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From AJR,   April 1995  issue

Can One-Man Bands Hit High Notes?   

Some say viewers lose out when reporters shoot their own video.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     

The recent upsurge in the use of the so-called one-man bands – reporters who shoot their own video without assistance from camera crews – has kindled a debate over the quality of the work such reporters produce. It may be cheaper to field one-man bands, but do their stories sing?

"You don't get good storytelling with one-man bands, for the most part, but you get good B-level meat and potatoes that is very, very cost effective," says Mike Crew, news director at all-news KNWS in Houston. KNWS currently employs eight one-man-band reporters. "If the bulk of your coverage is like ours, essentially a headline service, where you're into VOs [voice-overs], into showing pictures of who, what, when and where, then the two-man band is a waste of money."

New York 1, the two-and-a-half-year-old all-news cable channel in New York City (see Free Press, November 1992), is the industry's foremost practitioner of the one-man band concept. It has received critical acclaim for its coverage of politics and such breaking stories as the World Trade Center bombing. "The feeling you get when you watch us is that we cover everything," says Steve Paulus, vice president of news. "If it moves in New York, we shoot it. I have 25 reporters on the street every day. If I had to have camera crews too, I'd have only 12 reporters. Anybody here can go out and do a story, get a sound bite and pick up some B-roll [video]. I've done it myself."

Carol Anne Riddell, a New York 1 reporter who was honored in 1993 as the cub reporter of the year by the New York City Press Club, says shooting her own video has given her more flexibility without hurting her reporting.

"It has enhanced my storytelling because it lets me get closer to and more intimate with my subject," she says. "I also know exactly what I need when I'm out there and it streamlines everything when I'm back. I love it."

Charles Cravetz, who oversees the five-state New England Cable News channel based in Boston, respects New York 1 but says the one-man-band concept is not for him.

"I think it's a wonderful product for what it does," says Cravetz, "but I think you compromise your reporting and you compromise your videography. We're trying to create a product at a different level. We tend to focus on more analytical and perspective pieces. I have to find people who are first-class writers and good journalists and then give them time to do research. I'm not convinced there are people out there who have all those skills."

Reporter Wayne Freedman of San Francisco's KGO agrees with Kravitz. "You're worried about doing two jobs instead of one," says Freedman, who worked as a one-man band 16 years ago in Louisville. "Four eyes are better than two and two brains are better than one. I've always thought this business should be a collaborative effort and it's kind of hard to collaborate with yourself. If you're going to shoot it, write it and cut it, you get tunnel vision."

Yet Freedman concedes the size of today's cameras and recorders makes it easier to be a one-man band than in the early 1980s. "When I was doing it, we were lugging around all this heavy equipment and you concentrated on the logistics, not the reporting," he says. "I covered a lot of stories for the 11 o'clock news where I barely had time to get the video on and sometimes didn't know what the details of the story were." He adds that he'd enjoy working with the new generation of light-weight cameras "because the gear wouldn't be so hard to maneuver, but I'd have an entirely different storytelling style."

Quality is one major question; the other is staffing. Labor unions don't like one-man bands because they allow stations to cut camera operators. Both KNWS in Houston and New York 1 are non-union shops, which enabled the stations to implement one-man bands with few internal problems.

Another issue is reporters' reluctance to pick up a camera. "The problem is sociological," says David Hazinski, a professor at the University of Georgia and former NBC correspondent. "We view anything that's technical, including shooting a camera, as somehow low caste. Then there's tradition and ego. You have this constant fight of what's most important – good sound and pictures or good writing and good reporting. The answer is all of the above."

Hazinski believes the one-man band trend will accelerate as younger people enter TV news and as the equipment continues to shrink in size. "The technology is there but older people are more resistant to change," Hazinski says. "So, train the kids. They can adapt."

Crew agrees. "I don't know if we ever derived full benefit from two- or three-man committees on stories," he says. "Cameras are soon going to be things you wear on your lapel and you'll be editing in your computer. The whole premium will be on people who can use the medium effectively." l