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No Country for Old Watchdogs

BREAKING: The news will never be the same again.

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By SOL VANZI

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Every day, the world wakes up to new technologies and gadgets affecting every aspect of our lives. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of news gathering and dissemination, the center of my universe for more than half a century.

When my first article got published in 1963, journalists’ tools of the trade had changed little from World War II to the Korean War, the Cold War, and the start of the Vietnam War. Everyone relied on still cameras, film, typewriters, telegrams, and telexes.

Photographers loaded their cameras with a roll of color or black-and-white film that was good for 24 or 36 shots, depending on the generosity of the publisher’s budget. Often, the single roll was the day’s allocation for several news events. Senior photographers carried two cameras: one for color, and the second for black-and-white.

Daily, by mid-afternoon, the photographers would have rushed the film to the newspaper lab or to a commercial photo shop for developing and to print what’s called ‘contact prints’ to guide editors on which frame to choose and how to crop the picture, if necessary. Large prints of the chosen frames are made to literally paste on the newspaper dummy.

PIGEONS WERE NOT BIRDS

For out-of-town coverages, reporters and photo journalists relied heavily on government and private telecom companies. Stories had to be phoned into the desk or sent via telegram. Big cities had companies that allowed use of telex machines, which gave reporters real-time ‘conversation’ with the news desk.

Photographers had to rely on the kindness of strangers: bus drivers, passengers, airplane pilots, and crew to hand carry their undeveloped rolls of film back to Manila, where newspaper messengers would retrieve them at the airport or bus terminal.

The couriers were termed pigeons, in reference to birds that carried messages in earlier times. This courier system was used by journalists around the world until digital cameras, cell phone, and the internet made the practice seem obsolete. It remains, however, a reliable alternative when disasters down cell sites and power facilities.

RADIO FOR THE MASSES

Then, as today, radio ruled. Farmers woke up to it at dawn; the young listened to music; housewives followed soap operas. Radio stations devoted to news became popular, as did their radio reporters, many of whom rose from the ranks to become government officials.

Before the introduction of cassette tape recorders, the only wayto air an interview with a news source was to drag him to a telephone, call his studio, and interview him live using the telephone receiver as a microphone.

The Sony portable cassette recorder changed all that. Telephone interviews could be recorded, edited, and sent by phone to the studio for airing anytime. Speeches were taped and transcribed for accurate quotes. The cassette recorder strengthened and improved radio news reporting, tightening the medium’s grip on mass audiences.

Photographers had to rely on the kindness of strangers: bus drivers, passengers, airplane pilots, and crew to hand carry their undeveloped rolls of film back to Manila, where newspaper messengers would retrieve them at the airport or bus terminal.

TV NEWS COMES OF AGE

My first memories of news in moving pictures in the 1950s were newsreels shown between full length Hollywood movies in theaters and open-air summer movie screenings at public parks and school grounds.

Blood, guts, and the horrors of war invaded American living rooms in the late 1960s as the three major American networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) poured manpower and resources in their coverage of the Vietnam War.

In the Philippines, the same gory images were broadcasted on nightly prime time newscasts by local networks, increasing awareness of, and protest against, the conflict.

Philippine TV stations received week-old film prints of US network footage sent from New York by air freight, thus the delay.

Cameramen covered Vietnam using Korea War-era film cameras such as the workhorse Bell and Howell; the exposed film needed to be sent from battlefield to Saigon and on to Hong Kong for processing, duplication, and distribution.

The same type of camera and film were used byPhilippine TV stations to cover local news events. For interviews, we used the very heavy and bulky Arriflex and the older Auricon. Both weighed more that 10 kilograms, excluding tripod, clapper, and sound recording accessories. A team of four was normally required for such an assignment.

Things changed with the unveiling of portable videotape cameras in the 1970s, ushering in the era of ENG, or Electronic News Gathering, which eventually made obsolete the previous 16mm film cameras normally used for on-location television news gathering.

FEEDING THE BIRDS

Communications satellites (comsats) and digital cameras enabled worldwide broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, the EDSA People Power uprising, the Gulf War, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

My first experience with comsats was in 1969, when the legendary broadcast journalist Ted Koppel was using ABS-CBN News facilities to send his film report to New York via satellite. He kept asking his crew about ‘the bird’ that had to be fed at a precise time and for a specific number of minutes.

I learned later that “the bird” was Intelsat, a communications satellite. “Feeding the bird’ meant sending material via satellite. When a more urgent news story forced the cancellation of his report, Ted Koppel sadly announced that his bird had been shot down. Killed.

CITIZEN JOURNALISTS

A real turning point for the way that the world covered events was the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, when ordinary people using camera phones captured horrific footage of the disaster.

Since then, ever y major event in the world would be shot digitally by someone using a Smartphone. Philippine newscasts start and end with CCTV footage of accidents and minor crimes.

Veteran journalists complain that technological advancements have not necessarily resulted in better photographs or quality reportage. Fake news, trolls, and digital enhancement of photographs are unwanted products of progress, others admit.

Relics of the past like myself can only hope that in the unlikely event of a technological Armageddon, there would be enough of us left who can function without the internet, cell phones, wifi, Google, power packs, tablets, and MP3.

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