I have a great job. I'm a news tourist: I travel the world with a digital video camera in search of good stories for World News Tonight.
Let me explain how this series, which we are calling "The Road to Anywhere," got started.
For years, television news has wrestled with how to cover all of the stories from around the world that we felt were important, or even potentially important. Clearly, we cannot be everywhere, all the time.
But even trying to be in just enough locations to cover the main stories was a nightmare for executive producers and assignment managers. Our camera, sound and editing equipment, while providing high quality video, was bulky and heavy, and extremely expensive to transport. Sure, we quickly moved mountains of gear when a big story breaks. We still do. We also move smaller mountains of kit for feature stories.
But we've always longed for the luxury of exploring more worldwide locations, for longer periods of time. Great news stories are often like great fish. You need time to land them. But we cannot send four- or five-person news teams on extended fishing trips.
Now, thanks to the new generation of high-quality, lightweight, personal DV cameras, and laptop video-editing software, we have the extended global reach we hoped for. Smaller news teams can travel farther, for longer periods. A reporter can even travel alone, as a one-man band. It can be lonely, but it's a great adventure.
I recently spent 50 days on "The Road to Anywhere," with stops in South Africa, Ghana, Australia, the South Pacific, and Asia. On the Africa leg, I traveled with London-based producer Bruno Roeber, a knowledgeable and companionable Brit. The rest of the way I traveled alone.
For techies, here's the equipment I carried:
Cameras — I carried two: a Sony VX1000 (3 chip) and a Sony TRV9 (one chip). I used the larger VX1000 for the main shooting. The TRV9 served well for tight spaces, and for making backup copies of video, using a FireWire cable, of course.
Telephones — I had two mobile phones — in case one broke down — and an Inmarsat-M4 satellite phone with ISDN connectivity for data transmission. The satellite phone is about the size of a laptop computer. Its three panels unfold into a 2-and-a-1/2-foot-wide dish.
Computers — One laptop and one Psion Series 5mx palmtop.
Most Valued Accessory — My beanbag. A beanbag is a great way of providing a sturdy platform for your camera when there's no tripod handy. I've used my trusty beanbag on top of a sandbag bunker while on patrol with U.S. Marines in Kosovo; on the stump of a fallen coconut tree on the South Pacific island of Tonga; and flat on the sidewalk in Delhi, India for a low shot. The tiny beanbags sold in sports stores are suitable. I've even made my own, by putting popcorn seeds into a Ziploc bag and taping up the seal.
Here's how I work. After shooting a story, I make a dub (backup copy) of the tape, using one camcorder as a player and the other as a recorder. I send the original tape to the ABCNEWS bureau in London, via an overnight shipping company. Over a late night dinner in a village restaurant with no phone, I whip out the palmtop and write an e-mail to my news desk about the shipping details and my plans for the next day. Over dessert, I transmit the e-mail from the palmtop to my mobile phone via infrared ports, and the phone sends it on to London.
A week later, having written the narration for the tape I shipped to London, I find myself two continents away. Out comes the laptop. Using audio recording and editing software, and a microphone, I record my narration, or track, onto the hard disk. I use the audio software to remove any unwanted background noise, then compress the audio into an MP3 file.
To transmit the track to London, I connect the laptop to the sat phone. Then, using a compass and a chart inside the sat phone's cover, I point the dish in the direction of the satellite thousands of miles away in space, and send the MP3 file via a data line to one of our servers in London.
Later, my videotape editor retrieves the MP3 track and loads it into our Avid digital video editing suite. He or she also loads video from the DV tape I had previously shipped.
The editor then matches the video to the words of my audio narration. With much creativity, the editor turns the separate elements into a news spot. The cut spot is then sent by satellite to ABCNEWS headquarters in New York, to be broadcast on World News Tonight.
In one case, I shot a story in Ghana, wrote the script in South Africa, and transmitted my narration via sat phone from Vanuatu in the South Pacific.
Mike Lee's reports will air on World News Tonight all this week.