Nashville TV station embraces one-man 'VJ' approach

Friday, January 27th 2006, 1:05 pm
By: News On 6

SPRING HILL, Tenn. (AP) _ As bulls munched on hay in nearby stalls, Jerry Barlar held a small camera on his shoulder and asked the agricultural center director questions.

Barlar would do all the reporting, shooting and editing for his cattle auction story, which aired on WKRN, a Nashville station that last fall converted its entire newsroom to a system of solo ``videojournalists'' _ or VJs.

``It was a little unnerving at first,'' said Barlar, who was a cameraman for nearly 14 years before becoming a VJ. ``The scariest part was the writing because I'd never done that.

``Now I'm doing the kind of stories I think are interesting, and you put more into it.''

Ditching the traditional duo of an on-air reporter and a behind-the-scenes photographer for the one-man-band approach has been done for years at small TV stations, and it's commonly used by 24-hour news channels. But media observers say WKRN is helping to pioneer the practice among local broadcast TV news affiliates.

``We're the petri dish,'' said Mark Shafer, WKRN's managing editor.

After WKRN made the switch to videojournalism, its parent company, Young Broadcasting Inc., did the same thing at its KRON station in San Francisco.

Young Broadcasting's plunge into the format is being closely watched, and some are already questioning the quality of VJ-produced stories.

``When you throw a camera in everyone's hands in the shop, you devalue both videography and reporting,'' said Hub Brown, a former television journalist who heads the communications department at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. ``This is not about improving the visual quality or the journalism quality of the newscasts. It's about cutting costs.''

Using less expensive and less cumbersome equipment has already allowed WKRN, an ABC affiliate, to increase its news output and diversity of coverage _ the main goals behind the change, said the station's news director, Steve Sabato.

``This isn't an economic decision,'' he said. ``Our company spent a significant amount of money in capital to buy cameras and computers and software and automobiles. We've invested a considerable amount of time in retraining our staff.

``This is an investment in what we believe is a way to improve the quality of our products and address systematic, chronic weaknesses in broadcast news.''

The newsroom rolled out the VJ experiment in September following several weeks of training.

In the past, WKRN would send out up to five two-person crews each day. Now there are seven to nine videojournalists, and that doubles the number of stories produced to about 10 a day.

``We have enough stuff so that if one or two pieces fail, we can still get on the air,'' Sabato said. ``Or even better, pull someone out and say, 'Go ahead and dig a couple of days.' We've moved from a same-day reactive news organization to a planning and proactive news organization.''

Former CBS producer Michael Rosenblum helped WKRN make the switch. His company has trained thousands of VJs worldwide, for companies such as the BBC and 24-hour cable news channel NY1 in New York.

Rosenblum claims the ``era of the cameraman, sound man, producer and editor is dead,'' and that ``today, all it takes to make broadcast-quality television is a (digital video) camera and a laptop or desktop computer in the hands of a well-trained VJ.''

Some small-station TV reporters have always worked solo, but that's different than having an entire station switch to the VJ model, said Al Tompkins, a broadcasting media specialist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla.

``What's new is that entire newsrooms that once were one thing are totally different,'' Tompkins said. ``The conversion of the traditional newsroom to the VJ newsroom is different.''

VJ-produced stories usually center around one person, who is interviewed while doing the activity the story relates to. VJs are told to capture action and to avoid static images.

The approach is supposed to be more intimate and draw more information out of subjects, who are often intimidated by the bigger cameras in two-person crews.

VJ cameras only weigh about 5 pounds and cost around $5,000 each, compared to the cameras used in two-man crews, which weigh about 25 pounds and cost $25,000 to $50,000.

``It's a more personal type of interview,'' said WKRN's Barlar. ``They told us if you find yourself doing an interview and you're sitting down at a desk, stop and get up and move.''

Not everyone at WKRN welcomed the change, and some left after it was announced. ``But I don't hear people coming in saying, 'I hate this. I don't ever want to do it again.' I think the ones who felt that way are already gone,'' Barlar said.

Sabato said about 80 percent of the station's stories now are VJ-produced. Two-man crews are still used on breaking news stories, which require a quicker turnaround.

WKRN was able to take a risk on VJs because it has been mired in third place among news stations in Nashville, the nation's 30th-ranked media market. Sabato hopes the VJ format helps, even though ratings haven't changed yet.

Tompkins said ratings success at WKRN is key to whether the model will spread to other broadcast affiliates, but union implications in some markets could prevent that.

``I don't hear a lot of newsrooms getting really excited about this yet,'' Tompkins said. ``Most newsrooms I know of aren't terrifically interested in generating a lot more stories because they only have so many hours where they can produce news.

``This model is more suited to 24-hour cable because of the bigger news hole,'' he said. ``When you're a local affiliate you only have so many hours of news you can fill.''

Thomas Berg, a broadcasting communications professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said he hasn't seen a significant difference in the quality of WKRN's stories and doesn't think most viewers will notice the changes.

``The jury is still out as to the effectiveness of VJs,'' Berg said. ``It's a young idea and one that needs to be given a full chance to see where it goes.''