The Digital Journalist
The Platypus Papers
Part Two

by Dirck Halstead

On a spring day in 1994, I received a call from a friend, Nick Nicholas, who had been the CEO of Time Warner, and was now embarked on being a venture capitalist.

He asked me if I would meet with some guys who were trying to sell him on helping to fund a start up venture called VIDEO NEWS INTERNATIONAL.

In Nicholas' fifth avenue office I was introduced to Michael Rosenblum, a former CBS producer, and Paul Gruenberg an entrepreneur who had made his first million the year he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania when he sold a concept he had developed as an undergraduate, The Video Yearbook, to the Readers Digest Company.

Rosenblum, who had acquired a reputation as a maverick in television news circles had a vision . . . that he could create a new form of television news that would do away with correspondents, cameramen, soundmen, and producers. He had personally pioneered the methodology of training journalists, whether they be print, photo, or radio, in the basic television news techniques and the use of the new 3 chip high eight cameras.

Nick wanted me to hear their pitch and give him his opinion on the viability of the ideas . . . he had also solicited advice from one of his other photographer friends from TIME, David Hume Kennerly.

As Michael and Paul Gruenberg pitched their idea, I found myself strangely attracted to it. They had recently been the prime consultants to Time Warner in creating the nation's first all high 8 news station, New York One in Manhattan, and were actively engaged in building a similar operation in Europe.

At that time, I had been covering the White House for more than twenty years for TIME, but with sharing that beat with my colleagues Diana Walker and Cynthia Johnson had eight months of year free to explore other ideas. In addition, the increasing budget constraint on the magazine was leaving us all uneasy about exactly what the future would hold.

Michael gave me a Sony EVW300, a smaller, High 8 version of the standard ENG camera to try out. Over the following weekend, I became fascinated by the ability to capture sound. I was also intrigued by the fact that when I would "sneak up" on people in Central Park rather than run in the opposite direction as they would when they sighted a still camera trained on them, they often would go into a "performance" for the camera . . . this is when I first began to understand that most people want to be on television.

In the months that followed , both Kennerly and I started to do experimental pieces for VNI. Kennerly scored the first major sales to ABC Nightline, where producer Tom Bettag demonstrated support for the concept of videojournalism. Meanwhile, I was busy on various documentary projects, including one of former Vietnam nurse Diane Carlson Evans whose heroic efforts had managed to produce the Vietnam Women's Memorial.

In those days our efforts were pretty dreadful . . . we had received no formal training, so we learned in on-the-job lessons from Rosenblum and trial and error . . . but we managed to demonstrate the potential of videojournalism well enough that enough investors were found to launch Video News International.

Opening an office in Philadelphia VNI began to recruit "VJs" as they were called. Over the next two years, they trained nearly 100 photo, print, and radio journalists for three week classes, 10 people at a time.

The first week would be devoted to camera orientation (by this time the EVW 300 had been replaced by the small VX3), and basic shooting skills.

The second week, the exercises gave way to shooting short pieces, and the training turned to scripting, reporting techniques, voicing (a famous voice coach was brought in, and by noon of that day, you could hear voices yelling "HEELLOO OUT THEEERRREE" echoing in the canyon next to the office as shy recruits were trained to reach down into their guts to bring up the body in their voices.

The third week was devoted to longer form pieces, which the VJ was expected to produce single-handled (with the exception of the professional editors who worked 16 hours a day to cut their pieces, on the basis of the scripts they were given).

Each class generally was composed of nearly equal numbers of print, radio and photo journalists.

In the first week of training, the photographers immediately showed their stuff. They had EYES . . .they knew what made pictures, and it showed right away . . . this stuff is a cinch they would crow at the bar at the end of the day.

By the end of the second week, the photographer's early lead gave way to the radio journalists. Many of them had been recruited from NPR (which is really television without pictures), and their skill in story construction, writing, the use of actualities, left the photographer behind in confusion.

By the end of the third week, of those who had survived the training, the ratio of success in mastering the medium was pretty much evenly divided between the photographers and the radio people.

By and large, the print reporters never got it . . . they kept losing the camera.

As soon as they trained the VJ's , VNI launched them into postings all over the world...full of enthusiasm for this new medium.

Then a strange thing happened. Video News International seemed to lose their interest in the people they had gone to all the trouble to train. VJs would send in suggestion after suggestion to an ever more opulent Philadelphia headquarters but never get an answer. As the salaries of the executives increased rapidly, expenses on small stories would be delayed for months, and only paid after pleas from the field.

There were endless changes at the Managing Editor level, and purges of producers, which nevertheless increased at a bizarre pace and ever higher salary levels considering that the original concept was that the VJ was going to be the real producer.

By late 1995, Video News International had been sold to the New York Times Company, which over the next year reportedly pumped some 14 million dollars into the operation. At the same time, VNI was sending notices to most of the VJs scattered around the world that they were closing their international operations to concentrate on long form documentaries, and asked them to return their cameras, their Sennheiser mikes, and their little "clam" video watchman.

Nevertheless, a few hardy VJs managed to function despite the chaos in Philadelphia. Alan Tomlinson, a former radio reporter, and former Newsweek photographer Bill Gentile produced an emmy-award winning documentary on the Ebola virus for the Discovery Channel, with the help of Sahm Doherty, a former TIME picture editor from London and Stephenie Hollyman who had just completed photo book projects on the homeless and the Dogon in Africa. This led to other documentaries, including a ten part series for the Learning Channel on Trauma shot in amazing "cinema verite" style by Gentile. TIME's PF Bentley reported on Haiti and Cuba for ABC Nightline.

But by late this fall, the chaos in management proved too much for the Times, and they pulled the plug.

The Philadelphia office was closed, Gruenberg was sent packing, the staff was reduced to a skeleton, and Rosenblum was called back to New York, while the Times pondered what to do next.

In the last month, Gentile who had just shot a major piece for ABC Nightline on the rape of Rwandan women, labored without salary to finish his show (see "A Conversation With Two Pros" on the NPPA list three weeks ago).

So, the nest Michael Rosenblum had built to give birth to a new breed of journalist was dismantled.

However, it had served its purpose . . . newly hatched platypi had wandered off into the world . . . uncertain, a bit fearful, but eager to see what the world would hold for them.


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