MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
In Nashville, a local television station is experimenting with the very idea of who can be a reporter. In fact, at WKRN, there's no such thing as a reporter, only VJs, or video journalists. Just about everyone on the news staff, from cameraman to editor, has been trained to grab a small digital camera and file stories. While some see nothing but cost cutting, people at the station say it's fundamentally changed the way they approach the news.
NPR's Audie Cornish has the story.
AUDIE CORNISH: When the bosses at WKRN Channel 2 News announced they'd be converting every single person in the newsroom into a video journalist - to film, edit and write their own news stories - the staff more or less responded with dread.
ANDY CORDAN: There was a genuine sense of fear in this building. People that had been doing this for 20 years, and suddenly it's like, no longer are you doing that. You used to make pizzas, now you're going to polish rocks. Enjoy yourself.
CORNISH: Andy Cordan has worked in television news for nearly 20 years, a self described blood and guts crime reporter. His partner in crime reporting has always been Al Divine, his photographer. But last year, WKRN split up the team for good in the process of changing the entire station over to the VJ format. It was a plan aimed at shedding the station's last place ratings. That meant that Divine, a round faced cameraman with a wide smile and a penchant for brightly patterned shirts, had to learn to write and voice stories for air.
AL DIVINE: Oh, it was a nightmare. You know, you couldn't sleep because you were thinking about how do I get this story or do that? All of a sudden, you had to use a whole different side of your brain. I can edit, I can do most everything else, but I wasn't a writer. I mean, I still type like a pumpkin.
CORDAN: We definitely had our job divisions. It was my job to find the story and tell him where we were going, and it was his job to get us there and then put in all the ideas in our soufflÃ© of news as the day went along.
CORNISH: But since they've been trained as VJs, each man heads out on his own separate assignment with a handheld video camera and a laptop. They each set up their own interviews, film the event, edit the images and sound on their computers, record the voices for the story and get it to the station control room for air. And it's every man for himself when pitching ideas at the morning news meeting.
STEVE SABATO: Mitch, what would you like to do today, because that story you had yesterday was about as boring a story as America could be assigned to. So what - it's your choice.
CORNISH: Steve Sabato is the station's news director.
SABATO: In the beginning, the default position editorially was everybody wanted to do, you know, the 98-year-old lady that makes quilts. You know, everybody wanted to do, like, 5-minute-long NPR stories.
CORNISH: Sabato says in the old days he might arrive in the morning to assign five to six stories culled from newspapers, press releases and items gleaned from the police scanner. Those stories would be assigned to a few two man crews, and the reporters in those crews would repeat the same handful of stories for the newscasts at 4:00 p.m., 4:30, 5:00, 6:00, etcetera. That changed when everyone had the power to produce stories.
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Unidentified Announcer: Live from Music City, News 2 at 4: Live from Music City, News 2 at 4:00 starts now.
SABATO: We rarely chase car wrecks anymore. We don't show up for news conferences about overnight busts at convenience stores and, you know, shootings over drug crimes. So there's much less of what I would just call institutional crime stories.
CORNISH: And more room for stories on things like a logal immigration forum, and arts commission report, an investigative story on corrupt lobbyists - all ideas mulled over at a recent news meeting. These days, the newsroom can pursue upwards of 15 stories at a time, a selling point WKRN advertises to its audience.
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SABATO: You're not going to see the same thing done 100 times every day. That's why video journalism works.
CORNISH: But the idea of getting double the amount of work from the same staff doesn't appeal to everyone.
BRAD INGRAM: If you go to any message board in the photography world, I mean, the two letters - VJ - is a cuss word, almost.
CORNISH: Brad Ingram is a board member of National Press Photographers Association. Ingram points out that there are great backpack reporters, or VJs, that have been working around the country for years. But converting an entire station's staff to the model is rare and doesn't sit well with experienced cameramen like him.
INGRAM: Because it comes down to adding more responsibilities to everybody's everyday duties. And that's where it gets a problem. And when you're trying to multitask everything, you lose that quality.
CORNISH: Like swapping a $35,000 camera for a $5,000 digital one, Ingram says. And don't forget you're likely to lose some quality reporting as well, says Al Tompkins, a former Nashville reporter now with the Poynter Institute Training Center for Journalists.
AL TOMPKINS: The biggest complaints I hear about local television news coverage are the lack of expertise of the reporters covering the topic and that the reporting is just too shallow. I don't see that the VJ concept fixes either one of those problems. To the contrary, it seems to me it only adds to them.
MICHAEL ROSENBLUM: This whole notion of there's something wrong with cutting costs and somehow cutting the costs and improving the quality don't go together is kind of crazy.
CORNISH: Michael Rosenblum is at the forefront of bringing the VJ idea to American television newsrooms. He helped convert BBC television news reporters to the VJ model, and he speaks here from Norway, where he was working with state television news stations. Rosenblum says in the era of do it yourself video Web sites, such as YouTube, and cheap, high quality digital video cameras, consolidating the cost and the work of television news is necessary and inevitable.
ROSENBLUM: What we're doing here is we're plugging 21th Century technologies into what is really a 1952 model of how to gather information and disseminate it to the public. And look, change is painful and some people are going to get upended and job descriptions are going to change, and people don't like it.
CORNISH: For that reason, stations will be watching WKRN closely before trying out any wholesale conversions of their own, says the Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins.
TOMPKINS: It's going to take an increased bottom line one way or another for stations to become wildly interested in this. So if they can cut people and save money or cut people and not lose money, or they can increase their revenues, increase their ratings by going through this concept.
CORNISH: WKRN, however, hasn't accomplished either one. Ratings haven't changed and they are still in third place. And while they didn't have layoffs, the station actually spent more money on the initial expense of new cameras, additional cars and a pay raise to a number of staff for the new duties. But the management at WKRN says there's no turning back, and newly minted VJs, like former cameraman Al Divine, say there has been a payoff in what kind of stories he can tell and how he tells them.
DIVINE: When they presented it in this way, it was a chance to be more creative and, you know, if you don't get a little juice off of that, you know, I feel sorry for you.
CORNISH: Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville.