Tuesday, July 28, 2009


By Leslie Simmons
AFTRA National Manager of Communications
Summer 2009 AFTRA Magazine

Five months ago, AFTRA member Bruce Leshan, an on-air reporter for WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., made a transition he considers inevitable, but not one he could foresee when he started in the business 25 years ago.

Leshan became a Multimedia Journalist (MMJ) for his local CBS affiliate. Also known as “one man bands,” “backpack journalists” and “video journalists,” Leshan is a cameraman, reporter, editor, producer and Web editor all wrapped up into one.

It wasn’t the easiest move for him, but one the 25-year veteran believes he had to make in order to continue doing what he loves: reporting.

“I think the change is coming and you can either embrace it or get run over,” Leshan tells “AFTRA Magazine.” “My advice is to figure out how to do it, embrace it, volunteer and just try to do it as well as you can. If you want to create a future for yourself in the new world of TV news, you’re going to have to make yourself valuable in many different ways, on many different platforms.”

Leshan’s employer, WUSA, was among the first to include coverage of MMJs in their local broadcast contract with AFTRA. The contract is just one example of how AFTRA is working both to protect reporters in the ever-evolving newsroom and ensure their continued success as the industry changes. Due in large part to the continuing emergence of new media and company orders to cut costs, multi-functioning journalists are increasingly in demand, with more and more broadcast stations lining up to follow suit.

These changes are dramatic and present AFTRA members with many questions. Union members are actively working to monitor and examine the issue as it develops and plays out in local markets across the country. They’re looking at how widespread the issue is, how broadcasters feel about the changing newsroom, how to correctly approach it and what members need and want from AFTRA.

As the newsroom continues to change, it’s critical that members have a voice through AFTRA to participate in and guide those changes and to do so through a national, coordinated strategy across all AFTRA

Currently, there are 10 stations throughout the country, including WUSA, where camera work is a regularly expected duty in an AFTRA Local contract and another eight stations where camera work is assigned in limited circumstances.

AFTRA is currently negotiating another 16 contracts where the employers are demanding extensive camera duties and Fox has indicated that it will demand camera duties at all its owned stations as their contract negotiations come up.

Recently, AFTRA members approved three contracts that include MMJ language. At WKYC-TV in Cleveland, AFTRA negotiated for 29 members, including 10 anchors, 10 reporters, five producers and four news assistants.

At KSDK-TV in St. Louis, AFTRA represented 29 members, including 15 anchors, 11 reporters, two promo announcers and one host. At WRC-TV in Washington/Baltimore, a total of 57 members were represented, including 32 on-air, 15 writers and 10 other positions.

One-man bands are nothing new. They’ve been around as long as television. What has changed is the technology that has made it much easier to shoot, report and upload a news package by one person.

In January of this year, the AFTRA Broadcast Steering Committee, a national committee of working broadcast journalists chaired by Joe Krebs, former AFTRA Washington/Baltimore Local President and co-anchor of NBC4 in D.C., established a national bargaining strategy to ensure that “something of substance” must be gained by a news unit in exchange for agreeing to MMJ proposals.

In order to gain “something of substance,” AFTRA members in a local unit are called upon to flesh out a definition of what that is and formulate a process for consultation on the “something of substance” standard as contracts are being negotiated. That standard must also be supported by staff, other locals and the BSC who are ready to assist in providing leverage, if necessary, to help a unit achieve an acceptable exchange.

At WRC, for example, members exchanged MMJ duties—with limitations—in return for explicit primary union jurisdiction over the Internet and secondary digital channels, including “content producers,” a new category of worker.

“The challenge with us is if we don’t have jurisdiction over these things, they can hire an entire staff for an entire channel and unless we have union jurisdiction, it will not be AFTRA,” Krebs tells “AFTRA Magazine.” “The biggest thing is to get union coverage in those channels.

“Another critical issue for AFTRA is for its members to decide what they want to do and how they want to confront this issue,” Krebs adds. “The sense I’ve gotten so far from the Broadcast Steering Committee in general is a slight preference toward embracing this new technology, because that’s where the jobs are going to be in the future.

“The cameras Channel 4 is going to assign us weigh a pound. The tri-pod and light taken together maybe weigh six or seven pounds,” Krebs says. “With the equipment so small, one person can get into places that a camera crew and reporter sometimes couldn’t and they don’t draw as much attention.”

But this form of working may not be appropriate in all circumstances. And while some reporters have been open to embracing this change, others vehemently believe this is not a positive development for the future of broadcast journalism.

Further, there are key issues to consider: safety, quality of reporting and appropriate training. “The only thing we can do is make sure our members are protected as best as best they can be.”

For Scott Broom, a 26-year veteran of broadcast journalism and a fellow WUSA reporter of Leshan’s, becoming a MMJ was the difference between having a full-time job with AFTRA pension and health benefits and continuing as a freelance journalist, with the risk of not getting steady work.

Broom was hired on as a “digital correspondent” just as WUSA agreed to cover MMJs in the AFTRA contract. On its Web site, the station calls him “a new kind of journalist tasked with accelerating our industry’s shift from traditional television news broadcasting to high-volume Webbased, video and text communications.”

Broom blogs about his experiences and why union members should embrace the change, rather than fight it.

“I found in my experience, the totality of my career prepared me to carry a camera and transition,” Broom tells “AFTRA Magazine.” At the end of the day, it was a matter of learning how to push buttons and not learning how to create pictures. I’ve found that actually using the camera turned out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be.”

Leshan agrees. Both journalists say there is a bit of freedom that comes with doing it all. But they, like Browde, see there are some sacrifices made, including sometimes the quality of a story.

“There are stories that require a tremendous amount of journalist work,” Leshan says. “If you’re driving and shooting and editing, you just don’t have the time in the day to do the old journalist stuff.”

“This is the most important part of the debate,” Broom adds. “There is no doubt that there are certain types of stories that I am less capable of getting, in terms of developing information and contacts, than I might get if I had a partner with me.”

Browde says the issue with MMJs goes back to the decades-old discussion: What’s the story? The picture or the facts? “The answer is both,” Browde says. “For those news organizations who believe the picture is the story, all of this sort of works. But when you need facts, it gets a little more complicated

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