Painting with the palette of the Web: a pointillistic approach to storytelling

Backpack journalist and multimedia storyteller Kevin Sites stopped by USC Annenberg this week to talk about his new book and documentary, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars and how solo journalists can innovate within new media.

One-man band

The increasingly popular one-man news bureau – a solo journalist who gathers news using multimedia tools – should leverage each medium to further engage the reader, said Sites.

In September 2005, Sites became Yahoo News’s first original content correspondent, pioneering the “one-man band.” Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone showcased an ambitious undertaking: a one-year trip to all the major conflicts zones around the world reported by Sites, with video, text, and still photography.

Carrying over 60 pounds of equipment, Sites leveraged each medium’s unique strengths to tell his stories. Video was for the “inherent drama,” the “motion” of the world – capturing verbs like dancing, singing, talking, exploding. Text was for “nuance,” the “details that bring a story to life.” Still photography was reserved for portraits to create a powerful “connection to someone’s face,” explained Sites.

Reporting simultaneously in three dimensions is “not a replacement for mainstream media… but an amplification of it,” said Sites. By putting a human face on the global conflicts and “stringing those stories together so that when you see them online, perhaps collectively, cumulatively, they provide a greater idea of what’s happening in that conflict zone.”

Sites views news in new media as not the “last word… but the first word” to pull the reader into the story. “The computer that delivers news is also a tool for you to respond to the information.” Under the intimate portraits and videos of ordinary people caught in war, Sites provided links to the chronology of the conflict (BBC country profiles) and to possible solutions (NGOs and political organizations).

The site drew two million viewers a week. Sites’ workload was heavy: Spending about ten days in each war zone, he transmitted a 600-1,200-word story, five to 15 photographs, and two to three videos every day.

“In some ways I felt that doing this project was a bit of penitence for my journalistic sins of past,” said Sites.

He was referring to November 2004. While covering the battle of Falluja as a pool correspondent, Sites shot a highly controversial video of a U.S. Marine shooting and killing a wounded, unarmed Iraqi insurgent stretched out on the ground of a mosque. Most international networks ran the full tape. All the American networks blacked out the shooting.

“It was absolutely the wrong decision,” recounted Sites, who supported censoring at the time. He explained, “That videotape to me had the potential of creating more bloodshed,” and that conflicted with the journalistic ethic of minimizing harm.

“We failed the public,” Sites admitted. “It wasn’t the government. It wasn’t the military… We censored ourselves.” Subsequently, Sites wrote a 2,500-word open letter to the Marines involved in the shooting on his blog, retelling the story of the shooting and putting it in context. That piece was picked up by newspapers and TV stations around the world.

“What that demonstrated to me was the power of online media in telling a more complete – and sometimes more accurate story than traditional media,” said Sites.

Focus on characters

After Sites’ return from the Hot Zone (and a year off scuba diving to decompress), he and Yahoo continued their foray into original reporting in May 2007, albeit with a dramatic change of subject. “People of the Web” is a series of articles and four to four-and-a-half-minute videos featuring people who use the Internet to “bypass the traditional world.”

He profiles people who circumvent traditional approaches to acting (lonelygirl15), music (bands on MySpace), and art (Phil Hansen).

“What I wanted to do was reach into the computer, and pull out that human being,” said Sites. He looks for stories that contain a strong Web component, a colorful central character, a compelling visual, and an element of social relevance.

For example, Hansen, an X-ray-technician-cum-artist became famous not through galleries, but by broadcasting his art-making process via YouTube. His art is interactive. One particularly impressive project – on a ten-foot, circular canvas-wheel canvas – was created with the words of his viewers. Hansen asked people to write him a moment that changed their lives. Each letter appears as a tiny dot on the canvas, but the blended result was that of a picture of the artist’s own face, cradled by four hands.

Sites said that he’s beaten the mainstream media on most of these stories. Fox News, for example, reported on an online dating service for farmers after Sites covered it.

Reporting in color

The media of video, print and photography contain finer shades that journalists could explore, Sites said.

Within solo journalist broadcast reporting, for example, are at least four techniques that “don’t compete with each other,” demonstrated Sites. Each technique offers a subtly varied angle ranging from micro-view to macro-view.

First, in a traditional first person stand up, the reporter holds the camera at arm’s length and films himself speaking over events in the background. A variation of this technique is one in which the reporter does not himself appear on camera. In both cases, the solo journalist can pan the scene using himself as the center, turning in place, and drawing a circle with his arm and camera.

A third technique uses POV plus nat sound. Sites showed an example of a video of a Sudanese woman singing a rebel fight song to lull her malaria-stricken baby to sleep.

Using a fourth technique that Sites calls “post-impressionistic narration,” the reporter provides a sort of director’s-cut commentary. He watches a video with the viewer, talking over the footage. The time lapse and informal narration offers a macro-view of the events on screen.

“Everyone talks about the Internet as the death knell for newspapers,” Sites said, “No, it’s TV that’s really bad online.” Whereas newspaper websites have become great sources of info, Sites said – they just need to learn how to monetize the Web – Sites criticized local TV websites for simply parking their aired stories on the Internet.

When asked if offering so many retellings of the same event would over-saturate the viewer, Sites replied, “It’s a matter of palette… It makes the journalist work harder.” And in the end, it benefits the viewers and the sources.

“The mediums are not displacing but enhancing each other, playing off each other in ways that are relevant,” Sites said. “TV didn’t kill radio. It transformed it.”

About Jean Yung

Hi there, I am a Master's student in Print Journalism at USC Annenberg.

After seven sublimely bone-chilling, atom-stopping years in Chicago (as an undergrad at the University of Chicago and a business consultant for Deloitte), I can truly appreciate LA's tedious sunshine!


  1. Fascinating story and pregnant with ideas for us aspiring journalists.