Photojournalist teams lessen as more MMJs are producing lone productions

David Baxley

Baxley Bites

A column by David Baxley, Assistant Professor of Mass Communication, Francis Marion University, SPJ South Carolina member

Tulsa photojournalist is a “Go-getter”

Ask veteran newspaper reporters what it takes to be a great journalist, and they’ll tell you exceptional writing skills. For broadcast journalists, writing is only one aspect of their work product; the use of compelling video is tantamount to one’s writing abilities.

For TV photographers, referred to as videographers at some television stations, their main job is to shoot captivating video for the audience. But, on any given day, photographers also rush to breaking news, set up live shots, edit, interview newsmakers and work with reporters to ensure news story cohesiveness. It’s a job that’s not for the faint of heart. 

Photographers are often thought of as that rare breed inside the television newsroom who work in all types of weather to get the job done. Yet rarely are photographers given the title “journalist.”

James Norris photo2

James Norris, right, worked as a former photojournalist from WAKA-TV in Montgomery, Alabama, but now covers many different stories throughout the news day in KTUL in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  WAKA-TV photo

James Norris, a photographer at Tulsa’s KTUL, works the morning shift. He heads into work well before dawn breaks and doesn’t leave until early afternoon. According to Nielsen Media Research, Tulsa, Oklahoma ranks in the country’s television markets, serving an estimated 531,000 homes. That number places Tulsa in a medium-sized Designated Market Area, or DMA.

“In a city the size of Tulsa there’s always something going on, and a lot of it is that hard news which builds that adrenaline,” Norris says.

KTUL logo“I’ve always had the mentality, and I guess it is because I grew up as an athlete and have that team mentality, so when I am sent to these breaking news stories I will come back with the better video and a better story because not doing that reflects on the station as a whole and not just me.”

It’s that determination that perhaps sets photographers apart from their newsroom counterparts. They are go-getters — ready to race out and stare danger in the face to bring viewers important information. At one moment, a photographer and the reporter could be doing a live shot from a school’s pep rally when all of a sudden breaking news happens and the news team has to regroup and move to another location. A photographer has seconds to respond to a new situation and a changing environment. 

“There are times where we are called off stories like this and are put on harder news stories. Last month, we were on one story, and then called off to a shooting which turned into a local high school teacher being shot in their home,” said Norris.

Norris always ready for breaking news

His shift starts at 4:30 a.m. and last through 1:30 p.m. It’s a shift many would quickly turn down. But, in television news, the shift allows broadcast stations to bring its morning viewers breaking news from overnight, explain how the story might impact them and gives the audience something to think about during their day.

James Norris photo5

Working with heavy gear is part of the job. KTUL photo

In an average day, Norris says he covers numerous stories, handles morning and midday news live shots, communicates with his newsroom, and is always ready for breaking news.

“My goal each time is to keep the viewer interested. And that is done with both the video itself and the sounds that one gets outside of interviews. This keeps the stories from being cut and paste variety, ” says Norris. Those stories can range anywhere from a homicide to a soldier’s homecoming. 

Working as a photographer comes with daily challenges. Besides Tulsa, Norris has worked at TV stations in Lawton, Oklahoma, and Montgomery, Alabama. At every station, change is a common theme.

“One of the biggest challenges faced for any newsroom position that works outside the station is finding the time to eat/take the required break while going from story to story. Not having time to ‘breathe’,” Norris says.

“One of the biggest challenges faced for any newsroom position that works outside the station is finding the time to eat/take the required break while going from story to story. Not having time to ‘breathe’,” Norris says. He said he admits shifts can be grueling and finding time to take a break is rare.

James Norris photo1

Most photojournalists are paired up with a reporter or MMJ. KTUL photo

In some markets, photographers may be becoming extinct. We have moved well beyond television newsrooms that once hired as many photographers as reporters. News executives figured out a decade ago that hiring newsroom personnel who can “do it all” is financially responsible.

Lone MMJ taking on role of photojournalist as well

The emergence of the multimedia journalist, or MMJ, now threatens photographers’ positions and livelihoods. MMJs are essentially one-man bands who can shoot video, report and go live all by themselves. But some argue the quality of news is suffering due to the onslaught of duties thrown at MMJs.  Simply stated:  There’s just not enough hours in the day for one MMJ to cover a story adequately. That’s why photographers are needed. Previously, photographers would handle much of the video used for a particular story. Now MMJs can “do it all.”

Multimedia cartoon“It is scary to think that after focusing on my ten-year career of being a photographer that the position of photographers is slowly going away,” said Norris.

MMJs do play an important role in TV newsrooms. Sometimes officials will only speak to reporters or MMJs to provide important information. “When you have a team on a scene I feel that getting both the video and the information back to the newsroom runs smoother,” says Norris.

A decrease in hiring photographers is happening because MMJs, especially in small and medium markets. Some question whether the move diminishes story quality, community journalism and diversity. While hiring one person to work as the multimedia journalist, some newsrooms are eliminating a crucial part of newsroom sustainability found in “photojournalists.”

The key for news managers is to balance a newsroom and the financial impacts of hiring MMJs as well as photographers. Covering more news should be the name of the game instead of cutting essential jobs. After all, cutting photographers means less coverage of stories in certain communities based on manpower. That, in turn, means less coverage of controversial issues in their respective communities.

James Norris photo3

James Norris, photojournalist for KTUL  

In the changing newsroom ecosystem and the shifting duties of news staff, Norris said he offers advice for college journalism students: “I would tell those in college preparing for a career in broadcast to learn multiple positions within a newsroom. Therefore, you’re bringing multiple talents to your television station.”

 

David Baxley

David Baxley

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years. Baxley is a regular contributor to the SPJ Region 3 website, SizingUpTheSouth.com.

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