USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

Backpack Journalism Is Here to Stay
Backpack Journalism
Point: It's Here to Stay
Counterpoint: "Mush of Mediocrity" Arrows in Their Backs Faces of Convergence Then and Now
In a few years, backpack journalists will not only be the rule, they'll rule

I am a backpack journalist. I use a video camera as my reporter's notebook. I can put together multimedia stories that include video and audio clips, still photos grabbed from the video, as well as text. I can put together graphics information for Web designers. I can throw together a simple Web page. I can't do Flash yet, or simple graphics but they're on my list because they're handy skills to learn. I can do a little muckraking, if needs be, as well as write a broadcast script and a print story. I'd rather be called Maxine Headroom than Martha Stewart.

True, there are only a few of us. The first batch came out of Video News International, a.k.a. New York Times Television, in the mid-1990s (Smita Paul and myself among them). VNI was the brainchild of Michael Rosenblum, a former broadcast journalist who is now a consultant. He thought that training print journalists and photographers to use small high-quality digital video cameras would encourage television networks to do more international coverage, since it's cheaper to send out one videojournalist than a crew. He said this a few years before September 11, and didn't see that a major application of the new digital camera technology would be for the Web, not just for television or documentary work.

Over the next 20 years, the content of the newspaper and the television news shows are likely to be delivered principally over the Internet.

I'm not sure that any of the 80 or so who were hired by VNI were Jacks or Jills of all trades and master of none. Most of us had mastered one medium by the time we picked up a video camera -- in my case, a 20-year career in newspapers. I don't claim to be a master of video, although my first attempt ended up as a segment on National Geographic Explorer, due to the video editing skills of an exemplary editor and a great producer.

But I am becoming a master of multimedia, which is a new medium requiring new approaches and methods of storytelling, as different from print and TV as print and TV are different from each other.

What are their differences? Print (text, still photos, graphics) and television (video, audio, animated graphics) tell stories in a linear fashion. Both are one-way delivery systems, offering little opportunity for feedback on the part of the reader or viewer. Both are temporal - the newspaper becomes fishwrap; television's news disappears into the ether.

Multimedia storytelling uses some combination of text, still photos, animated, graphics, video and audio, presented in a nonlinear format in which all of the information in the elements are non-redundant - a very different form of storytelling. It's a two-way communications system: people can search for information. They send their own text, photos, graphics, video clips and audio to comment on stories or provide additional information.

Two of multimedia's most important characteristics are context and continuity, characteristics that television and print don't have to multimedia's degree. For example, many news organizations created specific sites for the continuing developments after the September 11 terrorist attack. These sites contain the stories of the day. Wrapped around them, in a "shell", are archived stories, including slide shows and/or video of the events of Sept. 11; information about Afghanistan, Pakistan, the history of terrorism, etc.; and other resources in the forms of links. Print and television simply can't provide that much information around each story. Many news organizations' business and sports sections are already using this approach. These characteristics of the medium will change how beats are covered and expand local news coverage.

It's true that backpack journalists aren't the only ones necessary to propel media companies into the multimedia age. They will remain three-headed anomalies, rather than reporters integrated into a multimedia news operation, unless top news managers figure out how to incorporate the organizational changes required by the twin steamrollers chugging their way. These are convergence -- the merging of print, TV, Web and sometimes radio -- and multimedia, the evolution of an entirely new storytelling medium. To create an environment that embraces convergence and multimedia storytelling, editors and news executives will have to lead their newsrooms through those changes. This means incorporating some new elements into the newsroom culture: formal training, informal training, and more teamwork.

I'm teaching backpack journalism, a.k.a. multimedia reporting, at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Most of my students already know how to use Dreamweaver to put together a Web page, and they use Photoshop with ease. They pick up Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro and Flash as easily as you and I pick up a penny. Video skills come nearly as quickly, as does grasping the idea of nonlinear storytelling. The Web is their medium, and the medium of generations that's nipping at their heels, as is reflected in the ever-growing percentage of people who access streaming audio and video news. And each year, more of these multimedia-savvy reporters stroll into newsrooms across the country.

So, in a few years, backpack journalists - or at least those who are familiar with backpack and converged journalism - will not only be the rule, they'll rule. And rock. Just as news organizations made the transition from typewriters and hot type to computers and pagination over the last 20 years, convergence and multimedia will change the face, heart, and guts of newsrooms over the next 20 years. These days, can you imagine hiring a reporter who doesn't know how to use a computer? In 10 years, you won't grok hiring a reporter who can't slide across media, either.

That's not to say that journalists in a converged newsroom won't specialize in one medium or another. They will. And the story at hand will determine how they deliver the news.

Let me explain:

In a converged newsroom, journalists produce stories for television, newspapers and online. Currently, at the Tampa News Center, the nation's most advanced converged newsroom, only a handful of reporters actually deliver their reports across media regularly. More typically, reporters from the Tampa Tribune share information with their counterparts at WFLA-TV, while the multimedia producers at package both reports for online delivery with links and sometimes added audio or video. Although all three news organizations operate out of the same building, they still deliver the news over separate media. But that's this year, 2002.

Over the next 20 years, if economic conditions don't worsen and technological developments continue apace, the content of the newspaper and the television news shows are likely to be delivered principally over the Internet.

Stories will include breaking news, daily stories, features, and in-depth reporting. Breaking news, daily stories and some features will be delivered as short video spots, and combinations of text and visuals in updated news packages that readers/viewers/users check throughout the day.

So how do reporters fit into all this?

The news organizations that thrive in a converged world will have a myriad of different methods for producing stories, but basically the models will break down to producer-driver and reporter-driven stories.

Producer-driven stories work best for breaking news and much daily news content. For example, a hurricane hits North Carolina. The producer of a converged news operation sends out a team of reporters to hunt down the story. Each takes a small digital video camera, but the best videographers are sent to the heart of the action. So are the best, most experienced writers. The inexperienced reporters, all equipped with video cameras, are sent to outlying areas. As time passes, they all file text, video clips, audio clips and still photos, and the producer puts them together in a cohesive package with other material obtained from the organizations' graphic artists and interactive computer specialists. Short text stories and some video clips may go out on the Web immediately after they are filed. Comprehensive reports tallying dead and injured and detailing economic effects are filed later. The reporters file what's in front of them, and don't know how much of their contribution will end up being published, or in what form.

A reporter-driven story, however, is one in which a reporter or small team of reporters puts together a package whose content they essentially control from beginning to end. It may be the beat reporter (science, health, violence, etc.) who works on an investigative story over several months while she continues producing daily and weekly stories. It may be an international reporter who works alone in Japan or Nigeria or Argentina. Or it may be a team of reporters comprising videographers, computer graphics specialists and top writers who work on a series that's designed for different platforms from the start. The series may be delivered as one-minute videos on a news roundup that teases to a longer multimedia package. One element of the package may be very dramatic still photos with audio and text. Another element may be a biting analysis, in text augmented by a few video clips. The main part may comprise integrated text, video clips, graphics, interactivity.

Is this day-dreaming? No, it's been done, and is being done, although on a very small scale. Before the dot-com bust forced it to do stories that only related to the TV channel, Discovery Channel Online, where I did the bulk of my multimedia reporting, had its own stable of multimedia journalists. We traveled in ones and twos around the world to do reporter-driven stories for the Web. It also put together producer-driven packages in which journalists provided pieces.

Other news organizations have done or are experimenting with multimedia reporting, but it's not with any long-term plan in mind. Thus, much of the multimedia reporting from legacy news organizations (established print or television news organizations) is spotty or mediocre because few mid-career and very experienced journalists are encouraged to learn how to do this type of reporting. But when they do, they come up with stories like The Herald Sun's "Touching Hearts: A story of hope and help in Nicaragua." Unfortunately, even with such good examples of the power of multimedia reporting, it's not integrated into the organization as a regular endeavor. Most is done on a catch-as-catch-can basis (hey, we've got a chance to do?we've got some good video for?) or is serendipitous.

Preston Mendenhall's reporting from Afghanistan is a good example of how a news organization takes advantage of a serendipitous situation. The only reason he went alone to Afghanistan early in 2001, lugging all his equipment on his back, is because Afghani officials would issue only one visa and Mendenhall's boss was smart enough to say, "Go!" A few months later, the tragedy of September 11 occurred, and for a while Mendenhall's reports were one of the few close-up looks at that country available.

But how do news organizations begin to adjust to this future? As important as it is to develop multimedia journalists, and journalists who know how to work in a team and share information with other journalists with different skills, it's just as important to grow a news organization to support them. Editors must know what's possible, what's impossible, and how to integrate that into a minute-by-minute, hourly, daily, weekly, and long-term flow of news, information and storytelling without shouting, cursing, tripping, stumbling, falling or curling up into a fetal position.

It's impossible to expect newspaper journalists to file for TV after only a few hours of training. Tampa's News Center discovered that. You can't expect in-depth multimedia or cross-platform reporting unless you provide continuous training and support for early adopters. They're the ones who show late-bloomers who hang onto tradition with bleeding fingernails that there are opportunities to be had in letting go and trying new ways of storytelling. It's critical to set up experimental teams of reporters and editors to begin to work out the bugs and to clear a path for others in the newsroom. It's called growing a culture.

Oh, and with a few more multimedia stories under his belt, Preston Mendenhall will begin to see his dirty camera lens. And I'll begin to remember that the tip of the microphone doesn't show up in my viewfinder when the wide-angle lens is on the camera, but it does on tape. Argh.