On my first day of covering the Indiana State Fair, I began unpacking my gear at a desk in the press office.
Andy Klotz, a former television newsman who handles public relations for the fair, watched me unpack the Mac Book laptop, Canon S3 IS digital camera, sound recorder, tripod and other gear.
“I’m a ‘backpack journalist,’” I explained. “We’re testing the concept.”
“Backpack?” he grinned. “Are you camping out here?”
It probably seemed that way. This was the first time our newspaper had been in the field to write for online and print, shoot photos and edit TV-style video packages, all in the same news cycle.
Do that for a week and a half, and you’ll not only need a backpack for the gear, you’ll want a vacation to recover, even if you’re a former television and wire-service reporter.
But as a test of what’s possible when it comes to online-print synergy and multimedia, the state fair had everything: A busy schedule, lots of fun people to interview and great visuals.
Our Web designers built a special page: IndyStar.com/deepfried, named for the deep-fried Oreos, Pepsi and other fair delicacies.
Over a 10-day period, I posted 32 blog updates totaling more than 10,000 words; along with 26 photos and five videos about fair food, harness horses, 4-H kids, the near-record hot weather and the Midway rides.
Our City Desk picked up the blog entries for daily print coverage. Online, we posted photos with most blog entries and used the video in standalone pieces or as layering for some of the stories.
Many of the blog entries read like columns: close-up looks at the personalities and traditions that make the fair so special. But there was also breaking-news coverage of the heat, an unusually tough stretch of high temperatures that resulted in Red Cross workers treating 100 people on the opening day.
Readers loved it, judging from the high number of page views, e-mail responses and encounters at the fairgrounds. One popular feature: a call-out for favorite fair memories that yielded good reader stories and highlighted the blog’s interactivity.
But was it a realistic test of multimedia solo journalism?
Probably not. I had extensive video experience from a stint in TV, was trained in fast-filing at the AP and, as an online editor and trainer at our paper, was motivated to work 12-hour days to see what could be done. Without a doubt, the better way to generate that amount of content would be to use at least two people, with duties tailored to their specific skills.
Finding the right people and media mix for each story has become a daily balancing act in many newspapers. The tools are all there, and they’re getting easier to use and less expensive all the time.
At the News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., video from reporters is now routine.
“In the beginning, we actually had job titles like ‘mobile journalist,’” Digital Editor Mark Bickel said. “There were about five of those.”
“Now we’ve gotten away from separating the pack, so to speak. Everybody in our information center (newsroom) is considered a mobile journalist.”
The News-Press had a big increase in the posting of video last year.
“A lot of those came from reporters who had never shot video in their life before,” Bickel said. “Some of the most successful video clips last year came from reporters who did not have experience doing this.”
The Fort Myers paper has one reporter, a recent UCLA grad, who works only in video. She does not write stories for the newspaper but shoots and edits her own TV-style narrated reports for the Web. One of the newspaper’s photographers has also been assigned exclusively to video.
“We’re still learning about what works and what doesn’t,” Bickel said. “What we have figured out is that people are going to click on the car accident, the fire, breaking news. That’s what drives traffic to the Web site.”
How do they balance the needs of online and the print product?
“That’s the $64 million question,” Bickel said. “I think the first thing is to understand that we’re really not asking for too much more. If you can push a button on a point-and-shoot (camera), you can get 30 seconds of video.”
One of the paper’s most-watched video clips came from a car wreck on I-75 with multiple fatalities. Police wouldn’t let the reporter stop, so she simply aimed the camera out her car window while slowly driving by.
That’s a good example of the paper’s get-what-you-can philosophy, Bickel said.
“We’re saying, ‘Look, just prioritize. If you don’t get the video, that’s OK.’”
At Newsday, meanwhile, about half of the newsroom’s reporters are being trained to shoot video, said Jonathan McCarthy, assistant managing editor/cross media. Getting the buy-in hasn’t been too hard.
“We’re in our infancy, so the people we’ve picked are the people who’ve expressed an interest,” McCarthy said. “They’re gung-ho about it. While it was a struggle three or four years ago to get people to file for the Web, we’re past that now.”
Not surprisingly, some of the newsroom’s newest arrivals are the most comfortable with the technology.
“Most of the kids in journalism school have their Facebook pages, their MySpace pages — they’re all jacked up already,” McCarthy said. “They don’t even use e-mail any more; they’re texting. They expect to be doing this (multimedia work).”
Many newspapers are still experimenting, said Randy Covington, director of the Ifra Newsplex Training Center, a newsroom of the future at the University of South Carolina.
Despite fears that quality journalism will decline, the economics of the industry make it inevitable that more reporters will be given multimedia duties.
“The assumption in some newsrooms is that this will hurt the journalism,” Covington said. “It can hurt the journalism, but it does not have to.”
Covington cites the Pulitzer-winning Rocky Mountain News “Final Salute” project, about the Marines who inform families about the loss of loved ones in combat. The project used audio slideshows to help tell the story in a way that video might not have accomplished, he said.
The Detroit Free Press, marking the 40th anniversary of the song “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, combined audio, video and interactive features in an extremely artful fashion, Covington said.
“News organizations will be best served if they focus on stories. How can I tell this story the best way? Is this a story that might lend itself to audio, to a slideshow? Is this a story where you really need to have video?”
Covington is not a fan of television-style reports on Web sites.
“That format might work well in a passive medium,” he said. “In my opinion, it works much less well in an interactive medium.
“In general, on the Internet, I would rather that you deconstruct the story into its pieces. Let me decide if I want to see the picture of the mayor cutting the ribbon, hear the sound bite.”
Covington said he thinks the most powerful multimedia storytelling is being done by newspapers, using still pictures and audio. Video is relatively difficult to produce. And most video, unless it’s of something remarkable, is of questionable value.
“Most of the video isn’t very good,” he said. “So the question then becomes, why would anybody watch it? It’s a simple question, and I think we forget to ask it all too often.”
The only thing worse than ignoring the preferences of the audience might be a failure to develop any multimedia strategy at all.
“In 2008, I don’t think anybody can stick their head in the sand and say this is a passing trend,” Covington said.
“This is a reality. You either do it, or we risk not having jobs.”
John Strauss is an online editor and multimedia reporter for The Indianapolis Star. He also serves as the paper’s Sunday city editor. He formerly worked for The Associated Press as a correspondent and editor, and at WNDU-TV in South Bend, Ind., as a reporter and anchor.