TV Stations Try Backpack Journalism

By Malone, Roy | St. Louis Journalism Review, October-November 2008 | Go to article overview

TV Stations Try Backpack Journalism


Malone, Roy, St. Louis Journalism Review


Two St. Louis television stations have joined a movement in the industry to "backpack journalism." That's where news reporters carry their own video cameras and shoot and edit their own stories. When no photographer or editor is needed, the stations save money.

While station officials are naturally in favor of the practice, some reporters, union officials and others are not fans.

KSDK (Channel 5), a Gannett Co.-owned station, was the first to use a backpack journalist in St. Louis last year. It now has four, which the station calls multimedia journalists, or MMJs.

KMOV (Channel 4), owned by Belo Corp., followed suit this year and has two camera-toting reporters.

At KTVI Channel 2 and KPLR (Channel 11), which have recently combined their news operations to save money, a news official says there are no plans to use backpackers.

A reporter is called a "backpack" journalist because the tools of his or her trade can fit into a backpack, though a standard tripod for the camera doesn't really fit. Digital cameras are being made much smaller and lighter these days, which has given backpacking a boost.

Beside MMJ, there are other names for the backpack journalist, multi-platform journalist, sojo for solo journalist, VJ for video journalist, and one-man band. The latter is a term going back some years and was often used to refer to reporters in smaller TV markets who had to do everything, much as the only member of a band might play various instruments.

It's not that reporters want to carry their own camera. They are told they must, if they want the job. And there are plenty of young applicants who make sure their college journalism courses or resumes reflect training or experience as a backpacker. It makes them more likely to get hired.

Journalism curriculums are now offering instruction for shooting video to help their graduates have the skills needed to get a reporting job. Some stations advertise in trade publications for backpack journalists.

Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Journalism School at Columbia University, wrote recently that his students are now required to do work on web sites, using text, video and sound as ways of reporting the news. They must take "new media" classes as some newspapers and magazines are hiring people only to do video stories, according to Lemann.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Ryan Dean, 25, is one of KSDK's backpack journalists. He was hired earlier this year after doing backpack reporting for a cable TV station in Syracuse, N.Y.

"I do everything a photographer and reporter would do," Dean said. "If you want a future in this field you better be able to do a lot of things."

He drives himself to a story, carries his camera and tripod, shoots his video, conducts interviews and does stand-ups by speaking into the camera. Then he edits his story on a computer at his desk using a special software program.

It's tiring work, "interviewing someone and operating the camera at the same time is a skill that has to be developed," Dean said. "You have to be fast. There's not a day when I'm not running to get it done."

Mike Shipley, KSDK news director, said backpack journalism "is an old idea that's new again." He said financial pressures and competition have caused it to be a viable alternative, and the new technology has helped make it possible.

Photographers and reporters also carry cell phones that can take pictures and transmit them back to the station for use on the news or web site. Of the backpack reporting, Shipley said "Now we can get two stories instead of one.... I can't really say there's a downside to it. We get more efficiency. The backpack reporter often says 'why would I want someone else to take my pictures? I would rather be in total control.'" The other three backpackers at KSDK are Casey Nolen, Kasey Joyce and Dana Hendrickson.

Shipley said Gannett is adding back journalists to its stations (23 of them) across the country. …

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