03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shoestring Journalism


Last week I paid a visit to an old friend in television news. I watched the ten screens in his office showing competing news stations and live feeds. I listened to his scanners buzzing with cop voices. His computer instant message system wanted his eyes and ears. His cell phone and Blackberry begged for attention.

What was happening? He was marshaling resources so that a local fire might be covered on his station for a lunchtime broadcast. I noticed that he did a lot of running around to accomplish this, unusual for the boss. But his newsroom had lots of empty cubicles, the result of recent layoffs.

I left him that day with two things: A new appreciation for making a lot of television with few resources and also a massive earache.

It was hard to get my mind around how much stuff was needed just to get a news report on the air. Do you really need that much stuff to do the news?

When I was at NBC and FOX News and ABC, we had helicopters, satellite uplinks, grip trucks, video crews all over the world, dozens of editors and many talented reporters. Even the interns had interns. The cafeteria at NBC may have been sketchy sometimes, but other than that, we had HUGE resources.

Yet today, there are journalists doing much, much more with a whole lot less.

Check out Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele's "Facing Climate Change" blog and you'll get crisply produced reports on how global warming is changing forest fire suppression. They've posted a story about reindeer husbandry that's fascinating, and I don't even like reindeer. They do it using photographs and audio recordings -- what used to be called a "multi-media" slide show. It might just be the future of journalism. A potent dose of storytelling made on a shoestring. Why does it work?

For one thing, it's portable -- you don't need much stuff. (Well, a helicopter would be nice for some shots.) For another, people relax and tell you things when you're holding a little audio recorder. They don't mind a couple of pictures from a handheld SLR. You get a chance to record the story instead of becoming the story.

(Try showing up in a small town with a nationally-known correspondent, a couple of camera crews, the intern, the intern's intern, and you get what I mean.)

Photographer Jeff Pflueger has posted a story about recently homeless people seeking justice. The post links back to some terrific multimedia storytelling on the streets of Fresno.

More examples of the multimedia movie include Mathilde Piard, an Internet producer at the Palm Beach Post. She's created an interactive site about home birth. Chris Tompkins has posted an inspiring photo slide show about backpacking through Yosemite. I've taken a shot at it, with this piece on about a sleepless night in India.

Maybe we have seen the future of journalism and it could be much like the past. A storyteller. A slideshow. A mission. Simplicity itself. No need to watch ten televisions at once.