic example. The word is almost always attributable to somebody else– though frequently, it’s done at the prompting of the reporter: Do you consider (blank) a hero? Yes, says the tearful respondent.

Wolfe made it clear that the young woman joined the Army to help support her mother. The mom considers her a family hero, not a war hero.

Meantime, you’re an Iraq veteran who finished boot camp years earlier. You wear a combat patch on your uniform. Maybe you’ve lost some buddies or had some close calls yourself. You watch WXIA’s 11pm news Thursday. You see this teenager, still in boot camp, called a “hero” on TV. Twice.

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. 

Whiplash

Julie Wolfe was on TV three times during her night shift Wednesday at WXIA. George Franco, same thing at WAGA. Both may have gone home with a bit of whiplash, a chronic condition among local TV reporters.

Wolfe began with a drive to Peachtree City, where the “backpack journalist” shot and reported an enterprise story about graffiti problems. Still in her twenties, the UGA grad has gained a reputation in Atlanta as a pretty good photographer. Her video in the graffiti piece was impressive. Her storytelling was good, too.

Like Wolfe, George Franco’s night shift began on a high note. Franco located a victim in a Doraville abduction-and-robbery case targeting Hispanics. (WGCL had done the same story Friday but couldn’t produce a victim.) Franco’s story, about robbers posing as federal agents, was compelling but seemed abruptly cut short. Turns out there was a reason.

At 9pm Wednesday, fire broke out at a DeKalb County apartment complex. Wolfe and Franco had probably just finished the scripts for their stories. They voiced their scripts, then hauled butt to the apartment fire.

Wolfe got there first, ably producing live shots for the A-blocks of WXIA/WATL’s 10pm news, and WXIA’s 11. Franco’s crew was unable to get him on TV until about 10:20pm. There was, no doubt, much consternation in WAGA’s newsroom when they saw Wolfe on TV while Franco’s crew was still trying to establish a live shot.

As for the apartment fire? Garden-variety. WSB’s Eric Philips gave it his all, telling viewers firefighters at first believed “two souls (were) trapped inside;” the apartment buildings, “totally destroyed because of those roaring flames that whipped through there like a very strong wind.”

Thankfully, Wolfe and Franco avoided the overly dramatic language. No doubt, Wolfe’s UGA professors taught her that “totally destroyed” is a top-shelf redundancy.

Turned out, nobody was trapped. Nobody was hurt. A few folks were displaced. Another evening’s work was somewhat upended by the great Atlanta TV news cliche.

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.