The Digital Journalist

The Platypus Papers
Part Five

by Dirck Halstead

When I wrote the first part of The Platypus Papers, I said that I had said the last negative word you would be reading in this series. Well, that's not quite true. Things change in this world, and that is one of the first lessons that needs to be understood.

So, I am here to give you the Good News, and the Bad News in this conclusion for now, of this series.

Let's start with the Bad News:

The Bad News is that not everyone is or can be a Platypus, just as not every news photographer could be a LIFE magazine photographer back in the thirties. There will always be a special breed, with a God given talent, and that extra something that will allow them to rise above the pack.

There will continue to be a need for everyday news photographers and television cameramen. There will continue to be an increase in the number of magazines sold on the newsstand for the foreseeable future. One television producer I know in New York tells me that every person that she knows that is capable of carrying a betacam is booked.

However, as I observed in Part I, the number of photographers and camera people are increasing faster than the slots available. In addition, we all know there is a major change taking place as our industry moves from analog capture to digital. One of the unfortunate side effects of this transition is that there is a growing tendency in management to regard the producers of digital product as less journalists than technicians. This is bound to have a negative effect on the prices being paid to produce this "product."

Time deputy picture editor Jay Colton writes, "my biggest fear is that moving the industry . . heavily favors those already in power. . TV will be incorporated into the web, and the web will be incorporated into television in an extremely strange hybrid whose characteristics will probably resemble television more than the current internet and the web."

It is this viewpoint that leads me to believe that probably the most crucial skill that will be needed to serve this new medium will be related to television journalism.

However, as Tom Burton wisely pointed out, addressing finding that "extra talent" that will push us into this new dimension, "some of the added punch include professional writing, computer savvy, expert lighting skills and high 8 video experience. Also the ability to develop interesting stories (something photographers don't do enough of), the instincts of a salesman and the ability to be a good editor have always been attributes that will continue to be valuable. For each person, the answers will be different." The Good News is that there is now a light at the end of the tunnel for those people who want to push beyond the boundaries of the ever-diminishing platforms for the traditional photo essay.

If you had asked me three years ago, about my outlook for our profession of photo journalism, I would have been pretty glum. Today, I think we stand on the threshold of movements that will allow us to take this medium into new and wonderful dimensions. There will be some rough bumps on this road leading to the "communication super highway", especially in the next two years, but while the big corporations and the software and hardware gurus are figuring out how to get us from here to there, we have a lot of work to do.

For those who want to rise to this challenge, there needs to be some real soul-searching. New skills will need to be learned, whether they be in writing, production, video or sound. More attention will need to be paid to the journalistic environment in which you currently work. Determine not to just take an assignment and run out the door, but watch and talk to the editors and writers who make the decisions. Try to understand their thought processes.

Push yourself to do personal work. I don't know of any professional photo journalist who has risen to the top who didn't have personal projects that drove him or her to produce distinctive stories. Any "big name" advertising photographer will tell you that they are hired for a campaign based primarily on the personal work that is in their book. Anybody with skill can turn out an art director's version of their image, but the only way to get into the mind of the creative photographer to see what is there is by looking at their personal statements. Similarly, the documentaries that every year win the Oscars and the Emmys, almost always come from personal commitments to tell a story, and take it to the limits.

So, to go back to Andrew Tolson's questions that got us started on these posts, he asked:

"Where can I start? Is anybody offering workshops on documentary video like the Missouri photo workshop does with skills ?"

Start by becoming friends with your local television cameramen. Tell them you want to learn the basic skills. Some may grumble, but I guarantee you will find a mentor if you truly want one. There are some very basic instructional videos offered through the pages of magazines such as VIDEOMAKER which can be purchased on the news stand, which cover shooting, editing, desktop video, sound and lighting.

The NPPA offers its television workshop, this year in Oklahoma, which is primarily for broadcast professionals. Perhaps if there was enough demand, next year we might be able to offer a video journalism course aimed at getting still photographers up and running in conjunction with that workshop . . that's up to the membership to request.

"What is the standard High 8 camera that the new breed of video journalists will use ? Will I have to mortgage my house to get one ?"

I could tell you that you can start with any high 8 video camera, which goes for around $1,000 or less, but that would only be for the most rudimentary purposes. The reality is that anything that you want to do for professional purposes must be three chip quality. Standard consumer High 8 use single, composite chips that blend the Red, Green and Blue signals into one, which loses sharpness and color quality.

Sony used to make the VX3, which was the bread and butter camera of Video News International for $3,500. Canon makes the L2, which is not a three chip, but has excellent signal to noise ratio with some features not available on other High 8 cameras, such as interchangeable lenses and slow shutter speeds. Byron Harvey has been doing excellent documentary work around the world for National Geographic Explorer with this camera that sells in the 3,600 range.

The VX3 has been replaced by the VX1000 that is now pretty much the industry standard for a video journalist digital camera. Using a mini DV cassette it delivers Beta SP performance in a 2 1/2 pound unit. The camera sells for $3,500, and features a "still photo" feature that allows you to capture 750,000 pixel photos at shutter speeds up to 1/2000th.

At the National Association of Broadcasters Convention in April, Sony should start selling their SX series of ENG cameras that use digital tape, and are adaptable to the new High Definition standards. These cameras will start to replace Betacams on the broadcast level, and have a price tag of about $17,500 minus glass.

Sony also sells an industrial version of its betacam, the EVW100, which has almost all the features of the most expensive cameras, and can be bought for $12,500 new.

The most important element is the sound gear. At VNI, the standard issue mike was a Sennheiser MK66, which is a highly directional shotgun mike which fits on the shoe mount of the camera (note consumer High 8 cameras rarely have a place to mount a mike), and sells for $450.00
A lavaliere mike can be added (essential for interviews) for another $150.

Samigon has just come out with a professional small camera video tripod, which has a great fluid head, and claw ball mount for $175.00. "What does the job market look like for this new breed ? Can a video freelancer sell/propose a story like a still photographer".

At the moment, there is virtually no job market for a video journalist. In some places like Bosnia and Checnya still photographers were making extra money carrying High 8 cameras into war zones (one photographer was carrying three High 8 cameras for different organizations as well as his still gear).

However, for the moment with the exception of occasional documentary sales to such organizations as National Geographic Explorer, The Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel, there is little receptivity to video journalism done on the small camera.

This will change. As Jay Colton observed, the web will become more like television, and with increased bandwidth, there will be an enormous need for new product,

Michael Rosenblum liked to tell video journalism classes that in the future 500 channel world, if you started running everything that has ever been done on television since its inception in January, you would run out of shows by June.

In addition, the television industry itself will be forced to change in a major way in the next few years with the conversion to High Definition. One of the impediments to the use of High 8 and DVC is that almost all stations are beta equipped, and rarely even have players for those formats. In the next few years, ALL the beta stuff will be junked, and there will probably be major conversions to all digital newsrooms, which will open doors previously closed.

So, as we get to the end of this series, I would leave you with one message:

The future is uncertain, but there will be major changes. For those who want to take advantage of these changes to tell stories , there will be wonderful opportunities. There is a lot of work to be done, and little time to waste.

Good Luck.

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