News Director Gives Backpack Journalism a Try

Mark Casey, vice president/news director at KPNX-TV in Phoenix has been on the forefront of the backpack journalism movement for some time. In his newsroom they call the “one-man-band concept ‘MMJs,’” or multimedia journalists. Last weekend, Casey dove into deep waters, shooting and producing his own very personal story.

The story is a compelling one about his uncle, who was lost in a military plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico. It addresses the suspicion that the plane may have been carrying gold from Cuba and looks at the treasure hunters who found the plane decades after it disappeared.

I asked Casey some questions about his experiences reporting this story:

So you have been asking your staff to get into the backpack journalism swing of things. What did you learn by doing this project yourself?

Casey: I learned that it’s a heck of a lot of fun and a lot of work being a multimedia journalist. In another life — late 1970′s — I was a “multimedia” journalist with a Frezzolini 16mm sound film camera and an audio tape recorder. The multimedia then was radio and TV. The camera was a little larger and definitely lower-tech than the one used on this assignment. The pressures are the same — making deadline, managing the story line and making sure that the Web version (radio in the 70′s) brought some added value to the TV version.

It also reminded me that now, as then, there are some assignments that are a good fit for a multimedia journalist and others that are better handled with a two-person crew. The B-26 story worked perfectly for my limited skills as a photojournalist. I had a very strong story and some interesting and cooperative characters to interview. Pick the right story for the multimedia journalist vs. a two-person crew, and you get better results.

Finally, I learned this is still a team sport. I brought a ton of material in from the field, and a number of us worked on maximizing it. We had the luxury of time, and my teammates had the patience to deal with a novice (me), so it turned out well. If this were a day story it would have been much different.

How important was the Web to this project?

Casey: Extremely important. The Web was an opportunity to bring in all the other threads of this story, of which there were many. (Individual links to the various parts of the story described below can be found on the story’s main Web page.)

  • The treasure hunt for Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s gold, which triggered this whole event, was mentioned in the TV story and is more prominent on the Web with detailed sound-on-tape.
  • The candid video of the dive team in action barely made the TV story and had several clips online. This is really interesting content that shows the crew members in the water talking to one another about what they saw.
  • The walk-through of the artifacts by one of the dive team members adds so much to the package. At one minute and 50 seconds, it wasn’t going to work for the TV portion of the video, but it works great for the Web.
  • The slide show brings an added human dimension into the story through old photos, newspaper clippings and artifacts.
  • The underwater photography by (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press photojournalist Valerie Roche is pretty fascinating. Valerie was good enough to explain her camera technology to me in two sound-on-tapes for the Web. Here are some links to the stories she and reporter Kevin Lollar put together for the News-Press (also Gannett-owned).

I know readers will ask if I don’t, so two questions in one: What gear did you use, and who did the editing?

Casey: Two cameras. The video camera is a SONY HVRA1U — our standard issue multimedia journalist camera. One of our multimedia journalists, Hannah Mullins, and two of our photojournalists, Ed Ayala and Stacey Davis, gave me a 20-minute tutorial and then it was off to the assignment. The camera is pretty much idiot proof. Most of the time it was hand-held, and once in a while it was on a monopod. I shot the video entirely with natural light.

The still camera was a Nikon D70 digital SLR with a AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5 lens. This is primarily a landscape lens, so it was a bit challenging using it on this assignment. I love the lens, though, so I decided to give it a go. The purists will cringe when they find out the D70 was on auto mode most of the time. Juggling a video camera and still camera was pretty challenging, so not having to think about settings allowed me to put more brainpower into the video operations.

Jay McSpadden did the video editing for the package, and Heather Deshong did it for the Web sound-on-tape. Jay is a 20-plus year member of the KPNX staff, and he really treated the piece with care. I couldn’t have asked for a better editor than Jay, who covered my weak photography and optimized the stills. Heather was very patient walking me through the process of building a slide show, and she did a great job copy editing and embedding the video.

Does doing this kind of project build “street cred” with your staff?

Casey: I can’t answer that question; the staff would have to decide. But if I were them, I’d give myself a “C” grade. I did the news gathering, shot the video and wrote the stories but fell way short in producing the multimedia and video editing. Those are two skills I’ll need to get before I can walk in the same shoes as my talented staff.

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