For now, editing is a commodity and less a craft

As has been reported recently, CNN laid off 50 staffers, primarily videographers and editors.   Why?   Essentially after a three year internal review, CNN has determined that professional editors are not necessary to craft news stories any longer.   Instead they are expanding their iReport section allowing for more user generated content to be provided to the network, at absolutely zero cost to the network.   Yep, zero cost to the network since these folks won’t be paid.   I could go on about that part of the story, but Stephen Colbert explains it so well in this clip from “This Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.

So we’re at the point in the evolution of Editing (and videography for that matter) from craft to commodity. As CNN says in their release, high quality video cameras and editing software are available to the masses, so they don’t need the professionals any longer. In the corporate production world, this move from professional to consumer / family friends has been happening for quite some time. “My son / cousin / nephew / daughter / friend has a video camera / computer and he/she can do the work for us now. Sorry, but smaller budgets you know.”

Now we’ve seen the same thing happening in broadcast and higher end production as the editing tools became cheaper over the past 10 years. Only for a while there it was actual professionals who left their corporate / broadcast jobs to take advantage of the lower cost tools to strike out on their own. So top notch editors were able to deliver high quality, broadcast and film projects right out of their own homes using desktop tools. I’m proof positive of that starting out in a spare bedroom and then expanding my house where we ran my company for 7 years with three HD edit suites.

I have to have to say, this is the first time I’ve seen a broadcaster literally coming out and saying we’re going to replace professionals with consumers and hobbyists. They save the salaries of 50 professionals and get all sorts of free content, no matter how it’s shot or edited with no regard for sound or video quality. Kind of ironic to see this push to the lowest common denominator at the same time that so many editors are discovering the joys of high end color correction tools. But I digress.

Basically editing is just a commodity right now in the minds of many. The craft is associated with cheap tools rather than the artist using the tool. There are millions upon millions of folks who use word processing software but that doesn’t make all of those millions writers. Writing is a craft that some folks can do and others….. well they can write letters, recipes, but you wouldn’t ask them to write your next script or promo.

It’s the same with video editing. Millions upon millions of people now have access to really good video editing tools, but that doesn’t make them an editor. Earning a paycheck doesn’t make you an editor either. I’ve met “professionals” who have full time jobs that can’t cut their way out of a paper bag. And then I meet kids in school or college that just blow me away with their sense of timing.

True editors are storytellers. Doesn’t matter if you’re cutting a commercial, a training video, a movie or an episodic television series, you’re telling a story. Really good editors seem to be natural storytellers with an incredible sense of timing. When I start a project, I can usually “see” the edit from start to finish within a matter of hours. It’s just second nature for me and it’s something I have a hard time explaining to other people when folks ask me for tips and how I go about editing. A buddy of mine described it that “the editing part is secondary for Walter, he just knows where the story is, but it’s everything else around editing like the technology that has always drawn him in.”

The technology, and the proper way to use today’s technology, seems to be the biggest differentiation between what we’ll call a hobbyist / prosumer vs. a professional editor. Even on national broadcasts I’m stunned at how many interlacing issues I see that aren’t rocket science to do correctly. In the case of our shop, there is not a format we have not had to work with so we’re getting pretty good at solving any problems that can arise from the mixing and matching of the various formats.

So in this short term environment where video editing is equated with the cheaper tool than the artist and anyone can edit at home for super cheap, why in the world would we open a huge new facility? Simple. We’re storytellers and I surround myself with other good storytellers. We are transitioning ourselves from just being a service provider to other clients, to creating our own original content. As we develop these into fully funded projects, we’re going to need room for more storytellers. And as some storytellers strike out on their own, they might need a place to call home for a while. So we want to provide that creative space for other artists because as cool as it is to work at home, I can attest that it’s more fun and creative to be around like minded folks than all alone in your home office.

Long term, the craft of editing is probably stronger than ever. Now that the tools are in the hands of the many, we’ll discover some new folks who just blow us away with their storytelling skills. But short term, many long time professionals could get hurt when editing decisions are based on price alone and not the skill of the artist. Like anything else, with storytelling you generally get what you pay for.

In time, folks will realize that again.

19 Comments

  1. Bulls Eye. Storytelling is what sets us apart.

    This skill, now instinctive, that I developed during my time spent in the first two decades of CNN/TURNER is what separates me from the competition in my career in IT design and development.

    I completely *get* what you write about it taking too much time to explain how we are able to see and hear the beginning, middle and end of a story while developing a project. But thank gawd for the time spent in the trenches and the years of dedication to excellence that made it part of our fiber.

    Super post Walter, thank you for sharing.

  2. I of course agree that storytelling skill is invaluable, and one can only hope that in time this trend reverses itself; producers will realize the value of better programming, and editors will not be forced, as many have been, into a race to the bottom.

    That said, not every job requires a creative storyteller, and these are the jobs that WON’T be coming back. You don’t need Walter Murch for a quick report on Wall St today, or coverage of a local event. For the in-depth Frontline report, yes, of course you want a professional, but otherwise, it’s simply unnecessary.

    As Philip Hodgetts likes to opine, even the amateur submitting iReports will eventually be replaced once it becomes easy enough to automate this stuff.

    • Automation is already working its way through the broadcast world. Single Master Control sites control 10 or more local stations and automation will eventually take over most Control Room operations so folks like TD’s, Audio Ops and even Directors will no longer be necessary for news operations. Of course good luck having that computer know what to do when some huge breaks.

      As for the editing, when you have folks who cut the day to day news stories, they become very familiar with the media library. As that person progresses in their career, they can suggest and pull materials to make a story better than someone standing outside Wall Street with an iPhone. So while you may not need the “best editor” around to cut VO’s and SOTs for news, eventually that person gains the skills and the media knowledge that makes that person so much better and more efficient when they move into long form work. That was my experience during my 5 years at CNN.

      The one really good thing for shops like mine is I now have some really REALLY experienced storytellers available for our projects as we move forward into the new year. :)

  3. I’m really curious to hear you further discuss what you think a “professional” is. From your comments in this post you don’t seem to equate paycheck with professional. What you do say is, “Earning a paycheck doesn’t make you an editor either.” I don’t want to change your words but could you, in your view, substitute the term “professional’ for “editor?” So it would read, “Earning a paycheck doesn’t make you a professional either.” You seem to be saying that what makes a professional is more related to skill set/talent/storytelling/timing than wether or not you’re paid.

    I’ve struggled with this for quite some time – trying to determine how to define “professional.” According to Philip Hodgetts paycheck = professional: http://www.philiphodgetts.com/2011/05/what-the-heck-is-a-pro-anyway/

    Therefore, anyone who gets paid anything to edit is termed a professional. Is it that simple? Or should there be some nuances to it?

    • By the strictest definition – a professional would be anyone who receives a paycheck to do an assigned job. So someone who has the title Video Editor and receives a paycheck is by definition a professional. So it is that simple if you just want to call someone a professional.

      However, that does not necessarily make them a good editor or what I call in the article a “true editor.” There are professional editors out there I would never hire. Too many times I receive demo reels or links that are chock full of motion graphics and super slick titles. That’s nice if you’re applying for a motion graphics position, but not for video editing. A “true editor” is able to craft a story from a pile of raw material.

      For example, all of the editors I work with here in my facility can take raw material, a general outline from the producer and cut a full story that engages the audience. They can look at the material and “find” the story. Oftentimes what they come up with is better than what the Producer envisioned. Other times, well, the stories are lacking, but they can communicate with the Producer exactly what they need to make the story better or more complete.

      I’ve met some editors who literally cannot cut a story unless they either have all the information in the script or have the Producer sitting right alongside feeding them the shots. Those folks are what we affectionately call “button pushers.” Really really good at operating the software, but not someone you would trust to craft a story.

      Folks like that are not very useful in our workflow of news stories, documentaries and long form features. The editor has to work as a teammate to the Producer, not just as the “button pusher.” That’s what clients look for when they come to us and one of the ways we set ourselves apart. In fact, it’s rare that we even have Producers in the edit suites with us any more because our clients are literally all over the world. They know that they can give us instructions, send all the materials our way and we’ll take it from there. Both from the storytelling side and the conversion side.

      The creative side of things and the ability to deliver more than what the client expects is what will set editors and shops like ours apart from everyone else in the short term.

  4. The ability to do something and the talent to do something well have always been different. But the action/issue at CNN doesn’t surprise me. News isn’t about storytelling and creative editing – at least the news that is drawing in viewers right now. News magazine shows (like 60 minutes) will still have professional editors, because they want to tell a story, but it seems CNN just wants to show what is happening “as it happens” – without any possibility of biased editing (and yes, editors, you are – or can be – biased).

    I’m not surprised that this has happened, and frankly it is good for the “news” to be raw reporting rather than creative editing. There is a place for professional editors in the news, but not for the bulk of news stories.

    • Any real or perceived bias would come down from management or the producer of the show / segment. Fox News is a perfect example of bias from the top down with a clearly defined slant and message that the network wants to deliver in the guise of “news.”

      But my article has far less to do with news than it has to do with many very good editors from all walks of production simply being replaced by a body that can operate a tool. The editor themselves are just a commodity for many these days. Eventually the pattern will swing back to the artists.

  5. What happens to Technical Check ? I dont edit News, but I assume the same standards apply to on-air content ? I guess its just some program running on a server somewhere that automatically clips everything thats illegal ? This sort of nonsense combined with shaky handheld footage will probably kill of mainstream broadcast News reporting as we know it today.

    Be interesting to see if the combination of HDSLRs and something like FCP X leads to one man (or woman) independent News crews with the ability to really get back to what made News reporting so compelling in the old days. Just that instead of watching on television, wed see it on our phones, tablets etc.

    • The One man news gathering machine has been around for a while now. Even all the way back to 3/4 tape days.

      What you are describing is already happening with individuals like Ariana Huffington starting an aggregate website that has now gone mainstream as credible news. So you will have that one man news station popping up all over the web able to give micro specific news to whatever audience they want to reach. For every successful one there will probably be thousands that fail.

      But again, my post was not really about news. CNN just happens to be a very public example of what has been happening with the craft in general.

      • Like Neelyre shared, “OVER-crossover knowledge,” The Navy MC rate/job is a perfect example. A Navy mass communication specialist needs to know how to draw, vector, print, shoot, edit, storyboard, visualize, at the expert level, and put out a product in each of those areas every week. But they only give training to the prosumer level…

        • You’ve pretty much described every corporate media communications specialist video department visual specialist mass communications a/v technician in corporate america today. That’s one of the reasons why I actually recommend those jobs to people starting out because you DO wear so many hats. In today’s world, it’s really good to at least be familiar with what other folks are doing in the production pipeline.

          That corporate experience really helped me develop my skills as a Producer / Director that still plays a big part of my professional life today. I’m in the midst of development of four original television series and the lessons I learned back in 1996 producing a national commercial for the casino I was working for at the time still come into play.

          A buddy of mine is in the Navy Communications department right now actually. Quite proud of her and her service to this country.

          • Its funny in that Walter recommends these jobs to entry folks because of the many hats. I started in a small market as an all-purpose guy – editing, live directing, switching, audio, shooting, writing; etc.

            Yet when I moved to Atlanta without a job, every professional told me I was in the BIG city and now NOBODY CARES that I could do anything, I needed to have a specific specialty in one production aspect. So I chose editing and moved up the skill path I mentioned on the previous post.

            And now what are people expecting in the BIG City? The Return of the All-Purpose Guy.

            Kinda wish I could find all those professional advisors from back then and ask their thoughts now :)

  6. Walter,

    Outstanding post. Ive been using the word processing doesnt make you a writer example for years about any craft. The candles been burning from both ends slowly- equipment had gotten cheaper and the professional standards have diminished, all to save a buck. As an independent, I always respect good business decisions, but it can be frustrating when your skill and experience is decreasingly valued to the point where one thinks anyone can do it.

    Another disturbing trend is the OVER-crossover knowledge people expect of us. I learned to edit old school (GVG, Axial, Chyron, D-2 Preread; etc) then adapted to the non-linear world- AVID FCP among others. Along the way, I learned 3rd party plugins like Shine pro-animator, and of course Photoshop, AE, Motion, Flash, Color. Still, I get calls from clients asking me if I can do complete 3d modeling (cinema4d, Maya, Studio max), or if I can shoot and provide a Canon HD XL1 with lights and green screen. Im pretty intelligent and flexible, BUT How much hardware/software does someone expect us to provide/operate for the same day rate???

    But out of fairness, this is happening everywhere – Cant tell you how many colleagues of mine now use turbotax quickbooks and fired their accountant. Web Software is also getting so thorough and smart, one needs to know less less coding to build a commerce site, write an app, and so forth. Its a trend that will continue in any field that requires computer operations.

    All we can do is improve our skills, and align ourselves with employers/producers who respect what we do and know that broadcast programming is not done with a flipcam and imovie.

    thanks for my rant :) BTW Walter, thanks for AtlantaCutters.com. I was at GPTV two months ago for the monthly event and wanted to introduce myself, but you were busy. Maybe next time.

    Rick Neely

    • Thanks so much for the reply!

      Im biased but Ive said for a long time that the best non linear editors are those who started in the linear world. Give me an Accom Axial 2020 / Philips Diamond Digital switcher / Abekas A53 / Chyron and Im living the good life! :)

  7. A few years ago, a Producer sent me an email and this is what he said in regards to editing…

    Nowadays there is less skill required in editing than was ever required. Its kinda like the cashier at the grocery store, she used to have to have a memory and skill with a numeric keypad.
    Now they just have to scan and ask for my club card.

    Ive saved that email as a reminder to never work with him…and I havent.

  8. Great post Walter!

    And when you say Eventually the pattern will swing back to the artists, it makes me think about the 1999 Cronenberg film eXistenZ. In the film, a growing backlash against technologists produces an army of realists who rebel against the pervasive augmented reality that has overtaken society.

    Do you see this industry reaching some tipping point down the road when we realize automation is good only to a point? Because I believe after that point is reached, there are only diminishing returns.

    • Its like any industry. Automation is really helpful to a point but creativity doesnt come from automation. Many folks, especially in the corporate world, will now be told they will add video editing to their list of jobs because they are in some way part of the communications / training departments. Software is so easy, cameras are so small, they dont need to hire folks specifically to run them.

      Now CNN shows the same can be done in the broadcast world. The question just comes down to whats good enough for the audience. Whats the least amount of work we need to do to draw in an audience? Rather than whats the most creative way we can present our stories to engage the audience.

      Thats why I say for now editing is a commodity. Someday the pendulum will swing back to where folks understand the artistry of editing is just as important as the software.

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