Posts filed under 'case study'

Reporters Look to Expand Horizons with Backpack Journalism

(NOTE: This is a guest post by  Leah Betancourt.)

Journalists are increasingly looking to expand their skill set or even reinvent themselves during this challenging time for the news industry. Some are doing it on their own terms.

Former newspaper reporters Alexis Grant and Adam Jadhav have a lot in common. They both quit their full-time reporting jobs they loved to travel abroad while blogging and shooting photos and video along the way.

Blog Fixture of New Venture

Grant set a goal for herself that after she had been working at the Houston Chronicle for three years and if she had enough money saved, she would take a long-term trip. When she was 27, she left her job as a health reporter in 2008 and spent six months traveling to several French-speaking African countries.

Alexis documented her travels through a blog

Grant freelanced for newspapers and magazines, but stressed that it supplemented the trip costs, but didn’t pay for them completely. She also tried blogging for the first time and put most of her effort into that. She also blogged so her family would know where she was.

Grant said that in her reporting job, she didn’t want to add another thing to her job, such as blogging. During her trip she learned she loved blogging. “I discovered a love for blogging that I didn’t know I had,” she said.

Slow and unpredictable Internet connections made things difficult. She said her biggest mistake was not setting up her blog ahead of time so she would have as little work as possible to do when blogging on the road. When Grant did find a fast Internet connection, she’d upload photos to Flickr. That’s how editors she freelanced for were able to access them.

Some of her freelance stories from her trip include, In modern Cameroon polygamy doesn’t pay and Baylor’s West African AIDS project perseveres.

When Grant got back, she decided to write a book full-time about the trip. Having just turned 28, she moved in with her parents in suburban Albany, NY. The travel memoir is loosely based on the blog. “There’s an element of personal journey to it,” she said.

She attributes writing the book to helping her improve her writing and becoming a better journalist. “I think that’s going to help me in my next job,” she said. “This is a chance for me to see how I could write in a different way.”

Grant launched another blog and a YouTube channel and posted her travel videos. She also joined Twitter. “Through my blog and Twitter, I was able to find others who are writing travel memoirs,” she said. Then she started a Ning group for writers of travel memoirs.

Today, Grant is job searching while living in Washington DC.

Search for Meaningful Journalism

At 27, Adam Jadhav went to Kenya nearly eight months ago. Since then he has been to Madagascar and India. He’s now in southeast Asia.

Jadhav left his job as reporter at the St. Louis-Dispatch covering poverty issues in July 2009 to go abroad as an international reporter. He admitted that a one-week reporting trip to Cuba in March made his desire to do international reporting stronger. In 2007, he was the newspaper’s multimedia reporter. In the summer of 2008, he launched the Post-Dispatch’s political channel on YouTube.

“I figured I could afford to spend a year or two out on the road tilting at windmills and (I hope) producing some meaningful journalism along the way. And I’m incredibly lucky: I had the savings, the lack of commitments, a supportive mother, professors and editors, the multimedia training and a healthy dose of moxie to do it,” he wrote in an e-mail.

At the same time, he launched a blog, where he posts videos, audio slideshows and photos. He said the blog is a personal outlet to share his trip with his family and friends, but he also posts updates about the work he’s covering during his travels. He also uses Facebook and Twitter to share information.

Jadhav also struggles with slow Internet connection speeds. He said that in Africa it can take up to two hours to upload a video, which also requires a constant connection to achieve. He uses YouTube as his video content management system because it’s ubiquitous and it offers the best chance for his video clips to get picked up elsewhere.

“YouTube is the starting point for my videos; they automatically spread to Twitter and Facebook. I absolutely think cross posting is a good idea and when I have something more worthwhile, I fully intend to post elsewhere,” he said.

He tries to focus on stories that will connect with U.S. audiences. For example an HIV clinic in Kenya has a direct connection to the University of Illinois in Chicago.

A few of his stories he has covered abroad include: Harley gunning for growing market in India, Kenyan males line up for circumcision and the Maasai Show. He has a few more awaiting publication and several finished pieces without a buyer.

Jadhav said he has spent far more time sending e-mails and looking up contacts as part of his business then doing actual journalism.

“The big, meaty stories are too expensive to really pursue without prior funding commitments. News feature and travel journalism is simply easier to sell,” he said.

He spent his first three months in India waiting for his residency and his work permit to get processed and approved, which was important because he eventually wants to work in India long-term.

Jadhav admits, however, his lifestyle isn’t for everyone. “I’m comfortable being marginally employed,” he said. “I’m not in a rush. I have savings to fall back on, and that I’m doing plenty of personal travel, adventure and language study.”

Jadhav doesn’t know when he plans on returning to the U.S. He’s moving to Ecuador in July for volunteer work and to pursue other stories. He tentatively plans to be in the U.S. in the fall to apply to an international development graduate school before returning to India early next year.

It isn’t just wanderlusts who want to do freelance journalism abroad. There are training programs for learning these skills and applying them professionally.

Teaching Visual Language

Bill Gentile, an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker, spearheaded the American University School of Communication’s Backpack Journalist Program, which launched April 1.

He said there’s a lot of spray and pray out there. In other words, shooting video and hope you’ve got something good. “That’s not what we’re talking about,” he said.

The project aims train people to speak a visual language. “The visual language really is a separate language. Too few people can really speak this language properly,” he said.

Program courses include photojournalism and social documentary, foreign correspondence and backpack documentary, according to its site. Workshops include “Storytelling: Backpack Journalism Style.” Gentile said they are working on certificate program.

The Backpack journalism methodology doesn’t work for every story, he said, but when it does, it’s much more intimate. Although Gentile fears that the methodology might be used as a cost-saving measure by news organizations.

He pointed out that no one is providing the platform, engaging the industry and practicing the craft of backpack journalism at the same time.

“We want to teach the real power of backpack journalism,” he said.

Freelance journalist travel tips:

From Alexis Grant:

  • Be flexible. It’s almost better not to have a plan.
  • Have your blog and social media tools set up and ready to use.
  • Make sure you have freelance contacts in place.
  • More tips from Grant

From Adam Jadhav:

  • Be ready for a tough, but really fun road.
  • Have as large of a toolkit as you can.
  • Be able to work across mediums.
  • Consider having something else to do with your time. There will be downtime while waiting to hear back from an editor or a source.


Leah Betancourt is a journalist who has written about social media, emerging media and community engagement for Mashable, Poynter and elsewhere. This is her first post for Old Media, New Tricks, and we’re glad to have her!

If you’d like to contribute to Old Media, New Tricks, you can reach us through  @mediatricks on Twitter.

20 comments April 26th, 2010

New Tricks: Create a successful news vertical

On a sunny, warm Wednesday afternoon in Newport Beach, Calif., surfers took in some waves in the cold Pacific Ocean waters, people shopped along the boardwalks and the lone content producer for was combing the beach for University of Texas Longhorn fans.

Thousands of people decked out in the distinctive burnt orange clothing were in Southern California for the BCS championship game, and Hookem’s Dave Behr was on a mission to find, talk to, video and photograph as many of them as possible. He was to be the eyes and ears for the fans who couldn’t make the 1,400-mile trek from Austin to California. Along the way, he rode in an RV full of rabid UT fans, got Darth Vader to flash a “hook’em” sign in Hollywood, posted blog entries about his first taste of In-N-Out burgers and met tons of tailgaters.

Some forward-thinking Statesman employee had reserved the domain name “hookem” more than a decade ago. All it needed was a purpose. This past summer, we gave it one when we launched the niche site just before the Horns football team started 2-a-day practices.

The Statesman had a Longhorns forum for more than a decade, but it was built in old software and wasn’t actively managed. Without oversight, the forum was a place for racial bashing, threats, expletives and everything else that happens when you let the mice play. In March of this year, the Statesman started the transformation to the new site by re-launching the forum under the umbrella, using new software and moderation. To ease the workload of moderation, we deputized some good board members and gave them the power to delete posts and put other community members in timeout.

We then proceeded to build the site in WordPress. Building it in WordPress instead of our paper’s CMS allowed some flexibility and speed in design and implementation. WP is also a very easy system to push content through, no matter where you log in.

From the beginning, Hookem was planned as a site that leans heavily on aggregation (an editor choosing stories from dozens of sources and linking off to them from our site). Our guy in California, Behr, has been curating the Longhorns sports news all season long. He also finds photos, videos and more from all over the Web to link to from the site. There is some original content, in the form of blog entries by Behr and the content produced in the forum by our community.

We also wanted to use social media to help market and distribute Hookem’s content. During Longhorns games, I personally ran the @HookemFans Twitter account, and we often update our Facebook page. Both accounts actively engage the community. The Twitter account has more than 1,800 followers, and the Facebook fan page has about 700 fans.

The site is distinctly different than the Statesman’s coverage in a few ways. For one, since the information is curated from all across the Web, it does not rely on staff reports. Another big difference is that there’s a little license to have more fun than we can have when publishing material at the Statesman. The name of the site itself, “Hookem,” infers some bias. We run with that, and had no shame in having a good time in California with the rest of the fans.

We think that provides a one-stop shop for Texas fans, and the traffic has increased solidly in each month of the site’s existence. We’ve been very happy with the site’s financial success in its first year as well. We’ve had no problem selling ads on the site, even during an obviously difficult advertising period.

Although Behr didn’t get to see the game from inside the Rose Bowl (he spent it in the stadium’s parking lot with the people who run a rival site,, he did have a great time, and he gave our site some great exposure. He told me he handed out tons of marketing cards to fans at the game. Although the Horns lost a heart-breaker, the site has been a winner all year long.

I’m surprised more newspapers haven’t done something like this: it’s relatively easy to build a niche site, and not hard to maintain it if you use aggregation and social media to their full effect.

- Robert Quigley


Have you created a vertical site for your news organization? Please leave your thoughts, comments and war stories here!

NOTE: This piece originally appeared on Media Bullseye.

15 comments January 27th, 2010

Lessons from FiveThirtyEight: How One Wonky Guy Kept Me Up At Night

(Guest post by travel writer Sheila Scarborough.)

Chicago-based Nate Silver, a baseball statistician and analyst with Baseball Prospectus, was ticked off about politics.

As a data-driven guy who appreciated precision, the sloppy use of political polling information drove him crazy. From his perspective, there didn’t seem to be a site that really dove into poll data analysis in a relatively balanced and knowledgeable fashion.

What do you do when you’re one smart person with a vision and enthusiasm? You launch your own butt-kicking Web site. Let’s talk about the power of his site and the lessons that both old and new media can draw from its success in the 2008 elections (538 is the number of votes in the Electoral College.)

I’m not a political journalist, only a news junkie citizen, but FiveThirtyEight kept me enthralled during the election. I would stay up past one o’clock in the morning, repeatedly hitting Refresh on my laptop screen so that I wouldn’t miss a single thing that Nate and his team posted.

What was so compelling?

  • Quality and depth of Nate’s information. Almost all of the mainstream media US maps predicted individual state election outcomes simply by coloring the state red or blue. Only FiveThirtyEight had minute color gradations (light pink to dark red, for example, indicating how much a state was predicted to go for Senator McCain.) Only FiveThirtyEight maps accurately portrayed the two states that split their electoral votes: Maine and Nebraska. Silver even showed a blue box around Omaha (the Second Congressional District) surrounded by red-tinted Nebraska, because the Obama campaign worked that area very hard to try to win its one Electoral College vote (and they did win it.) I loved this sort of detail. Lesson: Don’t dumb down your information. We’d prefer the full story.
  • Human interest narratives that also predicted election outcomes. Only on FiveThirtyEight did a tiny team of guys travel to multiple states to interview and accompany ground workers in both the Obama and McCain headquarters. Over and over, from Troy, Ohio to Grand Junction, Colorado to a damning photo in Florida’s Panhandle, it was obvious from their digging and persistent reporting that the Big Mo was in the Obama camp and not with McCain. I never saw this sort of detailed ground campaign storytelling anywhere else. Lesson: Show us what’s going on by telling gripping stories, even when those stories are buried in relatively obscure towns that no one else is talking about. We want to know.
  • A lively, engaged community makes a Web site even more powerful. I rarely saw such interesting readers and commenters as I did on FiveThirtyEight. Sure, there were the usual trolls and yellers, but there were a lot more people who were thoughtful and impassioned about the unfolding political process. Some got pushy, wanting to know why the latest daily Rasmussen poll analysis wasn’t up by a certain time. Others were concerned that Nate was still posting information at 3 am as the election neared its end. I began to recognize certain commenter names and would smile or groan based on what I knew to expect from them.Lesson: It’s not only about detailed data, or interesting stories – it’s also about the people who come to the site, hang out and chat.

One baseball stats nut who loved well-presented polling data. One bare-bones Web site. A couple more people running around in a car doing interviews across the country. Insanely detailed analytical posts about voters with dense explanatory graphics (my math teacher husband told me that they were “rectangular coordinate system scatter plots.”) That was it…that’s all that FiveThirtyEight had going for it, but they kept me up nights with “just” that.

What can your media organization do to keep readers up at night, hitting “Refresh” and trying to figure out how to read a scatter plot? Which reporters have that kind of passion and drive, and what can the organization do to help fuel their fire?

Sheila Scarborough is a writer specializing in travel, the social Web and NHRA drag racing. She’s also the co-founder of Tourism Currents: social media training for tourism professionals.

6 comments November 24th, 2009

The Google Wave news community

If you are one of the lucky few who scored a Google Wave account, you’ve probably logged in, fumbled around a bit, probably were impressed by the instant nature of it — and you probably got annoyed relatively quickly at Wave’s slowness. If you have enough friends or colleagues who have invites, you might have gotten a peek at Wave’s potential as a collaboration tool.

For journalists, collaboration with the public on news events is the (Google) wave of the future. I wrote about Wave’s potential for journalism for Media Bullseye. If you don’t know what Wave is, here’s a good blog post that explains Wave, written by Omar Gallaga, a colleague of mine at the Statesman.

Having played around with Wave quite a bit, I was ready Tuesday to experiment a bit with Wave’s potential to report and discuss the news. So, I set up a new wave, called it “Austin News”, put out some ground rules and then publicized my experiment through Twitter. Within a few hours, we had more than 100 people talking (mostly) about local news in the wave.

I even embedded a poll to let people say whether they planned to vote on Election Day. Someone went in and edited my poll question to add “or have already voted” since the polls had been opened for a few hours by then:

In five hours, the Austin News wave generated about 70 individual comments, or “wavelets.” The wave overall was a bit slow, somewhat hard to follow and a little buggy. (I couldn’t get a photo to appear, and I think it is because I tried to upload too large of a photo, clogging the system.)

I did, however, see some great discussion; I posted a link to the Texas constitutional amendments that are up for a vote, and people immediately began discussing why anyone should care about them, which are the the most important ones and why. I dropped in topics a few times throughout the day, from the election to the launch of the Texas Tribune to some local economic news. I included links to our stories. People discussed each item as they came in.

There is potential here.

Waves get overloaded after about 50 wavelets, or messages, are added to a particular wave. I’m going to launch another wave tomorrow (a daily edition of waves, of sorts) to keep them from getting too overloaded. I imagine Google will speed this system up quite a bit before opening it up to the public.

It was the first of many experiments on Wave. I’m excited to see where it leads.

- Robert Quigley

If you have any questions, ideas or suggestions, please leave them as comments below!

15 comments November 3rd, 2009

Case study on storystreaming: A day in the sun

If you’re looking for the Next Big Thing in blogging and social media, it’s already here in the form of lifestreaming. Thanks to really easy-to-use (and fun) software by Posterous, lifestreaming and storystreaming are going mainstream.

Daniel Honigman, on this blog, has posted some great tips and tricks on lifestreaming and storystreaming.

Inspired by Daniel’s enthusiasm, I have been noodling over what might be the best uses for this at a mainstream media operation. At, we ran our first full storystreaming experiment this past weekend, with great success.

Here’s what we did.

I organized how we did it by showing that we followed the steps that Daniel suggested in a recent blog post:

The theme

We’ve had 67 days over 100 degrees this year in Austin. That’s hot, even for us. As we zero in on breaking the all-time record of 69 days, we wanted to get the community involved. Posterous, which allows for easy collaboration and easy submission of content, seemed perfect for the job. (Note: Here’s a guide on how to use Posterous.)

Recruiting contributors

We used our popular Weather Watch blog to explain to readers what we wanted. In a nutshell, we wanted their photos and a short description of what they were doing on a hot Sunday. We sent links out through several of our Twitter channels and through the Statesman’s Facebook fan page.

Curating the content

When you create a new blog on Posterous, you are given the option to let “anyone” contribute. We checked that box. It gives you an e-mail address that anyone can use to submit a photo, text, audio, video, etc. When something is sent by an outside user, the owners of the lifestream can go in and see the entries and approve them before they appear on the blog.

At the Statesman, we had several people tasked on that Sunday with checking the queue for new submissions. We approved most of the 70 submissions we received, only ignoring ones that were off topic.

Promoting and syndicating content

We talked up our project as much as possible through social media, though prominent placement on the home page and through a prominent solicitation in print. I personally DM’d several influencers on Twitter and was looking on Sunday for people posting Twitpics that fit our guidelines so I could ask them to send those into our project. We set up a Twitter account, @Austinheat, that used Posterous’ “auto post” functionality to tweet links to each entry. We also could have sent the content to Flickr, Facebook and dozens of other services using the “auto post.”

Rewarding the contributors

We showed off the submissions prominently online (it was the centerpiece of the home page Monday morning) and in print (we chose some of the better pictures and ran them in our daily roundup in our Metro & State section).

The results for us

We put the photos into a gallery on, and it was the top page-view driver for our site on Monday with more than 70,000 page views. We also gained some valuable experience using Posterous and proved the concept for future projects. We published the content we received several ways: Posterous, Twitter, in our photo gallery and in print. That type of cross-platform publishing is healthy.

The results for the community

The quality of the pictures were really good. Some were funny, some were artistic, and all were thoughtful. Through this project, Central Texans could all feel the pain of a hot summer and share a small slice of their lives.


  • Posterous is a really good platform. Everyone involved in the project on this end said so, and we didn’t get complaints from the public.
  • I wish we had used a Statesman e-mail address (that would forward to Posterous) because “” is a lot to type on an iPhone.
  • We used this mainly as a way to gather user photos. Considering Posterous’ potential, we could have done much more. Besides photos, there’s no reason we couldn’t curate videos, audio, text, tweets, and other content in a future lifestream project. We will look to use it for a richer experience next time.
  • We didn’t syndicate the content out as much as we could have. Posterous allows you to push it out to dozens of platforms. We used a few. Why not a Flickr stream?
  • The only incentive we offered was a chance to participate (and perhaps get published in print). Although we pushed this pretty hard, we received only 70 submissions. To really take advantage of this community functionality in the future, we might offer a bigger incentive (a giveaway to the best entry, etc.)
  • Despite all the “I wishes”, I thought it was a success. We enjoyed the experiment.

I personally have some more ideas for using this in the future, from eventstreaming the Austin City Limits Music Festival and South by Southwest to storystreaming coverage of a sports season. I know some of my colleagues here were inspired by the platform’s potential as well.

Has any other mainstream media outlet used these techniques effectively yet? I’d love to hear how it went.

— Robert Quigley, social media editor at the Austin American-Statesman

27 comments September 3rd, 2009


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