AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   April/May 2009

Journalist of the Future   

The groundbreaking NBC digital correspondent Mara Schiavocampo

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

Mara Schiavocampo was about to embark on her fantasy job. But the second she stepped onto the plane that April 2006 afternoon, she felt heartsick and nauseated.

"Oh, my God," she thought. "What am I doing?"

Three days earlier, Schiavocampo had been a television news anchor at New York City's WRNN, an independent station. Now, she was boarding a plane to Jordan, beginning a yearlong sabbatical to attempt to carve out a journalistic niche that would combine her passion for storytelling with her love of travel.

Her year as a freelance reporter "not bound by geography" so impressed executives at NBC News that, in October 2007, the network created a new position, digital correspondent, for Schiavocampo to showcase her cinema-verité style of storytelling. NBC Senior Vice President Alexandra Wallace calls her the "journalist of the future."

Schiavocampo, 29, didn't always want to be a journalist. She entered the University of California, Los Angeles, on the premed track, but after struggling through chemistry and biology, she realized science wasn't for her.

So she returned to her first love – writing. As she approached college graduation in 2000, she applied to the graduate program at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, intending to focus on print reporting. But she answered the application's innocuous question "What interests you?" by checking "broadcast," without realizing her response would dictate her entire course of study.

As she began her first broadcast course, she doubted her choice. But demonstrating the adaptability that Associate Professor David Burns says set her apart from her peers, Schiavocampo stuck with it.

Natasha Oksenhendler, who as an undergraduate worked with Schiavocampo at the college's Capital News Service broadcast bureau, called Schiavocampo "commanding, but in a very professional way."

"She was a perfectionist. If she was the director of the show, it needed to be top-notch," Oksenhendler says. "You would think that she had been in a newsroom her whole entire life."

Schiavocampo was an intern at CBS Newspath (the network's broadcast wire service) in 2001. During the next four years, she worked for Newspath, mtvU (a national network that broadcasts to colleges), "ABC News Now" and WRNN. A storyteller at heart, Schiavocampo wanted to return to the field, but kept ending up on the anchor desk. Dissatisfied with the direction her career seemed to be taking, Schiavocampo knew that if she didn't make a drastic move, she would still be trapped in the studio in 10 years.

She also sensed a disconnect between the way she produced news and the way she consumed it. She pondered the fact that storytelling is no longer limited to newspapers and television; journalists can combine video, photographs and blogs to tell stories more completely and creatively. She realized that increased media transparency and audience interaction mean people aren't content with just a sound bite from an interview.

People look for the story behind the news, and the best way to tell that story is through a hodgepodge of traditional and new media, Schiavocampo says.

She also wanted the freedom to pursue great stories wherever she found them. Her diverse background made her aware of the wider world from a young age. Schiavocampo, who has an Italian father and an African American mother, spent every childhood vacation traveling. Dinner parties at her family's home were "a parade of nations," where different languages, cuisines and fashions intermingled.

Antsy in her anchor's chair, the observant reporter in her craved the fresh perspective that international work offered. "I just knew that I wanted to do the work that interested me and the only option available to me was to do it myself."

Schiavocampo began her freelance adventure in the Middle East because she knew stories from the region would be marketable. She had visited Jordan before and fell in love with cosmopolitan Amman and its blend of Western and Arab culture.

"From the first time that I went there, it felt like home," Schiavocampo says. Traveling to Jordan is "like slipping into an old pair of pajamas."

But the thought of being abroad without the security blanket of a steady paycheck was nerve-racking.

"I also didn't know what the heck I was doing in terms of how many stories [were] realistic to try to do in that time, who was I going to sell them to, what was I going to cover," Schiavocampo says. "I had no plan."

She spent her first few days there with a guide, getting a sense of what was going on in the area. She immersed herself in her surroundings. She spent afternoons talking to people at United Nations refugee camps, for example, looking not for a sound bite but for "facts and feelings."

During the next three weeks, Schiavocampo traveled across Jordan, Syria and Egypt.

Though the process was confusing at first, Schiavocampo soon developed a work flow. She spent every other month traveling across newsworthy regions, covering racism against Africans in Russia or the killing of bonobo apes for food in Congo. She spent much of her time abroad shooting footage, which she edited after her return home.

She sold her work to outlets including ABC News, National Public Radio, Current TV, Yahoo! and Ebony. In August 2007, the National Association of Black Journalists named Schiavocampo its Emerging Journalist of the Year.

The eloquence of Schiavocampo's acceptance speech at the awards banquet and her poise on the podium caught the eye of Lyne Pitts, then a vice president at NBC. Looking at her work, Pitts thought, "This is a courageous young woman who will go anywhere to get a story that she believes in."

NBC President Steve Capus and Wallace, who at the time was executive producer of "Nightly News," were also impressed. In October 2007, Schiavocampo became NBC's first digital correspondent.

Schiavocampo's job at the network is unique. She comes up with story ideas, shoots video and still photography, edits, blogs and produces packages for the Web and television. Often her only travel companion is her guide.

Her subject matter spans everything from how Detroit citizens are coping with the struggling auto industry to lighter features like the rising popularity of cupcakes.

Her favorite story was born from her curiosity about the source of American women's hair extensions. That question led her to a Hindu temple in India that sells the hair that religious devotees shave off. The visuals of bald women and children, colorful saris and bags of hair were perfect, she says.

Schiavocampo's packages convey an intimacy and honesty sometimes lost in traditional stories, Wallace says.

In addition to her work at NBC, Schiavocampo has been a special correspondent on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and a guest commentator for NPR.

Schiavocampo has extended the limits of reporting, Pitts says, and she is constantly invoked in newsroom meetings as the paragon for today's journalists.

"Mara is young, but she doesn't seem young. She's got an old soul," Pitts says. "Even in a room of people that are her age, she's like an elder statesman."

Priya Kumar (pkumar@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.