Tuesday, March 3, 2009

More Union Broadcast Engineering Jobs At Risk

TV news outlets seeking out youthful eyes and ears


NEW YORK (AP) — After talking to journalism students at Stony Brook University recently, John Houseman of New York's WPIX-TV left behind 18 new video cameras.

Houseman, assistant news director at WPIX, had enlisted students at the Long Island campus as contributors to his news operation with an investment of $119 per camera. He wants the budding journalists — as well as students at Fordham, Rutgers and New York universities — to send in material if they see something they believe to be a story.

While the program offers an opportunity for students, it has raised alarms among some professional journalists and technicians who wonder if it's the sort of thing that might one day threaten their jobs. Just like newspapers, local TV news operations are suffering mightily with the economy and disappearing advertising revenue.

Nothing that the WPIX students have shot has made the air or the station's Web site yet. Karen Scott, WPIX's news director, said she envisions them helping out in breaking news situations near where they live if the station's journalists can't quickly get there — because of a bad traffic accident, for example. She asked for contributions a couple of weeks ago when a severe wind storm swept through the area.

"It helps to have more eyes and ears around the area," she said.

The students won't be paid for their contributions.

Instead, they'll have the chance to see their work in a professional context on television or online. That's something their schoolwork can't approximate, said Marcy McGinnis, associate dean of Stony Brook's school of journalism.

"I don't feel like I'm being taken advantage of, by any means, because I'm getting something out of this," said McGinnis, a longtime CBS News executive.

By going to journalism students, WPIX theoretically adds a layer of protection against being duped. Many news organizations encourage contributions from "citizen journalists" with the proliferation of cheap cameras, and amateur video has been used to illustrate events like the U.S. Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River. The threat of doctored video is always there if you don't know the source.

Joseph Angotti, a former NBC News executive who's now a journalism instructor at Monmouth College, said he's aware of other programs across the country where student contributions are solicited.

"It's kind of the future," he said. "As a professor I think it's a grand idea because it's giving opportunities to students that they wouldn't have had before. But I'm not so sure if I were the executive producer of the nightly news that I'd want to be relying so much on students to do it for me."

These programs might also be worrisome for professional journalists in the context of what has happened overseas.

TV networks have sharply cut back on international staffing, relying on video news services to provide pictures and less on reporters on the ground. CBS News, for example, is left now with a nominal presence in Tel Aviv and Moscow. More often, international stories are read by anchors over video.

Could this be the future for local TV stations? As the economy has soured, the biggest trend there has been the shedding of expensive talent contracts, and actual newscasts may be next.

On a national level, ABC News last fall began a partnership with Arizona State, Syracuse, Florida, North Carolina and Texas universities to set up news bureaus where students can be trained and contribute content. They've already done a lot of work online, and student contributions were used for "Good Morning America" stories on innovative ways students are cheating and how the economy is affecting colleges.

This month ABC expanded it with a "roving reporter" initiative online, allowing college students anywhere to pitch and potentially do stories under the network's guidance.

Jim Joyce, sector vice president for NABET-CWA, which represents 10,000 broadcast technicians, camera operators, reporters and producers, said the union negotiated terms with ABC on its program and supports the attempt to interest young people in news.

But he's worried about the student journalism efforts at a local level eventually costing jobs. Viewers should be concerned about people "who are less than qualified journalists" gathering news and making editorial decisions, he said.

No staff cutbacks are planned at WPIX, Scott said. The student journalists are considered strictly supplemental, she said.

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