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As the Republican candidates travel around the country in pursuit of the 2012 presidential nomination, they are being followed by a new class of multitasking reporters who are transforming election coverage, each with their weighty bundle of highly specialized tech equipment.
On the campaign trail with Michele Bachmann, CBS News reporter Sarah Huisenga and NBC News political embed Jamie Novogrod are almost invariably working by themselves, without a producer, cameraman or satellite truck, shooting the event on their small Sony HVR-Z5 cameras.
Novogrod, for example, tries to get to events early to get a good spot in the press area. He will then spend the following 30 to 40 minutes setting up his Sony camera and checking the connection for his LiveU backpack that will send live video via cellular networks back to NBCâ€™s operations in New York City and Washington, D.C.
After everything is set up, Novogrod will move out into the crowd, interviewing event organizers or attendees, taking notes with an old-fashioned pen and notebook but also videotaping them with his iPhone for stories or Web items. He also snaps photos using Instagram, a photo-sharing application that allows users to post material to social media sites.
Then, once the event starts, Novogrod operates his camera, making sure it remains properly fixed on Bachmann, who likes to move around the stage, meanwhile giving his thumbs a good workout, typing notes on his Blackberry to record key aspects of the speech and specific times for notable quotes.
Some of this goes out live to the Webâ€”about 150 of the nearly 400 events covered by NBC embeds have been streamed liveâ€”or is cut into stories that make their way onto broadcast or cable TV news shows, the Internet, mobile offerings and social media.
Tweets, posts to social media, news articles for the Web and Weblogs can also be a big part of the dayâ€™s work for multimedia news correspondents.
All this marks a major change from past network coverage of elections. As recently as the 2008 campaign, news desks had to deploy satellite trucks and several people to cover events, which meant they were forced to pick and choose which events would most likely generate significant news.
This time around, NBC has deployed eight reporters like Novogrod. CBS has forged an alliance with the National Journal to put three CBS reporters, including Huisenga, and three National Journal reporters in the field, making it possible for them to cover most campaign events.
â€œItâ€™s an amazing leap forward from even four years ago,â€ notes Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent, who argues that the embeds give them a major competitive advantage. â€œIt gives us the ability to do so much more live coverage than weâ€™ve ever done before.â€
On the technology side, much of the reporting is being made possible by improved connectivity and miniaturization of equipment, which has allowed journalists to operate almost like mobile production trucks, carrying everything they need to produce content for broadcast TV, the Web, mobile and social media platforms.
CBSâ€™ Huisenga, for example, typically carries a small Sony HVR-Z5 HD camera, a MacBook Pro laptop equipped with Final Cut Pro editing software, a Wi-Fi card to FTP video to CBS over 4G or 3G networks, a Blackberry from CBS, her own Droid smartphone, a Flip Video camera, an audio recorder, shotgun and wireless mikes, a camera light and lots of cables.
Operating all this equipment and producing so much material for so many different platforms has been a daunting challenge, both Huisenga and Novogrod admit.
â€œIf something big happens, the video needs to get in right now, and both CBS and the National Journal have big Websites, so they will want a story up right away,â€ says Huisenga, who also feeds content to various CBS News programs, radio, mobile and social media sites.
While they may seem like lone guns on the campaign trail, the connectivity that allows this material to make its way back into network bureaus and production hubs also means that the field reporters are hardly one-man or one-woman bands.
Both Huisenga and Novogrod stress that a key element of their coverage is a tight communication with their bosses in New York and Washington D.C.
As Novogrod shoots an event, there is often a logger in Washington, who is also watching the material, noting key parts of the stream where Bachmann had notable quotes or statements. Once the event is over, Novogrod may also request a transcript of direct quotes from those areas for his reporting.
"This tag-team approach is incredibly helpful," he notes. "Having another set of eyes is huge. On the days when I have to cover an event without the LiveU [backpack sending back video to New York and Washington] and I have to report it on my own, it makes a big difference because I don't have another set of eyes logging the video. Then, I'll have to go back and clip and FTP [the video] myself, which can add an hour or two to the workload."
Correspondents and reporters at NBC news also find material extremely helpful. NBC's Todd notes that he can watch the live feeds when he's not out on the road and that he can draw on this video for stories.
"It gives you an instant diversity of voices that you can use immediately and has really allowed our stuff to stand out," he says.
As candidates race to endless events, keeping up with them also means long hours with few days off.
"The hours can be pretty brutal and you're never really off," Novogrod says. "If I am off, it is usually a travel day to another event. But that hasn't bothered me because it's really exciting. Part of the mission is to cover everything the candidates do and to do that you have to be there. That was part of the reason why we were deployed so early.
"When I arrived in late July, it was mostly just the local press that was covering [Bachmann] and I was there to see her evolve," he continues. "I saw her gather all this incredible momentum in August. I was at this event just before she won the straw poll in Iowa that was just electric and I remember thinking then she could win the straw poll.
"And then lately I've seen her slip in the polls," he adds. "But by being there all along, I've been able to appreciate that and see how her message as evolved and changed. It is really cool to be there and see how this has progressed."
The extensive coverage made possible by newer technologies has also allowed Novogrod and Huisenga to much better understand her supporters and get a better sense of how the Tea Party grew out of older political traditions.
Novogrod, for example, remembers meeting a Ron Paul supporter who ran for congress in the early 1980s. "He calls himself the original member of the Tea Party," he notes. "He gave me a pamphlet [from the early 1980s] that had all the iconography of the modern Tea Party. You realize there were these sentiments long before the Tea Party and being out there the way we are really helps you understand that."
"By spending a lot of time in Iowa-which is where I am from-I've really gotten to know the political scene and who some of the big players are and the people around the candidate," says Huisenga. "Being there day in and day out, you notice immediately when things are shifting, when there is a change of strategy and the reasons why they are doing that."
That constant coverage can mean some very long days on the road. "There are many days when I will be on the road five or six hours a day," covering several events, Huisenga notes.
Novogrod recalls driving down to Miami late one night after attending a number of Bachmann events during a long day in Central Florida. "I had to file all my video so I'm driving through the Everglades, through what they call Alligator Alley while my laptop is uploading the material [with the LiveU backpack]," Novogrod says. "I think I sent five clips during that four hour drive" that were used by MSNBC and their other platforms.
"The bottom line is that [the new technology] means we can do more and in some cases do more while we are already doing something else," he notes.
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