ABC News sees a digital future

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Dan Harris, an anchor and correspondent for ABC News, has a firsthand grasp of how digital journalism could transform the future of network news.

Working without a camera operator or sound technician, he and his producer, Almin Karamehmedovic, have used hand-held digital cameras to track American sex predators in Cambodia, sneak up on silverback gorillas in the Central African Republic and document child exorcisms in Congo.

“There’s never been once when I missed the bigger crew,” said Harris, who lugs equipment and mikes-up interview subjects himself, much as he did when he started as a local reporter in Bangor, Maine. “The level of intimacy you can achieve so far surpasses what you can get with a big team, it’s beyond compare.”

But even digital journalism acolytes such as Harris caution that the pared-down approach has its limitations.

When he was covering the recent earthquake in Haiti, “I couldn’t do some basic journalism because I needed to worry about tech stuff,” he said.

“There are enormous benefits, but there are also real concerns that we have to do this wisely.”

That’s the balance ABC News is wrestling with as it cuts 25% of its 1,400-person staff and halves its ranks of bureau correspondents, replacing them with two dozen digital journalists.

Network executives say smaller cameras and laptop editing software offer them a lifeline as they struggle to contain costs. Instead of relying on different people to produce, report, shoot and edit stories, one or two people with the right equipment can handle those tasks.

In dramatically overhauling its newsroom structure, ABC offers a stark illustration of how the economic squeeze is remaking traditional media organizations and what viewers see on the news. Stories shot with hand-held digital cameras often have a personal, rough-hewn quality familiar to a generation raised on amateur Web videos, and can lack the polished production values that mark network news.

Some veteran broadcasters are skeptical that digital journalists, burdened by so many duties, can effectively cover a story.

While it may save money, “what it is going to do in the process is simply cut down on an individual’s ability to tell the story properly and well,” said Ronald Steinman, executive editor of the Digital Journalist, a magazine about visual journalism, who spent four decades producing news for NBC and ABC.

That sentiment is shared by many ABC staffers, who declined to be quoted by name for fear of losing their jobs. They fret that the expectations being put on digital journalists are unrealistic.

ABC News President David Westin said the network will still cover the majority of stories with a producer, correspondent, camera operator and sound engineer that make up the traditional four-person crew, particularly newsmaker interviews with politicians and celebrities. But he argued that digital journalism actually gives reporters more control over their stories.

“This is a way to maintain or enhance our editorial footprint and get to the stories that are really important, and in some cases, do it in a more compelling way,” he said. “In my heart of hearts, this is really about the journalism, not the money.”

Digital journalism is common at local news stations, which expect their limited staffs to multitask. But in recent years, it has also been embraced at the network level.

“A good three years ago, we were like, ‘This is the future,’ ” said Alexandra Wallace, senior vice president of NBC News, who estimates that 20% of the network’s on-air stories are digitally produced. “There are huge upsides that have nothing to do with cost.”

ABC plans to deploy its digital journalists in two-person teams, but some correspondents function as “one-man bands,” such as CBS’ Mandy Clark, who just spent two weeks embedded with the Marines in Afghanistan producing her own pieces. CNN has four such reporters working around the country, and Fox News uses solitary reporter-producers in remote places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Kevin Sites, a former network producer who was one of the first “backpack journalists,” said he got the idea while covering the war in Kosovo for NBC. “I remember having to move almost a semi full of equipment into a war zone,” said Sites, currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. “We were so top heavy.”

Sites later spent a year as a solo journalist producing video reports about conflicts around the world for Yahoo!, an approach he said produces more authentic reporting. To make it work, however, ABC needs to be wary about hiring technically savvy but editorially green reporters, he noted.

“They know how to capture things with a camera because they’ve been doing it since they were 12 years old for YouTube, but will they be able to do something ethically and editorially sound?” Sites asked.

ABC executives said they plan to draw digital journalists from across the company’s ranks and offer extensive training before they are deployed.

Still, veteran television executive Philip Balboni, who runs GlobalPost, a website that provides digital coverage of world news, cautioned that it’s not easy to find people who are equally proficient in writing, reporting, shooting and editing. Balboni said that perhaps 10% of his 70-plus correspondents can claim that.

“High-quality television does take a lot of craft and skill that is not easily learned,” said Balboni, the founder of New England Cable News.

ABC anchor Bill Weir, who often shoots his own material on assignment, agreed that his footage is not as good as that of a professional camera operator. But in some cases, the “cinéma vérité quality” enhances the storytelling, he said. While embedded with U.S troops in Afghanistan in January, he filmed a firefight during a dawn patrol, footage he then edited in the field before transmitting to New York.

“Moments like that prove it can be done,” Weir said. Hopefully, he added, “we can come out on the other side of this and keep doing our work in a more efficient, nimble way. Because if we don’t change now, maybe the entire place goes.”