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Q&A: backpacking through journalism

Christine VanTimmeren

It is no secret that the media industry has been undergoing a transformation. This has led to many changes, making it necessary for many newsrooms to eliminate positions. But despite shrinking newsrooms, the demand for news remains constant. Because of this, each respective journalistic medium has had to adapt. The television industry in particular has seen newsrooms diminish and staffers increasingly take on more responsibility.

As a result, job roles and titles have evolved. Born from this has been backpack journalism. Although a vital role in many newsrooms, it can also be a trying position to fulfill. These journalists are the one-man bands, taking care to gather all pieces of a story and put them together for viewing. inVocus spoke with backpack journalist Christine VanTimmeren from WHEC-TV (NBC) in Rochester, N.Y., about what her job entails and the important role a PR pro can play during the course of a very hectic day.

KMM: How would you define a backpack reporter? What does it entail?

CV: A backpack reporter is a reporter who also shoots and edits his/her own story. They are also called “one-man-bands” or MMJs (multi media journalists). A backpack reporter goes out by themselves on stories and is responsible for conducting the interviews, shooting the interviews, getting b-roll, then coming back to the station to log, write, edit, and finally present their story.

KMM: How long have you been serving in this role? What has the experience been like?

CV: I have been a backpack reporter for about three years. I did it for a year at my last station, and I was hired here in Rochester as a backpack reporter. Being a backpack reporter is very challenging, but it is also rewarding. Sometimes it’s difficult to get all the material I want, because I’m only one person. While I’m talking with people and getting information, great video for my story could be going on, but I’m not able to get it. Backpack reporting is also difficult and frustrating in the elements (rain, snow, etc). However, knowing that I put together a story, without the help of anyone else, is rewarding.

KMM: How many backpack reporters are at your station?

CV: Currently at our station there are three people who are backpack reporters. We don’t do it every day we work, but most of the time.

KMM: Do you see this as a growing trend among stations? If so, why do you think this is?

CV: Backpack reporters are a growing trend all across the country. In this industry, TV stations are trying to save money wherever they can. And hiring one person who can do the job of two saves them money. It’s also another way to get more content for your shows, when a backpack reporter can shoot more than one story in the course of their day.

KMM: What are the benefits of being a backpack reporter for you and the station?

CV: One of the benefits for me is that I have complete control of my story. I know exactly what shots I have and exactly what shots I want. The story, as I see it in my head, is exactly what I’m going to get because I know precisely what material I have. I think it also gives me great pride in my work, and pushes me to do better because I know I am in control of how everything turns out. The benefit for the station is, again, that they save money in the long run, and they get more content. I also think that if the backpack reporter is driven and motivated, that will only give the station better material for their shows.

KMM: For you personally, what have been some of the negatives?

CV: One negative is that I have no one else to rely on. If I need to get critical information from someone for my story, I don’t have a photographer to get video while I’m taking care of the information. I don’t have that extra set of eyes to get things that I may miss. There’s also no one to bounce ideas off of. It can also be difficult some days to carry all my equipment, along with all of the stuff that I need as a reporter. Probably the biggest struggle is time. When I have to do everything on my own, I have no downtime. I very rarely get a break during the day, and often I struggle to get things done on time. There are very tight deadlines in this business, and when I’m by myself, it can be a struggle to meet those deadlines.

KMM: What is your advice to PR pros who want to pitch you? What kinds of additional materials can they provide that would help you?

CV: If a PR representative knows that he/she will be working with a backpack, providing that reporter with a press release with statistics, details, names, dates, etc. is extremely helpful. There are times when I may not have time to ask a question about specific details, and if those are in a press release for me, it saves me the stress after the fact. Also, when setting up stories, make sure all interviews and b-roll are in one place. It is difficult for backpack reporters to go to multiple locations to get interviews and video. Having it in one place is so much more convenient. Also, if there is any video or pictures that can be provided online or via an FTP site, that is always helpful.

KMM: Can you think of an example where a PR person really helped you? Didn’t help enough?

CV: I’ve had a good number of PR reps that have been very helpful in my career. One specific example is from a recent story. It was a story about a local mom who was using state of the art technology to help her walk. She had a condition called foot-drop due to multiple sclerosis. So the PR person that contacted me about the story wrote up basically an entire page of information about the woman I would be talking to and the technology that she was using. She also gave me information about foot-drop and what that was. She provided me with a website that would take me to promotional footage about the technology that I was able to use in my story. She gave me all essential information about the company that created the technology. I was also provided with information about how other people could learn more about this technology if it was something they were interested in. While I don’t always like to use a “middle man” when communicating with potential interviews, this PR person coordinated the interviews and let me know what days and times would work.

She gave me everything I needed and more. Whenever I needed more information, all I had to do was look at what she had given me, and it was always there. I can’t think of a specific instance when a PR person didn’t help me enough, but there have been times when a PR person made things more difficult than they should have been. The worst thing a PR person can do is try to control the story, the interviews and the video. It is the reporter’s story, not the PR person’s. It is not up to the PR person to tell a reporter who they need to talk to and what video they need to get or what information must be in the story. They can suggest that a reporter may want to consider using this or getting that, but ultimately it’s the reporter’s decision.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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