An Online Journalist Goes to War

Get smallpox shot. Get fitted for flak jacket. Buy new combat helmet online. Check with wife to make sure she’s not going to freak out.

This is not your usual assignment for a newspaper website producer. Indeed, when the Christian Science Monitor‘s Ben Arnoldy flies to Kuwait next week to become an “embedded” correspondent at a U.S. Air Force base 75 miles from the Iraqi border, he’ll be breaking new ground for the field of online journalism.

It wasn’t that long ago that journalists for news websites — even those connected to prestigious traditional news organizations — couldn’t get credentials to cover major sporting events. Now, online journalism officially becomes “one of the gang” in getting credentialed to cover one of the most important stories of our time — a possible U.S. war aimed at removing Saddam Hussein.

And perhaps more importantly, a major online news site for a major story can rely on “one of its own” to supply its editors with exactly what they need — rather than having online editors coerce information out of sometimes-recalcitrant print or broadcast correspondents.

A Career Breakthrough

The person chosen for this assignment probably isn’t who you’d expect. Arnoldy, 26, has been with the Monitor‘s website for three years working as a news producer. Prior to that, he had some print experience as a freelancer. He was educated at Georgetown University as an English major, and took only one journalism class. His journalism experience has mostly been on the job, and he’s a graduate of the Poynter Institute’s 2001 Online Reporting and Editing seminar.

As a news producer, Arnoldy has traveled a few times on assignment for the website, including on a project called “All Aboard?” about the Amtrak rail system and its troubles, which won an Online Journalism Awards top honor in the best feature category in 2002. But being sent to the Middle East to cover an impending war for several weeks marks the first time he’s left the U.S. on assignment for the Monitor. Indeed, he confesses he’s not particularly knowledgeable about the military.

Arnoldy was presented with this opportunity — and it is a volunteer assignment — because the Monitor was granted two “embedded correspondent” slots by the U.S. Department of Defense. Monitor editor Paul Van Slambrouck made the final decision to assign one slot to a print-side reporter, and the other to the website. “In a nutshell, it seems like a natural fit for the Christian Science Monitor and what we do online,” says Van Slambrouck. “And I don’t think that this is surrendering anything to the print side” for its coverage of the U.S.-Iraq conflict.

While conventional wisdom might have put a photographer in slot No. 2, the Monitor‘s photography staff decided that they didn’t want to be tied down to a single location in an embedded situation, but would prefer to be unencumbered and roam the region. Ergo, the website got an unheard-of opportunity.

In addition to Arnoldy, who will be based at the U.S. air base in Al Jaber, Kuwait, for four weeks or possibly longer should war actually break out, the Monitor‘s Ann Scott Tyson is the other embedded correspondent. She’ll get assigned to an Army infantry unit, but it’s not known at this time exactly where she’ll be. Tyson’s assignment also will likely have her roaming the countryside, while Arnoldy will spend most of his time on the air base.

The Monitor also has several other print correspondents in the region — one in Baghdad, one in northern Iraq, two in Jerusalem, and one in Istanbul, Turkey.

Web Comes First, This Time

Arnoldy will be in Kuwait (and likely Iraq) foremost as an online reporter and photographer, though his work also is expected to show up in the print edition of the Monitor when he writes longer features. His principal assignment is to write a daily online journal or dispatch about his experiences, interviewing military personnel and giving website visitors a more personal look at what life is like in a potential war zone.

Van Slambrouck: I don’t think that this is surrendering anything to the print side. He says he expects to use “I” often in his writing, and he’ll tell the personal stories of Air Force personnel, what their lives on the base are like, what they’re writing in their e-mails home, what they’re eating in the mess hall. “I think the Web often has a tone that’s more intimate,” he says. With the daily dispatch format, “there will be more of a sense of taking readers along for the journey.”

Arnoldy has been told that he’ll be restricted to the air base — he won’t have opportunities to leave during his time there unless he’s invited to go along on a mission, which is likely.

Van Slambrouck says there will be a significant contrast between print correspondent Tyson’s coverage and Arnoldy’s online reporting. Tyson will mostly be doing more traditional, longer, analytical print articles — the Monitor‘s forte.

Sticking to the Basics

While the Web of course opens up new opportunities for multimedia war coverage — audio interviews, video clips, etc. — Arnoldy will be sticking to the basics: text and still photography. Web-specific activities will include live online chats between the correspondent and website users, and answering online reader questions posed to Arnoldy as well as to the military people with whom he interacts.

Why no audio or video? It’s basically an issue of technology and bandwidth limitations. Arnoldy will be toting with him on this trip a laptop computer, satellite phone, digital camera, and a small digital audio recorder. The last item will be used for recording interviews, but not for transmitting audio back to the CSMonitor.com staff. Audio and video file sizes are generally too large to efficiently transmit back to the U.S. by satellite phone, but still images are OK.

Van Slambrouck notes that photography (for the website) will be an important part of Arnoldy’s daily duties, even though he’s not an accomplished photographer. Embedded print correspondent Tyson also will have a digital camera with her, but she’s not being counted on as much to provide photos. Arnoldy’s satellite phone is a large piece of equipment, better suited for his in-one-place assignment than Tyson’s moving-around-a-lot one.

Arnoldy: I’ll know exactly what the editors on the Web team need.One important aspect of Arnoldy’s selection as embedded war correspondent is that he will be able to report in ways that best suit the online medium. “It’s great that I’m not going to be the producer (at the home office in Boston) who has to pry material out of two print embeds who may or may not want to help the Web staff,” he says. “I’ll know exactly what the editors on the Web team need” and he’ll be able to shape his coverage to that aim from the start.

Just ‘Routine’ War Stuff

Other than the differences in the needs of an online vs. print medium, Arnoldy expects to be just another war correspondent. Also on the Al Jaber air base assignment are correspondents from The Times of London, Fox News, Scripps Howard, and Getty Images — so the journalistic team embedded at this military location cover the gamut of media formats.

In addition to his work equipment, Arnoldy is taking along some important personal effects: a flak jacket (the Monitor‘s); a combat helmet (ordered new on the website Bulletproofme.com); and an MP3 player for listening to music while he writes. The U.S. military is providing him with a biohazard suit and a gas mask — the same kind that are provided to troops — and training on how to use them.

Arnoldy says the whole experience of getting ready for the assignment has been a bit surreal — especially ordering the combat helmet online and wearing the flak jacket around his home to experience what it will be like to wear it for extended periods.

He may be the first American online journalist to make the decision about whether to receive smallpox and anthrax vaccine innoculations before leaving for an assignment. The smallpox shot is a yes, the anthrax is a no.

Is he nervous about the job ahead? “Yeah, in a lot of ways,” but he’s also excited about the opportunity to see the top news story in the world right now with his own eyes. The fears are both logistical and about personal safety. He’s got to figure out how to use a satellite phone to transmit articles and images, and how to report for the first time from within a military environment.

Then there are the worries about potential dangers if he goes along on an air mission, or if an Iraqi scud missile armed with chemical agents is aimed at the air base that he’ll call home for several weeks. This isn’t the stuff that online journalists have had to worry about, until now.

(Arnoldy’s wife, a school teacher, surprised him by being supportive of him accepting the assignment.)

‘We’re Still Amazed’

Back home in Boston, Arnoldy’s CSMonitor.com colleagues are excited about the ground-breaking nature of his assignment. Says website associate editor Tom Regan, “We’re all still amazed a bit it’s happening. … Heck, I’ve been around here long enough I can remember when it was hard for the Web team to get the time of day from the newsroom.”

Says editor Van Slambrouck, “This is a statement about the importance of the Web as we see it, and the huge growth we’ve experienced on our website.” In its ambitions especially to grow its audience outside of the U.S., the Monitor‘s website is increasing its importance to the overall news enterprise.

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