August 14, 2008

A Bureau of One for TV News CNN Expands in U.S. Using Overseas Model

By Brian Stelter

CNN plans to assign journalists to 10 cities across the United States, a move that will double the number of domestic cities where the cable news network has outposts.

But in a reflection of the way television networks are reinventing the way they gather news, the journalists will not work from expensive bureaus - rather, they will borrow office space from local news organizations and use laptops to file stories for the Internet and TV.

When news breaks, they will use Internet connections and cellphone cameras to report live.

"We are harnessing technology that enables us to be anywhere and be live from anywhere," said Nancy Lane, the senior vice president of news-gathering for CNN/U.S., a unit of Time Warner. "It completely changes how we can report."

CNN may be putting itself in the vanguard of this newfangled approach, but it is hardly alone. Last year ABC stationed seven "digital journalists" in far-flung cities, including New Delhi, Jakarta, Dubai and Nairobi to act as one-person bureaus.

Traditionally, the networks were able to maintain well-staffed bureaus in many major cities. The offices, camera crews, reporters and other resources they wielded were not only central to their news- gathering, but also symbolic of their journalistic dominance.

Today, as they confront new competition on the Web, television networks are embracing portable - and inexpensive - methods of production. Decades of budget cuts have forced the news divisions to reduce their global footprint, shuttering bureaus and abandoning the old norm of four-person crews.

NBC, ABC and CBS now pool most of their international resources in London and deploy reporters to other countries as needed.

But a new breed of reporter, sometimes called a "one-man band," has become the new norm. Though the style of reporting has existed for years, it is now being adopted more widely as these reporters act as their own producer, cameraman and editor, and sometimes even transmit live video.

Old-school journalists may bemoan the changes, but viewers do not necessarily suffer. Technological improvements have helped reduce the need for a large global staff, and after decades of cutbacks, digital technology may actually expand the reportorial reach of television news networks. "Technology is allowing us to pare down to that one person who can deliver the product," Lane said.

Her network currently has 10 bureaus across the United States.

People from four of those bureaus - San Francisco, Miami, Atlanta and Chicago - will be relocated to the new cities.

Other networks have also made the strategic decision to station one-person news crews in more locations, even if it means making cutbacks elsewhere. David Reiter, the executive editorial director for ABC News, calls this approach the "geographic conscience" of a television network.

And it is being applied broadly. In deciding to drop a single jack-of-all-trades journalist in 10 cities - including in Seattle, Las Vegas, Orlando, Florida, and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina - CNN is simply replicating what it and other networks have been doing more often in foreign cities.

When news happens - as it did last week when fighting broke out between Russia and Georgia - the networks can be caught flat- footed.

NBC News, for instance, no longer stations a full-time correspondent in Russia and instead relies on a producer in Moscow.

"Given how much more splintered the audience is and the different ways that you all are getting your news, it's hard to have the same infrastructure that we had 25 years ago," Jeffrey Zucker, the chief executive of NBC Universal, told students at Harvard University last February. "Going in and making the transition is what's tough."

Marcus Wilford, vice president for international digital at ABC News, recalled that when he was hired 20 years ago, the news division's Paris bureau had three camera crews, three producers, two correspondents, drivers and a chef in a house with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Today the ABC News presence in Paris consists of a lone staff producer.

"It was a palatial establishment, and it wasn't sustainable," Wilford said during an interview in October, when ABC deployed its "digital journalists." Those journalists file stories for the ABC News Web site as well as for the network's evening newscast.

"Even the word 'bureau' has changed over the years," Reiter said in an interview on Tuesday. "Not that long ago, one person couldn't go out and do the shooting, the reporting and the feeding of video into New York. There are easy ways to do so now. The technology and the demand have come together to make these one-person bureaus realistic."

ABC is considering assigning digital journalists to positions in the United States, he said. NBC has also trained some of its journalists to be one-man bands, even as it downsized some bureaus this year and created a system of hubs where offices in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta oversee all news coverage of North and South America.

"We're trying not to silo our future," said Lyne Pitts, a vice president at NBC News. "We're trying to create cross-functional journalists."

The transition has been taxing for some employees, but the networks are convinced that they must move aggressively to reallocate their resources.

Some news stories require full crews, and will continue to. The quality of a report produced by a four-person news crew is often superior to that of a one-man band. But for many assignments, especially ones on the Web, a single skilled journalist will suffice.

At CNN, the new "all-platform journalists," as the network calls them, will frequently file for and the network's other outlets.

Michael Rosenblum, a consultant who has helped television networks like the BBC adopt the one-man-band model, called it a "much more cost-effective way" to gather news.

At most networks, "they can't afford the bureaus, but they must have the news coverage," he said. "The easiest way to do it is to hand the journalist a camera, show them the 'on' and 'off' buttons, and tell them to go to work."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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