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Mara Schiavocampo Headshot

Coming of Age in the Digital Age

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"At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, Cinderella's electrically powered, computer-generated horse and carriage may turn into a pumpkin."

Thus began one of my first articles written for the student newspaper as a UCLA undergrad. The topic: Y2K, the computer meltdown expected to wreak havoc on the world in the year 2000. It was arguably the first news story of the decade, and also the first of my budding reporting career. Y2K turned out to be a dud, as the millennium rolled around without much of a hitch. But the story signaled the beginning of a remarkably interesting and turbulent decade for journalists, one marked by a string of historic news events, and technological changes that would transform the industry forever. As a journalist, I came of age amidst it all.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was supposed to have a phone interview for an entry-level production position with "60 Minutes." I was finishing up graduate school and trying to line up a job. Needless to say, that conversation never happened. Instead, when the phone rang that morning, it was my mom. She woke me with words that were surely spoken all across the country: "Turn on the TV."

Unlike virtually every other news event I've lived through, I had no desire to cover September 11th. I only wanted to sit in front of the TV and mourn. For two days, I did just that. I watched "NBC Nightly News" on the day of the attacks, transfixed by the most powerful images I'd ever seen. I distinctly remember Tom Brokaw saying the word "despair" as they showed a person jumping to their death. I started crying. Like the doctor who becomes a patient, or an actor sitting in the audience, I learned what it's like to be on the other side, as a viewer during a time of confusion and trauma. I wanted information--lots of it--and perspective, and compassion. I strive to incorporate all of those things into my work today.

Anyone who thought we'd get a breather after 9/11 was surely disappointed. The last 10 years have been packed with material for the history books: The invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Katrina. I didn't cover any of those stories. But unlike with 9/11, it was not because I didn't want to. During those years I essentially had desk jobs, producing and later anchoring. I couldn't stand the fact that I was sitting in a building while history was happening. I was dying to get out into the world and do some real reporting. Eventually, I broke free.

After a few years of feeling like I was sitting on the sidelines of journalism, I decided it was time to play. I quit my job, bought some shooting and editing equipment (all small enough to fit into a backpack), and a plane ticket. I headed to the Middle East to work as a freelance reporter, but also unknowingly began a journey towards what's been called the future of journalism.

Completely by accident, I became a multi-media journalist and part of the massive shifts taking place in the industry. Mostly I'd sell complete video pieces, but sometimes I'd offer a blog post, sometimes a photo slideshow, other times a text piece. Instead of focusing on one medium, like print, TV, or the web, I worked in all of them.

Some people decry these types of changes in the industry, arguing they result in lower quality and lost jobs. But I have always seen the silver lining. If not for the tiny technology and vastness of web real estate, I wouldn't have been able to offer important stories from all over the world, from Congo to Indonesia to Lebanon. The question for news outlets today is not "Do we send one person or do we send a crew?" but "Do we send a one person or do we scrap the story altogether because we can't afford a crew?" To me at least, the answer is obvious.

After a few years as a freelancer, in 2007 I started working for NBC News as their first-ever Digital Correspondent. I have happily been part-guinea pig, part-prototype, helping the network figure out how best to serve our viewers in this brave new media world. I'm only a tiny piece of the puzzle, both here at NBC and beyond.

Ten years ago I had no idea that Y2K would be the least of our worries in this decade. Naturally, we never know what the future will bring. But I did have some expectations, one being that over time, journalism would change me. What I never would have guessed was how much journalism itself would change.

Cross-posted from The Daily Nightly