FIRST a confession. There is nothing to sharpen one's professional senses like redundancy. The temporary closure of Press Gazette last year forced a rethink of my career plan. A couple of months doing shifts online for national newspapers made it clear that while the future of journalism may be online, spending nine hours a day repurposing PA and Reuters copy was not the reason why I signed up.
With newspapers seeking to cut costs by reducing staff levels, and consumers expecting their news to be delivered at increasingly faster speeds, I decided one of the few areas in which newspapers would justify the cash and time cost of allowing their journalists to gather news firsthand would be video. The real pull was the opportunity to tell stories in a language still in its infancy. Who knew if videojournalism would turn out to be the journalistic equivalent of Esperanto but what was there to lose?
The expense of PA's videojournalism course is enough to put most freelances off jumping on the VJ bandwagon on a whim. The course would have set me back three months' wages, and that was before I'd paid for travel to and from Yorkshire, accommodation and living expenses. However, the tailored approach PA offered, combined with the attraction of getting a diploma from an organisation known throughout the industry, was a real draw. Plus, I had no previous broadcasting experience and being a slow learner, the ‘remedial' option of an intensive residential course seemed the best bet.
So it was that on a February morning I found myself sitting in The Manor in Howden, East Yorkshire which, during the next three weeks, would be the centre of my transformation. Also along for the journey were four reporters about to be inducted in to PA's burgeoning multimedia team, two reporters and one chief-sub from the Lincolnshire Echo and two videojournalists from the Wolverhampton Express & Star who were looking to hone their skills.
After the introductions, we trekked downstairs and opened the door into an Aladdin's cave of treasures – our kit. Forget about the days of rocking up at an event with just a pen, a notebook and a Dictaphone (if you were lucky) – now if you forgot just a cable you would be stranded. With the cheapest item in our arsenal probably being the batteries which cost around £100, video stopped seeming like such a lark.
Our trainer for the first two weeks was Christina Fox, a BBC-trained camerawoman with more than 20 years in the business who covered events including Tiananmen Square and worked with the likes of John Simpson. It was a relief to know that we would be guided into the daunting world of cameras by such an experienced pair of hands.
You get wet, not the camera In the first few days, it wasn't just the amount of information given to us that was overwhelming, but the small details that couldn't be overlooked. For example, the recording head on the camera should not, under any circumstances, get wet. If it does it stops working, and if you want any hope in hell of being able to carry on filming you're required to dash to the nearest loo, stick said camera under a handdryer and hopefully, after 30 minutes of drying, you just may be able to start shooting again.
"If it's raining, your coat goes over the camera not you. Your body is far less expensive to repair than the equipment," warned Fox, with one sweep dispelling any illusions about the glamour of broadcasting.
Luckily, no previous knowledge was assumed and instructions started with the basics – how to set up a tripod (more complicated than you would imagine), setting the camera and an introduction to the various recording modes.
One of the most peculiar classes was on risk assessment. Assessing risk is anathema in the world of print; you do whatever it takes to get the job done. In broadcasting, though, you can face criminal prosecution if an accident occurs as a result of your filming and you fail to prove you have done everything possible to ensure the safety of those in the vicinity of filming. So we learnt how to fill in forms. Endless pages of forms assessing the likelihood of risk, the probability of risk and detail how to avoid said risks. Fun.
All of this theoretical learning was balanced with practical assignments and for the duration of the course, the picturesque town of Howden became our stage. The initial material we gathered was ropey – which was fine – it provided a catalogue of errors from which we could learn from the next day.
Homework was to watch television – not carte blanche to nod off in front of EastEnders but checking out news, current affairs and, surprisingly, Top Gear (it's the cameraperson's favourite) and analyse how shots are composed and sequenced together.
Dynamics of interviewing The dynamic of interviewing with a camera changes the journalistic process. TV people warned me about this before the course, but just how stilting a camera can be didn't really hit me until it happened before my eyes. It was during shooting in a local antiques shop. The store owner, who had been a talkative, vivacious and forthcoming character while I shot the wares on show, morphed into a timid mouse, giving monosyllabic answers as soon as the red light came on the camera. Similarly, the most fantastic characters may give off-camera information that could make for a top quote in print, but in video, unless you can capture it on tape, priceless gems end up being consigned to background information in voiceovers.
Conversely, when you do find real voices, they make stories come to life in a way that all but the most gifted of print journalists can only dream of.
When two septuagenarians straight out of central casting with their flat caps, broad Yorkshire accents and mischievous smiles, convinced myself and a colleague to film them giving us a tour of Howden Minster while they regaled us with dramatic tales of the building's past, it was priceless.
With all the new skills we had learned, our heads were buzzing with the excitement of handling cameras. A dummy news conference soon made us refocus on the wider picture, though. As a VJ, you shoot the action, interview the spokespeople and edit the footage. Somewhere in the midst of the adrenaline rush of covering a "live" event, our instinctive reporter's habit of asking probing questions went out the window. "What happened to the journalism?" wailed Fox. She was right, and it was a lesson that didn't go unheeded.
It was this intensive process of trial and error thatgot us to the end of the second week and the first part of the course – the process of filming in the morning and editing in the afternoon left us feeling ready to hit the ground running, ready to bring the best of broadcasting to the web. Or so we thought.
After a three-week hiatus, in which we went back to our regular jobs and put our skills into practice, we returned to Howden and our cosy vision of TV for the internet was turned on its head. Behind this was videojournalism guru, David Dunkley Gyimah, our teacher for the final week of the course. We had been warned that he was a bit of a character but really, the more he talked, the more it seemed as if everything we'd been taught in the first two weeks was irrelevant.
Our Sony A1 cameras, which Fox said were "not really broadcast quality", were now heralded as the best thing since sliced bread. The tripod, which under Fox was our trusty friend, was relegated to the status of a mere "option". Obviously recognising the look of bewilderment on our faces, PA's head of training Tony Johnston said: "You can't appreciate what David and videojournalism offers unless you understand the mechanics and building blocks of traditional journalism."
The condensed version of the background to what we learnt was that in the UK, over the past two years, video journalism has started to bud. It's too early to say blossom, but the growth was in part due to mainstream media looking to ride the slipstream of success that the likes of YouTube have enjoyed.
The public was becoming more video savvy and MSM needed to reflect that. Yet in reality, unlike the US, videojournalism is still in embryonic stages in the UK – a bit like TV in the '50s when no one was really sure if it should be like film or radio or whether it should be "allowed" to create its own rule book and visual language.
There the comparison ended – whereas 50 years ago TV in the UK was influenced by the presence of the BBC and broadcasters that followed reacted in response to it, videojournalism has no such overpowering influence. It's all about mavericks – independent one-man bands operating across a global network.
"People say videojournalism is like TV online, but VJ is experimental and risky. I say it's like being a photojournalist with a video camera," said Dunkley Gyimah. "The story doesn't exist; it's down to you to go out and create it. VJ is news on the hoof, on the fly – TV doesn't do that. It's rehearsed and it has to be because time is costed."
The liberating factor was the size of the A1 – being so minute, you can be intimate. There was no need for a crew, thus making the relationship between you and your audience stronger, allowing for high-impact story telling.
Tearing up the rule book In previous weeks we'd be taught to shoot long. Now Dunkley Gyimah stressed repeatedly the need to understand how long your video will be and to film appropriately. This sounds logical but when you're worried about getting back to the edit without all the necessary footage it is tempting to overshoot. This rule does help you avoid spend a week editing down an hour and more of material in order to produce a three-minute package. (I've done it and it sucks).
Progressing from the foundation Fox had given us, Dunkley Gyimah taught us how to create style. We were taught to change the shoot angle. On an assignment, if looking for a professional to follow to get the best shot, we should follow the photojournalist, not the TV cameraman.
Importantly, we were taught how to hone our shots bearing in mind they would be presented on the web.
The closer the shots are, the better they'll look on a computer screen as wide scene setting shots tend to get lost into translation on the super small screen.
Citing examples such as Black Hawk Down as the sort of film we should seek inspiration from, Dunkley Gyimah threw concepts such as mis-en-scene into the mix. At some points, when he blew us away with the art-tastic productions that fellow VJs on the global scene had produced, it seemed difficult how we could get our work to fit into that model. This was inspiring stuff, but we students looked at each other slightly bemused. Imagine our editors' faces when we turn up with packages that look more like a Hungarian art-house movie than a traditional news report.
However as the course drew to a close no one wanted to go home, we were all up for sticking around for another week and learning more.
The reality was, though, that we were already drenched with solidly practical advice that would set us well on the way to cutting our own paths within the field. The only limitation would be balancing the creative potential that videojournalism offered with the time and financial realities of reporting news on a daily basis.