“Embrace your autonomy”: advice and a tip sheet for MMJs

I always appreciate the chance to speak with storytellers about this wild profession of ours.

In the past few years, I have received several opportunities to talk at conferences, and I particularly relish those moments. I believe in giving back as a general philosophy, but even more so when I can reach those in my profession who are eager to improve and learn.

And no topic delights me more than backpack journalism.

I have been a one-man band my entire career, starting when, at 22 years old, my first boss turned me into a one-man sports department. I have worked at several stations in numerous roles but have always been labeled a “multimedia journalist”, or MMJ. This is because, for the most part, I do it all — I shoot, write, and edit nearly every story I produce. This past year I was named the NPPA Solo Video Journalist of the Year, and last week I was asked by NPPA Quarterly Contest chair John Thain to reflect on the stories that got me there.

Watch it below (but try to ignore the choppy video):

As I spoke with John during that interview, I was reminded of how my “do-it-all” ability has truly catalyzed my career. At every stop, my versatility has made me valuable. And when I look around at other MMJs who have had major success in this business, I notice the same thing:

Most of them have embraced their autonomy.

When I get the chance to speak to journalists, particularly MMJs, I always send that message.

Last month I received the opportunity to speak at the Ignite Your Passion video storytelling workshop in St. Paul, Minnesota. I spoke to roughly 150 people, more than half of whom were either current multimedia journalists or college students heading that way. I crammed as much advice as I could into 90 minutes, offered both storytelling and technical tips, and chatted with many individually afterward. I gave each person an MMJ Tip Sheet, which I have included here for anyone who would like to download it.

Mostly, though, I emphasized the value of versatility. Since arriving in the industry, I have noticed how many of my colleagues bristle at the idea of one-person bands. MMJs are often derided as (A) a lower-quality alternative or passing fad for stations trying to skimp on staff, (B) an ultimate dead end for one’s career, or (C) just plain worse than two-person crews.

None of those claims are true.

For starters, backpack journalism is no passing fad — not when 40% of local news departments nationwide fill most of their staffs with MMJs. It certainly is no dead end — not when MMJs at my station alone have been assigned, instead of two-person crews, to cover some of the biggest national stories of the last few years.

And while traditional news-gathering duos will always have an edge on MMJs in many respects, they no longer corner the market on high-quality journalism. Earlier this year I interviewed Ted Land, who recently won a National Murrow award for writing. He competed against reporters from across the country and won a writing award … as a one-man band.

In short, the excuses are going away quickly. MMJs can win awards, do great work, and cover meaningful stories.

For most of us in this wild profession, that’s a wonderful career.

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