The Backpack Journalist: Digital Storytelling on a Shoestring

Why I left a corner office to become a backpack journalist.

I wanted to become a digital storyteller and backpack journalist. 

Sort of a long story as to why, but before I tell it to you, here is the second video I ever shot. Everything I needed to accomplish it fit into a backpack.

The client, Internews, wanted a piece on its CEO/President, Jeanne Bourgault, that would reflect her enormous humanity (my words). Their website had video samples of her speaking at such renowned events as the World Economic Forum and the Social Capital Markets annual meeting. But what they didn’t have was a profile piece about why she gets up in the morning to train and protect journalists around the world.

After being in the foundation world for over 25 years, and the social impact sector for close to 40, I knew just what was needed: an intimate, non-slick piece that was as authentic and compelling as the subject herself.

Here is everything I used to do the shoot, all conveniently fitting into one (large) backpack. You’re looking at about $2000 worth of equipment, which in the grand scheme of things is an affordable number to shoot high-quality video.

My Gear

Eight months ago I had none of this and had never shot a video.

It’s not every day that someone walks away from a corner office and a wonderful job running a foundation near Rockefeller Center to start at the bottom rung again of a new career. But that is just what I did.

Such was the pull of journalism and storytelling for me. Why? Because I believe we learn best through stories, and I wanted to get better at telling them. In particular, I wanted to learn how to tell the stories of people in our social impact sector, the amazing individuals whose passion for the work, and joy in it, drives the success of their organization.

So at the old-dog-new-tricks age of 59, I took the now or never leap and started a part-time, online masters program in Digital Journalism and Design through the University of Southern Florida at St. Pete. An old colleague of mine had helped design the program and was running it, so if nothing else I knew I’d get a great editor and learn a boatload. What’s more, they were affiliated with the Poynter Institute, a global leader in journalism, and I craved to be part of a journalist community.

Imagine my amusement when I realized that half of my professors could be my biological children. My second semester I had a cyber classmate, aged 26, who couldn’t join our Google Hangout one weekend because “it’s Saturday night.” I didn’t really know what a “platform” was and the coding class was harder than the Greek I had studied in college. I truly felt like I had landed on another planet until…

…until I took the required class in Digital Media Production and it rocked my world. Over a 16-week period I learned photography, audio recording and video recording. I studied photographs, photographers, videos and videographers. I delved into Adobe’s Audition and Premiere Pro tools, sufficiently mastering them to handle all the post-production on my own (with a few extra Premiere Pro tutorials thrown in from professors and my very patient nephew).

In December 2014, I’d asked the journalist Nicholas Kristof what he thought I should concentrate on in graduate school. His reply: “video.” After taking the Digital Media Production class, I completely understood why. Video allows for a level of intimacy that print simply cannot accomplish, and in our increasingly digital culture, with diminishing attention spans, a short video like this one on Internews can capture an important story in a manageable amount of time.

I came to realize that multimedia reporting on social issues, where you can combine video, text, blogging, photography and social media, allows you to tell stories in news ways with potentially far greater reach.

And all out of a backpack.