When the 2008 elections ramped up, OJ crisscrossed the country. “I loved it. I learned how to travel and solve all sorts of technical problems,” he said.
The In Focus series, created by former CNN photojournalist and NPPA member Bethany Swain, piqued his interest. The photography and storytelling series was open to anyone in the network, but few people from Newsource submitted ideas.
A colleague remembers him as “fearless.” He pitched, produced, shot and edited a story about a medieval-themed pillow fight. “That story got me on the radar of Jeff Kinney, CNN senior director of field production and chief photojournalist,” OJ said.
Post-election, OJ was transferred from CNN Newsource to CNN’s domestic bureau in D.C.
“I was horrified,” OJ recalled. “I did not want to roll a cart of gear around Capitol Hill.”
During his six years as a photojournalist at CNN Domestic, there were days on the Hill, but he also got assignments across the country – and in Afghanistan, Australia, Bahrain, France, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan and Qatar.
Part of the reason he was trusted to travel was because of his attitude. Kinney, his new boss, remembered the pillow fight package.
“He was a great, positive, forward-thinking member of the team, and he wanted to be fully engaged,” Kinney recalled. “When transferred to us, he requested a new cellphone. His CNN phone had an Atlanta area code. He requested a D.C. area code because he wanted to be part of the D.C. team. That showed me something. He wanted to be all-in.”
Things were going great. He was respected, well-liked and was doing good work. But he felt it was time to do something different.
“I woke up in Paris covering the Charlie Hebdo massacre with Jake Tapper and Christiane Amanpour and realized I wasn’t being challenged anymore,” OJ recalled. "I know I was in a remarkable position, but I wasn't having fun.”
Back in D.C., he asked management if he could fill in on the Desk.
“By being on the Desk I could be a part of the conversation about why and how we cover stories,” OJ said. “I felt like it was my solemn responsibility to be the person on the other end of the phone who could let a crew know that someone had their backs.”
Those fill-in stints on the Desk paid off on April 27, 2015, when OJ learned about an opening for senior field production supervisor at CNN D.C. He remembers that day because it’s when the Freddie Gray riots began in Baltimore.
The crews were running low on batteries. Since he lives just outside of the city, he volunteered to deliver new supplies. While at the epicenter of the riots, he got too close and was punched in the face. While he lay flat on the street, his CNN conflict training kicked in. As his assailant rose to drop a cinder block on his head, OJ threw his new iPhone. Distracted, the guy went one way and OJ ran in the other. “That CNN training saved my life,” OJ said.
Afterward, his eyes were black and purple from the assault, and his doctor would not clear him to return to work. OJ said, “If you won’t clear me, I’ll find a doctor who will.”
They came to a compromise: He could go on desk duty. That doctor never knew that OJ’s idea of desk duty was to return to Baltimore to coordinate the crews from the CNN satellite trucks at City Hall. “I don’t want to be the guy in charge. I want to be the guy who has your back.”
Because OJ had proved himself in the field, on the Desk and as a field supervisor, CNN made him the senior field production supervisor.
Tasked with training, retention and hiring, he leaned on his NPPA roots by immediately sending a team of CNN journalists to the NVW.
“He was the driver behind it. He made it easy for me to OK the budget request,” Kinney said. And he saw how his staff had changed from its week in Norman.
“Absolutely! We have seen the return on investment,” said Kinney. “Those crews now have a common set of storytelling goals, terms and a sense of collaboration. To me, it's a no-brainer. It’s such a valuable resource for the industry.”
Gratified to have a partnership with CNN, NVW’s director, Dr. Julie Jones, added, “To have OJ reach out and get CNN people to Oklahoma ahead of the current political climate of ‘fake news’ reinforces what we want to do, which is to serve journalists who have stories to tell within a video paradigm. It's a testament to Oliver and Jeff as leaders.”
This year OJ has been promoted again. He is now the CNN manager field production D.C. At 38 years old, he doesn’t know what’s next, but he doubts he would have gotten this far without the NPPA.
“I still ask for advice from the people I met in Norman in 2004. I found my passion for storytelling there, I got inspired and, you know, that's a powerful thing! The NPPA is still my compass to this day.” ■
For over two decades Mike Schuh has been on the faculty at the NPPA News Video Workshop. He is an award-
winning storyteller at WJZ-TV in Baltimore. Interact with him @MikeWJZ and [email protected].
This is the first 29.97FPS column and is the brainchild of Mike Schuh. If you have a story idea and/or would like to write a 29.97FPS column, please email [email protected].
News Video Workshop, click here.