As is currently the case in many sectors, broadcast journalism is scrambling to figure out how to tap into and employ (and exploit . . . hey, it’s capitalism) new media and the public’s relationship to the developing formats. NBC News seems to have found a clue, if not an answer, in their new Digital Reporter Mara Schiavocampo. A Silver Spring, Maryland native, Schiavocampo took some time from her busy “have camera, will travel” schedule to answer a few questions from the road.


KYLE G. DARGAN: I first saw you during MSNBC’s election night coverage as you were reporting from Harlem. So, let’s start there. The title “Digital Reporter,” is what caught my attention because it was one of those meta moments: a digital correspondent reporting on the first truly digital president. What was that like, and what do you think the media’s relationship will be to a president whose charisma and ability to digitally communicate with the populous potentially rivals their own?

MARA SCHIAVOCAMPO: I’m defined as a “Digital Correspondent” because I work with new tools and in non-traditional ways. But ironically that night I was contributing to the coverage in a very traditional role. My normal workflow consists of moving about and gathering elements (mostly video, sometimes stills), and then putting that together into video pieces or blog posts. But on election night, I was doing live shots for MSNBC and NBC News. So I was literally tethered to one spot during the broadcast.

On the one hand, it was probably one of the most amazing moments of my life. Some moments become historic in hindsight, once they are put in perspective. The significance of others is immediately obvious, like September 11th. Election Night was one of those nights: I knew I was witnessing history. So, I really appreciated it as it was unfolding. When that call was made for Obama, the crowd went nuts, absolutely bananas. I remember seeing people standing on top of telephone booths. Some African immigrants disappeared and re-emerged with drums and started playing and dancing, chanting “Obama! Obama!” It was just electric. And while I saw video of people crying, I didn’t see a lot of tears in Harlem. The vibe was one-hundred percent celebration and elation. It was an amazing experience.

While I was thrilled and honored to be a part of that historic coverage, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that part of me was unfulfilled. Standing in that one spot, I felt like a dog on a leash. I was yearning to roam. I wanted to be among the crowd as a more engaged observer. On the other hand, had I not been working I probably would have been at home in my pajamas, so at least I was out with the people!

It’s an interesting question you ask about Obama as a “digital” president, because already he has learned how to bypass the media in a lot of ways. He made his VP announcement directly to voters with a text message. He posted his first radio address on youtube. So he has a direct line of communication with the people. I suppose that gives him more freedom to get his message out. But I think people will always look to journalists for balance, perspective, and analysis.

DARGAN: My uncle Edward always likes to remind me that it is difficult to be a prophet in one’s own land. It seems that your initial recognition as a digital reporter came as a result of work you did outside the states. Do you think that similar type of reporting on issues across the U.S. can generate the same interest? Is that curiosity present among the American viewing public?

SCHIAVOCAMPO: Actually, that’s one of my favorite scriptures: “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country.” So, tell your Uncle Edward I’m feeling him on that! But despite our shared fondness for the sentiment, it doesn’t really apply here. I don’t think it was the international nature of the work that appealed to viewers (and potential employers), but rather the way that the story was being told. Working in the digital format lends itself to a completely different form of storytelling, one that tends to be a lot looser and more intimate-less structure, more flow, and more like a documentary in style than a traditional news piece. So, I don’t think that type of reporting is bound by geography. I think it’s dictated more by content. For example, using me to tell a story about Capitol Hill hearings would not be a very good application of this style! And I don’t think the American audience is that different from any other audience; they want to learn something new and they don’t want to be bored.

DARGAN: When I cut on MSNBC, I see more print journalist talking than broadcasters. Those of the broadcast cloth, such Brian Williams and yourself, are writing blogs. Is this, are you, the future of journalism—the “multimedia” journalist? And if so, what do you see as the pros and cons of this trend in terms of providing news?

SCHIAVOCAMPO: I do think that moving forward, the majority of journalists will be multimedia in the sense that they’ll contribute in multiple ways. We’ll see print journalists fronting video pieces and TV folks writing for online outlets and some people taking photos and some blogging, etc. I think our audience will demand that, and so do budget considerations. But what’s really great about this time in our profession is that none of the boundaries have been set, no roles clearly defined. So we all kind of get to choose what interests us and make that our niche. You can’t afford to be a one trick pony. But, for now at least, you decide what other tricks to learn.

The big con is the possibility of stretching your work force too thin, in which case the product suffers. I think all of us as individuals are trying to find that right balance, and I’m confident that at some point the earth will stop moving under our feet and we’ll figure things out. You can’t be in a period of transition forever.

The big pro is that we have so many ways to get the story out and can really choose the best format for the content. It’s a much more specialized delivery system and I think that works well for us as journalists and the audience.

DARGAN: You’ve said elsewhere that you feel like NBC has a sense of, or is at least committed to, the importance of new technology and web presence. But then I look at organizations like CNN and see what could be considered gimmicky applications of technology (the “magic board,” live debate audience feedback, holograms—seriously, holograms!) and think that most of the major broadcast outlets still don’t have a clue what exactly they are trying to do. What do you specifically shoot for in your work to avoid getting drowned out in the static of the industry’s experimentation with new media?

SCHIAVOCAMPO: Ah, the age of experimentation! Here’s the thing, everyone—everyone—is trying to figure out what works in this constantly shifting landscape. We want to serve our audience. The bean counters want see profits. And no one has the answers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I could hop into my time machine just to see how this all shakes out.

The things you’ve mentioned may seem like gimmicks, but I think they’re genuine experiments to see what works well and what people like. And come on, who doesn’t love the magic wall? So to answer your question, I’m just as bad as the rest of ‘em. If it pops into my head, I’m willing to give it a try. To be honest, I think this is a great time—one where we do have the freedom to simply try.

One thing to note though is that authenticity is key. You have to be a new media consumer to have a genuine understanding of how to serve the audience. In my opinion, the stuff that stinks is the stuff thought up by people who aren’t paying attention to the landscape.

DARGAN: I wouldn’t consider myself “old school” when it comes to technology. (The Washington Post‘s online entity saved me while I was living in Indiana and finding the print journalism lacking.) But one of my worries about the customization and niche marketing of news is that I feel like the respected broadcast media outlets are relinquishing their roles as arbiters of news—institutions who say, “Hey, if you are a citizen you should know this happened today.” You’ve said that the evening news broadcast, as a model, has less traction these days, but is there not a certain duty it fulfills? Is there no longer enough crucial news to justify the one hour broadcast?

SCHIAVOCAMPO: On the one hand, an awful lot is changing. But an awful lot is also staying the same. The only things that have changed (though they certainly are big things) are the delivery systems and competition. Traditionally, there were two ways to get your news: Print via newspaper, or video via TV. Now, there are so many more ways to get the information. The delivery system has expanded. There are also so many more voices competing for attention like bloggers and people who post video on youtube. So yes, those things are different, but the basics, the core of what we do, is unchanged. Our responsibility to inform is the same. Our moral and ethical obligations are the same. At the end of the day we’re still telling stories and we still have to get it right. We’re just trying to figure out how to get and keep our audience’s attention.

DARGAN: Considering the African Diaspora, the internet and digital media represent a slight catch-22 for people of African descent. While the web is an ethereal space all people of African descent scattered across the globe can, in theory, access and create a community with, many of the older population, those with the knowledge and personal access to history needed for a thriving community, aren’t web savvy or aren’t connected. As a digital reporter of African descent, do you see any ways that the technological opportunities and the generational (and, in some cases, economic) hurdles can be resolved to help encourage greater awareness among people of African descent?

SCHIAVOCAMPO: I don’t think the digital divide is cultural, I think it’s definitely dictated by economic and generational obstacles, like you noted. I’m afraid I have no thoughtful answer on how to deal with the generational issue. Every generation faces technology that they just don’t take to. My father used to tell me stories about how growing up the older folks in his home wouldn’t hold the telephone directly to their ear. They would hold it a few inches away and shout. It was just such a foreign concept to them. Now my father refuses to use a cell phone. I know people who have never sent an email, and don’t want to. And I’m sure that in my lifetime there will be some revolutionary new technology that I’ll look at and say, “No, thanks.”

I think the economic obstacles are actually decreasing, for one simple reason: the cell phone. It used to be that to be connected, you needed a computer and an internet provider. You also had to know how to use all of that stuff. But now, cell phones are increasingly becoming our pocket computers. You can use them to watch streaming video, to Google something, to check your MySpace page, etc. I live in Harlem and am very encouraged to see kids and teenagers using their phones to stay connected. I think that bodes well for the future.

MARA SCHIAVOCAMPO earned a Master’s degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland, and received a Bachelors degree, with honors, from the University of California at Los Angeles. In 2007, Schiavocampo was named as the emerging journalist of the year by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), and also this year, received the Society of Environmental Journalists honorable mention for outstanding television reporting. In 2006, her report on Army recruiting fraud won her the New York State Broadcasters Association award for outstanding hard news reporting. For more information on Schiavocampo and her reporting please visit NBC Nightly News’ “Digital Dispatch” page or visit her website


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