Teaching a New Generation of Reporters to Capture Events on Film

Dying news industry? Just shoot it.

First came the bad news. The third day of classes at the New York Film Academy's new digital-journalism program, launched earlier this month, began with an NBC Nightly News segment about the newspaper business.

The Boston Herald was outsourcing its printing operation. The Chicago Tribune unloading its skyscraper. The Palm Beach Post laying people off. The San Francisco Chronicle bleeding $1 million a week.

The message was clear. Traditional media are in upheaval, and how they will function once the dust settles would have something to do with the roughly 30 students assembled in this windowless room at Broadway and Prince Street.

Rufus Harvey

The Film Academy's program—launched in partnership with NBC News—is a response to a sea change in how the public consumes news, a change that has also forced adjustments in newsrooms and graduate schools across New York City. With its Nightly News, like other network newscasts, competing for viewers with cable and the Internet, NBC saw it as in its best interest to make sure the next generation of potential network employees had the skills needed to create media for a variety of platforms—from the Web and cell phones to the TV screens in taxis.

"What this business needs in general are more young people who need to be great journalists, but who also need to know all the technology to be more nimble and resourceful," says Lyne Pitts, NBC News's vice president of strategic initiatives, who is overseeing the partnership. "So, we decided to teach them."

Pitts says NBC approached the Film Academy because "we weren't looking for a place where we could go in and do lectures." The Film Academy "had all the technical expertise. We could really go in and create a brand-new program."

It can be thought of as more like a conservatory than a traditional journalism school, according to David Klein, NYFA's senior director, and Michael Young, its provost and director of education.

"It's different studying a craft in a university setting where there's a more academic approach to the subject than in a conservatory," Young says. "I think that's why a lot of people come here for all of our programs, for a heightened focus on the subject. You're really focusing on the craft."

The student body is diverse, in keeping with the school's open-admissions philosophy, Klein adds. Many are twentysomething college graduates. Some are in their thirties and forties. Some have journalism experience. Some are from abroad. One is a chef.

But what's a film school doing teaching journalism?

In journalism, Klein says, "the intention is to present the truth." That's not so different from filmmaking, insofar as film also teaches us something about the human condition.

Plus, whether in film or journalism, students need to know how to get clear images, how to record quality sound, how to use lighting, and so on, Klein says. In the first week of class, digital journalism students learn the basics of camera operation: Pan. Tilt. Zoom.

They also need to know the news and how to find it. That's where NBC comes in. Their journalists give talks and work with students on how to research, report, and write stories.

In one class, Anne Thompson, NBC's chief environmental-affairs correspondent, was on hand to discuss a piece on glacier melts in Greenland. Before Thompson arrived, the instructor asked the class what the top story of the day was.

"Iran," one student said. (That morning, images had been released that showed Iran test-firing missiles—images, of course, later shown to have been digitally altered.) Other headlines were also offered, which led to a discussion of news judgment. How do the pros decide what is news? Impact, proximity, timeliness, conflict, and human interest. And, it was acknowledged, the number of dead Americans is also a factor.

Later, other NBC segments were shown to explain different shots. Establishing shots let the viewer know where they are. Footage of a firefighter running with a hose over his shoulder toward a California blaze was an example of how to shoot action and keep it in frame. To make a less dramatic shot more interesting—a doctor-patient conversation in a featureless hospital, for example—students were shown how cutaways can supplement the main action or lack thereof. Get a close-up of hands pushing buttons. Slowly zoom in on the overhead lights, but don't get zoom-happy.

This summer, students are taking four- or eight-week courses. In the one-year certificate program that begins this fall, the first semester will focus on project work, the second on live news and investigative pieces. Pitts notes there are no guarantees the students will land jobs at NBC once they finish. "But we'll keep an eye on them."

The goal is for each graduate to become a "one-man band" who can research a story, write it, light it, shoot it, edit it, and get it back to where it needs to be—the studio, the satellite truck, the handheld device, wherever.

"The whole industry has to start changing its mind-set because where they're delivering information is changing," Klein says. "The Web divisions are expanding."

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