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War Coverage Spurs ‘Backpack’ Reporters Tue Mar 25, 1:42 AM ET Add Technology – AP to My Yahoo!

By RACHEL KONRAD, Associated Press Writer

Armed with $15,000 in satellite phones and computers, Preston Mendenhall calls himself a “one-man band” who writes stories, snaps photographs and shoots video in combat zones.

The international editor for MSNBC.com spent most of February traveling alone in Syria, then joined other reporters in northern Iraq (news – web sites) to record Kurdish reactions to the American-led bombing.

His latest multimedia report — video, still images and words — described the collapse of the U.N.-backed oil-for-food program, which blocked fresh food supplies to 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people.

“You get a connection, set up the camera, point it at yourself and just do it — you’re live,” Mendenhall said from a satellite phone. “But if there’s any weapons of mass destruction, I’m outta here.”

Mendenhall, who sends pixelated video through a pair of special satellite telephones, is one of a growing number of journalists relying on lightweight laptops, satellite phones, inexpensive editing software and digital cameras.

The technology has resulted in streaming video from the most remote places on earth. It has also enabled a new breed of reporter, known as a “backpack journalist,” who often has greater mobility and flexibility than a camera crew.

They file real-time reports with equipment that is a fraction of the cost and size of conventional, shoulder-mounted cameras and other gear. They file primarily for the Web, with images they’ve edited themselves at the scene, and occasionally contribute to television.

“The people who can shoot video, write stories, do radio on the side, basically do it all — these are the journalists of the future,” said John Schidlovsky, director of the Washington-based Pew Fellowship in International Journalism. “The technology has made journalism much more immediate and instantaneous.”

Although they’re a tiny minority of the hundreds of foreign journalists in and around Iraq, backpackers could eventually change the complexion of news gathering.

But backpackers — also called solo journalists, or “sojos” — won’t eclipse mainstream media soon. Fear, fatigue and confusion often vanquish their sophisticated, lightweight equipment, which larger television operations use only when higher-quality video is unavailable.

Some experts also worry that less-seasoned sojos, particularly those who post directly to Web sites and don’t file through editors back home, will produce reports that lack context or analysis.

“Backpack journalists have to know the difference between when you’re a lone wolf and when you’re part of a greater whole — and they have to file with that in mind,” said Jane Ellen Stevens, a pioneer backpack journalist who teaches at University of California, Berkeley. Stevens specializes in science and technology and has been reporting backpack-style since 1997 from such locales as a research icebreaker in Antarctica and a space camp in Russia.

Travis Fox, a video journalist for WashingtonPost.com, filed footage on Saturday of coalition troops in Umm Qasr, Iraq building a POW camp.

For most of his stories, Fox uses a Sony PD150, a roughly $7,000, 12-pound digital video camera with a 5-hour battery. The gear is less than half the weight and one-tenth the cost of equipment used by crews for large networks.

But Fox, one of hundreds of U.S. journalists “embedded” with U.S. troops, knows that no medium can mask the limits of human endurance.

“We’re going to make a run for the border tomorrow, early,” Fox said wearily from a Kuwaiti hotel before the war started. “There are roadblocks. It’s a long shot. I’m not so much nervous or excited as I’m tired.”

Although Fox usually travels with other reporters, many backpackers work alone.

They worry about battery life, power outages and technical hiccups — without backup from co-workers.

CNN correspondent Kevin Sites is a pioneer backpack war journalist who mixes solo with team coverage and has, at times, been frustrated with the technical hurdles of his vocation. In one recent entry on his Web Site, he complained that “Iraq tech hell.”

Sites stopped posting journal entrys and photos on his own site last week when CNN asked him to concentrate on working for the network exclusively.

Other media organizations have shied away from backpacker technology because the quality of the images remains grainy.

London-based Associated Press Television News relies primarily on Sony’s broadcast quality electronic news gathering equipment — a $70,000 package that includes a shoulder-mounted camera, tripod, lens, batteries, lights and microphones. APTN usually dispatches a camera person, who hauls the 30-pound camera, as well as an on-camera journalist, who totes gear as well.

APTN has purchased smaller cameras but editorial manager David Modrowski said the company has no plans to migrate fully to backpack-style equipment.

“In proper, full sunlight, it’s pretty tough for the untrained eye to tell the difference,” Modrowski said of the lighter equipment. “But when you notice it is when you get to low-light conditions, and certainly now we’re seeing a lot of nighttime activity in Iraq.”

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