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Price is right for junior journalists

ABC News marshals multitasking collegians

They’re on the front line of the one-man-band revolution in television news.

Two years ago, ABC News launched a partnership with a handful of journalism schools, dubbed ABC News on Campus, which turns students into reporters and correspondents for the Alphabet’s various news operations. It amounts to broadcasting boot-camp for the students, who are paid for their work, and it’s a very cost-effective way for ABC News to put feet on the street at a time when its newsgathering resources are stretched thin. So thin that longtime ABC News prexy David Westin recently announced his intent to step down at year’s end, reportedly because he’s grown tired of overseeing the endless downsizing of the division that is still tasked with covering breaking news around the world.

ABC News on Campus participants get invaluable real-world training in the new multi-tasking mantra for TV newsies — reporting, writing, shooting, editing and producing their own dispatches — because ABC and virtually every other TV news org is increasingly moving toward the one-man-band model in newsgathering. The days of a correspondent going out on a story with an entourage of producers, camera operators and other technical staff are rapidly fading, especially for newcomers.

Sarah Story, a recent graduate of the U. of Texas who is now a correspondent for ABC affiliate KLTV-TV Tyler, Texas, credits ABC News on Campus with preparing her for some of modern journalism’s harsh realities.

“There were 20 people in my broadcasting (program at the university) and I think I and two other people have jobs in the industry,” Story says. “Graduating in 2009, when it was the worst part of the recession and no one was getting jobs, I can honestly say I don’t think I would have gotten the job I have now if I hadn’t had ABC News on my resume.”

The shift to leaner newsgathering standards, made possible by the leaps in quality of digital videocameras and easy-to-use editing tools, is an inevitable outgrowth of the financial pressures on news divisions, once considered prestige plays for the major nets. ABC and CBS are particularly challenged when it comes to maintaining news ops, because they don’t have the kind of cable subdivisions that allow NBC and Fox to spend more money on newsgathering with greater profit potential down the line.

But even CNN, the pioneer in 24-hour TV news, with the largest global reach, has moved to rein in costs by establishing one-person bureaus in such sizable cities as Seattle, Las Vegas and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

Journo observers say there is no doubt that the push to economize in newsgathering will affect the quality of the content that gets on the air.

“When you expect one person to do audio, video and everything as well as report the story, you’re going to get what that person is capable of doing in the time they have. There will be some reporters who can do it all well and some less well,” says Alex Jones, director of Harvard U.’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

“The good thing is that technology makes it possible for someone who is a good reporter to go out and get a story and deliver it to multiple platforms,” Jones says. “But without question the whole thrust of (one-man bureaus) is to save money.”

Some argue that the soup-to-nuts approach produces better broadcast journalists overall, because having to take on shooting and editing responsibilities forces reporters to consider all aspects of visual storytelling as they work. Bridget Grogan, associate news director for pubcaster WUFT-TV in Gainsville, Fla., and faculty advisor for the ABC News on Campus U. of Florida bureau, says she’s observed plenty of changes in her students’ careers over the years.

“We’re now getting calls from newsroom directors who want students who are able to write and post to the Web; and they want students who are able to blog,” Grogan says.

Like most of the educators associated with the ABC on Campus program, Grogan underscores the skill set its students acquire.

“When ABC bureau kids graduate, they know how to write for the Web, they’ve often had experience blogging, they’ve posted still photographs with their stories; they’re truly multimedia, truly cross-platform,” she says.

Significantly, KLTV correspondent Story, like her contemporaries, calls herself a “video journalist,” not a television journalist — because the Web has become such an important extension for TV news outlets.

ABC News on Campus was born around the same time the Alphabet moved to downsize most of its foreign operations, established one-person bureaus in Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, New Delhi, Nairobi and other cities.

The college program was the brainchild of John Green, ABC News’ exec producer of special programming and development, who heads the effort. Schools in the program — which also include Syracuse U., Howard U., U. of Nebraska and Arizona State U. — receive new computers from ABC loaded with video-editing software, cameras with lighting and audio kits, an allowance for office supplies and enough cash to pay student journos “roughly the equivalent of what a campus work-study job would pay,” Green says.

Green’s goal in launching the program was party philanthropic, and partly a talent-scouting effort. He wanted to give students in geographically diverse journalism programs a chance to compete in the world of network news. “I thought it would be really great if we could get people who don’t have access to big network and cable outlets, and in the process learn what kinds of stories they’re interested in,” he says.

Part of the reason for maintaining the program is obvious: It’s a great recruitment tool, and it gives ABC a chance to foster new talent in places where other networks aren’t necessarily looking. But the org also relies on the college bureaus for coverage. Story recalls taking a 100-mile road trip to Waco for the net to cover the return of former president George W. Bush to his home state.

“It saved them the cost of having to hire a stringer,” Story says, “and it really served us well because it prepared us for having to do that in the real world.”

Grogan, too, says that being called up for action on breaking news is a huge advantage for the students at U. of Florida — they might get the chance to be in on a national news story, like the recent flap over the Koran-burning effort proposed by a church in U. of Florida’s hometown of Gainesville.

“Our students had the chance to cover the story before the network got here, and they had a chance to talk to the network and apprise them of the situation,” Grogan says.

Kate O’Brian, senior veep and head of newsgathering for ABC News, says the student journos are invariably eager to work, and that makes them a valuable asset to the net.

“They do have editorial oversight for anything they do, whether it becomes part of a broadcast piece or whether it goes out on the Web,” O’Brian says. “They’re very willing and able to run out and do extra shooting for us.”

ABC and the other Big Four nets still have the advantage of affiliate stations to help them cover ground on breaking news, especially in far-flung locales. But the students are directly assigned by the ABC News national desk, which makes for more direct and timely access. O’Brian cites an instance in April 2009 when a shooting rampage at an immigrant services center in Binghamton, N.Y. left 14 people dead: Syracuse U. students in the program were all over the story in minutes.

“One of the first times I realized how helpful they were was on the Binghamton shooting,” O’Brian says. “Our folks at Syracuse jumped in a car and ran over there and got one of the first interviews. It’s really enabled us to broaden our coverage and our stories.”