Backpack journalism in the bag

Jul 29, 2010

Photo: Kenneth Hawkins/

Bill Gentile carries an entire newsroom in his backpack. He has a video camera, laptop, microphone, editing tools and anything else he would need to produce quality journalism.

But while the equipment is vital to his success, Gentile, a well known backpack journalist from Washington, D.C. whose work has been nominated for multiple awards, said it’s more important to know how to use what’s in the backpack.

“The successful practitioner of what we refer to as backpack journalism is proficient in all of the skills [of journalism],” said Gentile, who also teaches journalism at American University in D.C. “It’s one person doing everything — shooting, writing the piece, capturing the story, narrating the piece and editing the piece.”

Being a journalist in today’s high-tech, fast-paced world means being able to use multiple platforms to tell a story. As more journalists find themselves in converged newsrooms, backpack journalists have become the new standard in reporting.

“Nowadays, it’s not enough to just be able to write,” said Eileen Rivers, the Web content editor for USA Today’s editorial page. “You have to be able to experiment and come up with ideas to make things compelling maybe visually and online. You should be thinking: ‘How do I make this print piece visually compelling and make the reader want to come to the Web site and see what we have to offer?’”

Given the state of the economy, spending several thousand dollars on new equipment may not be the best way to try to enhance a career.

Rivers, who also produces a bi-weekly Web broadcast called “Common Ground” and uses social media daily to promote the opinion section, said working with equipment already in one’s arsenal is a great way to get started.

“There’s this perception that you need some incredibly high-tech device to get good journalism. And honestly, it’s nice to have that. But it’s not always necessary,” Rivers said. “You could go out right now with a camera phone in a pinch and get really good video. As long as it’s well organized, well thought out and compelling, you could post that on a blog.”

The basic skills of shooting good video doesn’t change based on the device one uses, Rivers said. A cellphone or a Flip camcorder can easily grab the video a reporter needs.
Some of the most compelling videos weren’t caught on professional equipment. For example, Rivers pointed to the Rodney King video or, more recently, footage of the Bay Area Regional Transit shooting in San Francisco.

When the time comes to invest in new equipment, the Poynter Institute’s Regina McCombs suggests that one prioritizes what’s actually needed.

“I really recommend as good a video camera as you can possibly get,” McCombs said. “News is really demanding. You’re not always going to have nice light and pretty pictures.”

A quality camera allows an accurate adjustment to the loss of those elements, McCombs said.

It’s important to know the limitations of the equipment and to purchase based on planned usage. If a reporter occasionally shoots video and photos, then McCombs suggests a basic point-and-shoot camera or a Flip camcorder.

“If you’re starting out, the two biggest things you want in your camera are dual microphone input and a headphone jack,” McCombs noted.

Both Rivers and Gentile agree that without decent audio, video amounts to nothing.

As expensive as working as a backpack journalists can be, McCombs said if done right, the initial cost will be outweighed by the financial gain. She said to always plan to upgrade the equipment down the road.

“It’s really budget dependent,” McCombs said of being a backpack journalist. “If you just have $3,000, you don’t want to spend all of your money on a camera. The biggest thing is to figure out your budget and go from there. You want to have something that records video, and if that’s your iPhone or Android phone, that’s fine.”

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