(Rather than clutter up this essay with a lot of links, you’ll find a number of them aggregated at the bottom of the piece.)
Sonya Doctorian produces video essays, short stories of real-life. There are definite stories in her pieces but no writer’s voice: she uses her subjects’ word or ambient sound as she captures slices of life. Doctorian’s essays don’t appear on TV screens and aren’t produced for broadcast media. She’s works for the Rocky Mountain News, and her essays are delivered on the newspaper’s web site.
Andrew Revkin is an award-winning science writer at the New York Times, with an impressive list of works to his name, including the book, The Burning Season. I bought a copy of the NY Times once simply because his byline was on a front page story. But if you go to the New York Times web site, you’ll find much more than his deeply-reported and compellingly-written articles. When Revkin goes out to report on major issues, he brings back photographs, video and recorded interviews that become slide shows and short-length videos that bracket his articles.
Will Yurman also wins awards, for photographs. At the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle he and fellow photographers Max Schulte and Annette Lein are building an impressive portfolio of stories that combine their photography — all of it good — with audio and snippets of text. As with Doctorian’s essays, you don’t hear their voices. The stories are told through the voices of the subjects of their stories, or through the sounds at the scenes where they shoot. In every case, the photographers gather the audio. Yurman, and perhaps the others, builds his own multimedia reports.
These are talented people, as are dozens of others whose work I’ve seen and admired. They do journalism in new ways, bringing sound and motion and new story structures to newspapers. And they are what can be called backpack journalists. Unlike the “specialists,” — reporters who write, photographers who snap, broadcast journalists who roll film or wield a mic — they carry a kit of tools and skills to cover the story in whatever form it can be best told. Revkin most fully meets the definition, with his writing, photographs, audio and video. Doctorian, with a background as a staff photographer, photo coach and assistant managing editor for photography, produces her video essays and works on (award-winning) multimedia projects at the News. Yurman goes into the field not just in search of images, but looking for stories that he can sculpt from image and sound; he doesn’t gather cutline details, he interviews. All of them bring a variety of technical skills to bear on the job of telling good stories.
I’m stretching the usual definition of backpack journalist — a single reporter who can do it all. But backpack journalist fits for people working with multiple technologies that take them outside of the traditions of their medium, and layer new tools and storytelling capabilities on top of single-definition journalism. “Multimedia journalist” doesn’t seem to me to capture it all and the phrase “one person bands” has been used, but usually derisively. I like the idea of a backpack full of technology, used by a skilled journalist to augment and extend the traditional TV news shot, ink-on-paper newspaper article or radio report.
In fact, if I were 19 again and starting out as a journalist, I’d do whatever it took to be a backpack journalist. Even though I’m not a working reporter any more, my actual backpack often holds a laptop computer, CD-quality audio recorder and variety of mics, digital camera with extra batteries and media cards, notebooks and pens. I have my eye on a video camera, now that prices are coming down. On the laptop, I can record sound (using professional effects such as compression), edit audio, video and still images, and quickly build slide shows, narrated or not. If I’m near wifi, I can upload files to the web. I carry connecters that let me plug into phone lines, just in case.
I am enthralled by the idea I can throw all of that hardware, and the “software” of the journalism skills I developed over 25 years, at a story and take from it the raw material for written articles, audio reports, slide shows, or whatever combination of those that tells the story the way I feel it needs to be told.
That doesn’t mean I’m enthralled by the idea of filling newsrooms with multi-tasking backpack journalists, or setting the backpack journalist up as the ideal, though.
That’s happening in some small ways in dozens of different places. Small-market TV stations reduce the news crew to a single journalist toting a video camera; in small-market newspapers, staff photographers disappear and are replaced by digital cameras thrust into the hands of reporters. Economics is driving it (the economics of maintaining profit levels), and as newspapers continue to lose circulation, and increasingly lose advertising revenue, the trend is likely to accelerate. Call it “forced backpacking.”
Forced backpacking reduces quality. A reporter handed a camera is going to use that camera as an afterthought to the job of gathering the news. Something has to give at the scene of breaking news when a broadcast reporter has to concentrate on both the camera and the microphone. It may not be a popular argument to make in an age when anyone can be a journalist, but quality matters. It doesn’t just add polish to storytelling, it signals we are in the hands of people who have developed high-level skills. Polished delivery can hide weak content, but it’s easier to judge content that it is not distorted by or buried in the “noise” of poor delivery.
What Sonya, Andrew, Will and hundreds of other journalists are doing is significantly different. I suspect in most cases, the one-person-band approach to individual stories (one person occasionally augmented by a technician or photo editor) is driven by the desire, skill and talent of the individual, not by management directive or defined newsroom need. They take an approach to journalism that draws on a variety of skills, because they have developed those skills, and because they can make those skills work in the service of storytelling. They work for newspapers willing to give them the time and the space to create.
These journalists are a new breed, although we’ve always had journalists who are as handy with a camera as with a word processor, and journalists who move easily from behind the keyboard to in front of the TV camera. What sets them apart is a not just mastery of journalism skills but of a set of technical skills and understandings that makes it possible for them to conceive of and execute a story in a different form, or combination of different forms. Will Yurman is a talented news photographer. Andrew Revkin is a wonderful reporter and writer. Sonya Doctorian is a strong storyteller. If that was all they did, their work would still be great. By adding to it, the journalism becomes better still.
These new journalists don’t define journalism, any more than do investigative reporters adept at mining public records or combining a database with geographical information to tell new stories in new ways, as Adrian Holovaty did with his Chicago crime map. Or any more than do the beat or specialist reporters who have the ability and drive to throw themselves into a single area and develop broad and deep expertise that gives their reporting authority. Or any more than do the wide-ranging columnists who, like Jimmy Breslin, find the human everyday reality behind the big and small events of the time. We need them all.
But the backpackers bring something new to the mix that’s only partially defined by the technologies they are mastering. Backpack journalists extend journalism by adding something — a video essay, a narrated slide show — to the day-to-day practice of journalism. At many of the more progressive newspapers, these are not add-ons; they are integral parts of the continuing coverage the newspaper provides. The value of these journalists is that they are at the frontlines of the necessary reinvention of newspapers (and, to a lesser degree, broadcast media) by extending how they tell stories and connect with readers.
As such they are valuable additions to any newsroom, when they bring together strong journalism and technical skills and use them to tell compelling stories, whatever the form. Creating a whole newsroom of backpackers, though, either by design or the forced backpacking of beancounters who see convergence as a botttom-line issue, risks losing some of the other journalism mentioned above. It would be great to have the likes of Sonya Doctorian, Andrew Revkin and Will Yurman in a newsroom, working away at the new types of stories they tell so well. And great, too, to be able to unleash them as writers, managers and photographers, when the story demands the type of “traditional” coverage that’s still the bread and butter of major newsgathering organizations.
SONYA DOCTORIAN: Ashley, former drug dealer, May 18.
ANDREW REVKIN: While his earlier print work has disappeared into the NY Times archive, his multimedia work is still available.
WILL YURMAN: There is a rich archive of multimedia work by Will Yurman and the other Rochester photographs at the newspaper’s web site.
ADRIAN HOLOVATY: Adrian is at the forefront of journalists who are bringing together public data and technologies like Google maps to tell stories. His Chicago crime map points the way.
JIMMY BRESLIN: You can do a Google search to bring up some of Breslin’s columns. This Village Voice piece about Breslin by Tom Robbins is worth reading.
12-inch iBook G4 with Airport Extreme; Olympus E-10 digital camera; iRiver iFP-795 MP3 player/recorder; lapel and conference mics; assorted cables, connectors and batteries; Moleskine notebook; pens. Software: Audio Hijack Pro (recording); Audacity (audio editing); GarageBand (multitrack audio recording and editing); iPhoto and PhotoShop; Flash; iMovie (video editing; synching slides shows and audio); QuickTime Pro; Flick’r uploader; Transit (for FTP); Skype (IM, VOIP).
I want to credit Stewart Pittman for being one of those who helped me focus my thinking about backpack journalism with the post Rise of the One Man Band at Viewfinder Blues. Great reading for the broadcast perspective.
And while I firmly believe backpack journalism isn’t necessary for every reporter, or even desirable if it comes at the expense of other skills, I just as firmly believe every reporter and reporter-to-be needs to acquaint themselves with the possibilities. And it seems likely that the most successful freelancers of the future will be those who literally can do it all.