‘Digital ninja’ at Notre Dame

Vigil for Notre Dame on Boulevard Saint-Michel

In January 2018, I was put through a “digital ninja” course with a group of BBC colleagues – reporters, producers, VJs – working in foreign news. The idea was to give us the basic skills to work in the field as multi-media journalists, and much of the training focused on filming with a traditional camera, in this case a Sony PXW-Z150 camcorder, with proper mics and lights. A mobile journalism refresher formed part of the training, too, of course.

Since then I have taken the kit out to report on:

All three trips, unplanned or planned, were intense experiences a world away from my normal shifts in New Broadcasting House, which are a quite different discipline and challenge.

When you’re used to writing and editing content as part of a large team at a desk, it’s a huge leap to grab all the camera gear, do the logistics and risk assessment, and head off into the night for the first flight connection. However, if it’s what you love, you push on regardless, trusting in your experience and, okay, your luck (luck is always part of it, no matter how well you plan).

Getting into Paris a few hours after the fire was finally extinguished, I spent the first day filing back mood pieces, what we call “text boxes”, which set the scene for the news stories being written by the core desk back in London – amid the morning onlookers across the river from the cathedral, at the Catholic vigil in the evening. Vox pops were a challenge in the crowd with the heavy-duty tripod and Sony (next time I’ll use an iPhone and lighter model).

The reporting gear in Barcelona

The second and last day was a fevered rush to bag interviewees for a full text piece on how new technology might be used in the repair of the cathedral roof. My key interviewee could only gave me five minutes on camera before removing the lapel mic and rushing away, and there was no time to get a decent backdrop and adjust the white balance, but the value of the words outweighed the quality of the recording. I had been given to expect a proper, long interview and had spent several hours shooting GVs beforehand which did not find any use in the end. But I got the text and video finished and filed back that night, and my hectic two days of work were done.

Unless you are using the kit regularly you learn on the job, again and again. In Marseille, my mics failed (it turned out the camera setting was wrong) and a French colleague helped me out. At one point I sat down under a tree with my Mac and found the keyboard and everything else suddenly getting sticky. That was my introduction to honeydew! In Barcelona, an interview had to be recorded on top of the flat roof of a squat, in the glare of the setting sun. How I got up the metal ladders with the camera and tripod still baffles me.

The truth is that if you are a desk journalist, you have to make time of your own to get out and train with a camera, and time to edit it all, of course. One great learning experience for me was shooting video of a Saturday school for Russian-speakers in Reading, England (obviously not for payment). And I try to go through the shooting drill for filming with an iPhone at least a couple of times a week.