Monday, July 25, 2011

5 Questions with G. Stuart Smith, Interview by Amanda Daus

Q: What inspired you for putting this book (Going Solo: Doing Videojournalism in the 21st Century) together?

As a journalist, I always try to spot trends that no one has reported on yet. I saw a trend toward solo videojournalists (VJs) developing in my own field and realized that could be something that, because of my own extensive experience as a VJ, I could develop not just as an article, but as a book to help students who need to learn video skills in college journalism classes or professionals who need to improve their skills to stay competitive in the profession.

Q: Why do you think videojournalism should be something taught or encouraged in journalism schools?

There are multiple answers to that question. First, seeing is believing. The strength of videojournalism is that it can show the reality of an event or situation using the senses of sight and sound, which often have more credibility than words alone. Certainly having a camera present may change how people react at an event, plus how a video story is written and edited is subject to the creator's biases. Yet responsible videojournalism often can show the reality of a situation better than mere text.

The corollary is that video and sound also can show emotions and feelings of subjects more forcefully than even well-written prose. If a picture is worth a thousand words, video and sound are worth ten thousand. Seeing a raging forest fire, the joy in a child's laugh, or the sobbing of someone who has just lost their home can be powerful journalistic storytelling tools if used in good taste. It may only take a few seconds to convey the emotions of those in a video story and transmit the experience of an entire event, whereas a text story may require more paragraphs to do the same thing.

Finally, in 21st century media, everyone is putting information on the Web. Most people have bandwidth that will allow video to download quickly. As a result, traditional print journalism outlets are putting more resources into telling video stories. A student coming out of college today without learning the theory and basics of video storytelling will be left behind those who do have those skills.

Q: Do you still think there is a time and place for having a reporter and a videographer?

Yes. As Going Solo points out, there are both strengths and drawbacks to having one person being the reporter, photographer, writer and editor for a video story. The most compelling reason to have separate reporter and videographer is safety. There are some situations where having two people is just inherently safer; a reporter can watch a videographer's blind side and videographer can back up the reporter when confronting a person for a potentially confrontational interview.

Many TV stations that use solo videojournalists also prefer to put two-person crews on the big story of the day or on breaking news assignments. One drawback to working alone is that a VJ cannot be in two places at once. A reporter and photographer can split up as the reporter goes to get some information while the videographer remains in the spot where the most newsworthy video is likely to take place. So, for competitive reasons, in those situations, two-person crews are the norm.

A VJ has to work more efficiently than two people (Going Solo has tips on how to do that), but most situations don't require a two-person crew. VJs can easily do routine news conferences and feature stories. VJs also can establish more rapport with subjects to make their stories more intimate and compelling. Plus in breaking news situations, they may well be the first on the scene, getting the best video and information even before a two-person crew can arrive at the story. VJs may also be useful in doing a sidebar to the big story of the day. So, don't automatically cut VJs out of the mix in breaking news situations.

Q: With the journalism and media industries in limbo and the economy the way it is, do you think that basic videojournalism skills are something that any aspiring journalist should have whether they end up in broadcast or print?

All the answers to question #2 apply here as well. But now with economic considerations in the mix, the argument for Going Solo is even more compelling. Obviously a business would rather pay one person instead of two if they can get the same product. Many TV stations and newspapers do get the same amount of work and product out of a single VJ instead of sending out two-person crews. As noted in question #3, there are situations where two people are a better choice for editors to send to do a video story, but most situations, a VJ can do the story better and at less expense. In newspapers, VJs are already the standard for video assignments; many newspapers also equip their reporters with small "point and shoot" cameras to take video and capture sound bites while on a story. With the economic downturn, many TV news have seen the changes coming and have volunteered to become VJs so that they will be more likely to keep their jobs. As this trend continues, and as video cameras become smaller and easier to operate, every journalist will carry a video camera to a story, be able to shoot it properly and know how to use video for its optimum storytelling if they want to have a job.

Q: How can videojournalism help established journalists in the traditional newsroom?

Instead of just text online or copy stories on the air, videojournalism is another dimension for newsroom managers to offer their audiences. Working solo instead of in pairs gives editors in TV and newspapers the opportunity to put more reporters with cameras on the street. That increases the chances of finding more compelling stories and provides editors more options for picking and choosing stories that will attract audiences on the air or on the Web. Plus, as some TV reporters have complained, instead of waiting and waiting to be assigned a videographer to shoot their story, they could pick up a camera to go shoot it themselves on their own schedule.

As noted in Going Solo, working alone has another major advantage: a VJ with a small camera usually can establish more rapport with the subject of a story than a two-person crew with a larger camera, tripod and lighting set up. So, the results can often mean a more intimate interview with more compelling video to tell a story.

About the Author: G. Stuart Smith is Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations at Hofstra University. He has produced two documentaries, working mostly as a solo videojournalist, and has won over two dozen awards for his work as a videojournalist and documentary filmmaker. He resides in Freeport, New York.