" rel="attachment wp-att-3971Backpack Journalism

Is “backpack journalism” really worth it?

Backpack JournalismBackpack journalism, which refers to reporters shooting photos and video and editing them with all the tools in their “backpack,” began more than a decade ago. In December, Gannett – which is known for its 24/7 Information Centers – deployed thousands of iPhones and other new technology to its U.S. Community Publishing division, which includes 82 local newspapers, websites and niche publications.

According to Laura Dalton, a spokesperson for the McLean, Va.-headquartered company, the new equipment was provided to “help our journalists meet the demands of the new news cycle, one that requires agility in real-time reporting, social media, and greater emphasis on video storytelling.”

What goes on the utility belts of the Gannett reporters of the future?

Tools include lightweight laptops known as netbooks, iPhones with external microphones, iPads, and MiFi wireless Internet hotspots, which allow journalists to write, edit, and send copy wirelessly, as well as record and edit audio and video while on the road. Reporters can also send content to social media sites. In addition, each newspaper has a digital workstation in its newsroom to track analytics of how users are consuming news on tablets and smartphones.

Gannett would not discuss specifics on equipment costs; however, Rick Green, editor-in-chief of The Des Moines Register gave us a rundown of his newspaper’s equipment (we’ve estimated equipment costs based on current retail prices found online; obviously, the overall pricetag might vary depending on corporate discounts or the specific models used):

  • A comprehensive talk, text and data plan
  • 29 OWLE Bubo units ($161 each, $4,669 total)
  • 5 wireless lavalier microphone packs ($170 each, $850 total)
  • 3 iPads ($399 each, $1,197 total)
  • 13 external microphone kits to use with iPhone 4S ($28 each, $364 total)
  • 57 iPhone 4S ($199 each, $11,343 total)
  • 2 Android phones ($400 each, $800 total)
    Estimated price tag: $19,223 plus the cost of talk, text and data plan

“We have a new CEO whose mantra is ‘content is king,’” says Green, referring to Gracia Martore, who started her position in October 2011. “That’s great. Those words are really important to us. It’s also really important to back up that mission with new technology.”

With the deployment came the charge from Gannett corporate that its papers must do a better job of covering communities by providing extra layers of storytelling, adds Green. A variety of newsroom employees, including reporters, photographers and videographers use iPhones to create audio, photo galleries and video.

How are newsrooms actually using these tools?

In February, the Iowa newspaper had two prep sports reporters use iPhones and social media to cover the state’s high school wrestling tournament. Andy Hamilton, lead wrestling reporter, created a separate wrestling Facebook page where fans can find links to wrestling-specific stories and comment on their teams. At the tournament, Hamilton and Tom Birch led a team of reporters and photographers who produced 45 videos during the four-day sports event using iPhones.

As a result, video plays on the Register’s site increased by 147 percent from January to February, and the Register created 186 blog posts during the competition, which helped boost mobile page views 53 percent from January to February. It also led to more than 1.4 million page views in total for state wrestling coverage.

“We have seen this new level of storytelling with everything, not just sports,” says Green, who explains that his team is also working on a multimedia story about two missing girls. “My team has covered it, not only telling the story in print … we are using video, which brings that extra depth to a story.”

So, what’s the ROI?

Jane Stevens has taught backpack journalism at the University of California Berkeley’s Knight Digital Media Center and between 2006 and 2008 helped the Ventura County Star train all newsroom employees in multimedia reporting. The newspaper purchased Mac computers with iMovie editing software and Flash video as well as mini digital video cameras and tripods. Multimedia coverage of wildfires, which included an interactive map that staff updated with text and graphics as the fire shifted location, was one notable success that couldn’t have happened without the backpack journalism push, says Stevens.

“[Ventura] began the long road of trying to figure out how to integrate this new way of reporting into the daily work flow,” says Stevens. “They began posting all stories to the web first – a novel idea at the time. Every reporter was trained; most never wanted to do just text again.”

Does this mean Gannett will see the same kind of success? On the one hand, Ventura’s  newsroom is significantly smaller today, Scripps split off its television assets from its newspapers and moved to a centralized content management platform. On the other hand, E.W. Scripps holds Ventura up as a financial success in a time of distress for many publications and the paper’s former publisher has been tasked with re-implementing many of the Star’s tactics at the parent company’s largest property, the Memphis Commercial Appeal. (Disclosure: Scripps is an investor in Ebyline.)