Backpack Journalism Overseas  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2011

Backpack Journalism Overseas   

Broadcast organizations increasingly rely on smaller one- or two-person operations in most of their foreign bureaus, a strategy that makes sense when money is tight and technology reduces the need for large crews.

By Priya Kumar
Priya Kumar (2priyak@gmail.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.     

Related reading:
   » Retreating from the World
   » Shrinking Foreign Coverage
   » Shuttered Bureaus
   » Farewell to Foggy Bottom
   » Foreign Correspondents: Who Covers What

This article was funded by a grant from the Open Society Institute.

To broadcast live from Baghdad in 1991, reporters needed more than two dozen cases of equipment that took five people to operate, says former CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre. When McIntyre filed his last live report for the network from the Iraqi capital in February 2008, he did so through a Webcam in a MacBook Pro via a satellite Internet transmitter.

"When you're a TV reporter and you're doing everything yourself, it does change the way you tell a story," says McIntyre, now an adjunct professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. McIntyre covered the trial of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver and bodyguard, at Guantánamo Bay in summer 2008 without a crew. "I was doing a lot of the logistics myself, which meant I wasn't spending as much time in the courtroom."

Broadcast organizations increasingly rely on smaller one- or two-person operations in most of their foreign bureaus, a strategy that makes sense when money is tight and technology reduces the need for large crews. Most integrate multimedia tools into their reporting, but some journalists want to see the industry do more to capitalize on the unique storytelling opportunities that video journalism offers.

"When we think about opening new bureaus, I think smaller rather than larger," says Alexandra Wallace, a senior vice president of NBC News. "As long as you can keep quality and quantity up, the reality is it takes fewer people to do what it took many people to do, and that's really, truly based on technology."

An individual digital correspondent costs far less than a full-fledged bureau, but Wallace emphasizes that newsworthiness trumps budgetary concerns when it comes to foreign coverage. "We feel like we have the right amount of people overseas," she says. The network has 14 foreign bureaus and an editorial presence in another four countries.

The shift toward mobile journalists, or digital correspondents, is also part of ABC News' approach. Three years ago, the network sent seven digital correspondents to form solo bureaus around the world (see "Armies of One," December 2007/January 2008). At first they primarily produced content for the Web and radio, but many eventually got more on-air exposure, says Kate O'Brian, ABC's senior vice president for news. ABC has an editorial presence in 19 cities around the world.

Both network executives say that most of the foreign stories that make it onto the TV newscast are hard news; features typically run only digitally.

"Particularly with our overseas digital reporters, you'll find that when they file for our ABC News iPad app, they'll file a different sort of story, because they don't have the time constraints television has," O'Brian says.

Ian Williams, NBC's Bangkok-based correspondent, acknowledges that it's difficult to balance covering the meat-and-potatoes stories with ferreting out new angles and perspectives. But the Internet gives more mileage to a reporter's notebook, he says. Curious viewers who want more context for a story they see on television can turn to the Web for blog posts, photographs and extended interviews.

Williams and both network executives say decisions on how many people to send and which tools they use depend on what the story is about. Correspondents use whatever the right platform is at the right moment, Wallace says, though she adds that ultimately NBC is a television company.

The use of Web tools as secondary components to a mainstream media product irks Jane Stevens, one of the early advocates of backpack reporting. Stevens, who calls herself a "Webcentric" journalist, embraced the video journalism movement beginning in 1996 and now directs media strategies for the World Company, which owns Kansas' Lawrence Journal-World.

Network news ratings are down because people in today's news ecosystem want more context than they can get in a two-minute story, Stevens says. She praises BBC's use of special reports pages, archived by year and organized into geographic and subject categories. The pages, which compile stories, graphics, maps and photos related to a specific topic, give readers a comprehensive look at BBC's coverage of a particular issue and offer background information when related news breaks.

Transitioning into a truly multimedia environment is difficult when mainstream media organizations remain married to their original platforms, and Stevens has little faith that they will adapt. She tracks niche Web-based operations and cites GlobalPost as the most successful digital-native outlet for foreign news.

"Organizations that just go after the immediate lose a lot of ability to tell the whole story," Stevens says. "The idea that you could have one person covering Europe is really reaching into the absurd."

Competition has always been the industry's lifeblood, but today's 24-hour news cycle places a premium on getting information out rather than telling a compelling story. And that means media organizations aren't taking advantage of emerging styles of storytelling, says Tom Kennedy, former managing editor for multimedia at washingtonpost.com.

"There's this ingrained reflex of 'let's keep moving to the next thing,'" Kennedy says. "And while I understand that influence and respect the need to do that, I think that leaves open an entirely different form of coverage."

Traditional broadcast pieces are often reporter driven. But technological advances and ever-shrinking equipment mean a backpack journalist can produce a piece that connects with the viewer on a more intimate level. Using documentary-style techniques, video journalism can capture a subject telling his or her own story through words or actions with little reporter involvement. Emotion and empathy can convey cultural and historical nuances more viscerally than a reporter's commentary.

"It's been so mystifying to me why organizations have been slow to do even modest experimentation" with this type of storytelling, says Kennedy, who now heads the consulting and training company Tom Kennedy Multimedia. "A very well-funded person or company needs to create a short documentary cable channel that goes beyond what Current TV is doing that plants the flag for feature stories."

Although news organizations may differ in how they integrate new technology into their repertoire, most agree that multimedia has been a boon to foreign coverage.

"I think the new ways that we work and the new technologies that we use are really quite liberating, and I'm really quite optimistic about foreign news," NBC's Williams says. "It's enhancing us rather than undermining us."

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