USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





The Backpack Journalist Is
a "Mush of Mediocrity"
Backpack Journalism
Point: It's Here to Stay
Counterpoint: "Mush of Mediocrity"
TBO.com: Arrows in Their Backs
TBO.com: Faces of Convergence
TBO.com: Then and Now
Inevitably, most backpack journalists will be Jacks of all trades, masters of none

The Backpack Journalist - a multiple media multi-tasker capable of operating a video camera, performing a TV standup, telling a print story, writing a broadcast script, creating a Flash animation, compiling a photo gallery, grabbing an audio clip and muckraking masterfully- is like a Martha Stewart of the digital journalism age.

What a promising, efficient concept - or is it?

The problem is, whipping up a satisfying meal of professionally prepared multimedia journalism with a little video, audio, text, photo album, Flash, and with chat moderation a la mode, is a feast few journalists can serve up. While exceptions exist, the old adage applies: Inevitably, most backpack journalists are a "Jack of all trades, and master of none."

Without a strategic plan for reorganization over time, a multimedia company's promise of job efficiencies, cost-savings and richer journalistic storytelling will sputter and stumble.

It's not the do-it-all journalists that are needed to propel media companies into the multimedia age. The real changes must take place with top-down management's support and action, expanded research and development budgets and a reorganization from monomedia silos to integrated multimedia operations and journalism.

Without a strategic plan for reorganization over time, a multimedia company's promise of job efficiencies, cost-savings and richer journalistic storytelling will sputter and stumble. The development of multimedia journalism can't be a bargain-basement proposition. It must be an investment.

"By definition, backpack journalism does not work when trying to post a complete breaking news package on a Web site. However, I do see where it could work with the rare, multitalented person preparing a special to run a month from now," said Gary Kebbel, editorial director at America Online. "I also resist the notion of backpack journalists because I believe it is being foisted on us by publishers who don't feel that 20% profit is good enough. I think they are simply trying to eliminate jobs."

According to an Innovation International Media Consulting Spring 2001 survey of 200 newspaper company members of World Association of Newspapers. The most serious obstacles to multimedia convergence are lack of financial resources (31%) and journalists' individualistic nature (31%). Executives also said lack of state-of-the-art multimedia editorial systems (30%) and legal restrictions to ownership of more than one type of media company (25%) also were among the obstacles to convergence.

The study reported that 38 percent said they have multimedia journalists with formal duties in at least the Internet, and 29 percent with duties in more than one medium. Thirty-one percent responded they do not employ multimedia journalists.

Of those newspaper companies that employ multimedia journalists, 51% report multimedia journalists are working well, 38% report mixed results, 7% report multimedia journalists are not working well, and 4% had no opinion.

Why is the development of multimedia journalism so essential? Because news users are accessing video and audio in record numbers.

The consumption of multimedia journalism is gaining, according to a litany of news Web sites, large and small. On the high-traffic side, MSNBC.com reported a steep rise in video access since September 11 events. In August 2001, about 7 million MSNBC.com users clicked the play button for video. In September, it was 73 million, mostly for September 11-related video coverage. The numbers have dropped since September, but are frequently more than double those of August's access numbers. In October, MSNBC.com reported 24 million video downloads, 17 million in November, and lower numbers in December and January, but still higher than August, reports Silberman.

Mid-size and large newspaper sites, many with local television station partners, are reporting an increase in video access in the past year, especially since broadband access is growing. NetRatings reports broadband access in the U.S. has increase 67 percent from 2001 to 2002.

According to McKinsey Quarterly (requires free registration). A January - March 2001 survey of unique visitors to various news and entertainment sites showed that almost one-third (29.5%) of broadband users and 17.5% of narrowband users are accessing streaming audio and video news.

In comparison, 22.1% of broadband and 8.7% of narrowband unique visitors accessing music via streaming audio; 19.1% of broadband users are 11.8% narrowband unique visitors are accessing streaming audio and video via TV; and 15% broadband and 4.9% narrowband unique visitors are accessing streaming video for movies.

Do-it-all journalists

All-in-one journalists are committed to cross-platform storytelling. Most can operate video cameras, digital cameras and audio equipment. All can write for different mediums. They're good at juggling. They know how to zero in on a video or audio opportunity and seize the moment to tell a story in a richer, deeper way. All seem to have a similar vision to tell a story on multiple levels, lugging their sound and video equipment, their laptops, batteries, cameras and even solar panels to their far-flung assignments.

However, the do-it-all journalists should be the exception, not the rule.

At the Online News Association's second annual convention at UC Berkeley in October, a panel of multimedia journalists talked about the pros and cons of backpack journalists. Some participants voiced concern that the fruits of backpack journalists' labor would be a "mush of mediocrity." 

"When news breaks for an online site, it is very labor-intensive to get all the pieces together in a few minutes. One person cannot do it. You need someone organizing, someone reading mainbars, someone looking for sidebars, someone putting together the multimedia and someone creating the message board and opening a chat room," Kebbel said. "The same principle applies to being in the field. Should I be focusing the digital camera on a precise event, or should I be scanning the scene to get the broader picture or should I be talking to witnesses or should I be taking notes before I forget what I just saw or was told? Is a still frame from a video as good as a photographer's photo? Is the audio recorded on a video camera as good as the audio recorded by a soundman? In an emergency, all of these shortcuts will work. But none of them is the top-quality choice. With more people on the scene, more of the job can get done in a shorter time by people with the appropriate expertise."

Indeed, the "do-it-all" journalist model is fraught with problems.

While some multimedia journalists can handle a variety of tasks efficiently and professionally, most will only deliver mediocre journalism.

While some multimedia journalists can handle a variety of tasks efficiently and professionally, most will only deliver mediocre journalism. While some may excel at writing the story for print or broadcast, they may produce poor-quality video or still pictures. Specialization as the prevailing employment strategy has stood the test of time with other forms of journalism. In time, the message that quality comes from those journalists who practice a defined job, be it writer, videographer, photographer or editor, will be clear.

IFRA, a large media technology organization based in Germany, has studied the needs of the evolving multimedia journalists, and each year since 1998 has created a matrix of new cameras, laptops, audio recorders and other portable devices designed for multimedia reporters. Kerry Northrup, executive director of IFRA's NewsOps Centre at the University of South Carolina, has directed the Newsgear initiative.
 
"Newsgear is not really intended as an all or nothing? 'take this suitcase with you to do a story or anything else,'" Northrup said. Instead, the Newsgear project is intended to provide scenarios in which the technology works. "The most important thing is not the technology, it's the news flow and how to integrate it, and the training on how to do it."

"There's a middle road (about backpack journalism). The specialist journalist isn't going away when the cameras have more knobs than on the dashboard of my car," Northrup said.

"If you have a 5-second window to get a picture, you're going to send a well-trained photojournalist who is going to get the picture."

The backpack journalists are an answer to low-budget media companies to provide multimedia storytelling. MSNBC's international editor, Preston Mendenhall journeyed to Afghanistan in May as a one-man multimedia band. The two-week tab was about $6,000, he said. He captured audio, video, still photos, wrote stories and did standup. He edited and transmitted photos on his satellite phone. The tab would have come to about $70,000 to $80,000 if a four-journalist crew did the same, he said, including a video person, correspondent, producer and a sound person.

But even for Mendenhall, a well-trained, 8-year veteran of NBC and MSNBC.com, he is critical of his ability to do it all well and admits that details like a smudge on a camera lens would be detected by a professional photographer focused on his specific assignment, while Mendenhall is too busy juggling tasks to notice.

Thirty to 40 percent of his time is on the road as a one-man band. He travels with a laptop, a digital video and still camera and a satellite phone, with which he can transmit still photos anywhere in the world in about 10 minutes apiece. That's pretty lightweight gear, compared with a television crew with large, over-the-shoulder camera and bulky electronic accessories.

"The biggest upside is how much you weigh and how much gear you take with you. You can move so much faster. The downsides are, you really have to watch quality. There are clearcut rules in TV production about what producers look for. You really have to be on top of it."

Despite the downsides and quality concerns, Mendenhall believes the backpack journalist will continue to grow in popularity.

"I think multimedia journalists are here to stay. It has evolved to the point where one person can pretty much do it all. We're just waiting for the technology to do it better," Mendenhall said. "I think multimedia journalism will be perpetuated, but if the story is production intensive, then this is not the way to go. You can do almost any story this way."

Lightweight cameras are not only easier to travel with, but less distracting to onlookers as journalists are trying to do their jobs. "Whenever you pull out a (full-sized) television camera, you become the center of attention. With a small digital camera, you can get a lot more footage by being discreet," he said.

Pariah Nation, by Preston Mendenhall

Michael Silberman, managing editor of the east coast operations of MSNBC.com, the Web's most trafficked news Web site, reports that five people, including Mendenhall, are true multimedia journalists at the most trafficked news Web site who can produce audio and video, who can report and edit the segment.

"There are some people who have the native skills, the instincts and the ability to do all of that, and you need to find them, and then you need to invest rather heavily to training them. If you don't invest in training, it won't be particularly high quality," Silberman said.

Charlie Meyerson, a chicagotribune.com staff reporter who was a news radio veteran before he became an Internet reporter, informally trains colleagues in broadcast basics in the online newsroom. In addition to his text news updating and reporting duties online, including an early-morning, e-mailed update newsletter to 20,000+ subscribers, he gives an 8 a.m. radio broadcast on WGN-AM, a Tribune Company station. 

Meyerson's team built a masterful multimedia section on the attacks of September 11 , with a  photo and story gallery by Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent Paul Salopek.

Smita Paul, who has experience in print and broadcast journalism, has traveled to Indonesia, Malaysia and India for multimedia assignments for the Discovery Channel. She lugs 30 to 40 pounds of multimedia equipment to far-flung places for her job, including solar panels, a laptop, extra batteries, a still camera, video camera and sound equipment.

Paul's favorite assignment was to document the plight of the orangutan during the devastating fire season in Indonesia in 1998. The apes, living in the fire-ravaged region, have also been hunted for food and as exotic pets. Recording the special sounds of the orangutans can't be matched with text or photos, she said.

"With multimedia, you want to tell the most accurate stories possible. This was the one time I felt I wasn't cheating anybody. I was trying to relay the most authentic experience as I could as a reporter. I would break out my video camera and record video, I used my instincts when I needed to record sound. I also can give depth that print does very well," Paul said.

Adrian Phillips, a multimedia reporter at TBO.com, has tasted a variety of mediums since starting at Tampa Bay's multimedia newsroom, including writing, standup, video and audio producing and Flash animation production.

"Multimedia journalism allows the opportunity to give the end user the opportunity to get information in a variety of different mediums. What that means is thinking bigger than we have in the past. It's personally exciting, but more difficult. It is the combination of still images, video, audio, text, that takes multimedia journalism to a different level than other mediums," Phillips said.

A day for Phillips is never the same, but one day could unfold this way: "I come in at 9 a.m., if my job is to do original content or a special project, the moment I get in, I hit the ground running and write a script, log my tapes, and pull together a story.  I edit video from the digital video camera with Adobe Premiere," he said. "If I had my other hat on, I would be the news czar. My responsibility on that would be main priority to see if our users are seeing the latest local, international and national news on the front of our Web site."

Phillips admits that not everyone was made to be a do-it-all multimedia journalist. "You can retrain somebody to tell somebody how to tell a story in a different platform. But to expect them to produce the piece online, shoot, edit, standup , and not having it be an overwhelming task for them," he said. "You're asking a lot of that person."

Phillips assists Channel 8 TV News and Tampa Tribune newspaper reporters in thinking in a more multimedia fashion, and then creates multimedia complements to some traditional stories for publication on TBO.com. TV and newspaper reporters also have acted as multimedia reporters, taking photos, video and sound.

But more than the quality issue, there's a deeper issue at work here. Much of multimedia journalism is bubbling up from the grassroots of news organizations on an experimental basis, not as a planned, long-term investment in the future. Few multimedia journalists are being trained on video cameras, audio recorders and cross-platform writing styles. A commitment to multimedia journalism from the top levels of management needs to take place.

"There needs to be a change in thinking in big media companies in the way they think about multimedia," Paul said. "I think this will naturally evolve... .You saw some interesting things going on in Web journalism, most of that stuff has disappeared, money isn't there and people are extremely cautious. Once the leaders of the organizations see how popular this is, how much traffic you can drive traffic to a Web site, and you can actually save money, this is a good thing for media companies."