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Tim Peek

Starting this week, MediaShift will be running reports from “embeds” at various media outlets and educational institutions. The first report comes from Tim Peek, executive producer for new media at NBC’s Peacock Productions.

It was a seemingly prosaic moment at the end of the “Weekend NBC Nightly News” program Saturday, July 5: Lester Holt wrapped up the show with one of those ever-popular cute animal stories. The piece was about a baby penguin rejected by its mother and now being raised by a zoo worker in Boston.

But there was a lot more to this story than met the eye, as Holt hinted at with his introduction: “It’s a story we first reported on our website. It got a lot of traffic there, so much in fact that we thought maybe we’d air it right here. So here’s NBC’s Clare Duffy with our report.”

The story was the first in a gathering wave of reports created originally for the Internet — reported and narrated by a producer, not on-camera talent — making air on the broadcast network. As such, it was one of those small events that may well mark a watershed toward a truly cross-platform world, with professionally produced content playing wherever the audience wants to see it and breaking down the wall of “TV network” vs. “online.”

For most of a year now, NBC News has been pushing the digital journalism agenda as a way to cast a broader newsgathering net and lower production costs. Last season, Mara Schiavocampo debuted as the first digital correspondent for “Nightly News,” producing, shooting, editing and fronting all her own stories across the network and MSNBC.com.

And the “Nightly News” website stresses original material, most of it coming from producers and others creating stories for the web only. But the penguin story marked the beginning of a true cross-platform world, where these stories play wherever they’re needed, regardless of who created them or where they originally appeared.

Producer Shoots, Edits, Goes On-Air

The penguin story began as a web package created and reported by “Nightly News” producer Clare Duffy. She and an associate producer on the show shot, wrote and edited the piece a few weeks before. As she had done in several other web stories, Duffy narrated and even appeared in a short standup.

Even more remarkable: Though Duffy has been producing for “Nightly” for years (and even appeared in on-air crosstalks when she worked in Moscow 18 years ago), she began shooting and editing only this spring, after a few weeks of on-the-job training, and in addition to her usual day job as a traditional “Nightly News” producer.

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Duffy gets in front of the camera

Ever since then, Duffy has joined the ranks of “Nightly News” producers creating original stories for the show’s website. This push has given the site a steady stream of unique content and boosted its online viewer numbers significantly. The hope, too, is that a growing web audience will translate into a growing audience for the broadcast show.

For Duffy, as for the other producers, editors and camerapeople who have tried it, walking on the “digital journalist” side has been exhilarating. The ability to totally control the assignment and embrace the full craft of storytelling is a refreshing change in what has become an almost assembly-line-like news production system of specialists.

“I think what’s exciting about doing this is being able to take command of the whole process, and use abilities or skills that you knew you had but never had an outlet for,” says Duffy. “There is a ‘making your own luck’ aspect to this that’s really rewarding; you don’t have to wait for someone to say, ‘Hey, let’s give you a try on air.’ You just do it. And there is something about the intimacy of the smaller, less intrusive cameras that gives you a different kind of story.”

Will Quality Journalism Suffer?

Not everyone at NBC is so enthusiastic.

Among producers, especially those who have been practicing their craft for a long time, there is widespread apprehension. They know this is the way the world is headed, away from highly skilled (and highly paid) specialists working as part of a large team. But they worry about their ability to shoot and edit while also maintaining high standards. Will the quality of journalism suffer in the face of technical alacrity?

The network’s craft editors and camera operators are similarly discomfited by the rush to digital journalism. They see a trend to replace them with younger, lower-paid “vid kids” who are jacks of all trades and masters of none.

But even among this crowd, Duffy’s penguin story met with grudging respect: “Better than I expected,” is how one editor put it.

But many also see it as a portent of the coming apocalypse. This despite the fact that more and more editors and camerapeople are being trained to tell their own stories as digital journalists (DJs). More and more technical staffers are working as parts of two-person DJ crews for broadcasts, and several editors and shooters have single-handedly created stories for MSNBC.com and Channel One News.

Duffy herself has mixed feelings about the rush toward digital journalism.

“What I do worry about is the loss of the collaborative nature of what we do,” she says. “There’s a reason the best TV has been made that way since its inception and it’s something that should not be chucked out wholesale as irredeemably ‘old media’ simply because people are overly entranced by the idea of saving money. Losing that will yield a product that’s not worth very much.”

And the critics are right about something else: The digital journalist method is highly efficient, but still, something’s got to give. Not even the best digital journalists can shoot, edit, write and report as well as the dedicated teams of experts who still dominate TV news production. The biggest compromise comes in technical quality. The video from DV cameras is softer than beta; the sound is not a sharp. Producer editing on low-end systems is a stripped-down affair; straight cuts and dissolves. Stand-ups and tracking from producers also can suffer. And time pressure puts everything under the gun — even though the DJ model is more efficient, it still often takes more time to get it all done well.

But for many stories, none of these compromises show up or even make a difference. Following a penguin through a cramped apartment works better with a DV camera than a beta camera. On-the-move interviews and documentary-style storytelling don’t showcase the shortcomings of narration or lighting. And, most basically, a good enough story trumps all but the most egregious technical shortcomings.

Web Popularity Leads to TV

Duffy knew that a baby penguin that traveled home in an ice chest would be a hit on the web. And it was, quickly becoming one of MSNBC.com’s most-viewed videos, with some 70,000 hits.

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Penguin goes from web to TV

Pat Burkey, the executive producer of the “Weekend Nightly News,” paid attention to statistics like that, figuring that anything popular on the web would probably be popular on his show. When he looked at the story, he saw a standard-issue network piece; the fact that it was created and fronted by a producer made no difference.

And so the story made air and turned the usual cross-platform media flow on its head.

For years now, NBC News has been chopping stories out of its broadcasts and posting them as stand-alone videos on MSNBC.com. That’s the basic multi-platform model most media companies employ: traditional outlets first, then onto the web. The Internet is ancillary to the dominant television, newspaper or radio platform.

But rarely does it go the other way. One reason is quality: Production standards for the web, thanks to its origins as a hobbyist medium (think YouTube), are notoriously low. Another reason is prejudice. A large number of traditional media workers just flat out don’t think web content is good enough.

Duffy combined today’s cheap but powerful cameras and editing systems with her professional-level know-how and standards to create a web story that could stand up to broadcast standards.

Burkey looked at the story on its merits, not according to how it was created. In an era when budgets, especially for weekend shows (which are not seen as marquee venues), are cut to the bone, Burkey saw the web story as a cheap and unique alternative to the agency footage that is the usual mainstay of weekend newscasts. Budget and audience pressure is the mother of invention here.

What this shows is that the new tools of digital journalism, when combined with expert producing, can create high-quality stories that pass muster in any medium. This has the potential to dramatically alter the economics of network news production by allowing much broader use of these web-oriented stories. It also means that news organizations can more easily use their content on whatever platform makes the most sense, without recutting, revoicing or repackaging to meet the quality standards of the high-end platforms (stories can now just as easily travel up the quality stream from web to broadcast as down it).

The penguin story also shows that the talent pool for high-end storytelling is a lot deeper than it used to be. You don’t have to be an official “correspondent” to get on the air; you don’t have to be a dedicated cameraperson to shoot for broadcast; and you don’t have to be a craft editor to create for the network. And, most hopefully, it may show that a good story can speak for itself, regardless of who or how it was created.

What do you think about the DJ method and how it might change TV news production? Will more networks follow NBC’s lead by doing web-first stories that make it on-air? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of using quick-and-dirty methods for TV? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Tim Peek is the executive producer for new media at NBC News’s Peacock Productions. He runs a digital production studio, NBC NextMedia Productions, oversees the high school news program Channel One News, and works to introduce new content types and workflows across NBC News. A 12-year veteran of NBC, Peek began his work there at “Dateline NBC.” He’s also worked as a newspaper editor and radio news reporter. You can find out more about him, and read his MediaChange blog at TimPeek.com.