While The One Man Band Played On

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By Kirk Varner

With the budget slashing and staff decimations that have hit newsrooms all across the land as 2008 has ended and 2009 has begun, there has been a lot of nervously toned chatter about the rise of the near-mythical “One Man Band” as a panacea to all of the industry’s problems.

One might be of the belief that this concept was merely an obsession of the broadcast journalism crowd, but some quick research shows that the sexist-sounding concept has close cousins in damn near any aspect of what trendy types like to now call “the business of content.”

For those late to this party, the idea of the “One Man Band” isn’t as sexist as it sounds. An “OMB” can be a person of either sex, for in this case the Man designation is really more about “Manpower”, as in “horsepower”—a quantifiable measurement of energy to be applied.

The “OMB” in its original form, is the concept of shrinking the size of a television news crew, which originally was three or sometimes four people, down to a single person—serving as producer, reporter, photographer and soundman, all in one small, nimble and budget friendlier package. Not unlike the original, musical version of the “One Man Band” which Wikipedia helpfully defines as “a musician who plays a number of musical instruments using their hands, feet, limbs, and various mechanical contraptions.”

Technology continues to shrink the size (and cost) of the tools necessary to gather, edit and produce the content that the “OMB” is charged with turning in each shift, so the look isn’t quite along the lines of what the cartoon version depicts. The thinking goes that if we can reduce the cost of the labor required for a newsroom to actually go out and get the news each day, we might, just might be able to keep newsrooms going in the face of the current never-before-seen cratering of the business.

Of course, the predictable outcry has come from the various factions, ranging from reporters who don’t want to have to carry their own cameras to the photographers who feel their craft is being demeaned by an “anyone can do what you do” implication. A few pioneering broadcasters who have been public about their conversion to the “one man band” approach have been pilloried in online forums by the usual unnamed suspects who post under anonymous handles.

As someone who helped build a half-dozen newsrooms over a decade ago that were centered on the “video journalist” or VJ model (a more professional and accurate sounding moniker for the maligned “OMB” designation) and as someone who is now trying to steer a newsroom through the rough seas of the current financial typhoon battering the biz, I find the whole discussion to be another classic case of communications professionals overly consternated about another era of change they can’t control. (Yes, I did use that much alliteration, but only to make my point.)

Every level of change brings about a proportionately higher level of angst among us. Moving from “hot type” to cold phototypesetting was certainly as jarring in the print world as the move from shooting film for television news to ENG (Electronic News Gathering) style video. Cell phones made 2-way radios superfluous in news vehicles. Digital devices have made analog ones as ancient as the transistors did to vacuum tubes. Time passes, the tools we use change. It’s a fact that is undeniable.

One quick diversion here, please note that this discussion is about tools rather than mediums. I don’t suggest for a moment that the dialogue about how the Internet may be making Newspapers and Television obsolete–is the same as how the latest Digital SLR cameras from Canon and Nikon that also shoot HD video will allow photographers to shoot for print and TV at the same time. Not to sound like the accountants here, but one thing is about revenue and the other is about expense.

Put a better way, if you can’t sell the ads, it doesn’t matter how cheaply you can make the news.

Acclaimed writer and former colleague from my ESPN days, Mike Meserole, told me of the great lesson he had been taught as a young man when he was visiting The Berkshire Eagle. The straight-out-of-central-casting Editor/Publisher took him to where the paper was being “pasted-up” and told him “See that kid, the ads always go in first.”

Tell me that still isn’t true for any news medium.

So back to the question of what do “One Man Bands” mean to the business? Should everyone go out and buy a decent camera and laptop, and start learning to do everything? Will the quality of reporting fall like a stone because reporters will be too busy trying to keep themselves in focus? Is this just another nail in the coffin that we will surely be burying the business as we know it in?

I’d like to answer all of those questions with a simple and resounding–No.

No more than power tools changed the construction business will the rise of the “OMB” in the journalism business spell the end of whatever claims of quality that we hope to cling to. They won’t stop handing out Pulitizers or Peabodys because someone shot their own stand-up or took the picture that accompanied their story. Great work will still be great work, regardless of the tools it was made with.

Sure, the award winning videographers I work with every day can make pictures out of their thirty-thousand dollar cameras that I can only dream of. I can appreciate their work all the more because a little more than three decades ago, I was talking folks out of shooting 16 millimeter film for covering news, to using new fangled video camera set-ups that weighed a ton, wrecked more than a few shoulders and wouldn’t produce pictures good enough today for YouTube.

But our viewers and readers have told us in a resounding way that if it is interesting enough, the quality of a YouTube clip isn’t something they pay that much attention to. Content that is compelling doesn’t have to be “broadcast quality”, whatever that standard may happen to be.

Since the power of the press has been, depending on your point of view, either democratized or diminished by the ability of everyone to now own one (at least in the digital domain) it stands to reason that the power to create a powerful press is also now within the reach of everyone who can use the tools to create one.

Radio reporters have been “one man bands” for quite sometime. Does anyone suggest that the best of them can’t tell an incredible story using all of the tools at their disposal? Of course not. Does having twice as many “OMBs” than reporter-photographer teams mean that we will automatically cover twice as much news? Hardly.

What most newsrooms who adopt the “one man band”, “video journalist” or “multi-platform reporter” approach discover—much like those newsrooms I worked on in the 90s—is that you are the most successful when you use the right tool for the job at hand. Some stories can be covered very well by just one person working with the right tools. Others definitely benefit from having more than one set of hands involved, and with more technological “firepower”.

The trick is that experienced professionals know which tool is the right one for the job at hand, and they use it correctly because they have been trained and have experience with the whole toolbox.

And if they can’t? Then hopefully they are smart enough to call in some help from someone else who does.

And if they are really smart? They try to learn something in the process. Because these days nobody gets to be a specialist and everybody in a newsroom needs to be more than just a one trick pony.

Kirk Varner is the VP & Director of News for WTNH and WCTX television, locally known as News Channel 8 and MyTV9, the ABC and MyNetwork affiliates for Connecticut, based in New Haven. His work blog is Notes from the Newsroom and his personal blog is Out of the Newsroom.

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2 Comments

  1. Dave Barnes said January 15, 2009 | Permalink

    mediums?
    Now, clairvoyance is required?
    I really feel for reporters who have to see into the future whilst writing about today.

  2. Paul Chenoweth said January 16, 2009 | Permalink

    “if you can’t sell the ads, it doesn’t matter how cheaply you can make the news”

    I would expand that to say, if we cannot define, measure, and execute ads that have measurable ROI’s then it won’t matter if there is news or not. The expectations for advertising are changing just as the tools for information delivery are changing…’challenging times.

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