Reporter in a Backpack

KRON San Francisco is finding small is better. The Young Broadcasting independent station has converted to file-based news production using lightweight Sony HDV-format camcorders and laptop computers running Canopus EDIUS nonlinear editing software.

KRON uses the “VJ”—short for video journalist—brand of news production, where the reporter serves as a “one-man band,” shooting and editing his or her own video in addition to reporting.

The 52 Sony HVR-Z1U cameras that KRON purchased have proved reliable, according to KRON Chief Engineer Craig Porter. Their light weight (less than 8 pounds) means that a VJ's entire complement of gear—which also includes a laptop, wireless microphone and a lightweight tripod—can fit neatly in a backpack.

Instead of removing the HDV tapes and putting them in a traditional editing deck, KRON's VJs use a FireWire connection to quickly transfer video from the Sony HVR-Z1U camera to a laptop. The ease of use of the Canopus nonlinear editing software allows traditional reporters to become proficient in file-based news production, says Porter.

KRON has a “long history of field editing in trucks,” he says, and used to rely on Panasonic DVCPRO tape-based laptop-size editors to cut stories and then relay them back to the station via microwave feeds.

More for less

Now that the station has moved to smaller cameras and laptop editors, VJs sometimes travel to stories in compact cars. KRON is buying Pontiac Vibe compact station wagons (around $17,000 retail) instead of traditional large ENG (electronic-newsgathering) vans, which cost around $250,000 each. That lets the station cover more stories simultaneously.

“The cost of two of the big ENG vans pays for the entire VJ program,” says Porter. “That's a pretty powerful financial incentive for stations to make the change.” And end-product quality is similar. “You can have very high production values with VJs,” he says.

The VJs still edit in the field and often send stories to the station using broadband connections. Their options include T-Mobile's Wi-Fi service, available at retail outlets like Starbucks or Kinko's; a high-bandwidth wireless service that KRON buys from WiLine Networks; or their own home. The files are received by a simple File Transfer Protocol (FTP) server and then transferred to KRON's BitCentral news-production server.

KRON receives eight to 10 stories a day from VJs in the field using the Internet. Porter says transfer speeds are four to six times slower than real time, so a one-minute piece might take four to six minutes to transfer. In that time, the VJs can remotely access the station's Avid iNews newsroom-automation system to perform the text-based piece of their production duties. If time is not an issue, the VJs simply return to the station's dedicated VJ work area—a series of conference tables—pop open their laptops and start editing.

Heavy field cameras are out

Although the HDV cameras that KRON is using are obviously capable of high-definition, widescreen pictures, the station is sticking to standard-def, 4:3-aspect-ratio news production for now. KRON has produced some high-def documentaries using the HDV format, including a recent program on the new de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. It is also experimenting with the high-def version of Panasonic's P2 solid-state tapeless acquisition format, which it aims to use for local program production.

Whatever format KRON moves to down the road, Porter thinks the days of big, heavy field cameras are over. “When you go smaller,” he says, “you hardly ever go back.”—G.D.