The Future of Backpack Journalism, Part II

WASHINGTON, 13 September 2009 — Following is Part II of yesterday’s post, The Future of Backpack Journalism.


The utility and effectiveness of the backpack journalism model apply to the local level, as well. Especially for character-driven feature pieces on which the journalist has the luxury of some time, it is a powerful, liberating model from all perspectives, especially for those of us who appreciate (covet) independence and creative space.

Having said that, there are limitations, in both foreign and domestic venues. I believe the applicability of the backpack journalism model varies according to a number of indices. These include urgency and complexity of the story being covered. Particularly because logistics, collaboration and speed are so critical in a complex, breaking news situation, journalists will face challenges while practicing this model — at least in its purest, undiluted form: One backpack journalist performing all tasks, one hand-held camera, one story.

The “look” and “tone” of the final product and its outlet also are important factors. As I define it, for example, backpack journalism does not include on-camera correspondents, whom I regard as unnecessary filters between subject and audience. As in the Afghanistan piece, you hear my voice but you don’t see my face. So stand-ups constitute one more task, or moving part, that might limit the applicability of this model in a breaking, complex news situation.

Perhaps the most important factor regarding when, where and how much of the backpack journalism model one might apply is the level of preparedness of the practitioner. Talent, experience and professional maturity come into play here. There are many moving parts to this craft and many professionals simply have not had the benefit of working with all of those parts. Some practitioners have a difficult time multi-tasking.

And then there’s training. Or the lack of it. I see a lot of “spray and pray” (blast everything in sight with a wide-angle lens and pray something works) but very little mastery of our craft. I have photojournalist colleagues who can make great pictures but who can’t follow, report or write a story. And I know great reporters who don’t have the technical or aesthetic skills to make a decent picture. So your colleagues are right in that, for some, this model will be overwhelming.

Having said all this, I think the field will yield (1) to the best and most prolific practitioners of the craft, and (2) to the bottom line. Those practitioners who have the talent, the creative drive, the vision and the daring will eventually surpass those who do not, because the fruit of their labor will be more in demand. And, as we know, the bottom line is very hard to resist.

Herein lies a quandary. Too many outlets see this model as merely a means to cut cost, rather than to deliver more and better information so critical to our democratic society. And if cutting cost is the sole motivating factor for employing this model, it will be done to the detriment of the model itself, to those who practice it and, ultimately, to those who enforce it.

And this is the real struggle. It’s not whether backpack journalism will play a greater role in our future. It’s how much of a role and for what reasons.