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Exchanging the Pen for the Camera: When Journalists Make the Jump into Documentaries

By Jeff Swimmer

Filmmaker Bill Siegel, who attended Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Journalism and news are great places to visit, say many documentary makers, but not places they want to make a career in. It's impossible to say just how many documentary producers came out of journalism, and debatable if there really is even much of a difference between the worlds. But the revolving door clearly has been spinning for many years, at least in one direction. Especially in recent years, with the growing hunger for current affairs documentaries on TV and in theaters, more journalists than ever before seem to be flocking towards docs.

For many of those who make the jump into documentaries, the "rules" and discipline of journalism—like the emphasis on clear prose, the primacy of research and factual accuracy, the pressure of deadlines, the interviewing skills and the ability to wiggle your way into or out of thorny situations—are invaluable for the documentarian At the same time, many make the switch for the pleasures of taking longer to put together a story, to create larger and more in-depth stories and to tap into more of the creative, right side of the brain. And once ex-journos start building careers in the doc world, few of them ever return to news.

Sam Green lived the transition, and knows well the pluses and minuses. Last year he co-produced and co-directed the Oscar-nominated The Weather Underground. But a decade ago, he was getting a master's at University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, deconstructing the mysteries of the inverted pyramid and priming himself for a job in the hallowed Fourth Estate of American society—the press.

"Journalism taught me to develop a thick skin and go out and talk to strangers," says Green. "I'm grateful for the skills I learned in J-school: tracking people down, gaining their confidence."

Green cites the rigors of research imposed by daily journalism as a key plus. But he wishes there was more of this emphasis on gumshoe work and accuracy in documentaries. He is often troubled by what he calls the "loose" atmosphere of the documentary world, where "it's so wide open and people work so independently that it can allow filmmakers to be deceptive." In journalism, he says, the emphasis on presenting all sides engenders more accuracy.

But in stepping into documentaries, he's walked away from the one of the cardinal tenets of journalism, the goal of reporting and writing "objectively." "I think most documentary makers know that anything we do is subjective," Green admits. "This idea that you're not supposed to have opinions seems so far away to me now."

One of the main drawbacks to news, say Green and many ex-journos who now make docs, is its frenzied pace. News is a ravenous beast that must constantly be fed, at the same times each day. Stories must be turned around lightning fast, and then you move on to the next. After a while, it can all seem a blur, an exciting adrenalin rush to some, but a major frustration to many.          

This simmering frustration with news turned into an epiphany for Jonathan Karsh, who gave up a long and promising television news career virtually overnight when a story so moved him that he realized he could never do it justice in a news story.

One day in 2000, he was sent by a San Francisco Bay Area TV affiliate to report a piece for Mother's Day about a woman named Susan Tom, who delivered on her own—or adopted over the years—13 kids with various disabilities. It was a classic news yarn for Mother's Day, inspiring, emotional-and crammed into a couple of minutes. But Karsh was mesmerized by the family and couldn't leave it to the high-velocity, no-shelf-life news cycle.

 "I was so taken by them, more moved than I'd ever been by any story," Karsh recalls. "And I knew I could never give a sense of who these people were in a three-minute story." He came home that night, told his wife about the Tom family, and she pushed him to re-think a news career that was making him restless after 14 years. Three days later, he quit his job cold turkey, and set out to raise money for a documentary about the Toms. Three years later, he won the Director's Award at Sundance for My Flesh and Blood, which he sold to HBO.

From 'My Flesh and Blood', for which director Jonathan Karsh left a career in television news to make. Courtesy of HBO

 "News stories are on and gone. But My Flesh and Blood was my first documentary, and it's got a great shelf life. It's still around, even two years later," Karsh says. His decision to bolt news is vindicated now, but the transition wasn't always easy. "The hardest thing was to learn to slow down and be patient, wait for moments to happen, as opposed to really making moments happen, which is what you do in the daily TV news world," Karsh notes. "My producer had to remind me, ‘Hey, that's what making a doc is all about.'"

Karsh also credits his news background with instilling discipline, and a keen sense of deadline pressure—something that many documentaries often lack. He shot for a year, and turned 140 hours of footage into an 84-minute film in six months of editing-a decent clip for a feature, by most standards.

To veteran documentary producer Nina Weinstein, her ability to work fast is part of a news background that she says has let her flourish across nonfiction. "I was trained in the Edward Murrow school of standards and ethics," she says. "I can't change my DNA. I don't think I do any show differently, whether it's news, docs or reality. I find out the facts and locate all the people—that's the bottom line."

Weinstein started off in news at CBS Reports, and then segued into documentaries at CBS and shows like National Geographic's Explorer. "It's all about asking questions and listening, and that's what journalism teaches you," she maintains. "I was better prepared than anybody I know when I moved from news into documentaries. I know how to move beyond the first layer, peel back layers, solve problems."

Weinstein says that many of those she's worked with in docs and reality (Average Joe) never got schooled in journalism, and they lack storytelling skills and research skills. Diving straight into the world of long-form nonfiction is a tough place to pick up those skills on the fly, she believes.

"I used to be in the news Taliban," she says with a laugh. "Now some of those people are jealous of me."

Like Weinstein, documentary maker Kay Hwangbo developed a dogged and pugnacious drive in the news world. Hwangbo, who is based in Los Angeles, was a print reporter for 10 years with, among other outlets, the Los Angeles Times and The Korea Times.

 "As a daily reporter, you need good people skills," Hwangbo explains. "You have to persuade, beg, cajole, flirt, cry—whatever it takes. You have to bond with people quickly and show that you're not some fruitcake." She's now putting those skills and many more to the test with her debut major documentary, a profile of one of America's first Asian-American journalists, veteran scribe K.W. Lee. She hopes to sell it to PBS.

Hwangbo has no regrets about leaving the news world behind. "All those school board and zoning meetings-they sucked the creativity out of me." Correction—she might have just one regret: "I do miss the regular paychecks in journalism. They were small, but they were regular."

Bill Siegel, who produced and directed The Weather Underground with Green, learned some really useful lessons in journalism as well—mostly, that he didn't want anything to do with it as a career. Siegel went to journalism school at Columbia University in New York in the early 1990s, an experience that ended up steering him clear away from news.

 "J-school gave me a great toolbox of writing skills, and an appreciation of in-depth research, that ironically didn't fit into what the school was geared toward—daily newspaper work," he says. He watched in dismay as fellow Columbia students approached a piece "already with the whole story in their mind that they were going to do." Whereas documentaries, he says, are "open-ended," and give their creators real freedom. Stories shape themselves and the producers, rather than the other way around.

 "I don't think I move or think fast enough for news," Siegel admits. "But J-school was a great boot camp." Even if he's since gone AWOL.

Documentary filmmaker Eames Yates spent his "J-school" as a copyboy for NBC News. There, he says, he honed his ability to read stories inside people's lives, to see unfolding narratives, whereas news-oriented types might see isolated events or actors acting out roles. "The great thing about documentaries is that you're not talking down to the audience," Yates asserts. "You're ingrained in the story."

For Yates' films, that intimacy is what makes them shine. He's known for gritty and penetrating works for HBO about suicide (Suicide), drug abuse (Crank: Made in America) and teenage violence (The Vampire Murders). He says news helped give him tools to probe these difficult worlds. "If you're hanging out with badass characters—hookers, [dealers in] meth labs—you can't be a crusader. And that's where the distancing of journalism is good. You let the story be the star."

In the news world, Yates also picked up a lot of his street smarts, that imperative to think on your toes and know how to worm your way into—and out of—dangerous or dicey situations. "Anything with guns or illegal issues, you know just how far you can or can't go," says Yates. "You also learn how to talk to people, what to say to people, in those situations."

But Yates, like a lot of other journalists turned documentary makers, was ambivalent about the lessons brought from one into the other. The news world's emphasis on keeping a distance from the story could be a hindrance, he says, when he needed to get access to, and then vividly portray, the kinds of extreme characters and events who occupy his films. "Having a journalistic background reins you in some ways, but I'm not sure that's always the best thing," he maintains. "I'd rather go far out and be reined in, rather than having that lens cover already on."


Jeff Swimmer is is a duPont Award-winning director and producer of documentary films on both sides of the Atlantic. An IDA Board member, Swimmer also teaches documentary filmmaking in the US and in Europe. He holds a master's in broadcast journalism from Northwestern University (1988).