The Solo Video Journalist

In 2016 I authored The Solo Video Journalist, a how-to book for aspiring storytellers and multimedia journalists. In this section, you will find advice from myself and fellow MMJs on tackling the challenge of solo reporting and becoming a stronger storyteller.

PODCAST EPISODE #42: Ellen Crooke, TEGNA; Scott Livingston, Sinclair

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If you work — or wish to work — in local television news, you will want to hear this hour of audio.

Last month John Kirtley and I hosted and directed the NPPA Southeast Storytelling Workshop, at which a sold-out crowd heard from a bevy of the best storytellers nationwide. One of the highlights was a panel discussion featuring two people of tremendous influence at the nation’s largest broadcast media groups: Ellen Crooke, VP of News at TEGNA, and Scott Livingston, VP of News at Sinclair.

I have known Crooke for more than a decade; she has hired me twice, and I fully admit to being a tremendous admirer of her passion for storytelling and desire to change the landscape of TV news. I met Livingston for the first time at this workshop, but I am a huge fan of his photojournalistic mindset and the storytelling culture and teamwork that exists at many of his stations.

During this panel, both offered tremendous insights into:

  • the current TV news landscape and what’s being done to improve it
  • the ways in which both enterprise and in-the-mix journalism can be done better
  • the types of journalists who stand out to them, and the ways in which young journalists can make themselves valuable in a newsroom

Among the highlights:

  • Crooke on the state of local news: “There are times when we look at our local news product and say, 80% of it, I’m not interested. Twenty percent of it is extraordinary, but there is too much that is the assembly line and the factory, and we’re experimenting with ways to break that assembly line.”
  • Livingston on building a storytelling culture: “It is a privilege to tell stories that matter. It is our responsibility to tell a story that’s relevant. So we go back and ask, ‘What’s the ‘why’? What’s the ‘So what’? What are the questions we need to ask?'”
  • Crooke on what journalists can do to position themselves for the future: “Embrace ambiguity. We are going into a new territory in our industry, and it’s the people that forge into the ambiguity that are going to change our industry and move our industry forward. If we only do what we know and what we’re comfortable with, we will never change.”
  • Livingston on building trust and establishing transparency: “We want to be transparent. We want the viewer to be able to watch the piece, go to the web, and here’s the PDF; here’s the court document so you can see for yourself.”
  • Crooke on one thing every newsroom gets wrong: “I see us hiring people from outside our business because we want to be different … and then we suck them into our vacuum of sameness. We don’t let them change us. I just see it happening over and over again.”
  • Livingston on what keeps him up at night: “It’s our future in late news. In morning news, we’re doing great. But with late news, because of all the devices, everything thinks they know everything before. Also, I think we all need to be prepared for the post-network world. That’s why we are trying to touch people on other platforms: so we create such a sense of belonging with our brand that our network lead-in becomes irrelevant.”

I hope you enjoy this segment called “A Look at the Landscape”, and I urge you to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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PODCAST EPISODE #34: Ben Garvin, photographer, KARE-TV

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When I first started this blog, many newspaper photographers were staring into a future of cutbacks, layoffs, and competition with everyone’s iPhones.

Ben Garvin surveyed the landscape from his perch at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 2007 he was named Minnesota Photographer of the Year. In 2011 he was named Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Despite the accolades, Garvin knew he was not immune from the large-scale changes occurring across the industry.

But this past year, he found refuge by switching lanes.

Garvin still works as a still photographer, but now he does it for a TV station: KARE-TV in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

And he does it with an innovator’s spirit. Last week I shouted out Garvin in my 3 Great Stories segment for a sweetly touching piece about a grandfather and grandson spending the day together at Vikings training camp. Technically Garvin produced a video, but it consisted strictly of still photos with audio weaved in from Garvin’s interviews.

Garvin is my guest on Episode #34 of the Telling The Story podcast.

Speaking to me from a swing on his porch (!), Garvin discusses a variety of subjects: the ability to be a hybrid in today’s media world; the importance of photographs in social media; and the versatility required to succeed on a higher level.

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PODCAST EPISODE #27: Mike Castellucci, reporter/anchor, WFAA-TV

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A few weeks ago, I raved about a half-hour special ran by WFAA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Dallas, at the end of last year.

It featured a compilation of stories shot, written, and edited by widely acclaimed feature reporter Mike Castellucci.

And his camera? It was the one on his iPhone.

Castellucci has become well known in Dallas — and, now, among TV news reporters and photographers nationwide — for his compelling piece of boundary-pushing storytelling. His features actually appear quite straightforward until you realize the equipment he used to shoot them.

But give him credit: he saw a need and attacked it, fearlessly flying into both multimedia journalism and iPhone videography. He wound up with an impressive result — and a powerful niche in his market.

Castellucci joins me for Episode #27 of the Telling The Story podcast.

“People ask me why,” he said, “and I think it was [because of] two reasons. One: I wanted to be first. And, the challenge of it … I had been doing stories on my iPhone 4, and I just said, ‘Let’s take it 19 steps further.'”

Here is a reporter who has had plenty of success in various markets, but he chose to take on a challenge many journalists would reject. He deserves some major kudos.

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“Embrace your autonomy”: advice and a tip sheet for MMJs

I always appreciate the chance to speak with storytellers about this wild profession of ours.

In the past few years, I have received several opportunities to talk at conferences, and I particularly relish those moments. I believe in giving back as a general philosophy, but even more so when I can reach those in my profession who are eager to improve and learn.

And no topic delights me more than backpack journalism.

I have been a one-man band my entire career, starting when, at 22 years old, my first boss turned me into a one-man sports department. I have worked at several stations in numerous roles but have always been labeled a “multimedia journalist”, or MMJ. This is because, for the most part, I do it all — I shoot, write, and edit nearly every story I produce. This past year I was named the NPPA Solo Video Journalist of the Year, and last week I was asked by NPPA Quarterly Contest chair John Thain to reflect on the stories that got me there.

Watch it below (but try to ignore the choppy video):

As I spoke with John during that interview, I was reminded of how my “do-it-all” ability has truly catalyzed my career. At every stop, my versatility has made me valuable. And when I look around at other MMJs who have had major success in this business, I notice the same thing:

Most of them have embraced their autonomy.

When I get the chance to speak to journalists, particularly MMJs, I always send that message. (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #19: Ted Land, reporter, KING-TV

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When I started in broadcast journalism, I encountered a very vocal school of thought from more experienced colleagues regarding backpack journalists — or, more simply, reporters who shoot and edit their own stories.

I was told repeatedly that the rise of backpack journalism would (A) be a passing fad in larger markets and (B) bring down the quality level of TV news as a whole because (C) backpack journalists could never do as good a job as two- or three-person crews.

More than a decade later, all three of those predictions have proven spectacularly wrong.

For starters, more and more large-market stations are making room for reporters who do it all. Cost is one reason, obviously; one employee is cheaper than two. But stations can get away with that now because the overall quality of backpack journalism has increased dramatically over the last few years. Check out this winter’s award-winning stories in the NPPA’s quarterly solo video competition. They are strong pieces done by more than a dozen backpack journalists.

And at the top of the ladder, the best backpack journalists can produce work every bit as good as that of larger crews.

The latest example? Ted Land.

This month he begins his new job at the prestigious KING-TV in Seattle. But last month, he received a National Edward R. Murrow Award for writing in small-market TV, all thanks to stories he produced at WSBT-TV in South Bend — by himself.

Let me elaborate. The “small-market TV” category covers reporters, both solo and traditional, who work in any television market outside the top 50. In the category of writing, a backpack journalist bested an entire nation of competition.

Land is my latest guest on the Telling The Story podcast. (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #3: Anne Herbst, assistant chief photographer, KDVR-TV

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Try to follow the career path on this one.

Anne Herbst studied journalism in college with the intentions of being a newspaper reporter.

Her professor said she was better at shooting video, so she became a staff photographer at a TV station.

She got hired as a staff photographer at KUSA-TV in Denver — one of the top shops in the country for video journalism — but gradually began writing her own stories … to which reporters would then put their voices.

She left KUSA to become a solo video journalist at the Denver Post. If you’re scoring at home, Herbst went from a TV station to a newspaper and went from being a traditional photographer to doing everything herself.

This past year, she returned to TV as the assistant chief photographer at KDVR-TV, Denver’s FOX affiliate.

Herbst is a hallmark of developing numerous skills and leveraging one’s talent to find high-quality positions in the field of journalism. She has charted her own course in many ways, always finding ways to progress and improve.

Oh, and it helps that Herbst is really, really good at her job.

She has twice been named NPPA Photographer of the Year for the West region — always the most competitive in the country. She has won numerous NPPA awards as a solo video journalist, as well. Watch some of her work, and you will see why.

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PODCAST EPISODE #1: Jon Shirek, reporter, WXIA-TV

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Let the next chapter begin.

Two months after kicking off the Telling the Story blog, I am proud to introduce the Telling the Story podcast. This will continue the discussion about how journalists — and all of us — reach the world. Each episode of the podcast will feature an esteemed storyteller, answering questions and conversing about both the craft of storytelling and its role in the changing media landscape.

I could not be more thrilled to begin the podcast with one of my favorite storytellers: WXIA-TV reporter Jon Shirek.

Jon is a friend and colleague of mine. We have worked together for four years at the NBC affiliate in Atlanta; of course, I arrived just as Jon was beginning his fourth decade at the station. He is, I would say, the most respected and veteran storyteller in a newsroom that houses many great ones.

He also recently made a big change. Five years ago Jon was asked to become a backpack journalist, meaning he would have to shoot and edit his own stories instead of working with a photographer. He warily accepted the challenge, and he continues to crank out terrific work.

This is no small feat. Young journalists today are told in college they will have no choice but to shoot their own stories. Jon had been working with a photographer for several decades before he was asked. To learn the skills while remaining a great storyteller has been an impressive achievement, one that often gets taken for granted in the WXIA newsroom.

“I think it has made me a better reporter in a lot of ways,” Jon told me. “It has helped me economize my approach to stories so that I have a better idea, while I’m talking to somebody, the direction the story needs to go.” That said, he notes, “I am still a work in progress. I cannot pretend to be a photographer after five years.”

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