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Searching for the Ed Murrow of the Backpack Journalist Generation

By Renay San Miguel
Jun 5, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Pop quiz: If you can remember the last time you saw a "backpack" journalist -- a one-person band, an all-platform journalist, whatever you want to call them -- filing a story on a network evening newscast or a prime-time cable news broadcast, scream out that reporter's name. Loud.

Searching for the Ed Murrow of the Backpack Journalist Generation

Louder, please.

(Insert sound of crickets chirping here).

Chances are you weren't just thrown out of your neighborhood coffee house/WiFi hot spot, or received any puzzled looks from your cube-farm mates in your office. Despite more than a year of networks like ABC and CNN hiring journalists to report, shoot and edit their own video for broadcast on television and online, you would be hard pressed to single out any next-generation digital journalists for recognition.

It may be true that the networks are viewing these APJs as a cost-effective way to make up for the layoffs of experienced -- read higher-paid -- correspondents. The backpackers are mostly younger and greener, but that should also make them hungrier and (if you buy the demographic stereotype) more familiar with the technological prowess required to shoot your own stories on a camcorder, edit on a laptop and send that story via briefcase-satellite uplink from some bullet-ridden war zone or debris-strewn flood plain. An APJ should know his or her cable news history; Anderson Cooper got his start this way. Put enough notches on your camcorder and you might find yourself with a 10 p.m. hour of news named after you.

So where are they? Where is their work? Are they getting prime exposure on your 6:30 p.m. ET evening newscast of choice, or is their work being judged by network executives as not yet ready for prime time? Would Charlie Gibson or Wolf Blitzer actually identify the story they're about to present as one filed by an all-purpose journalist?

It appears that at least one of them did. CNN coined the "all-purpose" tag last August when the network announced it would be hiring APJs to staff new bureaus in 10 cities: Philadelphia, Seattle, Columbus, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Orlando, Phoenix; Raleigh and Minneapolis. All new correspondents were supposed to be in place by March.

A source in the CNN newsroom tells me the APJs were indeed trumpeted as such by network anchors when they appeared on screens courtesy of Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) technology, which turns laptops and phone terminals into satellite uplinks. But now? "It seems I NEVER see them on the air," the source says.

ABC started its digital expansion earlier, in October 2007, with the naming of seven correspondents in foreign bureaus. Just this week, the network added four more reporters on the domestic side, with staffers added in Detroit, Denver and Washington, D.C. Their work is supposed to be seen on all ABC News outlets, including Web, radio and affiliate feed services.

Something tells me those last three platforms are where we will see the fruit of their efforts -- for the time being, at least.

A Brief History of APJ

At least Mara Schiavocampo's past work can be seen on her Web site, MaraSOnline.net. Schiavocampo is NBC's digital correspondent for "Nightly News," "the first reporter of her kind in network journalism ... a pioneer of new media journalism," it says on her site. Indeed, she files for the top network shows: I've seen her work introduced by Brian Williams, and viewed her multimedia presentations on msnbc.com; she blogs and shoots still photos in addition to shooting and editing her own video.

Of course, the granddaddy of APJs would have to be Kevin Sites, who first made a name for himself in the war zones established after the 9-11 attacks. He combined video, audio, blogging and photos to put news consumers in the boots of coalition soldiers fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's troops in Iraq. The news reporter became a news story in 2004 when he and his NBC crew videotaped a U.S. Marine shooting a wounded Iraqi insurgent in Fallujah; for this, Sites was called a traitor in some quarters. In 2005, Sites crossed over to the digital side by becoming Yahoo News' first solo journalist -- "sojo," it says in Sites' biography. He won a raft of awards and blazed the cybertrail now being trod by APJs.

What about the next Kevin Sites? Blame technology for taking some of the novelty out of high-tech globetrotting reporters, says Jane McDonnell, executive director of the Online News Association. "I think it may be because it's become so much more -- I don't want to say mainstream because it's not quite mainstream yet -- but so many more people are now using those tools, so it's not so unique anymore for someone to travel the world and do everything with a couple of pieces of equipment," McDonnell told me. "I'd say that that kind of journalism is more and more becoming the rule rather than the exception, which may be one reason why you're not hearing more about people like Kevin."

McDonnell's organization will both celebrate and analyze the collision of journalism and technology in October for its annual ONA conference. One of the people presenting is Janine Warner of Artesian Media, which provides training and consultation for those looking to start and design their own Web sites. A former newspaper reporter and director of new media for the Miami Herald, Warner sounds like she wants to help me out with my APJ search.

However...

"Sounds like an interesting story," Warner says. "As a self-described 'news junkie' with a passion for great new examples of journalism myself, I'd love to help you with your story, but I think you're right that there aren't too many people getting attention for this kind of work yet."

Warner does point me toward the work of William Gentile, who actually teaches a course on "backpack documentary" at American University. This independent journalist has had his work shown on PBS and C-SPAN. Like Sites, Gentile got himself embedded with Marines to tell the story of the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Break Out the Backpacks?

If APJ quality is the issue here, then those sounds you hear are all the laid-off, experienced reporters choking on the "I told you so's" building up in the backs of their throats. Unfortunately, it's not likely to make much of a difference as budgets continue to contract and technology keeps up its relentless march courtesy of Moore's Law. As a matter of fact, McDonnell mentions smartphone cameras soon replacing camcorders for broadcast-quality video.

Phone cameras? Did I hear that right?

"That's exactly right," she says. Her organization is on the forefront of guidance and training for those who want to use their feature-rich phones to help gather news; that's not to mention other tools such as social media, applications for phones, software development, new editing apps, you name it.

However, a return to examining the reasons why APJs aren't yet living up to their hype accidentally highlights an age-old tenet of journalism; It's all about the story. It doesn't matter whether you're Edward R. Murrow using your voice to paint word-pictures of German bombs raining down on London, or a 20-something using a smartphone camera coupled with Twitter to tell the world about a terrorist attack on a Mumbai hotel. You gotta break the news, kids.

"I don't want to overstate this. It's not as though people are running all over the world with camcorders and iPhones doing news," McDonnell says. "It has become so much more acceptable -- but you're right, I have not seen a big breaking news story attributed back to that. The reason for that? I don't know. It could very well be that its use is relegated so far to community journalists and bloggers and some videographers and photographers who are now going that way, rather than professional journalists who routinely break those kinds of stories."


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.


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