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Whitepaper on Backpack Journalism

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Bill Gentile, Backpack Journalist

The newest digital tools are the evolutionary result of the moving pictures created by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895. Constant refinement of their idea generated the shoulder-mounted Sony Portapak in the late 1960’s which enabled journalists to work independently. Jon Alpert, a pioneer of independent video storytelling whose documentaries have appeared on PBS, NBC and HBO, exemplifies the impact the lone practitioner can have on mainstream broadcast journalism. His work and that of other documentarians and photojournalists who have embraced video tools is generating an appetite for the kinds of stories that can best be captured by the independent filmmakers.

Bill Gentile is among the small corps of former photographers who have migrated to video because of the intimate kind of visual storytelling that can be made using small hand-held video cameras. In the late 1990’s Bill was working as a photographer for Newsweek in Latin America and the Caribbean when he met Michael Rosenblum, a former CBS News cameraman who had established his own video news-gathering operation. Gentile was struck by the power of this new method, mastered the technical transition and began creating video stories around the world for programs such as NOW on PBS, National Geographic and others. 

Gentile defines his new approach to mediamaking on his blog, BillGentileBackpackJournalism.Blogspot.com, backpack journalism as “the craft of one properly trained professional using a hand-held digital camera to tell visual stories in a more immediate, more intimate fashion than is achievable using a larger team with a camera person, sound person, correspondent and producer. We do it all and, most importantly, we make the pictures which are the driving force of visual communication... In the field, a backpack journalist shoots, acquires sound, produces, reports, interviews. Once back from the field, he writes the script and narrates where necessary. Depending on the circumstances, he either edits and uploads the piece alone, or sits side-by-side with an editor.” 

This working definition not only describes the significant break with the historic model for broadcast video but also hints at the breadth of skills necessary to be mastered in order to do the craft well. It also reflects why this kind of storytelling appeals to the generation of “digital natives” now reaching colleges and universities who are accustomed to understanding the world visually. These students bring a comfort and fluency with digital technology that welcomes the backpack model. 

Backpack journalism quote

Veteran journalist and high school broadcasting teacher Cyndy Green describes the allure: “The cloak of invisibility is a major asset. Professional gear often affects people and events...they are aware of the camera, the news crew, and may not act as they would without the news present. I've covered events with both consumer and prosumer (professional) gear and could feel the difference...no eyes on me, all eyes on the event or whatever the story was about. Freedom to cover a story as an individual rather than a more formal team.” Mark Whitaker, NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief agrees. “We have the opportunity to do stories in different ways and sometimes get stories or interview, or levels of candor we couldn’t get in the past. It is a lot less intimidating if you show up with a small camera and a microphone and say, ‘Can we talk’ than if you are showing up with a crew of eight and a satellite truck.”

Gentile interprets the success of his recent work in Afghanistan as indicative of the power of the backpack journalism method: “Last year for NOW on PBS, I was embedded with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. I spent about three weeks with them and the resulting piece, "Afghanistan: The Forgotten War," was nominated for a national Emmy. I feel the nomination validates the backpack journalism model, particularly considering the other contenders for the award -- 60 Minutes, Frontline, Dateline, 360 With Anderson Cooper -- used the traditional, highly produced team model, while I proposed, shot, produced, reported, wrote and narrated the Afghanistan piece. For logistical as well as very practical reasons on the ground, I don't think that Afghanistan piece could have been generated with a traditional crew -- and certainly not for the same cost that I incurred.” (Cooper was awarded the Emmy.)

For practitioners there is a significant difference between stories produced using the backpack method and those now part of many television news broadcasts. Scott Anger, director of video for latimes.com, elaborates: 

“Storytelling using this approach (backpack journalism) is rooted in the documentary filmmaking tradition of using visuals to drive the story. It takes time to produce visual stories because they unfold at an uneven pace. The historical problem with conventional broadcast journalism is that it is constrained by time, both in the production - which doesn't allow journalists the time needed to shoot and produce visual stories – and in the broadcast - which is usually pre determined long before the story is reported. 

“The power of this kind of storytelling lies in the idea that we are no longer working under these constraints in an online environment. Under the best conditions, we have the time to allow stories to unfold in front of our cameras, conduct the interviews we need to support those events and sit down to edit the final visual story in a journalistically sound and compelling way. 

“Broadcast journalism has never risen to the level of art or documentary photography because up until the last decade it has been a technician’s craft. The operators were technicians versed in the engineering of the cameras because of their complexity. Also, traditional broadcast journalism is made by a group of people specialized in their fields such as producers, directors, camera operators, sound people, etc. Some of this had to do with the unions as well but mostly it was because of the difficulty of physically using the equipment to go from reporting in the field to broadcast. As a result, the ‘art’ part of moving picture storytelling was practiced by documentary filmmakers for cinema, which was no more open to the general public than the doors of the Big Three broadcast networks. Broadcast journalism was traditionally more about communicating the news than compelling storytelling. It suited the medium, the owners of the networks, the advertisers and the millions of people who used to tune in to the networks every evening from the late 1940s until now.” 

“Years ago, I swore that I'd never work in TV because it never seemed to fit my personal sensibilities of storytelling. Old, traditional broadcast journalism has always felt contrived to me. But with the advent of small cameras and the publishing freedom we now have, video journalism - or backpack journalism - can be an extremely creative, powerful way to produce compelling stories. I think that as we move from the computer screen to the smaller cell phone screen, powerful, well-composed, well shot visual stories will be an increasingly popular way of communicating.”

Executive Summary | Growth in Video Consumption