Reporters as Shooters—the Newest New Journalism Arrives at the Washington Post
Journalists now must wear several hats at once.
Shortly after Steve Coll became managing editor of the Washington Post in 1998, he wrote a memo about the coming marriage of print and Internet journalism. He said that future reporters would be outfitted with video cameras, which could be attached to their hats, almost like the little press cards stuck in fedoras back in the old days.
In the newsroom, reporters laughed and called the futuristic reporting device “hatcam.”
No one’s laughing now: The Post is shipping digital video cameras to its bureaus. Post reporters are expected to report in multimedia.
“About a quarter of the foreign bureaus have digital video cameras,” says foreign editor Keith Richburg. “Our goal would be to get them out to them all.”
Video from Iraq or Africa or Mexico shot by writers is starting to show up on the Post’s Web site, Washingtonpost.com. Most Post Metro bureaus have at least one digital video camera, and reporters are encouraged to interview, report, write, and shoot.
“We’ve always had the concept that reporters having video cameras out in the field would be useful,” says James Brady, executive editor of Washingtonpost.com. “We would buy the cameras and give them to reporters to shoot still pictures, record voice, or shoot video. It’s a triple-threat device. It adds a whole different dimension than you can get on the print side.”
Approximately 50 Post reporters are carrying cameras, according to Brady, putting the Post at the forefront of the move to multimedia reporting by print journalists.
For example, Maryland environmental reporter Elizabeth Williamson wrote a well-read story about a “wasting disease” afflicting rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay. For a follow-up story, she packed a pad and a video camera and boarded a charter boat on opening day of the rockfish trophy season.
“My story on the Web site was linked to the video,” she says.
Williamson, who’s been reporting since 1994 and came to the Post in 2003 from the Wall Street Journal, had never handled a video camera. “Not for weddings, not for babies,” she says.
The Post gave her a 45-minute tutorial, “and I was out there shooting video,” she says.
Back in the dark ages of journalism, like in the 1970s when I got into the business, reporters often would carry still cameras and return to the newsroom with notes and film. That is still the case in small and medium-size newspapers.
But there was a distinct division of labor at major dailies like the Post. Reporters wrote; photographers shot pictures. The rules were often understood rather than spelled out in labor contracts.
Foreign correspondents were the exception.
“Correspondents have always taken pictures,” says Richburg. “We’ve been outfitting correspondents with cameras for decades.” Richburg has sent photos and stories back from his four foreign assignments going back 28 years at the Post.
But asking foreign correspondents to shoot video is a big step beyond still cameras. One foreign correspondent sent an e-mail asking editors to clarify which is more important, filing stories or sending video.
“You have to figure out when to put the notebook down and pick the camera up,” says Jim Brady. “Everyone is trying to figure out when the moment is.”
For Nelson Hernandez, the moment came when the troops he was accompanying in Iraq were ambushed. He flicked on his video camera and captured images of the firefight that were quickly transmitted, refined, and streamed on Washingtonpost.com. “It was gripping use of having a camera,” Brady says.
Still, asking Metro reporters to start carrying digital cameras to take still photographs is a change in newsroom protocol. It is prompted in part by the depletion of veteran photographers as a result of the Post’s recent buyout. Prize winners like Lucien Perkins and Dayna Smith are no longer on staff, though some will keep shooting on contract.
It is also spurred on by technology and the Internet.
Post reporters passing the photo department see fewer photographers—and stacks of brand-new digital cameras.
“Reporters have a choice,” says photo chief Joe Elbert. “If they refuse to take pictures, that’s fine.”
Adds Brady: “If people are not interested, they don’t have to do it.”
Expectations aren’t high for the visual work of reporters. Says Richburg: “We don’t expect them to be Capra right out of the box.”
But he adds: “We are all helping feed the Web site.”
Just as Steve Coll predicted.