Tape Heads

Channel 4 plans to phase out videotape in the coming year. Could the jobs of people who work with it be next?

Despite enormous technological advances, most TV-news operations continue to use videotape, a medium that predates the Internet age by decades. But early next year, Channel 4 will leave the clunky cartridges behind once and for all.

"We're going to these new Sony cameras that shoot on disc rather than tape," says Channel 4 news director Tim Wieland. "Rather than cutting tape to tape, our crews will come back with a disc, and the data will be ingested into our system and be edited on computer. Instead of playing tapes, we'll be playing clips."

Such gear is part of Channel 4's ongoing transition to what's known in TV parlance as "non-linear editing." This methodology, which allows multiple staffers to work on a story at the same time, has been around for a while. Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis says her station has been using it for five years, albeit in hybrid form; videotape is fed into a computer using a device that reads it at four times the actual speed -- meaning that a twenty-minute tape can be digitized in five minutes. Channel 4 already has some of this paraphernalia, too, but once a total switchover takes place, the time it takes for ingestion will shrink in a major way. "Now, when a tape comes in, there will sometimes be a line at the edit bay: The editor wants to edit the package, the reporter wants to log the tape, the promotions guy wants to do the promo," Wieland notes. "But with non-linear editing, all those people will be able to use the same piece of media at the same time. It's a much more efficient way to work."

Fred Harper

As most workers know, "efficient" can be a shorthand way of saying, "We're looking to cut staff." Wieland denies that's part of the plan at Channel 4. "Mostly, I think job descriptions will change," he says. "For example, the chief editor, who does some editing during the day, may have his title change to 'media manager.'" He acknowledges, however, that "as we get used to this system, there could be some efficiencies we discover. We might need fewer people to do what we're doing now."

Channel 9's Dennis isn't sure if non-linear editing has diminished or limited the number of behind-the-scenes positions at her station, but it seems likely. Channel 9 recently launched a news operation at Channel 20, its new sister station. On September 5, the latter outlet began airing a half-hour newscast at 9 p.m. each evening throughout the week. The Channel 20 commitment further expands on December 4 with a two-hour morning-news show to be seen beginning at 7 a.m. weekdays, as well as a 6 a.m. weekend program that Dennis refers to as "the skier's newscast." All told, the Channel 20 productions boost Channel 9's weekly news output from 32 hours before September to 48 hours by early next month -- a 50 percent increase. Yet Channel 9 will be handling this greater load with a workforce that's just 10 percent bigger than it was prior to Channel 20's acquisition. That's new math, TV style.

And it's far from the only way stations are looking to save dough on humans. Today's breed of cameras and related equipment, which can fit into a single satchel, has given rise to so-called backpack journalists (also known in some quarters as video journalists, or VJs), who handle reporting, visuals and sound by themselves, without the help of crew members. Channel 9 hired Heidi McGuire in such a role earlier this year, and in July, TV-related bulletin boards overflowed with speculation that McGraw-Hill, the company that owns Channel 7, is considering making the backpack brigade the rule, not the exception. If that happens more generally, camera and sound specialists may become endangered species.

Ain't technology grand?

Newspeak! out: In contrast to these TV types, Colorado Springs-based Noel Black is moving in a decidedly low-tech direction. Black earned notoriety, and loads of fans, for a hilariously impolite newspaper known as the Toilet Paper, which found room for features as disparate as "Soul Search," a religious-debate column featuring Rob Brendle, the associate pastor of New Life Church (yep, Ted Haggard's old haunt), and "Churchwhipper," a photo series showing a mostly nude hottie taking a lash to houses of worship. But when his effort to broaden TP's circulation area failed to generate a cash windfall, he shelved the paper and went virtual via the High Plains Messenger, an ambitious attempt to create an online newspaper focusing on a single community. Unfortunately, Messenger (accessible at www.highplainsmessenger.com) didn't catch fire, either, and it's been scaled back significantly. So Black has gone forward into the past with Bon Vivant, a direct-mail arts publication, and Newspeak!, a monthly in the TP tradition that he's putting out in conjunction with Messenger cohort Aaron Retka.

At a time when most journalism pundits think print is in steady decline, why is Black betting on paper? "People are still skeptical about Internet advertising," he says. "I think there's an intangible aspect about it for some of them. They want to feel like they bought something, and when they see their ad in print, there's the satisfaction that they got something for their money."

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