From TV News Shooter to
One-Man-Band VJ
Why I'm glad I made the transition from ABC News off-air producer to New York Times videojournalist.
April 2009

by Erik Olsen

When I am out on a story and I tell someone I'm from The New York Times, the immediate response is usually a certain respectful recognition. People know the name; they know it stands for good journalism. But when they see my video camera, sometimes a wave of confusion washes over them and they inevitably ask: The New York Times does video?

© Nicholas Kristof
Erik Olsen in Haiti for
Yes, The New York Times does video. For the last three years, the Times has been slowly building a unit of young video journalists, or VJs, of which I am one, who more often than not shoot, write, edit and sometimes voice-over our own fully produced stories for

It often seems odd to me that I am working as a one-man band in video journalism at a newspaper. Almost a decade ago, I came to New York to work at ABC News. At the time, the notion of training individual reporters to do everything may have been on people's minds, but it was rarely put into practice. There were a lot of reasons for this, but it was clear even then that the economics of newsgathering, especially for the Web, would eventually favor a one-man band-type model.

It seemed to me that the television networks were slow to go in this direction, so when I learned that this was where the Times was headed, I leapt at the chance to move from TV to, well, newspaper video. Of course, that meant developing a broad new skill set, but that's been half the fun.

There was always something creatively unsatisfying about being out on a shoot at ABC. I remember one instance in particular with I was with a crew working on a story about a male guard in a women’s prison in Texas who was engaged in sexual misconduct with prisoners. We were outside the prison and I was explaining to a cameraman what kind of shot I wanted. I imagined a very stylized shot with a specific look that I tried to convey to the cameraman. The shot came out ok (all the network cameramen that I worked with are wonderfully skilled practitioners) but it really wasn’t what I’d imagined, and by the time I realized that, we were back in the editing room in New York. Since I do all my own shooting now, I don’t have that problem. Of course, the flip side is that I have no one to blame but myself if a shot doesn’t look right.

Some of my colleagues went to school to develop their skills, but I was largely self-taught. I've been shooting video and photographs for many years, but mostly as a freelancer or on my own, so I've long had the basic vocabulary for how to frame a shot and set a scene. But learning the skills to become a VJ took time and a lot of practice. We've had a lot of training at the Times, but I was also helped immensely by taking on various freelance gigs around New York before I started my job. The Web has made this particularly easy, since there are many Web sites that are thrilled to receive video alone or with a written story. Short travel-related pieces worked particularly well for me. I also had one of my early pieces run on "Current TV," which can be a great outlet for VJ work. The key is to always be working on something – shooting, writing, editing – whether it's a paid project or not.

I also read a lot of books and magazines about film technique, and was never shy to ask knowledgeable people (for example, cameramen at ABC who I'd befriended) a lot of questions.

Like any photographer, as a shooter/producer, you ultimately develop your own specific techniques, and you're learning new ones all the time by watching others' work. For example, I am a big fan of Showtime's "This American Life" TV program, which I will often watch on my iPhone and scribble notes when I see cool shots or edits.

Being a VJ means that you are totally responsible for what the viewer sees. These are your images, your words, your edits. You are usually alone in the field. And since you are working out in the real world (and not, say, a studio) where things don't always go according to plan, you have to think on your feet.

Maya Lin's "Wave Field": For his video profile of artist Maya Lin, Erik Olsen came up with a clever way to illustrate the amazing beauty and depth of the tall, grassy hills in her “Wave Field” installation. (Erik Olsen/
A quick example: I recently shot a simple profile of the artist Maya Lin, who had designed a large earthwork installation at the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y. The installation, called "Storm King Wavefield," was a series of tall grassy hills that were built to look like waves. It is very lovely. The problem is that the day I went to visit Maya at the installation, it was overcast and the light was very flat -- so flat, in fact, that you couldn't really see the amazing depth of the grass waves, which was really a key part of what the piece was about. I stewed over what to do, and shot the installation from every angle imaginable. But it never looked right; you just couldn't perceive the depth of the waves. So instead, I asked Maya to walk over the crests of the waves starting from the furthest one away, and shot the whole thing on a tripod without moving the camera. Then I crafted a nice little opener to my piece where Maya seems to float around the wave crests at various distances, which I think helped convey the beauty and depth of her work that was obscured by the bad light that day.

It's a lot of fun to have something come together like this, which is why I think being a VJ is one of the most rewarding jobs in journalism. Each one of us is still learning, and it's hard to imagine a time when that won't be the case, given the rapid changes in technology.

For example, about two years ago, we went completely tapeless. That is, we gave up DV tape for a system using digital flash memory, or P2 cards. This has led to several significant changes in our workflow. The first and most obvious is that we have to be much more selective about the shots we get and about the time we spend on interviews. The cards are expensive, and each holds a relatively limited amount of high-definition footage. In the past, with a nearly bottomless bagful of cheap tapes, it was not unusual for some producers to shoot almost everything that moved. No longer. Now, where possible, we more carefully craft and prepare our shots so as to not waste time and precious footage. I think this has made us all better shooters.

Going tapeless has also forced us to be more organized with our footage. It is a production nightmare to have a hard drive filled with footage from P2 cards that have Byzantine hexadecimal identification numbers. As a result, after a day of shooting, we must sit down and go through and name all our clips to keep things straight.

We work on stories both long (up to 20 minutes) and short (less than 2 minutes) with turnaround times anywhere from a day to several weeks. Most of us have several stories in production at one time.

Our group is wonderfully collegial. Everyone is eager to have the whole unit producing the best-quality journalism and video, and so VJs actively seek each other's opinions on the use of a particular shot or the direction of a narrative. We also have lunchtime viewing sessions where we watch and critique each other's work, as well as the work of our competitors. This proves to be amazingly helpful, as almost every story has something about it that could be done better, and there are few people as good as a peer who faces the same challenges to set you straight and provide advice. We also get a tremendous amount of feedback from our senior producers, all of whom have substantial documentary experience and who have a remarkable ability to tease out the essence of a story and help you trim away material that (as naturally happens) you may have become too close to but which is not integral to your story.

This, of course, is one of the great challenges of online video. Even though you have the luxury of not having to fit into a particular time slot like television, you must still keep your stories short – generally 5 minutes or less – or risk having users click away.

A common notion is that many newspaper video units around the country are made up of photographers who have migrated from still photos to video. That's not the case in our unit. Most of our VJs and senior producers come from documentary and non-fiction television or filmmaking backgrounds. As I mentioned, I came from ABC News, where I worked for over five years in both online and television production, including a stint as an off-air producer during the presidential campaign. It's easy to make generalizations about why one background works better than another, and making generalizations is usually a bad idea. But I think that in our case, our unit has been served well by the fact that many people came into the unit knowing how to tell a story, and at the end of the day, that's the essence of what we do.

Of course, being a one-man band has its dangers, as I learned recently in Hawaii. In December, I was working on a story about some of the shady characters associated with surfing on the North Shore of Oahu, and I needed some shots of people surfing from the water. It was a relatively rough day at Pipeline and I waded out into the waves with an underwater video camera. I knew that the currents were strong and that it was dangerous, but I figured I could stay in water up to my chest and be OK. Wrong. Almost immediately I lost my footing and was swept into a powerful riptide. I swam as hard as I could, holding onto the expensive camera, but the current carried me quickly away from shore. Thankfully, before things got too bad, I was spotted by the lifeguard tower and a guy on a jet ski rescued me. I was saved and the camera was saved, but my pride was hurt and I learned a valuable lesson about the limits of being solo.

Although we sometimes produce video-only stories for the Web – and we are doing so on an increasing basis – right now most of the stories we do are tied in some way to articles running in the newspaper. A reporter or an editor has come up with a story idea and we are then entrusted to craft a video piece related to it. We brainstorm with our senior producers, and often call characters on the phone to see who might make the most interesting video. The video should be able to stand alone as a story in its own right, but it should also be a solid and compelling visual complement to the written piece. Print and video each have their own strengths, and our goal is to find a way to play to the strengths of the medium being used for each story that goes up on The New York Times Web site.

A good example where the media work well together is a series we're doing on how small businesses in the New York area are handling the economic downturn. Brent McDonald, one of my very talented colleagues, and I have been working with the metro desk to follow several small business owners as they struggle to pay their power bills and keep their businesses afloat. The print profiles do a wonderful job illuminating the difficulties these owners face, but being able to actually see and hear them talk about firing someone or having trouble paying a bill really drives home the humanity of the current crisis.

If there is a downside to the job, it's all the equipment we have do deal with. We currently shoot with the Panasonic HVX-200, an impressively light, versatile camera with a sharp, lovely image. The camera shoots on P2 cards in 1080i and 720p (currently our preferred format). With some exceptions (lack of certain manual controls and interchangeable lenses), the camera is ideally suited to our need to move fast and setup quickly...but it is still a rather large plastic piece of technology. In addition to the camera, we carry a solid, fluid head tripod and, often, small light kits. Finally, we edit on Macs using Final Cut Pro. Different stories demand different setups, but these are the basics.

I think we have one of the best jobs in journalism. Video is exploding online, and there is a great deal of experimentation going on with new tools and narrative forms. At the Times, we're encouraged to innovate, and we're given tremendous freedom to develop our own styles and to pursue our own interests. While we all cover all beats across the paper, I have long been interested in science, and will try to do science-related stories as often as possible. A colleague of mine, meanwhile, is a sports fanatic and she does the same thing with sports stories.

Charles Darwin in Song: Erik Olsen profiled Darwinian scholar Richard Milner, who sings and performs his own songs about Darwin. “It was great fun to drive around New York City on a snowy day to shoot him performing ‘music video’ vignettes in various evolution-related locations such as the Botanical Garden.” (Erik Olsen/
No matter the topic, my favorite stories usually have one thing in common: an interesting character. I recently did a quick profile of a Darwinian scholar named Richard Milner, who also happens to sing and perform his own songs about Darwin. It was great fun to drive around New York City on a snowy day with Richard and to shoot him performing "music video" vignettes in various evolution-related locations such as the New York Botanical Garden.

Being a one-man band at a place like The New York Times allows us remarkable editorial and creative control over our work. It is a real thrill to not only define and develop the narrative for a story, but also to choose the images that will go along with it, and then be able to come back and assemble them according to your own vision. Having come from network television news, where we had cameramen and soundmen and producers and editors and so on, I know that this is a rarity. But this is obviously the direction that much of the industry is going. That's why being a digital journalist today, despite the troubles the industry as a whole is facing, is one of the most exciting and interesting occupations around.

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© Erik Olsen

Erik Olsen is a video journalist with The New York Times. He previously worked for five years at ABC News in television production and with ABC While there, he pioneered the development of several of the network's early Web-only programs and was an off-air producer during the 2004 presidential campaign. He has lived and worked in Thailand, Spain and Chile.