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One-man band: Reporters go at it alone with cellular-based electronic news gathering

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In its heyday, the news van was the way local television stations brought you live reports from the field, helping to bring immediacy to breaking news as it happens. These electronic news-gathering (ENG) vehicles contained the equipment necessary to produce and transmit broadcasts remotely. But as technology evolved and budgets were cut, television stations began relying less on ENG vans and trucks, which can be expensive to purchase and maintain. With the ability to now shoot high-definition video using DSLR cameras and transmit content over cellular networks, the roving reporter is turning into a one-man band where he/she shoots, reports, produces, and transmits the entire footage.

“It is the wave of the future,” says Lindsey Mastis, a Los Angeles-based video correspondent with Feature Story News, whose work has been seen on a variety of news outlets, from PBS to Channel News Asia and Jewish News One. “In today’s news business, we have to be mobile to succeed.”

Mastis is among a new breed of field reporters who write and shoot their own video, often transmitting live reports from their video cameras straight onto their laptops. The devices Mastis uses are ones that can “bond” signals from major cellular carriers’ 3G and 4G networks to transmit live video in high-definition. These gadgets basically act as a digital encoder, and once it connects to a video camera, it breaks the signal into cellular frequency that is then sent back to a receiving facility at a news station. Some of the most popular bonded cellular technology on the market include Dejero, LiveU, and TVU. Using Skype is also popular.

Since Americans are increasingly relying on the Internet to get their news – especially through mobile devices – news reporters have had to respond to the demand for instant news, which isn’t always conducive or practical to use a news van.

“We need devices that allow us to go live anytime, anywhere with just my camera and my computer,” Mastis says. Case in point: During the major snowstorm in Washington, D.C. in 2010, Mastis found herself as the only reporter at Reagan International Airport, which had completely shut down.

Lindsey Mastis operates her own camera as she reports from the field.

Lindsey Mastis operates her own camera as she reports from the field.

“I was a one-man-band reporter for the local CBS affiliate there at the time and I had to shoot and edit my own stories, without a photographer, and feed it back to the station via my computer,” Mastis adds. “But that night I wanted to go live as well and I did it by hooking up my video camera to my laptop to send out my reports via Skype. I was the only TV reporter to deliver live reports from the airport all night long.”

Since then, Mastis has traveled around the country covering everything from the presidential election to the deadly movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado and the Boston Marathon bombing. Her recent overseas trip was to report on child survival in India where she carried her own video and audio gear in one suitcase (shown above). 

But the most compelling reason for a network to move to this one-man setup versus a news team, besides speed and efficiency, is the cost factor. The bonded cellular equipment, which can cost as little as less than $10,000, is a fraction of the $100,000-plus price tag of a traditional ENG vehicle.

“This is especially true for independent news outlets that don’t always have the budget and the access to ENG microwave or satellite trucks,” Mastis says. Plus, it gives alternative news organizations like hers room to grow domestically and internationally because the technology is so much more affordable.

Where goes that news van again?

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Despite the versatility of bonded cellular, news networks aren’t ditching their fleet of news vans. But instead of being the main source for news transmissions, they have become an option. Rather than evolving, you can say the news van is devolving.

“Live trucks aren’t going away,” says Tom Jennings, president of Accelerated Media Technologies based in Auburn, Massachusetts. “What’s changing is the technology being used alongside these vehicles.” If anybody can talk about where the news van is heading, it’s Jennings. His company manufactures live trucks for more than 65 percent of TV news stations in the U.S.

Equipment typically found inside an ENG vehicle.

Equipment typically found inside an ENG vehicle.

Because technology is evolving, becoming smaller and mobile, stations no longer need large vehicles to accommodate the equipment to handle field reporting. Jennings says more and more of the vehicles he puts out in the market are equipped with bonded cellular technology so reporters and photographers can use it to transmit live TV signals from anywhere, anytime. To help reporters become more mobile, Jennings says news vehicles at many stations around the country are actually getting smaller. He’s now installing bonded cellular technology in everything from a small SUV like the Subaru Forester to mini vans like the Ford Transit.

Yet, as convenient as cellular technology is for the modern-day field reporter, it isn’t 100-percent reliable or always available 

“Bonded cellular technology has a place in our changing media world, but in local TV news, you can’t do away with ENG trucks,” says Jonathan Carerra, a TV photographer at the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas. (Disclosure: This author is an employee of the CBS affiliate.) Carrera, who has worked in a variety of news markets from Salinas to San Jose, California, says cellular technology still can’t catch up to microwave or satellite signal when it comes to picture quality. “In our business we need a reliable tool to get our live shots out quickly and efficiently, and when you have to rely on cell or Wi-Fi signals, especially in remote locations, we may lose out to the competition.” 

At Carrera’s station, there are five to six live microwave/satellite trucks available to reporters and photographers every day, meaning the news crew can go to that many remote locations to deliver live reports at a moment’s notice. Carrera believes their news vehicles may become compact in the near future, but for now cellular technology won’t replace ENG vehicles, at least not yet anyway.

“I don’t think a traditional TV live truck is going away anytime soon,” Carrera says. “I love seeing the evolution of both technology and it makes working in the media world so exciting. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

Mastis echoes a similar sentiment about the change in technology, but sees reporters like her relying less and less on ENG trucks and vans. “It’s exciting to see how TV technology is evolving and I look forward to seeing what happens next. But I do believe you will see many more journalists like me in the future where we can carry equipment to go live right in our backpack, who don’t need to rely on a live truck to go live.”

(Images via Lindsey Mastis; 8 News Now/KLAS)

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