Flagging station tries reinventing TV news with home-video tech

At KRON reporters, videographers and editors now do all three jobs at once

By Michael Stoll
Posted Dec. 13, 2005

Newsroom or Internet cafe? KRON's "video journalists" cluster around work tables digitally editing their own stories on deadline -- a sharp break from the past, when everyone had specialized jobs. (Photo by Tim French & Kelly Korzan.)

If you've been watching KRON Channel 4 lately you may have noticed that it looks a little less like standard local news fare and a little more like MTV's original reality show, "The Real World," neither amateur nor totally professional.

Sometimes you might see a smart story, but be distracted by a hand on the screen or a disembodied voice. Other times you notice great video, but thinner reporting.

You're not imagining things. This season the San Francisco station has embarked on a radical -- and some would say risky -- journalistic experiment. It is the first major-market TV newsroom in the country to supply nearly everyone with hand-held digital video cameras and laptop computers, allowing them to produce stories all by themselves.

KRON hopes that low-cost techniques perfected on reality shows will bring the once high-flying station back to both journalistic excellence and competitiveness in Nielsen ratings. But critics say forcing journalists to become "one-man bands" who report, shoot and edit at the same time will lead to shoddier journalism, and eventually leaner news staffs.

Union balks at mixing reporting, editing and photography

One KRON union sees the mixing of TV journalists' specialized tasks under the "video journalist" system as threatening.
In September, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists complained to the National Labor Relations Board, charging that Young Broadcasting was negotiating in bad faith by canceling reporters' contracts and then changing their job descriptions unilaterally.
A separate union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, representing the camera operators, has already signed a contract approving the VJ system, after a KRON offer to give its members hefty raises. Andy Baker, broadcast director of AFTRA San Francisco, said the company sees the changes as a chance to divide and weaken the unions. Television reporters in the San Francisco Bay Area typically make $110,000 or $120,000 a year, while photographers earn about one-third less, he said.
"You then end up with two unions bargaining for the same group of people, and it's a race to the bottom because the company will play each against the other," Mr. Baker said.
Chris Lee, KRON's news director, did not respond to a follow-up e-mail asking for a response to the union charge. A hearing in the case is scheduled for March.
KRON consultant Michael Rosenblum sees the union objections as unpersuasive. The adherence to the old rigid job descriptions is to him "part of the old Soviet mentality." Within 10 years, all TV will be done this way, he said. "The economics make it inevitable." -- MS

The collapse of three distinct jobs into one delights the station's tech-savvy consultants for the same reasons it alarms some union officials and veteran journalists. KRON reporters, who rarely used to touch a camera, now are shooting their own video every day. Many photographers are reporting for the first time, which is sometimes apparent in video that ignores obvious story angles.

Cameraman Charles Clifford described himself in a blog entry about his retraining as "a guy who hasn't done any real writing since college."

The reorganization has eliminated most editors. While a producer is supposed to review every story, outside observers worry about the loss of quality control.

"It sounds great, and I'm thrilled that it's happening in our backyard so we can watch it," said Robert Calo, associate professor at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and longtime network TV producer. "But we have to be on the lookout for some of the unintended questions about what's happening. You need an editor. Somebody else needs to say, 'You need this; what about that?' There's no substitute for that."

Technology made the reorganization possible. The equipment is finally small, cheap and good enough for broadcast: lightweight digital cameras, do-it-yourself editing software that's already being used in junior high schools, and the proliferation of Internet cafes where reporters can log in to send video to headquarters on deadline.

The immediate results may look a little rough, but the station's management promises that in the long run, it will be able to do better journalism with the same number of people. Before the change, KRON fielded no more than a dozen reporter-photographer news crews each day. By early next year, said consultant Michael Rosenblum, the station will deploy 50 independently operating "video journalists," also called "VJs."

"We're going to have three or four times the number of cameras on the street as any other TV station," said Chris Lee, the station's news director. "That's going to allow us to invest in stories that don't pan out -- but also to go for stories that could pay off big. We're going to have the flexibility to practice journalism in that way, and the other stations in the market won't. You'll see the difference."

So far, the difference is difficult to discern. Many of the VJ stories this fall seem to have been assigned only to test the new equipment -- light features that aren't done under time pressure. Of the clearly identifiable VJ stories, a few problems emerge, both in journalism and production quality:

The technical revolution is supposed to take KRON beyond its recent reliance on contextless mayhem. Thus far, there's little indication that shift has occurred.

On one Saturday evening in November, for example, the broadcast featured nothing but violence for the first eight minutes:

More enterprise reporting ahead

The VJ training process has been turbulent, but worth the trouble, Mr. Lee said. He said that like many other stations, KRON has not been producing stellar journalism in recent years, but the VJ system allows more self-initiated, in-depth enterprise reporting. Reporters used to be generalists, covering one or two events each workday, he explained. But now some will specialize on particular beats or topics, and have several days to develop the typical story.

Shopping vérité: From behind the camera, a KRON VJ hands a shopper a pair of pants at the grand opening of the H&M clothing store in downtown San Francisco.

Eventually he hopes to increase coverage of important societal, economic and political trends, and become less reliant on press releases, car crashes or "games" that all local TV stations employ these days to distract viewers from their owners' newsroom cost cutting.

"We've got this bag of tricks where we say, 'Hours ago, something behind me happened,'" Mr. Lee said. "It's a trick when none of us has any more reporters to cover stories. There's a body of techniques that everyone in local news uses, probably invented in 1980. Teases that say, 'The tap water is killing people in the area, and we'll tell you where later.' Viewers don't appreciate being treated like that."

Broadcaster's falling fortunes

KRON admittedly has little to lose in retooling its news operation. Six years ago, when the family that owned the San Francisco Chronicle also owned KRON, and the station enjoyed a profitable affiliation with NBC, it was among the Bay Area's most watched news stations.

Since then, KRON's premier 9 p.m. news broadcast has fallen to fourth place, compared with the market share of other stations' late evening newscasts.

Even Young's sharpest critics acknowledge the company has been in financial trouble ever since it concluded its purchase of the station in June 2000 for a reported $737 million, and lost its NBC network affiliation at the end of 2001 to KNTV. The share price of Young Broadcasting has plummeted to $2.51 this week from more than $45 when it first bid on KRON in 1999. Financial analysts at the time argued that Young took on far too much debt to acquire KRON; the deal was the highest purchase price for any television station in U.S. history.

High-tech gospel

The quotable evangelist for the VJ system, New York consultant Michael Rosenblum, says he is sparking a global transformation of the TV news business. In recent years he has spread the gospel of high-tech video news reporting to the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, Dutch public television, and stations in Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Japan and elsewhere.

Back to school: Cameraman Charles Clifford learns also to be his own reporter and editor. (Photo courtesy Charles Clifford.)

In the United States, many stations in smaller TV markets have for years combined the job of reporter and videographer using standard shoulder- or tripod-mounted Beta-format video cameras. The multitasking saves stations money, but the distraction of doing multiple jobs can compromise the technical and journalistic quality of the news. NY1, the all-news local cable channel in New York, started that way in 1992 with Rosenblum's help.

KRON's VJ system uses smaller cameras and digital editing software to streamline the process. The cameras retail for less than $5,000. A souped-up laptop costs under $2,000. The video-editing software goes for less than $200 on eBay. These replace analog tape editing booths that cost $50,000 each, and cameras costing upwards of $20,000.

The equipment makes it possible for one person to do the job of three. Reporters can even work from home.

Smarter technology

Every generation of new equipment challenges journalists to distinguish the technical tasks from the essential skill of storytelling, said Henry Breitrose, founder of the graduate program in documentary film and television at Stanford University.

"The technology increasingly has evolved to the extent that the intelligence necessary to operate the equipment is in the box, not in the operator," he said. "I think this has changed the notion of journalism. It's not something you do with typewriters. It's not even something you necessarily do with ink on paper.

"Now whether it's humanly possible to attend to reporting and images and editing on extremely tight time deadlines, that's another story."

Young Broadcasting, which owns KRON and 10 other stations around the country, hired Mr. Rosenblum this year to restructure both KRON and WKRN in Nashville, Tenn. He said his newly trained video journalists at both stations not only learn quickly, they enjoy their jobs more because they have "pride of authorship."

I realize what they're doing is different. I'm not a good mix in this environment.

-- KRON reporter Vic Lee, who is moving to KGO next year.

"The old days -- it's over," Mr. Rosenblum said during one his recent visits to KRON, where he and three other trainers taught classes in the new system for nine weeks this fall. As he roamed the KRON newsroom, he told of how he exploded the cubicle culture, replacing reporters' desks with wide-open tables where reporters could plug in their laptops and go to work.

'Brainwashing' the newsroom

At first, Mr. Rosenblum said, he wasn't allowed into the newsroom at all. But a few weeks into his stay his influence grew. A fast-talker dressed in a techno-bohemian uniform of thick black-framed glasses and a blazer over a black T-shirt, Mr. Rosenblum boasted that the VJ class, which takes six 12-hour days, is his form of "brainwashing." A few months into the conversion, even Mr. Lee found himself using a few of Mr. Rosenblum's mantras, such as "Local news sucks."

Mr. Rosenblum would not disclose his consulting fee, beyond saying, "Messiahs don't come cheap." He says he now spends most of his life on airplanes shuttling from one project to the next. While running his consulting business based on the VJ news model, he's used the same cinéma vérité methods to produce low-cost TV reality shows such as "5 Takes Europe" and documentaries such as "Trauma: Life in the ER."

"All of a sudden I find myself in enormous demand," he said. "All I'm doing here is introducing the most obvious thing in the world. Thankfully, there's a lot of resistance. That's how I get paid."

"It's like the Borg," he joked, referring to the futuristic race on Star Trek that views cybernetic enhancements as inevitable. "Resistance is futile. Get assimilated into the collective."

With that kind of talk, it's no wonder that the change to the VJ system has worried some old-timers. Several veteran news staffers said they saw Rosenblum's influence as one sign among many that the station has lost its bearings, and is grasping for gimmicks to boost revenues at the expense of public service. Others wonder publicly whether the station is sincere in its desire to improve, or merely wants to use technological efficiency as an excuse to slash staff.

Top talent leaving

Citing the ongoing effects of newsroom disinvestment and lowered standards, some of the station's most experienced journalists have left the station this year.

Far and away: A VJ report on an anti-death penalty rally at San Quentin Prison indicates that Snoop Dogg is onstage, but misses his face and most of his words.

With 33 years on the job, reporter Vic Lee (no relation to Chris Lee, the news director) is the station's ranking editorial employee. He is planning to leave KRON in January for KGO Channel 7, saying he no longer recognizes the culture of the newsroom where he spent most of his working life.

"I realize what they're doing is different," he said. "I'm not a good mix in this environment. I'm leaving because KGO is giving me a great offer. ... The changes here are dramatic."

When he joined KRON, it was one of the best stations in the country, he said. "Heavy on investigative reporting. One of the largest investigative teams. At one time we had three or four investigative producers. We did a lot of stories that really mattered and made a difference."

When KRON was king

Several longtime staff placed the journalistic heyday of the station during the leadership of Mike Ferring, the news director from 1981 to 1987.

"KRON at that time was a distant third, so we had to do something, and what we chose to do was put on good news." Mr. Ferring recalled. "We tripled the audience for it in that period of time. We increased staff as well. I think we peaked at about 175 people, including the Washington bureau, Sacramento bureau and the East Bay bureau.

"The business has changed a lot since then," said Mr. Ferring, who got out of TV news years ago and now makes his living selling wristband IDs to hospitals. "It went through a period of time, stretching through the mid-'80s until now, where the bean counters put a lot of pressure on stations to increase productivity and become more efficient. As a result, news departments increased the amount of time they were on the air, and decreased the amount of time spent reporting."

He remains skeptical that one-man bands can work as well as traditional TV newsgathering techniques: "One of the charms of having a reporter and a photographer working as a team is that you have two sets of eyes on a story. If you merge those two, it's a rare individual who has all the skills in abundance. Not to mention that you eliminate the teamwork, and your chances of coming back with something special, something high quality, is reduced."

'A tragedy'

Reporter Greg Lyon, who worked at KRON from 1977 until this year, recalls the Ferring era wistfully. In 1982 he and two other KRON journalists spent almost half a year with a group of Vietnam veterans in a psychiatric facility as they came to grips with symptoms that were being diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. The hour-long documentary, "The War Within," won a prestigious Columbia-DuPont award.

"There's just no way in hell that anyone there would be able to do anything close to that now," said Mr. Lyon, who is now working on a freelance documentary projects for the National Geographic Channel and the History Channel.

"Overall, it's a tragedy what happened to that station," he said. "They lost NBC after the first year. They haven't had much to sell. They did not seem to be prepared for the actual event when NBC left. What they did have lined up was universally crappy -- cheap dating games and infomercials. The infomercials pay the light bills, but they sure don't pay the staff."

The journalism suffered noticeably, he said. Managers assigned stories straight out of the morning newspaper. If it was already in print, it was a sure thing that a reporter wouldn't come back at the end of the day empty-handed.

Mr. Rosenblum, who apparently has spent hours responding to doubters on Internet discussion forums, wrote in a posting that his VJ system was designed explicitly to improve the journalism.

"All too often the stories we select are chosen because of convenience, not because they have any inherent news value," he wrote on a TV news photographers' site, B-roll.net. "Now, for the first time, we have an opportunity to change the equation. To make our news proactive. To define the news agenda instead of just responding."

Mr. Lyon said he hopes that's the case, but doesn't trust the company not to use the increased efficiency as an excuse to downsize.

"I expect that over the next year you won't see as many VJs as you do today, and that Young Broadcasting will whittle the number to the minimum needed to get the newscast on the air."

News Director Chris Lee said emphatically that's not KRON's plan. He says he's even looking to hire more staff who get the VJ thing. "I firmly believe," he said, "that we'll come out of this a far better station journalistically."