The Digital Journalist

CNN: The Platypus is a Friend
of Mine - and You're No Platypus

Editorial by Dirck Halstead

Last month CNN News Chief Eason Jordan issued a memo to the staff of the Cable News Network. In the midst of cutting over 400 jobs from the network--which in turn was only part of a reduction of some 2000 jobs from parent corporation AOL Time Warner--the memo represented the nightmare broadcast news staffers had long feared.

Jordan wrote that CNN intended to introduce compact, high-tech News-gathering gear, small digital video cameras, and laptop editing systems to replace the bulky and much more expensive Beta systems. "The days of routinely dispatching three and four-person reporting teams with cases of bulky equipment are now nearing an end. As we introduce this new gear, correspondents would do well to learn how to shoot and edit (even if called only occasionally to utilize these skills), and smart shooters will learn how to write and track."

So, the moment we have predicted in the Platypus Workshops these past years has finally come. We have been saying that fundamental changes were on the horizon for broadcasting and all of visual journalism.

There are two inexorable forces at work. First, the splintering of network audiences due to the advent of cable, with its enormous implications for advertising revenue; and the technological innovations which have resulted in smaller and far cheaper equipment, which would forever smash the stranglehold of high cost television productions.

Add to this mix the huge debt incurred by mega-corporations such as AOL and Disney in taking over the broadcasting and cable networks. Then, with the cost of converting those networks and stations to the new digital standards in the year ahead, the path to downsizing and job elimination was pre-ordained. Let's say, the new CNN is budgeted at 80% of the old CNN News, of which 60% is budgeted to hard news coverage. Does this mean that now just 40% of the old budgetary resources is left to cover the globe?

What the Platypus has been all about is the idea that photojournalists, with their natural eye and storytelling experience could be trained in the language of television, not to vie for jobs of camerapeople already at work, but to find their own styles of telling stories. Television and the World Wide Web are only two markets that these new visual journalists could sell to, Once a majority of homes are connected via broadband, there will be a limitless arena for these individual creators to display their work.

In the process of learning these skills, the Platypus students Gained a respect for the work being done by the existing broadcast Professionals: whether it's the superb camerawork of legends such as Darrell Barton, or NPPA Photographer of The Year Mark Anderson, reporters such as NBC's Bob Dotson and CNN's Christiane Amanpour, or brilliant producers like ABC Nightline's Tom Bettag and NBC's veteran Ray Farkas.

There have been very good reasons for the collaborative team approach to television news. Television camerapeople, on the average, have far busier days than their still camera brethren. They are shuttled from assignment to assignment, to one reporter after another. Meanwhile, these reporters must master material they will need to conduct interviews. They are held accountable for what they say on air. Just ask Peter Arnett about that.

If you look at the standard piece on CNN, what you usually see is a Reporter on camera, with his or her back to the action taking place, especially when doing the many updates on a story live television requires. In these situations, the cameraperson serves as the eyes that can literally save the reporter's life. The reporter, or prdoucer in kind, serves as another set of eyes for the cameraperson, who is generally blinded on one side by the camera. Television has grown up with this methodology. It is one thing to teach a still photojournalist who has traditionally been used to working all alone, a new skill, it is quite another to expect a news gathering team that has been raised in a collaborative culture to suddenly produce journalistic "auteurs."

The big disappointment that that comes with the CNN memo is that they have failed to create arenas for the new kind of videojournalism that we have been teaching at the Platypus Workshops. The whole point for photojournalists learning this language of television is to be able to find new outlets to run their stories. With a few exceptions, CNN has not opened the door to these people. ABC Nightline has been almost alone in encouraging these storytellers.

At CNN, meanwhile, Rick Kaplan--hired away from ABC to breathe new life into prime-time storytelling--was unceremoniously shown the door. Long-form documentary is virtually dead at the network. The next step was to get rid of prime-time news, which has been replaced by a series of talking heads. Wolf Blitzer and Gretta Van Sustren are great, but whatever happened to the news?

There was a reason AOL bought Time Warner. The company is now ready to start closing the circle that will surround its customers with print products, movies, television, cable and the World Wide Web. According to CEO Gerald Levin, the company is "orchestrating a monetization machine that operates every single day." However, for the grand plan to work, the component parts must represent content value to its audience. CNN does not exist in a competitive vacuum. A click on the remote can move the viewer to Fox News and MSNBC.

A very important precept of journalism is "goodwill." That is the reputation of the institution presenting the program or publication. The challenge for CNN is not to try to turn the professionals who gave birth and life to the news network into something they are not, but rather to open the door to new ideas and talent, while maintaining the reputation that its audience relies upon.

Dirck Halstead