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Backpack journalism success hinges on training, not cost-savings quest, Gentile says

Much of the world is at a critical, fascinating juncture in the history of communications, technology and mankind — one that possibly dwarfs the invention of the Guttenberg press — says Bill Gentile, veteran journalist and pioneer of the one-man-band reporting genre known as backpack journalism.

“For the first time ever, most people like you and I have access to the tools of production: these small digital cameras, these portable computers and the Internet. We can communicate instantly, globally and in a language that supersedes the written and the spoken word. This has never happened before in the history of mankind,” he says.

However, Gentile, who has spent more than 30 years reporting from five continents and regularly teaches workshops on the craft of backpack journalism, warns TV newsrooms facing tightening budgets to look beyond the allure of the one-person crew model as a cost-savings strategy and recognize it for being a more effective brand of visual communications.

“My struggle is to push for the adoption of this model, not because it is cheaper, but because it is more effective,” he says.

That requires training, something too often overlooked by news managers focused solely on cost savings. Without good skills, the product of would-be backpack journalists too often devolves into something Gentile calls “spray and pray,” a half-baked newsgathering approach in which an inexperienced person is equipped with a camera and a wide-angle lens and told to go shoot, capturing “everything in sight,” in the hope that something usable will show up in the edit room.

In reality, backpack journalism builds upon the shoulders of still photojournalism during the heyday of Life and National Geographic magazines when photojournalists spent long periods of time with the subjects of their stories to develop a more intimate perspective than the 1000-mile-high view taken with many evening news reports, he says.

Gentile, who pioneered backpack journalism 15 years ago while working for Video News International, has long since perfected the craft, producing a variety of reports and documentaries, including the 2008 Emmy-nominated “Afghanistan: The Forgotten War.”

In fact, he brought many of the tools needed to master backpack journalism, including a thorough understanding of light, composition, shape, form and shadow developed as a still photographer earlier in his journalism career, to this new craft. To excel in this genre of storytelling, journalists must master the visual language of images because they are the engine that propels this new craft, he says.

Editor’s note: To learn more about backpack journalism, listen to the first of a two-part podcast interview with Bill Gentile.