The Little Picture: Speeding Up War Coverage

Apr 28, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Less is more.

That’s the lesson news organizations ought to be taking away from covering the war in Iraq. What happened there was nothing less than a bold step forward in immediacy-even if it was also a calculated step backward in video quality.

I made that realization earlier this month while attending the Radio-TV News Directors Association’s annual meeting in Las Vegas. There, I heard Ross Simpson, the veteran AP radio reporter, phoning in via satellite from Iraq. Later, when I walked over to the National Association of Broadcasters show going on next door, I discovered that Simpson had a double identity.

Turns out the radio guy was also filing raw video for The Associated Press using a Windows XP computer and a $500 miniDV camera he’d bought just hours before shipping out to Iraq.

I got the story at the AP booth at the NAB show. There, Mike Palmer, director of broadcast digital distribution systems and strategy for the AP, explained that his staff did not even have time to load video-editing software on Simpson’s laptop before his flight. So Simpson used the consumer-grade Windows Movie Maker that had been shipped with his computer. To Palmer’s amazement, Simpson started sending back terrific full-screen video. Even if it was of the B-roll variety, well, that’s what the AP sells, and that’s what TV stations are starved for, particularly from far-flung locales.

The key was Microsoft’s new video-compression scheme, part of its Windows Media 9 Series, which squeezed Simpson’s 90-second B-rolls to less than 6 megabytes, or a fraction of industry-standard MPEG files. That meant he could send them over a relatively low-bandwidth satellite phone in about 20 minutes, at a cost of less than $100 per call. And no learning curve.

“The line between what is consumer and what is professional has blurred,” said Palmer. “The speed of the software has brought the quality up and the price down.” The kicker is that those grainy videophone feeds from Iraq were often more compelling than higher-resolution taped reports from the field. Looking back, it seems so obvious.

Palmer put it rhetorically: When satellite trucks first came out, where did they go? To the hurricanes! Sure, the video looked grainy and got worse as the reporter inched closer to the storm. But did viewers care? One person has already grasped what this could mean for local news. As general manager of KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities, Ed Piette enjoys the luxury of his own transponder, because his station is owned by satellite pioneer Stanley Hubbard. KSTP secured a rare local embed assignment with the 101st Airborne.

Reporter Dean Staley and photographer Joe Caffrey carried a miniDV, a videophone and a Toshiba laptop. Instead of the Newstar 5 satellite truck, they took two duffel bags of gear. Still, their reports were as good as any I saw on network TV.

When the videophone returns from Iraq, Piette wants to put it to use on the home front. For instance, he said, when the plane of Sen. Paul Wellstone went down in a snowstorm, it was relatively easy to get a reporter to the scene. But it took Newstar 5 hours to get there. With its Iraq gear, KSTP would’ve been able to go live before the truck arrived.

There’s one other less-is-more lesson to be learned from this war: If Ross Simpson, a 50-something radio reporter, can be a one-man TV news outfit, soon everybody will be.

That means journalism students should be learning not just how to write but how to shoot and edit movies of themselves on their dorm-room computers.