One Year InWhat I've learned as a new shooter for the past twelve months
My path to the newsroom was an unconventional one. I went to the wrong college. I took the wrong internships. I wasn't confident in my ability as a shooter, and so on. After working for little to no money for years with non-profits and the random odd job I finally landed an entry level job at a start up television station. Fast forward to June 2013 when I wound up directing and associate producing five half hour shows per week, a two hour movie show every week, and running much of the production for that station - I was hired by WGRZ to come on board as a news shooter. And as they say, we've only just begun.
Looking back at my year as a news shooter I've covered some incredible stories, and some heartbreaking stories as well. The story of Nathan Brundage, a high school senior who was hit in the head while playing dodge-ball and his subsequent headaches ultimately led to a diagnosis of stage four brain cancer - seven months later he's had successful rounds of cancer treatment and out of the woods. In contrast there have been several incidents of homicide in Buffalo I've had to cover in my role as overnight news shooter. Incidents that continuously make me question why these things happen, why there isn't outrage and why city residents allow it to happen. Through all of this I've picked up some things that have been tremendously helpful in the field. I've had the pleasure of working with news veterans who have spent between twenty and thirty five years in the field. Working with people of that caliber is like signing up for a photojournalism crash course, and it's also a little like being thrown to a pack of wolves - you'll either be accepted into the pack or eaten alive. I've certainly learned some important lessons in the last twelve months.
Possibly the most important thing I've learned from my morning show reporters (Heather Ly, Mary Friona and Pete Gallivan) is to have compassion when you're at a story. Working in overnight news usually means you're covering fatal fires, fatal car accidents or homicides. On my first day after training, in July 2013, I covered a fatal house fire in which a one year old tragically died because a ceiling fan shorted out and started a fire. Later that same morning I was called to a graphic homicide in a public housing section of Buffalo. If covering stories of this nature doesn't affect you and doesn't make you feel compassion while in the field then you need to question your purpose as a news shooter. Being compassionate will resonate through your shooting and storytelling. It will make the difference on how you frame your shot - will you show the victim in the frame or will you cleverly frame the shot to still tell the story but be respectful to the victims and family? There is a time and place for showing the graphic side of news, but very rarely in a local news story will those criteria ever be met.
Do I have my camera? Extra Batteries? Am I going to the right location? If you're not worried about being prepared then you're doing it wrong. Working overnights as a news shooter can be a relatively stressful shift, anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you. You're working in a minimal support staff environment. You're also juggling multiple tasks at once. On a given night I'm editing the 6am news block, listening to five or six different scanners, routinely checking social media for anything developing and most importantly trying to maintain an alert status. As my wife tells me on a constant basis, "nothing good ever happens after 2am." I'm constantly worried that I'm prepared for any type of news story that could happen overnight. In a two week period from Christmas Eve 2013 to January 8th I covered River flooding, a blizzard, two fires and ice jamming along the Niagara River - not once did I walk into work at 1am knowing any of this would occur. But we never know what's going to happen in the news, which is why we do it. Taking the extra few minutes every morning to ensure I'm prepared for a multitude of scenarios makes the difference between a good night and a bad night. I learned this the hard way in August 2013 when I neglected to pack and check my new vehicle when I arrived at work. A breaking story happened and I had to scramble to pack my car only to find out I was low on gas as well. By the time arrived on scene I missed a lot of the "good visuals." All because I didn't feel like taking the extra five minutes to check things over when I arrived. Since that incident I'm constantly worried about being prepared and I think since then it's made me a better overnight news shooter.
Shut up, watch and listen. I stand by the notion that you'll learn more in the first six weeks on the job in a newsroom then you will in four years of college. Professors hate hearing that but it's the truth. I'm not trying to imply that a college education is worthless, but I'm willing to bet anyone whose successful in the business will tell you they learned more by shutting up and watching the veterans than they did reading a book on how to white balance. I work with some of the most talented photographers in the business. These men and women have worked on some of the most important stories in our market in the last twenty to thirty five years. They've witnessed first hand the changes in our business and weathered all of those changes. Some of the people I work with "remember the days" of film processing a news story to get it on the air by 6pm. Being relatively young, I think I know everything. It's not my fault, it's a generational attribute. I knew coming into this job that I would be working with some of the best talent in the market so I needed to ensure I was on the top of my game. How could I get to that point? By looking at their edit bins, looking at their raw footage and shutting up when they're talking shop. Watching how others conduct themselves on a breaking news story - are they scrambling? Why am I not scrambling? By not observing how veterans are being successful I wouldn't be putting myself in the best position to one day being a veteran myself.
As I alluded to, overnight news shooting can be an emotionally grueling shift because you're sometimes dealing with the most tragic news of the day. Aside from compassion one of the things I've had to learn to do is ask why, but not ask myself why. As a photojournalist who also has to play the role of information gatherer I naturally have to ask why and ask for the details from witnesses and officials. I quickly learned that I can't ask myself why. Why do these things happen? Why does tragedy strike a good family? Why did someone shoot up a car in an intersection? Why did a four year old die of cancer? By "why" I mean the broader philosophical why. The faith based why. I've struggled with faith since working in news because I grow incredibly frustrated at the concept of why things happen. As journalists we have to ask why. We have to get the answers in order to properly serve the public. I'm learning to stop asking myself why things happen because it's a maddening circle of non-answers. This may sound like a cold and convoluted stance but if you know any first responder you may not be surprised to discover that many of them may share the same way of thinking. When you see so many devastating things on a daily basis I think you begin to lose the energy to ask "why." It may sound like I'm being a hypocrite - suggesting that on one hand you show compassion in the story your covering and on the other hand suggesting you not get caught up in the philosophical 'why' of this business. It is a bit hypocritical. But, as the title suggests, it's one of the things I've learned in the last year. Whether this is a good thing or bad thing is yet to be determined.
Informing the public of the news is one of the most gratifying responsibilities, treat it as such. If you've ever met a journalist and started talking shop with them you'll like hear the same gripes that any journalist would have. "My producer wants me to pop up from behind a bush....my editor wants me to focus the camera....my news director has me stuck on the city hall beat....yada yada yada." But at their core, I've learned, a good journalist will take on any story and treat it with great care and responsibility. A good journalist cares about the news their reporting and not just treat it like another script they have to read to finish out the day before they can go sailing or golfing. They have tremendous respect for the responsibility they have to the public - to inform them as accurately as they can.
Above all, Enjoy It. I've had the opportunity to cover the President landing at the airport, Bills games on the sideline and incredible stories of communities rallying together. You'll experience every emotion, both in front and behind the camera, as a news shooter; but at the end of the day you'll enjoy it. You'll enjoy the stress. You'll enjoy the pressure. You'll enjoy the anxiety of equipment failures. You'll enjoy the 'ata boy' you get from the boss for breaking a news story. You'll enjoy a news job, even on days when it drives you insane.
Enjoying every aspect and every challenge of this job is possibly the most important thing I've learned in the last twelve months. I cherish the responsibilities I have on a daily basis to gather news for Western New York. What will I learn in the next twelve months? Maybe I'll work on that white balancing.