Over the past thirty years, Jon Alpert has distinguished himself as an award-winning journalist. He has won three Primetime Emmys, eleven National News & Documentary Emmys and one National Sports Emmy. He has also won 3 Columbia-DuPont awards, a Peabody, and lots of other honors. He is unique among reporters because in addition to his awards for content he has won multiple Emmys in the craft categories—for his camerawork and editing. He is credited—or blamed—as one of the originators of the one-man-band verite style of reporting.

Alpert has consistently gained unprecedented access to world leaders and historic events during the past four decades—the first American TV reporter in VietNam after the war—interviews with Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein—battlefield coverage from Angola to Afghanistan, Cambodia to Central America. Alpert has a history of bringing visibility to the invisible and his reports from around the world and all parts of the United States have been widely broadcasted on HBO and on NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, ESPN, and NHK. Alpert is the Co-founder of the Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV). Although there are no records for this, Jon likes to claim that DCTV is the United States’ largest and most honored non-profit community media center. DCTV is located in a landmark firehouse in New York City’s Chinatown.

He also teaches Television Documentary at Columbia University.

Selected Filmography: Cuba: The People (1974) Chinatown: Immigrants in America (1976) Vietnam: Picking Up The Pieces (1977) Third Avenue (1980) One Year in A Life of Crime (1987) Lock-up: The Prisoners of Rikers Island (1995) High on Crack Street—Lost Lives in Lowell (1995) Life of Crime—Part 2 (1998) A Cinderella Season—The Lady Vols Fight Back (1998) From Ground Zero to Ground Zero (2002) Papa (2002) Latin Kings: A Street Gang Story (2003) Siberian Adoption Story (2005) Baghdad ER (2006)

Selections from interview with Sarah Hart, April 2008:

How did you come to teach journalism?

No one ever taught me. I learned in the streets, and I made a lot of mistakes—ethically, technically, journalistically… Over time I’ve grown to be a better journalist, but it took me 35 years! I love journalism, and when I see other people who want to do it too, I want to help. So now I’m trying to teach what it took me so many years to learn and cram it all into a couple of months!

What do you hope to impart to your students?

In TV journalism, up until recently, there was a cookie-cutter approach: this is how you make a 90-second news summary, this is how you make a PBS documentary, and so on. That might be a good and real way of communicating, but it’s a short cut. For years the people that imposed the style of visual journalism were print people. Now we are thinking more about craft. The traditional style is a short cut, maybe not journalistically, but definitely artistically.

In my program the stuff kids produce has to be competitive. It has to capture audience—that means good craft.

Now, places are requiring journalists be a one-man-band operation—in other words the reporter is also the camera person, sound person, editor. What my students are realizing is that when they come into a room to do a story they have to analyze it visually in terms of the characters, scene, story. They have to start thinking immediately about how they’re going to get the shots they want to maximize effect. It is like conducting a symphony everywhere you go. Really, you can only learn it by going out and trying. You paint yourself in a corner, maybe again and again. It’s very humbling, but you learn.

Are there any changes you’d like to see in how journalism is taught in school?

In the beginning, all my students wanted to work by themselves. They wanted the responsibility, and the credit, of a solo-produced project. This is just unrealistic in a school setting, when students have so many other obligations as well. If you really want to know about documentary you have to learn all kinds of stuff—sound engineering, color coding—but a lot of the students who took my class lacked even adequate camera skills and editing experience. I think it would be valuable to have something like boot camp classes where students just have little assignments—just to learn how to use the technology.

Also, in the world of TV journalism, everything is changing. I think I’m sitting on the brink of extinction in how we make our programs. In past, documentary makers always tried to make an alliance with risk-averse corporate media. But, the audience for risk-averse, traditional-style TV is shrinking. It’s the internet audience that is growing. Schools are starting to recognize this in their “new media” programs, but it’s silly to make a distinction between TV journalism and new media journalism.