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One-Man Bands

A change in TV news blends reporter and photographer — and saves money.

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Burkett is emblematic of a change in the way TV news is reported. He’s a one-man band, doing a job most often assigned to two people. Not only does he report for the station, he shoots and edits the video that accompanies his stories.

Burkett sets out this afternoon on a tip phoned into the newsroom: Cars and mailboxes have been vandalized in Chesterfield County. Burkett works his cell phone while he maneuvers the big van onto the highway south, calling Chesterfield police, asking his assignment desk for directions to Cochise Trail, where the vandalism supposedly happened.

He has two hours to go before his first self-imposed deadline. “I have to finish shooting and start writing by 4:30. I have to start editing tape by 5. I have to have the live shot set up by 5:30. I go live in the 6 o’clock show.”

By 3 p.m., Burkett has tracked down Chesterfield police Maj. Andy Scruggs at police headquarters. Scruggs has agreed to describe the vandalism on camera. Burkett assembles his equipment with practiced, efficient ease, and the taping is over in five minutes.

Back in the van at 3:15, on the way to Cochise Trail, Burkett talks about being named the sexiest broadcaster in Richmond by radio station Q-94 two years ago. “I won a trip to the Bahamas,” he says. “That was great.” But Burkett doesn’t look all that sexy today. The afternoon drizzle has matted his short, brown hair. His charcoal gray pants already have mud splattered on them. His white shirt is damp and water is beading on his bright yellow Channel 6 News rain slicker. But his blue eyes are intense as he searches for street signs.

Ten minutes later he’s cruising Cochise Trail, spotting knocked-over mailboxes, flat tires and broken windows. At his first stop, the owner of a damaged vehicle agrees to talk to him. Burkett outfits her with a microphone, slings his camcorder up on his shoulder and starts asking questions.

Mark Neerman, who was Burkett’s boss at Channel 6 before taking a job as news director for the Fox affiliate in Las Vegas two months ago, says Burkett is among a growing number of solo acts in TV journalism. He and other local news managers say it’s a question of economics.

“Without a doubt you will see more of this kind of reporting,” Neerman says. “As the technology becomes smaller and easier to manage, it simply makes sense to send some reporters out on their own.”

“The equipment really has become quite portable,” says Harvey Powers, who is considered the dean of Richmond TV journalism. Powers has worked in television news here for more than 30 years and is now assistant vice president for new media at WWBT TV-12. He predicts one-man bands will be more important in smaller cities, but not necessarily in markets of Richmond’s size. As television becomes ever more driven by what reporters and anchors look like, “it’s hard to find an on-camera person who looks great and has the skill to report and the skill to shoot,” he says.

But Neerman says it’s not just smaller news organizations that see the economic value of one-man-bands: “The BBC is helping to pioneer this concept at the [international] level. Reporters there are now able to head to stories on their own, leaving behind a crew of two or three people. They’re able to spend more time with interview sources and dig deeper one-on-one, without the potentially intimidating crew and technology.”

But can one person adequately do both jobs? And will the quality of TV reporting suffer as a consequence?

Burkett says it’s a matter of “rolling with the punches — but sometimes it’s difficult to juggle both.” He likes being a one-man band, handling reporting and videography. “I don’t think I could pick just one or the other.”

Back on Cochise Trail, it’s 3:45 and Burkett is looking for a high spot in the neighborhood to park his truck and send a microwave signal back to Channel 6’s studio. He finds a likely hill and raises the truck’s 40-foot mast, establishing contact on the first try. By 4:05 he’s watching the tape he just shot, logging sound bites and mapping out the story in his mind. At 4:16 he’s recording his narration at the editing desk in the back of the van. “Three, two, one ... Jennifer Johnson had to stay home today, but it’s not because she planned it that way. ...”

The rain beats down on the roof of the van as Burkett tinkers with the editing equipment at 4:22. “Something’s not working,” he mutters. He unplugs a power cord and tries another socket. “That was it,” he says. “The oldest trick in the book.” Sometimes he’s an engineer, too.

By 4:48, the vandalism piece is edited and ready to feed. “It’s done, it’s dirty, I’ve done my thing,” he says. At 4:51, master control confirms receipt of the feed and the pace slows. Burkett sets up a camera outside the truck for his live shot at 6. He covers it with what he calls a “camera condom” — a plastic cover — to keep it dry. “We’re ahead of schedule,” he says.

It’s getting colder outside. Burkett runs his lines in the warmth of the truck and talks about why it’s important to broadcast live from Cochise Trail tonight. His reasoning is direct: “To show we are here.”

Shortly after 6, Burkett is standing in the drizzle reporting “live from Chesterfield” as he introduces his taped package. By 6:08, the mast is down, the truck is on the road with the heater going full blast, and Burkett is wondering what his next assignment will be. “I don’t mean to sound morbid, but I want something to make the adrenaline pump.”

In the back of the truck, VCU intern Allison Lipchak is still quietly observing.

“What do you think of one-man bands?” a reporter asks her.

“In the future,” she says, “if you’re not a one-man band, you’re going to have a tough time finding a job.” S

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