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Video Journalism: Past and Future

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Recent headlines about staff reductions at ABC News and CBS News are painful, especially for those who work in the profession, and discouraging for those who are currently studying to enter the field. While uncertainty abounds, video journalism is at the beginning of an exciting new era that will present great new opportunities.

The business of television news has been slowly evolving since its inception in the late 1940's. For its first forty years three broadcast news organizations provided Americans most of the news they needed to know. Journalistic icons including Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Frank Reynolds led these organizations.

Television news organizations guided and informed the American public through crises such as President John Kennedy's assassination, the Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate. The evening newscasts went from fifteen to thirty minutes and began attracting more advertising dollars. By the late seventies broadcast news had become big business and staff salaries were rising.

The broadcast news industry came to an important crossroads on June 1, 1980. Ted Turner launched CNN, the first 24-hour cable news channel. Cable was a totally new distribution platform that wasn't in many homes. At first broadcasters dismissed CNN and cable, but almost immediately its impact was felt. Over time CNN made video exchange deals with local television stations around the country that gave stations national and international video that they could air in advance of their own network's evening newscasts. Further, CNN spent less per story than the established networks, a fact that would be noticed by the new bottom-line focused network owners, General Electric, Capital Cities and Loews Corporation.

Meanwhile, cable and satellite television distribution was rapidly expanding into homes across the country. As a consequence, broadcast television began losing audience share. In the eighties advertisers still favored broadcasters because they offered mass viewership. Nonetheless, the new owners were concerned about the viewer shift. They were also concerned about their own huge infrastructure costs, especially in news, and the escalating costs of programming and distribution. All three networks laid off hundreds of news employees, travel costs were slashed, bureaus were consolidated or closed, and even newspaper subscriptions were canceled. In the end the network news divisions operated as usual but with fewer resources.

Then in 1991 CNN made a huge leap in viewer awareness when it exclusively carried live coverage of the U.S. bombing of Baghdad. This would cause a small shift in viewer habits. So would the launch of MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, in the mid-nineties, then the Internet explosion over the past fifteen years. The result would be an accelerated shift in viewership away from broadcast television. So much so that last year 22 million viewers watched the three network evening newscasts, down from 50 million in 1980. Meanwhile, cable news and the Internet played a dominant role in the 2008 election coverage.

Given the decline in viewership and profits, especially during the recession, it is impossible for broadcast news organizations to support existing infrastructures and salaries. Economic pressure makes consolidation more likely; The New York Times suggests CBS News and CNN or ABC News and Bloomberg might form a partnership. But similar talks have taken place many times over the past two decades always ending over issues of control, rights and how costs savings are achieved.

Wholesale cost reductions are not going to fix the underlying problem with network news. Costly legacy systems and inefficient operations are a drag on progress. But changing the culture and day-to-day operations of any organization is difficult. This is especially true in journalism, where the preservation of editorial integrity and the ability to get the story first are fundamental goals.

What is required today is an agile organization and workforce that can quickly embrace technological advancements and efficiencies. Creating a more entrepreneurial culture internally that implements new processes and better tools is key to success. For instance, the organization can use an "open" operating and production system that enables remote and/or distributed production, speedier internal communications and information sharing. The use of a "metadata" driven workflow can simplify searches, penetrate silo walls, improve operational efficiency and capture important context for each project. Serious consideration should be given to "cloud computing" systems.

The news audience is deeply fractured among many choices and platforms. The best way to succeed in a highly competitive marketplace, where news content is commoditized, is to stand out, to be distinctive. It requires consistently producing outstanding journalism, whether it is during a "live" event or for a news magazine. Just cutting costs each year is a death by a thousand cuts.

Fifty years ago the railroad companies struggled until they recognized they were in the "transportation" business rather than the train business. Network news organizations are in the "video journalism" business. Reporters should think of themselves as "video storytellers," not just television reporters. While they should embrace new production tools, they should master three essentials: original reporting, great writing and quality storytelling.

Today's news organization must aggressively expand revenue opportunities beyond the core business, and fully monetize its content on multiple distribution platforms, i.e., television, cable, the web and mobile. A long range and unified strategy should be adopted, even if it means crossing long standing territorial and political boundaries. Each of these organizations is populated with very talented and creative producers and modern facilities.

News organizations must fully embrace social networks, but apply appropriate editorial filters. Social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and U-Tube, provided meaningful and important coverage of the Chilean and Haitian earthquakes, as well as the Iranian protests. News organizations should encourage their existing news gathering personnel to expand their news sources and learn how to use new technologies and production tools.

Journalism students at New York University, as well as other universities around the country, are learning how to be self-sufficient video journalists. They do all the research, reporting, shooting, writing and editing for each of their own pieces. They are passionate, bright and motivated by their love of video journalism. Many of them are certain to be among those who drive the future evolution of video journalism.