Wednesday, May 21, 2008

SPECIAL REPORT: Going Mobile -- The End of the Newsroom As We Know It?


NEW YORK When word came down on March 12 that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was going to resign after revelations that he'd paid more than $80,000 for sex, Jeff Blackwell of the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle grabbed his video camera and headed to a nearby diner. As the lunchtime crowd at Jim's Restaurant watched the governor's resignation live on television, Blackwell recorded their reactions and later posted them online, using additional comments for Web and print stories.

"The picture and the sound show the expressions on their faces, the tone in their voices," Blackwell says. "You could tell if they agreed with what he was doing or not."

Such an assignment is typical for Blackwell and other "backpack" or "mobile" journalists, who spend most if not all of their time outside the newsroom recording, shooting, and writing stories without ever sitting at a desk. "It is probably 60% of my time that is spent out; there are days I don't come into the office at all — at least once or twice a week," says Blackwell, 44. He had worked at the D&C for more than a decade when editors approached him two years ago with the idea of outfitting his 2002 dark blue Audi with a laptop, video camera, audio recorder, still camera, and plenty of lenses.

When a snowstorm struck this past February, Blackwell left home at 8 a.m. and went directly to find people to comment on what they liked about the wintry weather. "I just drove around until I found something to shoot," he says, noting that the images he captured were transmitted directly from his laptop.

Blackwell's beat is becoming more and more common as a growing number of newspapers employ these mobile journalists, known as "mojos" in many places. As technology offers easier ways to collect sound and images, editors are finding that equipping reporters with the necessary gadgets to work remotely — and kicking them out the door to do it — is an attractive option. One daily even plans to make all of its reporters and photographers "mobile" this year.

"We are trying to equip more folks with media kits so that everything we could conceivably want, journalistically, can be gathered in the same setting," says Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian in Portland — which currently has six mojo kits. "There will be more of that. Some people really take to it."

It simply means that "people are out and about looking for news and covering news, and in a position to file to the Web," says Pam Fine, managing editor of The Indianapolis Star, which has about a dozen mobile reporters. "Most newspapers have the equipment for journalists to report from the scene, but it is a matter of degree."

At the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., Editor Rex Smith is slowly replacing his newsroom's desktop computers with laptops to allow for quick getaways when reporters need to chase a story. "We made a policy decision to do that in 2007," he says.

Some even predict the "mojo" concept could lead to editors and some non-journalistic staffers working outside the office. With most editing, ad placement, layout, and design done on computers anyway, it's conceivable that the newsroom as it exists today could be eliminated, with folks working from home, their car, or even the local Starbucks. "It is easy to imagine a day when that will happen," says Keith Woods, dean of faculty at The Poynter Institute. "We are technologically in a place where we can already do that."

But not every editor is so keen on the idea. Some, like Tim Franklin of The Sun in Baltimore, worry that journalists can lose that exchange of ideas and editorial oversight if they are not in the newsroom enough. "Being in an office where you can collaborate with others can be very beneficial," he says, adding he has no such "mojos" on staff. "Having a place to meet with someone —there is something to be said for that."

Similarly, Editor Anders Gyllenhaal of The Miami Herald says the mojo approach "is not the focus for us."

Still, as demands for more Web content and faster print deadlines grow, technology to work outside the office improves, and cost limits require newspapers to scale back space in many places, it is clear journalists will have to be able to do more remotely. "Obviously, there is going to be more of that," declares Gary Pruitt, CEO of the 30-paper McClatchy chain. "In general, it is thinking best what is the best way to cover a story."

Cutting the 'cord'

If anyone has paved the road for mobile journalists, it is clearly The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla. The 73,097-circulation Gannett daily plans to have all 44 news staffers outfitted with mobile packs containing laptops, digital cameras, audio recorders, and assorted cables by the end of the spring, according to Editor Kate Marymont. She started the mojo effort several years ago, citing a need to get reporters out, have them spend more time in the community, and have the ability to file stories and images more quickly.

"Everyone still has a desk, either here or from a bureau, as an umbilical cord," she notes. "But at least 80% of reporters are just on laptops. It really spiked in 2007." Marymont says part of the mobile push was related to increasing online reporting and reducing newshole, which she says has decreased by about 5% in recent years. "The volume of online material escalated very rapidly," she adds.

While reporters on traditional beats still file for print, their coverage of meetings and other events is more immediate, in many cases providing updates and blog-type reporting from the scene. "It is almost radio-style updating," Marymont says, citing a local council meeting as an example. "We do just about everything that way."

Laura Ruane, who has been at the News-Press off and on since 1979 and covers tourism, works more out of her 2004 Hyundai Sonata than at any desk. She says the mobile technology allows her to cover and file from anywhere, and much faster. She cites a recent meeting of the local tourism board that was choosing an executive director. As the board interviewed candidates at a special meeting, Ruane was able to take each candidate's photo and file Web updates from the meeting room about how they were being questioned.

During high tourism periods, she will go out once a week to a tourist destination, "talk to people, and do a blog about it from there," says Ruane, who has also gotten familiar with the best Wi-Fi spots from which to work the laptop. "Panera Bread is one of my favorites," she says of the soup-and-sandwiches chain of eateries. She also points to nearby Southern Florida International Airport, which has free Wi-Fi throughout its terminals: "A day at the airport, and I can do anything I can do in the office."

Along with traditional beat reporters utilizing the mojo packs, Marymont has assigned several scribes to be "community journalists" who cruise certain areas and file stories of interest. "They are out prowling," she says. "They are responsible for capturing the life of the community that day. Strictly digital."

One such roving reporter is Mark Krzos, a 36-year-old former entertainment writer who joined the mojo ranks two years ago. "I sort of roam around," he says, noting he focuses on issues ranging from new development to crime and accidents. "I'm there sometimes even before the cops are. It is a little bit of everything." During one week in early March, Krzos' work ranged from coverage of a local gated community's trivia night to a motorcycle accident, which included a photo shot and transmitted just steps from the banged-up vehicle. "At first, I thought it was some kind of newspaper fad," he recalls. "But I never looked back, and would never trade it for anything else."

Heading where the energy is

While the News-Press appears to be the pioneer in mobile journalism, it is far from alone. Newspapers from Oregon to New York have signed on, some with only a handful of reporter "backpacks" in use.

"I go out to find things on my own because I like to do it," says Amy Bartner, an Indianapolis Star reporter in the paper's Greenwood bureau, who spends most of her time scouting in her 2007 Toyota Scion. Bartner, who joined the paper in 2006 and has worked the mojo route for six months, also works a police beat. But she files up to five videos per week on various subjects. "I go into a Starbucks and transmit, or from a student union," she adds. "Anywhere I can find a quiet place to sit."

Another rookie on the backpack beat is Monica Guzman of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, whose on-location work is used mostly for the paper's "The Big Blog," a top Web site feature with different scribes posting items on stories of the day. Armed with her Dell laptop, Guzman, 25, blogs at locations ranging from the trendy Moe Bar to the Seattle Seahawks' Qwest Field.

On Oscar night this year, she was camped out in a 28th-floor room of the local Radisson where a viewing party was being held. "It made a difference; there is something about being there," she says of the ability to get immediate reaction to such an event. "You can really say what got the crowd going and ask people what they think, then get it up." A weekly guest on the local KOMO-TV Wednesday afternoon news cast, Guzman has even taken to telling readers where she will be blogging, drawing some occasional recognition at each spot. "It is about going to see the story of the conver-sation," she says. "You talk to people and you feel the energy."

At The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., Brian Howard is the only mobile journalist in the paper's 12-person Mt. Kisco bureau. "The idea is to get local news on the Web immediately, to get out in the community and get stories you wouldn't otherwise get," he says. "I have filed plenty from my laptop, in my car."

Howard says coverage includes the usual car accidents and other breaking news. But there is also the lighter side, such as the eight-foot wooden Paul Bunyan figure he wrote about after spotting it on a local resident's front lawn. "I was just driving by and it turned into a good story," he recalls.

"There is a fair amount of ribbon-cutting and stuff that would not get into the paper," he adds. "But it keeps me busy. I have had days with five or six stories."

For Joe Rose of The Oregonian in Portland, backpack reporting often means literally carrying the gear on his back. An avid cyclist, Rose regularly rides his bike to work and often slings a special bag carrying his Macbook, digital cameras, and iPhone on his back while covering his beat — which often includes local protests and what he calls "alternative fringe" stories.

"There have been a couple of times when I have had to stop and take pictures on my way to or from work," says Rose, 38, who uses a company Jeep Cherokee for other assignments. "I have been on my bike and I get to a protest and file from there, and within minutes I have stuff up on the site." His iPhone also comes in handy for quick mapping details. "We are the first line of information for any breaking news in the northwest," he says of the paper's multimedia journalists.

Then there's Peyton Whitely, the grand-father of mobile journalism. The Seattle Times reporter has been doing the out-and-about thing since 1988. Whitely, 63, says his first mobile phone weighed more than 12 pounds and his initial computer was a Radio Shack model that he converted to power through his car's lighter socket. Today, as a crime and suburban reporter, he has a laptop and two cell phones for use in his car.

His mode of transportation also has changed. Gone is the 1977 Datsun 280-Z he started with; now, he pursues news in a 2003 Subaru wagon.

"I have written stories on railroad tracks and in coffee shops, libraries, and park benches," he says. "I got into it writing about transportation in the past, and actually had an assignment to write about traffic in Seattle. That made me think about working from the car all the time." One of his recent mobile stories was his part in the massive December 2006 storm and subsequent massive power outage that crippled the city. "I wrote the whole thing in my car in a flooded parking lot about 200 feet from an apartment building with 50 flooded apartments," he recalls.

Potential drawbacks

But the practice is not drawing all raves and success. And the cost can be somewhat daunting. A "backpack" kit with video camera, audio recorder, laptop, cell phone, and other gadgets runs about $14,800 each for the Democrat & Chronicle, according to Editor Karen Magnuson. She notes, "There are a lot of pieces that go into those packs."

Others admit concerns about having so many journalists working outside the newsroom and thus limiting face-to-face discussions with editors and, at times, each other. "It is a lot of freedom, but it is kind of scary," says Bartner of the Indianapolis Star. "I don't have the ability yet where I don't need an editor above me. I sometimes wish I had someone over my shoulder more." Guzman at the Seattle Times agrees: "Some times, I feel like I need an editor to look at this."

Editor Marymont in Fort Myers recalls that the paper became a bit overwhelmed in the beginning when too many mobile journalists were posting online at once. "That is a lesson we had to learn the hard way," she says. "We first had everyone file directly to the Web, and we went through a phase of disorganized presentation of information."

Other editors, including Leonard Downie Jr. of The Washington Post, say more of their reporters have gone mobile, even if they aren't loaded up with kits. But they warn such an idea could go too far, diminishing the pluses of the newsroom atmosphere. "There are times when fads sweep the newspaper industry," says Downie, whose career spans some 40 years. "We've always been wary here of changing all in one direction, along new organizational lines."

Some also offer caution to the idea of making editors and other non-journalists more mobile, which could be an evolution of the approach. "One set of crystal balls may say the more you can do from a laptop, the less you need to get together," says managing editor Fine in Indianapolis. "But communication can get missed and muddled."

Adds Stephen Gray, managing director of the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next Project: "I offer a caution on this. There is no advantage to doing more than most consumers want."

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