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Crest of the Wave

Crest of the Wave: Project director Bill Gentile explains why<br />now is the time for backpack journalism.

The Crest of
the Wave

Project director Bill Gentile explains why
now is the time for backpack journalism.

Discussion topic of the month

This is the first in a series of essays by Project Advisory Board Members designed to provoke debate from the backpack journalism community. Join the conversation on our Discussion Board.

The Crest of the Wave, by Bill Gentile

March, 2010 -- Nearly a year ago, I delivered an address to the Harvard Club in New York City. Here’s part of what I said:

"We are, right now, at an extraordinary juncture in the history of mankind, technology and communication. Even more important than the Gutenberg press, the advances in digital cameras and the Internet provide us unprecedented opportunity. Ordinary citizens of the world now wield extraordinary power. We wield the power to communicate instantly, globally and in a language, the visual language, that supersedes both the written and the spoken word. This visual language knows no frontiers. It needs no translation. It is contingent on no corporate support. It is one of the most powerful tools of our time.

"And backpack journalism is the embodiment of this visual language…No matter what the new media landscape looks like after the current upheaval, I hope, no, I trust that backpack journalism will be an important part of it."

Just a few days ago I was delivering another address, this time during one of my Backpack Journalism Workshops. The workshop was a result of a partnership between American University’s School of Communication and the NBC News Bureau in Washington, DC where it was held. From the interior of the sprawling NBC operation, I caught a glimpse of the “new media landscape”: renovations that use the space created by downsizing the staff for upgraded technology.

Here’s what I said:

“The whole industry is trending toward smaller staffs and faster technology. Backpack journalism is actually right on the crest of the wave.”

As Tom Kennedy points out in his Whitepaper on Backpack Journalism, “By launching the Backpack Journalism Project , American University brands this methodology and is now actively at work defining how best to train practitioners.” Stated differently, we are leading by example and cutting a path for a new generation of visual storytellers.

Here’s Kennedy again: “In launching the Backpack Journalism Project, American University intends to contribute to this movement of digital video storytellers by building on traditional journalistic values, identify best practices, learning from industry leaders and independent pioneers, and developing key standards and guidelines. We invite you to join us in shaping this emerging profession, and mapping new ground for journalism in the 21st century.”

Built on the shoulders of documentary photojournalism, backpack journalism promises the deep authorship that drove photojournalists to capture visual stories in far-away lands and forge bonds with our subjects. The addition of sound and video, shot with small cameras that allow for unprecedented intimacy, enables us to create even more personal stories that have never been reported before.

But there is still some distance to go before this methodology takes its place alongside others as a respected – and properly compensated – branch of journalism. As I warned in last year,

“Unfortunately, this model too often is used merely to reduce the cost of newsgathering, as opposed to delivering a more effective brand of journalism.”

But if we do it right, and teach the next generation how to foster a growing hunger for visual storytelling, maybe this wave will take us places journalists have never been before.