How to build a backpack newsroom

I had a silly idea today, to set myself a goal of designing an equipment bag that would contain everything a scrappy young reporter would need to be a media production powerhouse. This project is one part opportunity to drool over new technological toys, and another part opportunity to express my belief in the convergence of multiple forms of content. Where the media was once fractured, a single person can now truly produce all of its forms efficiently.

My goal is to list everything needed for photography, videography, in-depth writing, and web editing – and make it small enough to carry. This isn’t just a backpack journalist, it would be an affordable backpack newsroom.

Since we all know (myself included) that young journalists work on the cheap, I added to the challenge that I would keep the total cost of equipment and salary WAY under that of the average salary for college graduates – to just $30,000.

The average salary for college graduates is $48,351, but since so many journalism majors that I know are starting at $26,000 or less, we will set the salary for our fictional employee there, meaning we have just $4,000 remaining for equipment and fees.

My Equipment List:

Phone

iPhone: $199

Monthly plan: $90 ($1080)

Free Aps: PS Mobile (Photoshop), TweetDeck (Twitter), WordPress (mobile web content editor), U Broadcaster (Ustream Live video broadcasts/recorder), Flickit (Flickr)

The iPhone gets a lot of hype and a lot of jabs. For my money, I’ve found through working on my personal website and News21 projects that there is no better device for a mobile workflow – not even a great laptop. The iPhone gathers content, edits content, and shares content with relative ease – and from anywhere. The constant availability of a camera (albeit not a fantastic one) is a huge benefit as well. While there is a regrettably short battery life, especially during heavy use, the iPhone is the one tool that could be a basic mobile newsroom all on its own. A digital journalist really could do everything they need to do from a device that fits in their pocket. The monthly plan above includes unlimited calls, internet, and multimedia messaging.

Computer

13 in MacBook Pro: $1199.00

Final Cut Express: $199.00

Google Docs/mail: Free

Another Apple product, the MacBook pro is a rugged computer that has OSX’s legendary stability and ease of use. It is also compatible with an incredible array of free software and internet applications. If you’re wondering why select this and not the regular MacBook, there are 3 reasons: Firewire (for connecting to video cameras), the SD Card slot (for downloading gathered media), and the graphics accelerator card (makes video editing a lot easier/faster). Apple’s included software also allows for some minor photo and music manipulation. While the built-in iMovie could pass as a video editor, I decided to splurge on FCE because of the added options it provides for splitting or merging video, sound, and photos, and the extra effects that often come in handy when merging content from various sources – something I expect a mobile newsroom journalist would have to do quite often. Google Docs and Mail would allow this journalist to work or share from anywhere, and to store their data in the cloud.

Audio

Zoom H2 Audio Recorder: $139.00

Shure SM58: $99.00

XLR to 3.5mm Cable (10ft): $10.00

Audacity (audio editing software): Free

The three pieces of equipment above allow for high quality audio recording at a minimum of cost. The Zoom H2 is a well reviewed audio recorder that uses standard SD memory, and records in full 48k WAV files. While the Mac uses AAC as a native recording format, WAV is easily interchangeable in FCPE or Audacity. The Shure SM58 is the most popular microphone in the world, and for good reason: it is a workhorse that produces reliably high quality in a wide variety of situations.

Photo/Video

Cannon Vixia HF R100: $499.00

16GB Class 6 SD Memory Card: $40.95

Tripod: $15.00

If I had infinite money, I would definitely have picked a DSLR for the photo/video job, but in the case of this challenge, I had to compromise. The Vixia is a solid camera that offers a single very important feature that many others in the same class don’t: an auxiliary microphone input. After all, what good is HD video if the sound is awful? This camera, like the iPhone, will also grab acceptable still images. A 16GB memory card would allow over 2 hours of recording at the camera’s highest resolution. With a laptop nearby to dump footage onto, that should be more than enough to produce a series of reports.

Internet

Cable Internet: $30 per month ($320 per year)

DreamHost Web Hosting: $120 per year for domain and hosting services

WordPress Content Management System: Free

Vimeo/YouTube: Free

Flickr: Free

Twitter/Facebook/Social Media: Free

SoundCloud: Free

Even a mobile newsroom will need a base of operations from which they can upload the bulk of their final products and maintain their digital presence. Assuming that space is their home, and that the employer is compensating them for internet service, I’m estimating the total cost. Also, I’ve once again chosen to use DreamHost services and a WordPress content management system. While I favor DreamHost because I’ve had positive experiences with them in the past and because they interface your website with Google Docs/Mail for free, but in reality any webhost would be acceptable for this project – and some might indeed be cheaper. Lastly, WordPress is by far the most versatile content manager available – and it’s free. It allows a huge range of options for creating, publishing, and archiving content and stylized with a  theme ($0 to $3000 or more) it can create a unique media experience for your users.

Cost of equipment: $3920

Total cost of a backpack newsroom: $29,920.

That leaves $80 to buy a nice backpack.

I will admit that while I did manage to keep the cost of outfitting this backpack newsroom below $30,000, I did leave out a big and important expense: travel. Somehow this journalist and mobile newsroom will need to get to their stories. That is an expense that varies from location to location, however. While I cannot predict what it would cost I do admit that it could easily double my budget if the journalist needed a vehicle, gas, maintenance, and appropriate insurance. However, in some cities, that journalist could also do with public transportation at a much lower cost.

If you want to really be a pain, I’ve also not accounted for taxes. Likely, an employer could still make the $30k per employee goal by just paying them slightly less – but I would never endorse that.

(All product prices found at Amazon.com)