Technology breeding do-it-all journalists
By Rachel Konrad
SAN JOSE, Calif. Armed with $15,000 in satellite phones and computers, Preston Mendenhall calls himself a "one-man band" who writes stories, snaps photographs and shoots video in combat zones.
The international editor for MSNBC.com spent most of February traveling alone in Syria, then joined other reporters in northern Iraq to record Kurdish reactions to the American-led bombing.
"You get a connection, set up the camera, point it at yourself and just do it you're live," Mendenhall said from a satellite phone. "But if there's any weapons of mass destruction, I'm outta here."
Mendenhall, who sends pixelated video through a pair of special satellite telephones, is one of a growing number of journalists relying on lightweight laptops, satellite phones, inexpensive editing software and digital cameras.
They file real-time reports with equipment that is a fraction of the cost and size of conventional, shoulder-mounted cameras and other gear. They file primarily for the Web, with images they've edited themselves at the scene, and occasionally contribute often grainy images to television.
The technology has resulted in streaming video from the most remote places on earth. It has also enabled a new breed of reporter, known as a "backpack journalist," who often has greater mobility and flexibility than a camera crew.
Travis Fox, a video journalist for WashingtonPost.com, filed footage on Saturday of coalition troops in Umm Qasr, Iraq, building a POW camp.
For most of his stories, Fox uses a Sony PD150, a roughly $7,000, 12-pound digital video camera with a five-hour battery. The gear is less than half the weight and one-tenth the cost of equipment used by crews for large networks.
"The people who can shoot video, write stories, do radio on the side, basically do it all these are the journalists of the future," said John Schidlovsky, director of the Washington-based Pew Fellowship in International Journalism. "The technology has made journalism much more immediate and instantaneous."
Although they're a tiny minority of the hundreds of foreign journalists in and around Iraq, backpackers could eventually change the complexion of news gathering.
But backpackers also called solo journalists, or "sojos" won't eclipse mainstream media soon. Fear, fatigue and confusion often vanquish their sophisticated, lightweight equipment, which larger television operations use only when higher-quality video is unavailable.
Some experts also worry that less-seasoned sojos, particularly those who post directly to Web sites and don't file through editors back home, will produce reports that lack context or analysis.
"Backpack journalists have to know the difference between when you're a lone wolf and when you're part of a greater whole and they have to file with that in mind," said Jane Ellen Stevens, a pioneer backpack journalist who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley.