Backpack Journalists

Student reporters negotiate today’s demanding news cycle with speed and agility through ABC News On Campus

April 27, 2009

Twenty-two-year-old Sara Loeffelholz, a bright, ambitious broadcast journalism student from Aledo, Texas, walks through The University of Texas at Austin campus carrying a small video camera, along with a laptop and her Blackberry, searching for students on the verge of graduating.

ABC News On Campus reporters Joseph Millares and Sara Loeffelholz set up a shot for an interview

ABC News On Campus reporters Joseph Millares and Sara Loeffelholz set up a shot for an interview.Photo: Erin Geisler

As an intern for the ABC News On Campus bureau she’s reporting a story about graduating seniors’ efforts to stand out in the job market. A few short hours later she has produced a video package that will be seen by thousands of viewers around the country.

Next, she connects a small hand-held camera and her Blackberry to the laptop and activates a software program, QuickLink Live, which enables her to establish a video connection with the New York City ABC News bureau via the Internet. Within moments, she is being broadcast live over the ABC News network as she comments on the story and answers questions from an anchor in New York.

While thousands of television viewers watching the broadcast didn’t think much of it, they were watching the work of a backpack journalist. This one-woman operation–without a camera operator, a producer or satellite truck–is a sign of what’s to come in the world of TV news reporting.

A Business Model in Flux

A confluence of economic and technological factors are turning the journalism industry on its head and giving birth to converged newsrooms where multitasking journalists can interview a subject, shoot video, take still photos, compile a photo gallery, grab an audio clip and write a script or a Web story. It’s a glaring contrast to the now-eroding business model where a news story was assembled by discrete departments.

While the news industry business model of the future is unclear, one certainty is that the Internet is a major component.

Kate Dawson

Broadcast Journalism lecturer Kate Dawson, a documentary filmmaker who worked at Fox News and WCBS in New York City, supervises the ABC News On Campus bureau.Photo: Christina Murrey

Television network news viewership has declined in recent years and people in the on-the-go 18-24-year-old demographic don’t want to wait for the networks to air a special report or for the newspaper to drop on their doorsteps. Networks are eager to capture the attention of this audience whether it’s through traditional TV newscasts, Web-based video or a combination of the two.

To tap into the coveted 18-24-year-old market, while nurturing up-and-coming broadcast journalists, ABC created ABC News On Campus bureaus at five journalism schools across the country, including The University of Texas at Austin.

Opened at the beginning of the fall 2008 semester, the bureau, nestled in the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center on the northwest end of campus, is staffed by four journalism students–all seniors–bureau chief Sara Loeffelholz, Chelsey Delaney, Joseph Millares and Cate Smithson. Broadcast Journalism lecturer Kate Dawson, a documentary filmmaker who worked at Fox News and WCBS in New York City, supervises the bureau.

“The bureau is a converged newsroom in every sense of the word. We’re almost like a media outlet that has had to let go of 95 percent of its staff and the remaining people have to pick up the slack,” said Dawson. “They need to be willing to pick up a video camera, write a print story, write a blog and take pictures or they won’t produce as much content as we need. That’s a big job, but it’s what they’re facing in the real world when they graduate.”

ABC News provides the equipment–video cameras, still cameras, computers and editing decks–while the students are responsible for providing compelling stories that target the college-aged audience and can be told through video, blogs, online articles, photo essays or any combination of these.

The bureau is a converged newsroom in every sense of the word. We're almost like a media outlet that has had to let go of 95 percent of its staff and the remaining people have to pick up the slack. Kate Dawson, broadcast journalism lecturer

Tapping into the Youth Zeitgeist

At 9:15 a.m. each weekday, Loeffelholz and the student bureau chiefs at the other four campuses–Arizona State University (ASU), Syracuse University, the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill–participate in a conference call where they pitch story ideas to ABC news producers.

One Tuesday morning, the bureau chief from ASU suggests a story on proposed legislation in Arizona that would allow students to carry handguns on campus. The hook would be a profile of an ASU woman who’s a member of the campus chapter of National Rifle Association and owns a pink handgun.

“We’re interested in this story overall, but we need a new angle beyond the legislation being introduced,” said Pam Robinson, one of ABCNews.com’s coordinating producers, adding that the Texas bureau had covered the story previously by profiling a student who had lost his girlfriend in the Virginia Tech shootings.

Next, the University of Florida bureau pitches an idea about a new product akin to Facebook for senior citizens.

“We need a more compelling angle” replied Robinson. “We’ll pass on this.”

“What we hoped to do was bring them [students] in and expose them to how we put the pieces together,” John R. Green, executive producer for special programming and development at ABC, told industry trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable. “We get them on a conference call every morning and require that the students pitch stories every day, just like our network bureau chiefs do. That means some of them get the experience of having their idea shot down. It’s tough. They have to deliver the goods. It’s a little bit more than what an internship is–it’s meant to really be a mentoring thing.”

ABC News On Campus bureau logo
Visit the ABC News On Campus Web site and read bios of the staff at The University of Texas at Austin bureau.

Loeffelholz pitches her ideas, including a story about indie rock bands at the SXSW Music Festival, a piece on the reduced price of birth control pills on college campuses and a piece on sex education in light of a new law lowering to 17 the age limit on the Morning After Pill, Plan B.

“One of the important skills I’ve learned is how to nail down a story pitch by communicating it succinctly in about 10 words or fewer,” said Loeffelholz. When asked what constitutes a good pitch, she responded, “Something that’s campus-focused and has a human interest angle; perhaps something quirky and most likely something that an older reporter hasn’t thought of or doesn’t have access to.”

Because the stories apply to both college-aged students and a national audience, Robinson likes the birth control pill and the sex education stories and gives them the green light. The finished products will include a Web text story and a video package for the Web.

Stories that get the green light appear on the ABC News On Campus Web site in one form or another, from a full-fledged video story to a text-only Web story. Many of the stories are featured on ABC News Now, which is distributed to cable channels, Internet sites and mobile phone networks. KVUE-TV, the Austin ABC affiliate, also has the option of broadcasting these stories on its Saturday morning show Daybreak.

A handful of the best stories have been picked up by the ABC News network, including a University of Texas at Austin bureau story about the controversial political sign ban on campus during the 2008 presidential election. Loeffelholz reported and Millares shot the story, which aired nationally on World News Now, ABC’s overnight news program. Watch a video of the student-produced news story about the political sign controversy.

“I think that’s pretty phenomenal that a 22-year-old student reporter had a program air on network television,” said Dawson.

It's tough. They have to deliver the goods. It's a little bit more than what an internship is-it's meant to really be a mentoring thing. John R. Green, executive producer for special programming and development at ABC

In addition, World News Tonight with Charlie Gibson has picked up student interviews that the bureau filmed for the “Higher Cost of Education” and “Persons of the Week” stories.

“I’ve definitely polished my skills through the ABC bureau,” said Millares, who previously worked at KVR News, The University of Texas at Austin’s student-produced weekly live broadcast news show. “Working for ABC I need to be on top of my game at all times. At the beginning it was rough–it took me four or five days to produce my first story. I’ve become more assertive as a reporter since then. Now I can shoot and cut a story in a day.”

Operating in a Compressed News Cycle

Masters of the tools of social networking, the campus bureau reporters are using Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to identify story sources at lightning speed.

“Good Morning America was developing a story on the spring break advisory against traveling in Mexico amidst safety concerns and they asked for help identifying students who had been the victims of violence in that country,” said Loeffelholz. “I immediately sent a text message to my network and within 30 minutes I found a student who was on a bus that had been hijacked while on a high school trip to Mexico.”

According to Dawson, the news cycle is compressed in the digital age and there is no downtime. For example, CNN updates its news site every 10 minutes. Now, instead of chatting with the camera operator while waiting to go on camera, field reporters are more often using that time to Tweet for story sources, write text pieces for the Web or capture up-close footage of a news scene with a hand-held camera to post to the Web.

“Today’s TV news organizations are evolving and putting their resources into the Web,” said Dawson. “More and more I’m seeing stations lose a reporter and replace them with a backpack journalist. Many are transferring editorial duties to writers and people with multimedia experience.”

ABC News On Campus reporter Joseph Millares sets up a microphone for an interview with senior Michael Voss

ABC News On Campus reporter Joseph Millares sets up a microphone for an interview with senior Michael Voss.Photo: Erin Geisler

The on-demand and flexible nature of the Internet give it many advantages over television and newspapers. Television news broadcasts have rigid schedules–they typically air at 5 a.m., noon, 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.–with very little flexibility for breaking news and newspapers publish in the morning. Unfortunately for print and television news organizations, news doesn’t follow a schedule.

By contrast, peak Internet traffic is between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., so when there’s breaking news, it posts to the Web first because that platform provides more flexibility and depth than on TV news where most stories are limited to two minutes.

“People logon to their favorite news site on the Internet multiple times a day,” said Dawson. “They expect new, fresh information every time. If your site doesn’t constantly update its news, your viewers will move on to a site that does.”

Dawson recently explained to students in her broadcast journalism class that in the age of iPhones and Twitter, information travels fast and citizen journalists have emerged on the scene to provide first-hand accounts of breaking news and, in increasingly more cases, provide the first visual reports thanks to Internet-enabled phones.

For example, the first published photo from the U.S. Airways Hudson River plane crash came from Janis Krums who took a photo with his iPhone and posted it on Twitter. In less than an hour he was providing a first-hand account of the scene on MSNBC.

“In many ways, these citizen journalists are our competitors,” Dawson said. “We need to figure out how to work with them and drive them to our Web sites. A journalist’s information should always be more important that a blogger’s or a citizen journalist’s, but it’s hard to ignore the millions of hits they may get when they fall into a good story.”

Tenets of Good Journalism Remain

While there’s no doubt the news industry is going through a painful period as it explores new business models, School of Journalism Director Tracy Dahlby believes that a key challenge is to maintain a quality level of journalism that gives citizens the information they need to make informed choices “so they can hang onto their wallets and constitutional rights” in a split-focused, time-compressed, mobile world.

Our job is to train future journalists for the realities of the industry as it evolves, but we also must instill in them a lifelong desire to understand important issues while we provide them with the tools they will need to learn about their communities and themselves. Tracy Dahlby, School of Journalism director

“Our job is to train future journalists for the realities of the industry as it evolves, but we also must instill in them a lifelong desire to understand important issues while we provide them with the tools they will need to learn about their communities and themselves.”

“The success of the ABC News On Campus bureau encourages us to explore how to adapt that type of relationship with an eye to providing opportunities for a greater number of students in other areas, such as investigative reporting and long-form storytelling for television,” he said.

While the business model and delivery methods are in flux, the fundamentals of good journalism–strong writing and production values, clear thinking, ethics and accuracy–remain constant.

R.B. Brenner, metropolitan editor of the Washington Post and a visiting lecturer in the School of Journalism, summed it up best in a recent speech to future journalists.

“You need to hone the fundamentals of reporting and writing so that you can be fast and deep,” he said. “Fast because the 24/7 news cycle isn’t hype anymore. Your readers expect to know what happened a minute or less after it happened. If you don’t give it to them, they’ll find it somewhere else. Deep because with so many news sources online, the basic facts of a story–Who, What, When, Where and Why–have become plentiful and perishable commodities. Your readers now demand original, enterprising and surprising journalism, the kind that opens eyes, provokes thought and, sometimes, touches nerves and hearts.”

For more information, contact: Erin Geisler, KUT Radio, Moody College of Communication, (512) 475-8071;
Banner photo: Christina Murrey