The Solo Video Journalist
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The Solo Video Journalist

Doing It All and Doing It Well in TV Multimedia Journalism

Matt Pearl

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eBook - ePub

The Solo Video Journalist

Doing It All and Doing It Well in TV Multimedia Journalism

Matt Pearl

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About This Book

The Solo Video Journalist, now in its second edition, offers a comprehensive overview of the solo video reporting process from start to finish.

Drawing from years of professional experience in the field, the author covers all aspects of multimedia journalism, from planning for a segment, to dressing appropriately for multiple roles, to conducting interviews, and editing. The book contains interviews with more than a dozen top storytellers from around the United States and offers practical advice for how to succeed in a growing media field. New to this edition are Career Chronicles – chapters that detail the career paths possible for modern journalists –and a fully updated chapter on the importance of building a digital and social media presence.

This book is an excellent resource for students learning skills in broadcast, multimedia, backpack, and television journalism, as well as for early-career professionals looking for a back-pocket resource in solo video journalism.

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Figure 1.1
Credit: Matt Pearl
I begin the first chapter of this book about journalism with an example from a similarly hallowed field:
(Don’t worry if you don’t know much about golf. Neither do I.)
I spent countless hours during my mid-20s trying to master the sport, usually spending my midweek off days on the fairways of Buffalo’s finest courses. (In Buffalo, “golf season” meant “mid-May to mid-September,” which may explain why I never shot less than 20 over par.) I did not learn much, but I did pick up a piece of advice that applies perfectly to solo video journalism: “In chaotic environments, try to eliminate as many variables as possible.”
In golf, the chaos exists because of the perfection required to succeed. Each swing features numerous elements beyond one’s control – and thus numerous opportunities to make mistakes. Think of the many variables:
  • The sun, or lack thereof
  • Wind, rain, or any other type of weather
  • One’s view, which is never the same except at the start of a hole
  • The placement of the pin on the green.
The swing itself creates even more anarchy, because once a golfer pulls back the club, he or she begins a continuous movement that will not stop until that club strikes the ball. If something feels a bit off – the speed of the backswing, the turn of the body, the height of the club at its apex – the golfer cannot stop mid-shot; he or she must adjust on the fly. This further unfolds the chaos and underscores what makes golf such an elusive game.
A wise golfer responds by establishing a pre-shot routine that seldom changes. When I played, I went through a mental checklist every time I approached the ball, inspecting everything from the width of my feet to the angle of my arms to the tightness of my grip. My mindset? Control all I could before the shot, realizing how little I could control once it began.
I never became a great golfer, but I have used that philosophy to become a much stronger solo video journalist.
Anyone can benefit from the critical skill of preparation, but MMJs require it. A solo video journalist, in a basic sense, consists of a single person filling two traditional jobs. This removes many of the luxuries reporters take for granted, such as:
  • Looking up phone numbers and e-mail addresses while the photographer drives
  • Posting on social media while the photographer shoots extra footage
  • Taking photos with the phone while the photographer uses a camera.
It also adds a seemingly dizzying number of responsibilities – tasks that, in theory, deal more with housekeeping than reporting.
Consider the simple number of objects an MMJ must monitor. Start with the camera and everything that goes with it: batteries, lights, memory cards, lens cleaner, microphones, attachments, and, of course, the tripod. Then add all the traditional accessories of a reporter: a laptop (with all of its cords and chargers), notepads, make-up, and additional clothing, such as a suit jacket or winter coat.
Oh, and MMJs in many newsrooms are assigned their own vehicles. Try keeping track, amidst your regular workload, of oil checks and emissions inspections.
This is why it’s so important to eliminate variables, and why I am using the opening chapter of this book to preach the dogma of time management. Journalism is chaotic enough, solo video journalism even more so. Make it slightly more manageable, and you stand a much better chance of telling the stories you and your viewers desire.
I learned how by watching one of my most impressive colleagues.
Figure 1.2 Jon Shirek.
Credit: Matt Pearl
The first time I spoke with Jon Shirek, I had no idea I would, eight months later, become his coworker.
In 2008 I was nearing the end of my third year at WGRZ-TV in Buffalo; Jon was nearing his 30th year at WXIA-TV in Atlanta. Our stations shared a mutual owner, Gannett, which also held more than 90 daily newspapers. With a presidential election looming in November, Gannett’s leaders wanted to bolster its coverage of the preceding political conventions, so they selected two TV multimedia journalists – one for each convention – to work exclusively for the newspapers, providing video stories and sound bites for the publications’ web sites.
That’s how Shirek (Figure 1.2) wound up traveling to the Republican National Convention to cover the nomination of Senator John McCain – and how I found myself on a plane to Denver for the Democratic National Convention and the nomination of the eventual president, Barack Obama.
It stands, to this day, among the most memorable assignments of my career … and the most grueling. I worked more than 60 hours in four days, producing maybe a dozen stories and hauling at least 40 pounds of gear every day from my rental car to the workspace. By the time it ended, I was so exhausted I overslept the final morning and almost missed my flight home.
The DNC wrapped three days before the RNC began, and Shirek reached out to pick my brain about how everything had gone. He asked about the smoothness of the operation, the expectations from Gannett, and the workflow during such a crowded environment. He touched on everything I would expect from a seasoned, esteemed reporter. I left the conversation thinking, “This guy knows his stuff.”
Turns out he had only worked as an MMJ for one month.
“I don’t know why or how or what was behind all that,” Shirek told me. “But for whatever reason, they wanted a one-man band to go and help out, so I said, ‘I’m game. I’ll go.’”
Shirek was hired as a reporter in Atlanta in 1980, working with photographers “who knew how to make every frame a Rembrandt,” he says. That remained the case for nearly three decades, until the trend of backpack journalism made its way to the eighth largest market in the country. WXIA had already hired two MMJs, and its managers began asking several long-time reporters to make the transition. Shirek accepted the move but feared its impact on his performance. “I didn’t have enough confidence in myself to be able to master it,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I could do the good work I wanted to do.”
How did he cope? The same way he approached the RNC: by preparing himself.
“It was just a matter of doing it and figuring out how to set up the workflow, so to speak – to try to make it as easy as possible and not let yourself get in the way of what you were trying to do.”
To watch Shirek today is to witness a composed professional amidst the newsroom commotion. He wields his solo status in ways that suit his skills, and he operates with a routine and workspace that give him room to focus on his daily stories.
He also knows the best way to win the day is to start your routine long before you receive your assignment.

Before You Start Your Workday

Here is the piece of advice that underlies virtually every element of time management:
Know yourself.
Know how much time you need to complete certain tasks. Know the ins and outs of your workflow, and know the equipment you require for each step. Know which tasks you will definitely remember when you are scrambling out the door, and know which ones you might potentially forget.
Then, develop a pre-workday routine that accounts for all of it.
A solo video journalist is, in essence, following two routines: a reporter’s and a photographer’s. Both are crucial – and likely being followed by your colleagues in more traditional positions.
On the reporting side, stay on top of the day’s news and walk in the door with story ideas. This is sometimes tough for young journalists, especially those new to a market. The more quickly one can meet people and develop sources, and the more frequently one can check both traditional and social media for potential stories, the more prepared one will be for an assignment.
Figure 1.3 Shirek’s famed reporter notebooks contain hundreds of ideas.
Credit: Matt Pearl
Few do this as well as Shirek. Admittedly, he starts with the advantage of experience, as both a journalist (nearly 50 years) and Atlantan (40 years). But every time I watch him at a pitch meeting, I marvel at the number of compelling, well-researched stories he submits. General assignment reporters usually receive assignments based on the news of the day or, sometimes, other people’s pitches; they must then spend valuable time catching up on a story before they can work to advance it. Shirek, more times than not, gets to work on stories he developed himself, which gives him a valuable head start (Figure 1.3).
He does it with a strict routine.
“You look at all the newspapers around the area,” Shirek says.
“You scan (your Twitter feed) to see what everybody’s up to. You think of good follow-ups to stories you did that can be advanced. By the time you get to the meeting, you can’t wait for your turn to come up.”
On the photography side, develop a system for your gear. Any journalist who has regularly operated a camera has, at some point, left for a shoot without a seemingly basic piece of equipment.
Forget to charge your batteries? You can’t shoot your story.
Forget your memory card? You can’t shoot your story.
Forget your camera? You get the idea.
I learned this the hard way at my first job. I had secured an interview with an official at the University of South Dakota, a 30-minute drive from my station in Sioux City, Iowa. Somewhere around minute 25 of that drive, I realized I had left the newsroom without a tape on which to record.
I will never forget the five stages of shame that followed.
First: Denial mixed with desperate hope. “Did I really forget a tape? Am I sure I didn’t put one in the camera? I have to have another tape in this car somewhere, right?”
Second: Panic. “What am I going to do? Can I still get this story done? Do I actually have time to turn around, drive back to the station, pick up a tape (and hope no one notices my slunk-shouldered entrance and exit), and make this same trip all over again?”
Third: Calm realization. If you ask yourself the questions of Stage 2 and answer “No,” then you head home, knowing you have made a massive and easily avoidable mistake. If you answer “Yes,” as I did on this occasion, you breathe deeply and, for a moment, take comfort that you have not wasted your entire day … just a large chunk of it.
Fourth: The embarrassing walk-through. You follow all the steps from your earlier checklist of questions, all while notifying the bare minimum of people who need to be aware of your error. In this case, I informed the university official I would need to postpone our interview by an hour. I did not even try to invent a semi-believable excuse. I laid my humiliated head at his feet, and he thankfully gave me a pardon. Then I drove back to the station, got my new tape, and headed up to South Dakota a second time.
Fifth: Resolution. Perhaps you have heard the expression, “Making mistakes is OK; just don’t make them twice.” If so, you probably know what ...

Table of contents

Citation styles for The Solo Video Journalist
APA 6 Citation
Pearl, M. (2020). The Solo Video Journalist (2nd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Pearl, Matt. (2020) 2020. The Solo Video Journalist. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Pearl, M. (2020) The Solo Video Journalist. 2nd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Pearl, Matt. The Solo Video Journalist. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.