The MMJ Survey: 8 revealing takeaways about solo video journalists

For too long, the job of a “TV multimedia journalist” has been defined and viewed in its simplest terms … at least by those who have never worked as one.

Outsiders typically view the MMJ as a two-for-one combo package of reporter and photographer. Technically this is true; a one-person crew, by definition, handles the responsibilities traditionally assigned to multiple people.

But solo video journalists face unique challenges not experienced by – and not immediately obvious to – their colleagues in more traditional roles.

I have worked as an MMJ for my entire career, and I currently do so for the NBC affiliate in Atlanta. But I have devoted much time away from the newsroom to shining a light on this widespread yet often overlooked position. I have written about the challenges on this blog, interviewed renowned MMJs on my podcast, and recently authored a book, The Solo Video Journalist, that serves as a how-to guide for one-woman and one-man bands.

My latest offering is aimed not just at MMJs but also everyone else in the newsroom.

In January I conducted the MMJ Survey: I crafted a list of questions designed to get a better understanding of how solo video journalists view their jobs. I heard from 96 MMJs, with diversity in age, gender, and market size. They offered responses that often showed a clear consensus – and unearthed some conclusions that may surprise their newsroom colleagues.

Here are eight takeaways from the MMJ Survey:

(One note: Google Forms, which I used to conduct the survey, does not allow me to publish the results to non-respondents. This prevents me from releasing the entire survey in an easy fashion. But I have grabbed images of the multiple-choice responses to accompany the conclusions below. They are available here.)

1. The highest concentration of responding MMJs came from Top 25 markets.

One of the most outdated critiques of the MMJ concept – from those in traditional roles and MMJs themselves – is that it only exists in small- and medium-sized markets. Many solo video journalists view the position as a means to an end; they think they must take the job when they start in the business but can leave it behind once they get to a big city.

The demographics of this survey show why that idea is largely false.

Nearly a quarter of the 96 MMJ Survey respondents work in Top 25 markets. Nearly half of the respondents work in Top 50 markets. In fact, the “1-25” cluster contained more respondents per market than any other. (The “51-100” and “100+” clusters had greater overall numbers, but they also cover more markets than “1-25”, so their averages are actually far less.)

How does working in a big market affect MMJs? It brings advantages and disadvantages. Here were some of the responses:

  • “I have resources on which I can lean if needed.”
  • “[It’s] very fast-paced, and a lot is expected out of one person at times.”
  • “Traffic and driving eats up considerable amounts of time … It was easier to MMJ in smaller to medium markets in my opinion, but the work you put in there sets you up for the larger markets.”
  • “I work in a market where most people don’t MMJ, so my product is compared to one done by three people.”
  • “I have insanely good MMJs to compete against. You really have to step up your game.”

Overall, though, the MMJ concept is undeniably finding a home in big markets. As one solo video journalist wrote, “MMJs are becoming standard. Other stations used to make fun of my station for MMJing, but now all of them do it.”

2. MMJs, by and large, feel confident about their abilities to do their jobs and manage their time.

I asked respondents to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, whether they agreed with a variety of statements about life as a solo video journalist.

What did I find? MMJs don’t lack self-confidence.

The majority agreed with the following statements:

  • I have enough time during the day to fulfill the requirements of my job.
  • I feel confident in my ability to manage my time as an MMJ. (More than 2/3 of respondents gave that statement a 6 or 7, indicating particularly strong agreement.)
  • I regularly produce work that is better than that of traditional two-person crews in my market.

3. Most MMJs enjoy being MMJs.

Respondents also largely gave high marks to the role itself. Nearly 2/3 agreed with the statement, “I enjoy being an MMJ”, with nearly 1/3 giving that statement a full 7 out of 7.

Similarly, many MMJs claimed they have received unique opportunities because of their solo status. More than half responded favorably to that statement, although a significant portion (nearly 20%) completely disagreed with it.

Those numbers extended when I inquired about specific components of the job. At least 3/4 of respondents, for example, said they enjoy shooting B-roll, shooting and conducting interviews, and editing stories. The highest marks came for writing; not a single respondent claimed to dislike it.

This paints a relatively glorious picture of life as a solo video journalist.

It also makes the following conclusion extremely concerning:

4. The majority of MMJs don’t see themselves in this role ten years from now.

I admit being surprised by this result, mainly because so many of the others had been so positive. But when I asked MMJs to rate the statement, “I see myself as an MMJ ten years from now,” more than a third of respondents gave it a 1 out of 7 – the number of complete disagreement.

Of all of the statements I presented, this one received the lowest rating by far.

But it is supported by other responses in the survey:

  • The vast majority of MMJs agreed with the statement, “I often feel overwhelmed with my workload.”
  • A noticeable majority disagreed with the statement, “My news director and managers understand the intricacies of being an MMJ.”
  • A similar majority (roughly 2/3 of respondents) also disagreed with the statement, “My industry values MMJs equally to traditional reporters and photographers.

This should give us all some pause. Essentially, it says that local TV news possesses a workforce of eager, ambitious, talented solo video journalists who enjoy the job … but don’t see it as a long-term way of life.

Let’s examine some specific reasons why this is the case:

5. Many MMJs, particularly women, possess significant concerns about safety.

The statement, “I feel safe as an MMJ when in the field,” received a largely lukewarm response.

News managers should, right away, consider this a cause for alarm. More than 40% of responding MMJs offered some form of disagreement about feeling safe; I view that as nowhere near an acceptable number, even if I would not necessarily place myself in that group.

(I also feel, in my newsroom, comfortable with speaking up when I sense an unsafe situation. Based on some of the comments from respondents in this survey, many MMJs do not possess similar confidence in their managers.)

The numbers show a noticeable divide in terms of gender. Male MMJs gave the statement about safety an average of 4.5, or slight agreement. Female MMJs gave it an average of 3.1, a much lesser vote of confidence.

I would be interested to see how these numbers compare to those of traditional reporters and photographers. I would assume they would feel far more secure than their solo colleagues.

Regardless, though, if an MMJ believes himself or herself to be regularly unsafe on the job, why would he or she want to do that job?

6. Women care for the MMJ life far less than men.

The gender disparity in MMJ responses was not just limited to safety.

With nearly every statement, women gave a less favorable rating than men. What statements drew particularly large gaps?

  • “I have enough time during the day to be able to thrive at my job”: On a scale of 1-7, male respondents gave that an average of 4.6; female respondents averaged 3.6.
  • “My news director and managers understand the intricacies of being an MMJ”: Male respondents averaged 4.2; female respondents averaged 3.0.
  • “I have received unique opportunities because I am an MMJ”: Men gave it an average of 5.0; women averaged 4.1.

But the largest gap came with the statement referenced earlier: “I see myself as an MMJ ten years from now.” Male respondents averaged 4.5; female respondents averaged 2.7.

This presents a major issue for our industry – an issue compounded by the fact that women make up the majority of MMJs. (At least, they did in this survey: 58% to 42%.)

Moving forward, I would love to hear more from the female MMJ community about ways to level the playing field in terms of longevity. The journalism world will lose a great deal of talent if it does not address this disparity.

7. MMJs love most parts of the job … but they HATE solo live shots.

The latest trend in solo video journalism is easily the most discouraging.

When I asked solo video journalists to rate their enjoyment and ability to perform the various tasks of the job, they gave nearly every task a positive overall response. The lone exception? Shooting their own live shots.

Look at these averages on a 1-5 scale:

How much do you enjoy the following tasks? (1 = do not enjoy; 5 = enjoy)

  • Writing the story: 4.5
  • Editing the story: 4.3
  • Shooting B-roll: 4.1
  • Shooting and conducting interviews: 4.1
  • Being live on TV: 4.1
  • Researching the story: 3.8
  • Posting and engaging on social media: 3.6
  • Shooting one’s own live shot: 1.9

How easy are the following tasks? (1 = most difficult, 5 = easiest)

  • Writing the story: 3.9
  • Shooting B-roll: 3.9
  • Editing the story: 3.8
  • Being live on TV: 3.8
  • Shooting and conducting interviews: 3.7
  • Posting and engaging on social media: 3.4
  • Researching the story: 3.3
  • Shooting one’s own live shot: 2.1

Again, this should be alarming.

Why the distaste for solo live shots? The lack of safety looms large. Many MMJs left comments like these:

  • “People approach me and I feel unsafe. I like just having someone there.”
  • “I don’t feel safe in many places, and there is no way to defend myself. I often go to a generic safe space and lose creativity so I know people will leave me alone.”
  • “I’ve had people curse at me and insult me because the producer in my ear has me on standby and Joe Viewer doesn’t understand why I’m not talking back to him.”
  • “[It’s] unsafe and often at scenes of murders.”
  • “MMJs are distracted from their surroundings for a little while … which isn’t a great thing when live TV is such an attractor of crazy.”

Beyond that, this seems to be the one area where solo video journalists do not feel they can replicate the quality of traditional crews. They find it limiting, static, and way too time-consuming, especially while on deadline.

In the end, solo live shots are symptomatic of a larger problem …

8. Many MMJs feel at best misunderstood, and at worst penalized, for their solo status.

In Part 2 of my MMJ Survey conclusions, I plan to post a litany of responses I received to the following open-ended questions:

“If I could impart one piece of knowledge to my non-MMJ coworkers about my job as an MMJ, it would be …”

“If I could impart one piece of knowledge to my news director and managers about my job as an MMJ, it would be …”

Some responses will perhaps seem obvious. Many will paint a picture of doing twice the work for half the pay and credit.

This leads many MMJs to feel jaded and exhausted.

I have been fortunate to experience an early career filled with great successes and opportunities; I have traveled around the world and produced stories in which I take tremendous pride. But I credit my success, in large part, to news directors and managers that have seen the value in one-person crews and rewarded me for my versatility. Without such confidence and incentive from above, I doubt even I would have wanted to remain an MMJ.

I encourage those in positions of power, as well as those of us who consider ourselves good stewards of journalism and storytelling, to seriously rethink how we approach the MMJ position. Quite a few solo video journalists have carved out beautiful careers, but the majority – especially younger MMJs – feel overwhelmed despite their enjoyment of the job.

We cannot abuse such a vital part of our workforce; to the contrary, we must train and cultivate MMJs to enable them to shine in ways they clearly can.

Our profession is too important to do otherwise.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

3 thoughts on “The MMJ Survey: 8 revealing takeaways about solo video journalists

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