Monday morning, WTSP-TV anchor/reporter Janie Porter was on TV, reporting live from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., on the run-up to this week’s national college football championship game. She didn’t have a big live truck accompanying her, or an engineer tuning in a shot or a photojournalist standing behind the camera and setting up lights.
Porter set up her own camera, opened her laptop, connected the camera to her computer, slipped a wireless connection card into her laptop, called up Skype and used her Blackberry to establish IFB (the device TV folks wear in their ears to hear the off-air signal). It all looked just great on air.
Watch the live shot here:
This type of reporting marks a new day. It is more than backpack journalism or one-woman-band reporting; it is soup to nuts, live reporting without a live truck or a signal that looks like a Max Headroom video. Obviously, it is also a potential cost-saving way to use fewer people and to send in live reports without using expensive trucks.
WTSP News Director Darren Richards told me, “The process was surprisingly simple. We used a camera with firewire video out to a reporter laptop computer. We then used Skype to send the picture via a wireless AirCard.
“Back here at 10 Connects, we called up the video via Skype in a computer in our control room that we have on the router. We then punched it up like a regular live video source on our switcher. We ran some tests in advance and they all worked great — very smooth with only a slight delay, probably a little shorter than a SNG (satellite truck) shot.”
Richards added, “The only thing we have that the ‘average Joe’ might not have is the camera. Janie used one of our backpack journalism cameras and a $2,000 Sony HD camera with the firewire out. The future? It sure does open things up.”
The key to a smooth shot seems to be having solid high-speed connection. The slower the connection, the worse the signal becomes. It also helps a lot if you have a fast laptop. I am a big fan of this tutorial to help you optimize your Skype connections. The tutorial is mostly aimed at audio, but the steps it walks you through to check your settings and your connection are the same that you would use for great video connections.
I asked Porter, who will be using Skype throughout the week to cover the championship game, how it all works in the field. She had just finished shooting, writing, editing and filing a story when she answered my questions by e-mail:
Al Tompkins: So give us an idea of what your anchor job entails now that it didn’t entail, say, a year ago.
Porter: Three years ago, I anchored the morning newscast at the CBS affiliate in Medford, Ore. I’d come in at midnight (I produced the show as well), and I would scan the wires, CBS feeds and CNN to determine what would go in the show. I was consuming news, not going out to find it.
Now, I anchor the Saturday morning newscast at WTSP, the CBS affiliate in Tampa, Fla. After the show, I change out of my heels, grab my camera and tripod and walk out the door. And lately, after I shoot, log, write and edit a story, I will also set up my own live shot via Skype. Talk about going out and getting the news!
What new skills have you had to learn to accomplish these new duties?
Porter: Time management and creativity in getting what I need. I may not have a photojournalist with me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find someone to watch my gear, get me a glass of water, find me an interview or call a source.
Just the other day, in a hotel lobby in Ft. Lauderdale, I had finished my Skype live shot and needed to shoot my package, but I was bogged down with extra Skype gear. Instead of spending an extra 30 minutes lugging it to my room, I asked the bell desk to watch it so I could quickly shoot my story.
Be resourceful. And use those sometimes annoying, curious bystanders to your advantage. Instead of shooing them away, enlist their help in recruiting interviews, getting directions, etc.
What is the best part about working “alone” on stories?
Porter: Total control. There isn’t any discussion or arguing over what shot to use. I never feel like the timing is off or that the edit looks bad (I may be wrong, of course). Also, when shooting as a backpack journalist, I find that I use a lot less tape because I know the shots I need.
And because it’s just my vision of the story, and not a compromise between two people (i.e. photojournalist and reporter), I often feel my backpack journalism packages bring the viewer more quickly to the essence of the story.
What is the worst part about working “alone” on stories?
Porter: Pressure! When the shooting, logging, writing, editing, Web story and live shot are all dependent on one person, that brings on the pressure. On the flip side, when things turn out well, it is rewarding because I know that I did it all by myself.
What kind of stories work best for backpack journalism coverage? What kind of stories do you think require traditional crews?
Porter: Stories that can be shot quickly (i.e. one-stop shops) are best for backpack journalists. It’s true that one person can do the work of four, but no matter how you dice it, it’s going to take one person longer. That’s why time management is so important. As a backpack journalist, you will always have less time for each job (shooting, editing, writing), so you have to be smarter about how you use your time.
In my opinion, stories that demand a confrontation (i.e. consumer problem solving) require traditional news crews.
If you could spend some time learning one or two new skills to prepare for the new demands on journalists, what would those skills be?
Porter: I think the most important thing isn’t learning new skills but learning new technologies. Since I’ve been a backpack journalist, I’ve probably gone through seven changes to my workflow (i.e. new machines, new cameras, etc.). I do not consider myself a “tech person” at all, so keeping on top of the changes is a big challenge for me.