The Reporter's Life
Video Diary/Notes From the Sidelines
May 2009

by Eileen Douglas

The April issue with its focus on video got me to thinking of the long road we journalists have traveled. I remember my first job in local television news --- there was no such thing as video. That came later. We still had film. So, although I have never been the cameraperson, always the reporter, as a reporter I have had a close-up look, from the sidelines, from before the beginning, at many a change video has wrought through the years.

Let's call this my video diary.

That first job what you had in the field, at least in the mid-size market where I worked, was only the reporter and a cameraman. Just the two of you. There was no producer. There was no soundman (and, certainly, no soundwoman.) The cameraman drove. They had their grit, their smarts, and a 16mm film camera. Given that I was kid, still in college, going out after classes, a cameraman who knew more than I did was a godsend. Hard-boiled. Been around a long time. They knew the territory. They knew the players. I knew how to do an interview and write a story. But, thank goodness, they knew how to steer me to the right person in the room, and tell me who to talk to at a three-alarm fire. I learned from those guys. But pre-video the work had certain challenges.

This will sound nuts to anyone who has always known video's whiz bang wizardry, but to get the newscast on the air, we had to be back in the station in time to develop the film, dash into the sound booth to throw the reporter's sound track onto the film's magnetic strip, and edit together the A-roll with B-roll. Yes, there was really a B-roll. To make it worse, to make air, you had to splice every story -- in order -- onto one reel of film and rush it up to the director in the control room before 6 o'clock. Many a night it was 5:59 p.m. on the clock and lots of nail biting.

By the time I got to New York and a local television newsroom in the Big City, video was coming in, but film was still around. Some cameramen shot only film. Some shot this new thing, video. And there was real dislocation. Real upheaval in the ranks. Not only did some of the old guys have to learn a new way of working, but, as I recall, listening in on passionate, more-than-a-little-heated conversations between the guys in the crew, there were hassles all around. Not just with the technique, the change in how to shoot a camera -- but with union jurisdictions and a whole new world of rules. Video brought shockwaves to these guys' lives. For some, younger guys with video skills and the right union membership, it was a new opportunity. For some, the way it seemed to me standing on the sidelines, it was a door closing or a difficult transition.

Eventually, as we all know, video prevailed, as it does today. And has for years. By the time I worked on a nationally televised magazine show, you could fly around the country and find a talented, experienced video crew wherever you needed one. Total professionals, often in the middle of nowhere, who could toss around sentences like, "I use this light on Lesley Stahl. I think it will work for you." And the crew came in all shapes and colors, including camerawomen, soundwomen, African-Americans, married couples working as a team.

Now here we are. So easy these days to buy and shoot a video camera, anyone can do it. Even I can shoot video for a documentary, as I now have more than once, and have it seen in a theater or a television broadcast, spliced in with the footage "the real camera crew" shot. And no one's the wiser. Many a documentary filmmaker in this brave new video world, as we all know, does the whole kit and kaboodle, from the shoot in the field right down to the Final Cut Pro edit.

But now I see other challenges. Mainly, anyone with a camera phone who happens on the scene can get the story and stick it on YouTube or and send it in for a credit on CNN. A boon, of course, for management. Fun if you're the civilian who gets your tornado or airplane crash footage on the air. But I wonder what it does to the news camera crews' pocketbook. Not to mention those TV news operations that require the reporter to be a one-man or -woman band, get the story and shoot it, too. No cameraman required.

Through the years I have learned a lot about this visual medium, from all kinds of people who knew their stuff. From different people I have learned different things. It was a producer who told me, you don't wear sleeveless dresses in the summer (we don't need to see arms), fur in the winter (because it looks elitist), or patterns and stripes ever (because they go all wavy on camera). From an executive producer who went apoplectic reviewing one of my reports when she eyed a hair out of place and screamed at the monitor "that's why they have hairspray!" I learned the smallest things count when you're doing a close-up. (Forget the serious stuff like how to be accurate, responsible, ask the right question in the right way. Make sure you always have that hair thing covered!)

But it was a video cameraman who taught me the most important thing I ever learned about working in television. And I'm not kidding. He took the time to sit me down and do a test. Turn left, please. Now face forward. Now right, thanks. Because of him I know the absolutely, number one, most important thing I ever learned in television. I tell you this as someone who was a Poli Sci major with a Phi Beta Kappa key, who reads both The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal daily, and still watches the evening news AND the "The News Hour" on PBS that follows. That is, I think I'm a serious person.

But the number one most important thing I learned in television (apart from the hair thing and the fur thing and the stripe thing) is….

The left side of my face is my best side. Always make sure that's the side that faces the camera.

And, believe me, whenever there's a camera around, I do.

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© Eileen Douglas

Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist turned independent documentary filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent for "ABC-TV's Lifetime Magazine," she is the author of "Rachel and the Upside Down Heart," and co-producer of the films "My Grandfather's House" and "Luboml: My Heart Remembers." She can be reached at