Don't Blame the Platypus
January 2009

The Digital Journalist has been maintaining nearly since its inception that the rules were about to change in television news. Ten years ago, television news was an insatiable beast with an unlimited amount of money to spend, as it devoured the news landscape. In those halcyon days, advertisers flocked to network news, and the most profitable television segments of all were local news. Like newspapers, the money just kept rolling in.

Less than 18 months ago, most newspapers were still making over 20 percent profit, more profit than any other industry save drug trafficking. However, within a few months, the picture started to change for both print and broadcast. The audience began to shrink dramatically, and advertisers found more creative ways to spend their money on the World Wide Web. All of this happened BEFORE the current economic crisis hit.

As the depth of the current recession revealed itself, the really big ticket sources of revenue dried up. Detroit stopped making multimillion-dollar advertising buys. Huge local department stores, which poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into media, were gone almost overnight.

Announcements about changes in the world of newspapers and in television news come so fast now it is nearly impossible to keep track of them.

"Gannett's D.C. station replaces news crews with one-person multimedia journalists," announced a headline in the Washington Post last month. WUSA-TV reporters will have to shoot and edit their own stories, and former camera people will be doing on-air reporting. Everyone concerned would be paid 30 to 50 percent less for their efforts.

Six months ago we reported on The Chicago Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and 10 other newspapers, the Chicago Cubs and 23 television stations, was running out of money fast. Before Christmas, the company filed for bankruptcy, with $13 billion in debt.

Other newspaper giants, Cox, McClatchy, Gannett, and even The New York Times Company, are facing what may be an imminent reduction of their print product. The Times has been forced to mortgage its new building on 8th Avenue.

The Detroit Free Press announced in December they would stop home delivery on its Monday through Wednesday editions, and simply sell abbreviated versions at newsstands. You will see many newspapers implementing the same strategy in the months ahead, on their way to abandoning the print editions.

Newsweek has just announced it is cutting its print run in half, to just over a million copies a week. Industry observers see that magazine folding its tent by the fourth quarter of 2009.

Television faces its own challenges. Revenue the industry took for granted, the upfront advertising buys for major events such as the Super Bowl, are suddenly in doubt. The New York Times reported recently that car companies such as Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, which picked up the multimillion dollar tabs for the NASCAR races, are not showing up for 2009.

NBC dropped a bombshell in prime-time programming by announcing that Jay Leno will start a nightly one-hour show starting at 10 p.m. EST next year. This show will replace scripted entertainment in prime time, saving the network millions each week.

Which is a roundabout way to bringing us back to the Platypus.

Over 10 years of teaching these classes have proved a couple of things.

Reporters, producers and photographers are really not interchangeable.

It became a given that the best video journalists came from the ranks of photojournalists. They had a God-given eye, and were used to carrying equipment that was not all that different from what they had been carrying for years.

Some radio journalists also were able to cut it in the realm of the Platypus.

Those who had worked for NPR stations understood the value of an actuality. They knew how to script and voice, and with work could make the team. One of the NPR students in our Maine workshop won the Platypus award for best editing.

Reporters, it pains us to say, never got it. First, they weren't used to, and didn't like, carrying STUFF. The idea was a nightmare to them. Mark it up to left-brain, right brain. Therefore, the idea that you can command a reporter to take over the cameraperson's job is wishful thinking.

When we started this movement to encourage still photojournalists to learn the language of television news and documentary, it was never with the intent to replace professional television photojournalists. Our aim was to utilize new technology and creative ideas to do the kind of stories that were not being done by conventional TV news. In fact, we taught our students to ask themselves a question when they were thinking of pitching an idea for a show, "Can this be done as well or better by a regular TV crew?" If the answer was yes, it wasn't the kind of story we should be doing. Our stories would depend on those qualities that always made for great photojournalism: access to a personal story to be told and time to tell it.

These are still our goals. We do not pretend that becoming a Platypus will save you. The newspapers, magazines and television stations that are beginning to slip beneath the waves of a terrible economic storm are unfortunately doomed. Hopefully, there will be survivors. All the Platypus is about is trying to get you a seat in the lifeboat.

View the 2009 Platypus Workshop schedule here.

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