backpack journalism

Solo video journalists: take the MMJ Survey

I have spent my entire career as a multimedia journalist, or MMJ.

And because of that, I know all too well how little attention and instruction are paid to the position, even as it becomes one of the most prevalent jobs in local TV news.

In the past few years, I have taken major strides to rectify that. I have devoted many entries on this blog towards analyzing the quirks and challenges of the solo life, and this past fall I released a book, The Solo Video Journalist, which serves as a step-by-step guide through the storytelling process for aspiring MMJs.

Now I want to take the next step: this survey.

The MMJ Survey will provide a comprehensive look at how solo video journalists view their jobs, their industry, and themselves. I plan to compile the results and present them on this blog in the next few months.

(more…)

“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…)

10 pieces of journalism advice from Paul Crawley

I try to use the Telling The Story blog — and accompanying podcast — to provide advice journalists and storytellers often do not receive.

Or, if the advice is similar, I try to find a unique vessel for it.

My latest podcast guest, the newly-retired Paul Crawley from my station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, is such a vessel.

As I recorded the podcast, I could not help the appreciate the perspective Crawley had gained from more than 40 years as a TV reporter, the final 36 of which came at 11Alive.

I felt like the wisdom deserved to be written, as well.

And so, much like I did after my podcast with Michael Driver, I want to offer the ten greatest kernels from a guy with a lot to give:

Thank goodness for the Internet: “The Internet was the second biggest communication revolution behind the printing press. Prior to the printing press, only a handful of people knew what the Bible said.”

But you have to use it right: “The problem now is that there’s so much information out there that it’s hard to sort through it all. We still have to worry about verifying it ourselves. That’s when somebody makes a mistake and it gets perpetuated by everyone.”

And be sure to utilize your own memory: “I remember I was at a news conference not long ago where a long-time politico trying to make a comeback announced for sheriff. And in the back of my mind, I remembered he had voted down police raises at one time. So I just sat in my car and started Googling and came up with all this great stuff. I went into the press conference and tore him to pieces.” (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #20: Paul Crawley, reporter, WXIA-TV

Play

Of all the qualities and personality traits I will miss about Paul Crawley, I will miss one the most:

He is, every day, on time for work.

More than that, he is early for work.

Rare is the day at 11Alive when our 9:30 morning meeting actually begins at 9:30. Typically it kicks off at 9:35 with a sparse crowd in attendance, and then most reporters arrive in the next 5-10 minutes. They can show up a little late because they generally remain secure in the fact that (A) they will still have a job tomorrow, and (B) as long as they show up with strong story pitches, all will be forgiven.

Paul Crawley plays by the same rules, and given his longevity and continued value to the station, he could probably get away with pulling into the 11Alive parking lot at 10 AM each day.

But he shows up before 10, and even before 9.

Crawley arrives at 8:45 AM every morning. He then spends the next 45 minutes making calls, scouring local media web sites across metro Atlanta, and filling up a notepad page with potential stories for the coming day.

Not surprisingly, he almost always contributes more story ideas than anyone else at the table.

On July 31st, Crawley will retire from WXIA-TV in Atlanta after 36 years at the station — and more than four decades in the industry. He has won seven regional Emmys and an Edward R. Murrow award, covered just about every beat imaginable, and recently volunteered to become a backpack journalist … after three decades of working as a traditional reporter.

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

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

Play

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…)

An outstanding NPPA honor, and a prideful achievement

At the moment when I received one of the greatest honors of my career, I could not have felt less prestigious.

I was not dressed in my black-tie finest, attending some lavish awards banquet, hoping to walk up on a stage and give an acceptance speech. I was not surrounded by my colleagues, loved ones, and journalists from all over.

I was sitting alone on my couch, in my gym clothes, staring at a laptop.

And that was completely, absolutely, undoubtedly fine.

The TV branch of the National Press Photographers Association, or NPPA, held its annual awards show Monday night. The association named its photographers and stations of the year for each of its three regions. It also named its national Solo Video Journalist of the Year, in a category full of talented one-person bands who shoot and edit their own reports.

I am thrilled to announce that I was named 2013’s Solo Video Journalist of the Year.

(more…)

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

Play

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.

(more…)

PODCAST PREVIEW: Anne Herbst: “every TV station should have a backpack journalist”

Every year I enter the NPPA Solo Video Journalist competitions, and every year I see more and more names appearing on the winners’ list.

Around late 2011 I began seeing a new name pop up: Anne Herbst.

What struck me first was her place of employment: the Denver Post. Herbst was a video journalist … for a newspaper.

What struck me next was her work: it was rock-solid. Herbst impressed me then — and continues to impress me today — with her ability to make slick, well-crafted stories that were grounded in three-dimensional characters, a natural voice, and a more down-to-earth sensibility.

Oh, and she did it all herself: as a backpack journalist, she shot, reported, wrote, and edited her stories as a one-woman band.

This week, she becomes the third esteemed storyteller to join me on the Telling The Story podcast.

Herbst no longer works as a backpack journalist, or for a newspaper: she is now the assistant chief photographer at KDVR-TV, the Fox affiliate in Denver. But, at one point during our conversation, she offered her advice to local news stations in regards to backpack journalists:

Hire them.

Or, at least, hire one.

(more…)

ESSAY: The search for Evan Gattis, and the journey of journalism

In May 2013 I was assigned to tell the story of Atlanta Braves’ slugger Evan Gattis. It took me on a two-day journey across the state of Texas.

This is Part 1 of the story of that journey. To read the entire story on a single page, CLICK HERE.

*****

Snooze.

I woke up to the sound of muffled radio static on the alarm clock in my hotel room. I had not bothered to find a station before I went to sleep the previous night; I was exhausted, and I doubted I would miss much by scanning the AM dial for Abilene, Texas’ finest. Plus, I knew I would not be listening for very long when I awoke.

Instead, I did the first thing I could think of: reach over and hit the button on top of the radio.

Snooze.

I did not intend to go back to sleep, of course. I couldn’t. I was up for a reason: to drive ten hours, in one day, to interview two people, both of whom were integral to the life of Atlanta Braves catcher Evan Gattis. A month earlier, Gattis made the Braves’ Opening Day roster as a 26-year-old rookie. Two weeks after that, he was named National League Rookie of the Month.

But that was not what sent me to Texas. I had arrived in America’s second-largest state to shine the spotlight on Gattis’ other claim to fame, the story that had captivated Braves fans in Atlanta and baseball fans across the country. After completing high school and committing to Texas A&M as a highly-touted prospect, Gattis left the game and did not return for half a decade. In the meantime, he traveled the state and the country, working odd jobs at golf courses, ski resorts, and even Yellowstone National Park. He followed a spiritual advisor to New Mexico, and he lived like a nomad, on a search for purpose and identity. Gattis had gone on a journey, to be sure, and came out of it a Major League baseball player.

How fitting, then, that I would have to take a journey of my own to properly tell his story.

I got up out of bed in that Abilene hotel room and took a shower. When I got out, I heard those muffled AM sounds again. I walked over, looked at the clock on the radio, and saw a time I generally only saw during the daytime.

4:44.

I wanted to hit Snooze again. But not this time. It was time to hit the road.

*****

A day earlier I had awoken at technically the exact same time. In this case I had gotten up at 5:44, but I was still on the Eastern Time Zone, at my apartment in Atlanta preparing to leave for the airport. This in itself felt like a big step. My trip to Texas was the culmination of roughly a month’s worth of planning – and nearly an equal amount of frustration – with Gattis’ story.

The news managers at my TV station, Atlanta’s NBC affiliate WXIA-TV, had decided back in April they wanted me to do an in-depth story about Gattis. It was a no-brainer, really; they had heard about Gattis’ improbable journey, watched his hot start for the Braves, and believed his story would be great for our big ratings period in May. I reached out to the Braves’ media relations team multiple times but did not hear back; finally I decided to meet Gattis myself, heading to the clubhouse for post-game interviews and introducing myself to the slugger at his locker. I told him we wanted to tell his story and even head to Texas to talk with his dad Jo, who played a huge role in Gattis’ growth both personally and professionally. Gattis gave the OK and simply asked that we go through the Braves’ media relations folks to reach his father.

Done, I said.

Over the next few weeks I sent roughly a dozen e-mails to the Braves’ PR person assigned to these types of requests. I found I could not even secure an interview with Gattis, let alone his dad. The Braves were only home for a week in late April, and numerous national media outlets had come knocking with a similar request to interview the catcher, who by this point had developed a Jack Bauer/Chuck Norris-like mystique among the team’s fans. I would have to wait until their next homestand, I was told. And what of Gattis’ dad? I heard very little.

Finally, my managers and I got tired of waiting. We wanted to tell Gattis’ story, and we no longer wanted to delay until the Braves’ media folks got around to us. “Head down to Dallas,” I was told. “Set up whatever interviews you can, and we’ll make it work.”

I spent last Monday and Tuesday making calls and developing contacts with people who had watched Gattis grow. I called his youth coach in Dallas and his college coach in Odessa; they jumped at the chance to talk about someone for whom they held great admiration. I connected with the Texas-based scout who recommended Gattis to the Braves; I got a hold of the machine shop owner who briefly hired Gattis during his time away from the game.

I even found his spiritual advisor in New Mexico. She declined my request.

(more…)

Going gold for Silas, and the value of repetition

I was responsible for this past week’s most popular story on my station’s web site, 11alive.com.

In the piece, I profiled a 4-year-old boy from east Georgia who is battling a rare cancer that cannot be cured; he has been told he may only live for a few more days.

The story has been viewed more than 10,000 times; several of my co-workers told me the following day how much it moved them.

And the most moving moment? Initially I did not know if I liked it.

Let me offer a little background. The previous Friday, I drove down to the 4,000-person town of Lyons, Ga. to meet the young boy, Silas, and his family. In his final days, Silas had started a movement for everyone to paint their nails gold to raise awareness of childhood cancer. The movement had reached 30,000 likes on Facebook, with photos of gold-painted nails pouring into the family’s inbox.

Silas’ family members welcomed me into their home for a brief time. During that time, Silas did not say too much, but he did at one point take part in a moving, heart-breaking exchange with his mother.

“I don’t know what the bad news is,” Silas said about his situation. When his mom asked, “OK, well what’s the good news?” Silas responded by saying this:

“The good news is … is … soon I’m going to heaven.”

I thought about that moment the whole way back to Atlanta. I knew it would be the centerpiece of my story, and indeed I wrote it as such the following week.

When I showed the piece to my news director, she loved it but had one major point of advice:

“You need to play that line again,” she said about Silas’ “going to heaven” line.

Play it twice?

(more…)