The Shot Heard ‘Round the Industry. Backpack Journalism on the Rise

By Gail Shister Comment

equipment_2-25.jpgWill the increased demand for correspondents’ multi-tasking hurt the quality of their reporting?

That’s the big question as prodigious job cuts at ABC and elsewhere force more correspondents to shoot their own video, gather their own sound and edit their own pieces in addition to reporting them.

Certainly, the consolidation saves money, but at what cost to journalism?

To many, the question is moot. Digital one-man bands are the inevitable result of a receding economy and an advancing technology. Expand your skill sets or it’s game over.

Others argue that reportage suffers when a correspondent – particularly a veteran used to having a crew – botches a breaking interview because he’s worried about getting the shot.

“There’s always the potential for missing something if you’re trying to do three things at once,” says Charles Bierbauer, Dean of the College of Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina and a former correspondent at CNN and ABC.

“There’s a lot of value in having a two or three-person team because it gives you more eyes and ears covering the story. I’m not a very good shooter. I don’t have the eye for it. But then I wasn’t trained to be shooter.”

PBS’s Gwen Ifill wasn’t either, but she will be, whether she wants to or not. “What choice do I have? Do it or don’t be employed.”

At J-schools around the country, students are learning every survival skill for the New Order. These “backpack journalists,” in Bierbauer’s words, have been tested and found to work. Having control over every aspect of their stories gives them independence, he adds.

As for the older folks, Bierbauer says he’s seen “some seasoned journalists become very adroit at new media.” At 67, he Tweets. “Why not?”

Why not, indeed. “The only way to survive in this business is to keep shifting,” says Ifill, 54, moderator of “Washington Week in Review” and senior correspondent for “The NewsHour.” (She is on the short list for the anchor job at ABC’s “This Week,” sources say.)

“We have to change our ideas about what we’re putting on the air,” Ifill continues. “I’m not willing to say it’s a terrible, terrible thing. But if you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention.”

Lou Ureneck, 59, chairman of Boston University’s journalism department, says multi-tasking has “a flattening effect” on the quality of reporting.

“It doesn’t allow for the reporter to focus on gathering information, which is the principle mission of reporting. It’s not like walking and chewing gum at the same time. It’s like driving and trying to read a map.

“Being a reporter is a fully engaging task.”

Not always. Networks routinely air amateur video, especially on big breaking stories. A correspondent’s pictures may not be network quality, either, but most viewers don’t notice, or care, according to Ureneck.

PBS’s Ifill disagrees, in part.

“I hope they care. If you do it well, I hope they won’t know the difference. I don’t know what ‘well’ is. The fact is, viewers left us before we left them. We’re catching up to what viewers’ demands are.”

Those demands could change the whole look of TV news, says Andy Mendelson, 42, chairman of the journalism department at Temple University.

Correspondents’ added technical responsibilities could lead to less face time on their stories, he explains. “At the very least, it will be more challenging.”

Film at 11 – probably shot by a reporter.

(Photo/Flickr: Jackie Zabielski)