Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Wait Of Technology

This news business never gets easier.

When I first ventured overseas in 1979, traveling by way of an $1,800 settlement from a motorcycle accident and doors opened by a press card gifted by Trans World News, a basketball-sized Domke camera bag held all I needed: two sleek Olympus 35-mm bodies, a flash and my trim, light 28-, 50- and 135-mm lenses.

What I didn’t wear, I toted in a ridiculously simple aluminum-frame backpack, including a small portfolio and carefully hoarded store of hand-rolled Tri-X and slide film.

My old college friend and collaborator, Jeff Greenwald, had it even easier. A pen and notebook, items readily available on the road, empowered the writer’s pursuit of any story, anytime. Being as young as we were, his burden came from hankering to, perhaps, branch into sculpting. He often complained about the unused chisels and carving tools clanking in his kit.

The prospect journalism might someday require laptops, chargers, converters, thumb drives, backup drives, and programs to make the tools work, internet connections to distribute the results and ensure that same software keeps working — that technical frontier lurked blissfully out of view.

We’ve had time to get used to laptop screens expanding from a few blue-lettered sentences to world-opening portals. We’ve become accustomed to spinning hourglasses eating away our inspiration. We’re conditioned to keep an eye peeled for outlets in the airport. These things took over our lives incrementally; hunger for the possibilities opened trumping the tonnage and worry associated with all these astounding devices allowing us to report stories in compelling new ways.

UAF Journalism’s Iraq reporting gear cost roughly $11,000. We’re bringing a pair of so-large-they’re-hard-to-pack Macbook Pros suited to editing HD video; a pair of new Canon HG-21 camcorders chosen for their built-in 120GB hard drives; two older PCs; a trio of digital audio kits; two very cool Canon T1i SLRs—one being mine financed out of pocket--and, lastly, a Sat phone courtesy of the UA Risk Management Office.

We have to pay for the minutes. Ouch.

We’ve consulted other embeds and collected info from the brigade and soldiers we know regarding the likely working conditions at Forward Operating Base Warhorse and other places we might end up. Honestly, there’s no end to what we might belatedly discover we should have brought given today’s ever-widening appetite for news delivered in differing formats.

Those years ago in Egypt, my flash busted right off the bat. By then, Greenwald had continued on to India and Nepal, which became the setting for his signature book, Shopping for Buddhas.

Freelancing for the UPI Cairo bureau netted about $35 a week, enough to survive, but well short of what I needed for the flash I coveted at the local shop window. You make do. No one even noticed at UPI Cairo that the skinny American stringer shot everything, including portraits of Arab-Israeli peace talks and summit meetings between Sadat in Begin, in natural light. Mainly I hunted the right light, if need be shadowing the TV guys. They always brought wattage.

Redundancy and self-sufficiency is, theoretically, our mantra for this assignment.

Our savvy department tech, Jason Lazarus, pulled all nighters ensuring all hums as it should.

Our equipment list is good on paper. It rivals the complexity of an Iditarod Team’s food drop, which mushers and handlers will appreciate.

Yet, dread fills my soul.

Watching Jessica, Tom and Jennifer testing and packing gear for UAF Journalism’s invasion, I know there’s a cable missing in the pile. An ill-chosen power converter. Software poised to demand an update. Things will crap out, crash, or beep uselessly. Students are going to confront that and, if we’ve done our job back home, adapt and overcome it—as the soldiers we’re here to cover surely must every day.

“Stay tuned,” the professor said, again with the dated material.

--Brian Patrick O’Donoghue

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


It seemed impossible yesterday that today would be busier, but somehow it happened.

In the morning and early afternoon we continued our media saturation, as we were interviewed by Rich Mauer from the Anchorage Daily News, Amanda Bohman from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and the lovely Tazlena Cheap from Fairbanks CBS affiliate KXD (Channel 13). I understand that we'll be on at 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. tonight.

We're tying up loose ends right now - Brian is out getting power converters and we're packing up cameras, laptops, and other expensive electronic equipment. We're getting calls and texts every few minutes from friends who want to say goodbye and to stay safe. Thanks, guys... we'll do our best.

I just heard that the News-Miner's story is up now on their homepage. My parents' cabin made it into the lede somehow, and I'm loving the trademark FDNM flame war that's starting in the comments.

Don't tell anyone, but I think we're all going to be happy when we finally leave and get to find the stories rather than have them be about us. We're all more comfortable on the other side of the microphone or the notebook.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Navel Gazing

We all got calls yesterday from Austin Wright at the Chronicle of Higher Education, who was writing a story about our project. We didn't really think a great deal about it, but all of a sudden in the past hour we've been getting emails and Facebook comments telling us that not only is the story up, it made the front page of the site...

And then it got picked up on NPR's blog...

And their Twitter feed.

Must be a slow news day.

EDIT: And now Romenesko over at Poynter.

Final Preparations

I'm picking Jennifer up at the airport in a couple of hours, whence all the team members will be in the same place for the first time since our selection.

These last few days have been a whirlwind after a summer of anticipation. All of a sudden, our days are being consumed by equipment testing (and retesting, and re-retesting...), packing, frantic last minute email exchanges, and our old friend paperwork. We have a meeting with the university's legal department this afternoon - the last time we heard from them, they wanted to make us aware of the dangers of embedding, so they sent us a story about Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's killing. Never mind that he wasn't in the same theater, nor was he even an embed. Oh well, I'm sure they do these things from a place of love. Either that or aversion to liability.

What little unoccupied time we have now is spent seeing friends for one last time before we leave, tying up loose ends on the home front, or quietly reflecting on what life will be like for the next month.

As for me, I have to squeeze in time to write up a will. I was floating the upper Chena River last week with my sister Rose, and she let me know in no uncertain terms that if I bite the big one over there, she wants my canoe.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hello from Jessica

I have lived in Alaska for most of my life. My dad was in the Army and was stationed at Fort Wainwright and later at Fort Greely. We also spent a short time in Massachusetts. But, most of my childhood memories involve living and going to school in the Fort Greely/Delta Junction area.

In 1999, I graduated from high school and moved to Seattle, Washington to attend college at the Art Institute of Seattle. I graduated in 2001 with an associate of applied arts degree in video production.

In Seattle, I worked for a variety of productions companies. Most of my jobs were as a camera operator but I also worked as an assistant editor, engineer, Chyron operator, AV technician, and technical director.

In November of 2003, I moved back to Alaska to work for ECIII, a contractor for Cold Regions Test Center at Fort Greely as a videographer. My primary duty was to document the testing of military and civilian equipment.

While working for ECIII, I started to pursue my bachelor’s degree at UAF. Since I was working full-time, most of my studies were via correspondence. I did find time to take basic photography and radio production at the University. It was a grueling drive. I think I averaged 12 hours of driving a week, just for school.

In 2008, I went to North Carolina and started working part-time for Research, Analysis and Maintenance as a photographer. Although hired as photographer, my duties also included some videography.

Yearning for sub-zero temperatures, well, maybe more to get closer to finishing my degree, I came back to Alaska for the spring 2009 semester at UAF.

In February, I began working for The Sun Star, UAF’s student paper, as a reporter and photographer. Working as a reporter for The Sun Star happened, as I see it, the sheer cunning of the editor at the time, Kortnie Westfall. I had attended an assignment meeting hoping to pick up a photo assignment and got that, along with an article. I had no intention of writing and was convinced I really hated writing. As fate would have it, I really enjoyed writing and continued throughout the semester. In the fall, I plan to continue working for The Sun Star.

For the summer, I went back to North Carolina and resumed working part-time for RAM. Also, I’ve been taking summer classes through UAF’s Center for Distance Education.

There are a lot of reasons why I’m interested in going to Iraq. For one, I love traveling. I like expanding my worldview and learning about different cultures. Secondly, I have family, friends and co-workers who have gone to Iraq as members of the military or as contract workers. Another, I like little adventures...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Two Spaces

The Army’s media embed application gets right to the point: “In the unlikely event of an emergency, death or declared missing, please list next of kin or other person(s) you would like for us to contact on your behalf for notification.”

At some level, all of us know we’re going to die someday. We do a pretty good job of not letting that knowledge dictate the way we live, and for the most part it’s an easy thought to keep out of the front of our minds.

There are times, though, when you’re forced to confront the reality – I’m going to do something that might get me killed – head on. In ordinary life, these moments usually come after the decision has already been made, on a black-diamond-rated ski slope or a moose you didn’t see crossing the road until it was too late. When going into a war zone, on the other hand, you have the unlooked-for opportunity of savoring the prospect of your death, with a dozen questions on forms you fill out asking about your blood type and your helmet size.

The embed application had two spaces for names of people to contact in case of my death. I assume the second is there in case the first person doesn’t pick up the phone. In the first space, I put my mother. No surprises there. As for the second space, I think I’ll keep that to myself for right now.

Who knows, maybe it’s you.

The Basics: What's Going On

Unless you know one of us personally, it’s likely that you’re a bit in the dark about the fundamentals of our expedition. Here’s what you need to know to understand what’s going on:

There are a lot of finer details, but those are the broad strokes, and they should be enough to get you by. Please understand that the reason we aren’t always forthcoming with exact dates, locations, and other specifics is that the military, the university, and our families are all concerned with our safety and the safety of those around us during our time overseas. Loose lips sink ships, and all that.

What we don't have to be skittish about (and neither do you) is sharing this blog with others who might be interested. The blog is super easy to update (I can actually do it from my phone via text message!), and it will be our most reliable communication link while we're abroad. We're excited about this, and we want as many people on board as possible. Tell your friends!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Only the good die young"

I just got home from NPR's Impact of War training workshop.

When traveling out-of-state for any kind of training opportunity, I'm usually quite critical about what is taught. Technology has advanced in ways that make most of these trips unnecessary. Don't get me wrong, I love a free trip to Los Angeles as much as the next person, but now isn't the time for a vacation. I think this workshop should have been offered online.

The workshop attendees and presenters all went to dinner together last night. It never ceases to amaze me how personable and chatty people become after a few glasses of wine. The quietest ones become game show hosts.

If I had a dime for every time someone asked me, "Are you scared?" I'd buy you and me a bottle of this. But no, I'm not scared.

Friday, July 17, 2009

What's It Like Over There?

We were told of our selection as embeds on May 20. The intervening months have been a blessing – plenty of time to prepare, research, and get gear together. The wait isn’t without drawbacks, though. Three months is a long time to think about the potential what-ifs, and there are a great many. The question I keep coming back to is the one I expect to hear the most when, God willing (insha’Allah?), we return: "What’s it like over there?"

I’ve tried my best to answer this question for myself, reading up on the war from the perspective of other reporters and soldiers. I’ve seen some video from friends in the military that probably treads pretty close to the edge of what the armed forces will allow their soldiers to send home. I even ran across some good photos from around the base where we’ll be stationed.

Even with all of that background material to study, the conclusion I’ve come to is that Iraq isn’t a place that I can comprehend until we arrive. I’m reminded of the first time I went to New York City. I had seen countless pictures of the Manhattan skyline, flown through it in movies, and read about it for three years thanks to a gift subscription to The New Yorker and the New York Times online. When it came down to it, though, the first time I really understood what it was like to be in New York was when I emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan and lost the sky to buildings so high I couldn’t see the tops from my window. I learned more about New York in that instant than in the previous 17 years of my life.

I have a feeling Iraq will be the same way, which poses an interesting question: when people ask me, “What’s it like over there?” what am I going to say?

Hi, I'm Tom.

Hi, this is Tom Hewitt. I’m 26 years old, and I’ve spent 25 of those years in Fairbanks. Unless you count trips to Hawaii when I was little, I’ve never been off the North American continent.

So how does a guy like me get to a place like this?

As I said, I was born in Fairbanks. I graduated from Lathrop High School in 2001, and studied astrophysics at New Mexico Tech for a year before running out of money and returning to Fairbanks and UAF. I stuck with physics for a year or so before I took an amazing computer science class from Kara Nance (she makes more than Alaska’s governor, and judging from the behavior of our governor lately, I’d say Professor Nance is a better deal) and switched concentrations.

I got into journalism relatively late in the game. An interest in video as a hobby led me to a journalism class taught by former professor Rob Prince. While the video aspects of what I learned were valuable, the bigger lesson I learned was that I love telling stories. I dove into journalism soon thereafter, and it feels like coming home.

My focus in journalism thus far has been a kind of three-pronged affair. I really enjoy print, and that’s where I’ve done a great deal of my professional work so far. With my computer science background, I’m also heavily into new media and the web – right now there’s no question that the future of journalism is online. Finally, I got into journalism for video and that’s still a great love for me – cutting a video story together is one of my favorite pastimes.

I’ve been writing for the UAF newspaper, The Sun Star, for the past year, and upon my return from Iraq I will take over there as editor-in-chief. I was recently elected to a position on the Alaska Press Club’s board of directors, and have enjoyed my experience there so far.

Right now it’s summer, so I have a summer job – actually a couple. I’m a First Mate at the Riverboat Discovery, a popular Fairbanks visitor attraction, where I enjoy being out on the Chena River every day and making sure that the thousand or so folks that take the tour every day have a great time. I’m also a systems administrator and IT coordinator at Information Insights, a local consulting firm cofounded by current UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers and longtime friend Ellen Ganley.

I’m tremendously excited for Iraq. I think that the thing I’m looking forward to most is all the stories over there waiting to be told. We’ll do what we can to bring them home for you.

I'd rather go to Iraq than eat at Del Taco

I landed in Los Angeles about 4 hours ago. I'm here for NPR's Impact of War training workshop.

After navigating public transportation and checking into my hotel, I realized that I hadn't eaten since early this morning. At 1 a.m. why not walk up and down dark streets in an unfamiliar town in search of food?

The only nearby places open were a CVS Pharmacy and Del Taco. Not interested.

So, I walked.

I walked about 2 miles until I found a 24-hour Subway.

I go inside, order my veggie sandwich and behind me walk in two fellas. Well, what's more interesting than an early morning sandwich run? Conversation ensues...

Tim and Neil had just spent their evening dealing with a dramatic neighbor. I told them why I was in town and why I walked so far from my hotel to eat.

"Wow. That's a really long walk. Very impressive, just to avoid Del Taco," said Neil.

And then it hit me.

"Omigawd. I'm going to Iraq. I'm going with rules, with the military, with a professor..."

Why it hit me then and never before, I don't know. But it's keeping me awake tonight.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The professor to blame...

Brian Patrick O’Donoghue

Geez. Still can't believe it myself, but the mirror doesn't lie. I'm 53.

Where does time go?

My career has taken me from photo shoots atop the Great Pyramid to interviewing oilfield workers in 70-below conditions on the Arctic ice pack, pulling 7Gs in the cockpit of a soaring F-16, eying Prince William Sound from a supertanker’s wheelhouse, mushing dog teams in both the Iditarod andYukon Quest International—

Bringing readers on these and other rides typifies my 30-year career as a photojournalist, reporter, editor and author.

Fresh out of school, I followed an old newsman’s advice—“find someplace miserable and newsworthy”—and broke into the business as a photo stringer for United Press International in Cairo. That summer of ’79 found me shooting a Sadat-Begin summit, Egyptian-Israeli peace talks, the return of Al ‘Arish, and other events before my dad's stroke, at the age of 48, yanked me home to D.C.

True story: My mother later showed around my Egypt photos to relatives in Minnesota. Studying the above portrait of Anwar Sadat, one clueless relative observed, "Oh, how your husband must have suffered before he died." My mom didn't have it in her to explain.

Weighing life’s curves, I shipped out as a Seafarers International Union wiper aboard an India-bound cargo ship.

Back on “the beach,” I branched into writing for City Paper in Baltimore and D.C, before moving on to The Villager in New York. From 1983-85, I juggled graduate school and night shifts in a cab, while reporting on squatters, police drug crackdowns and the Purple Man’s fight to preserve his urban “Garden of Eden.”

In 1986, a job listing in Editor and Publisher sent me to the Frontiersman in Wasilla, Alaska. I've since worked for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Anchorage Daily News, KTVF and KTVA-TV, covering four gubernatorial campaigns, a decade of military exercises, the Exxon Valdez spill, seven sessions of the Legislature and thousands of miles of dog races.

Honest Dogs, Epicenter Press, 1999, and My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian, Random House, 1996, recount my “Red Lantern” misadventures in the Quest and Iditarod, respectively.

What the hell, I've finished every race I've started.

In fall 2001, I bolted from writing editorials and joined the faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Among other things, I teach news-writing, investigative reporting and an online publication class producing Extreme Alaska. I received tenure this spring. As of July, I serve as Journalism Department Chair.

I'm past president of the Alaska Press Club and a dedicated member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. As an undergraduate, I first studied history at Holy Cross College, ultimately earning a B.A. from University of California, Santa Cruz. My ticket to teach on the university level comes through a M.A. in broadcast journalism from New York University.

My wife, UA Public Affairs Director Kate Ripley, and I have three kids: Rory, 13, Robin, 11 and Rachel, 5.

Somehow it adds up.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Hello, my name is Jenny

I attended the University of Alaska Anchorage for several years before transferring to the University of Alaska Fairbanks where I will finish my degree this winter.

I work at KNBA in Anchorage. We're an Alaska Native owned and operated public radio station. I'm currently producing a four-part series about Native perspectives on 50 years of Alaska statehood.

Last fall I spent 4 months living and studying Arabic in Meknes, Morocco. When I travel, which seems to be all too often the past few years, I keep a blog.

I have a YouTube account that you can check out. There are several videos from Morocco. A few of them are graphic (sheep slaughter for Eid al Adha), so don't say I didn't warn you. And this is where you can listen to me being serious about important things.

This past May I traveled to St. Petersburg, Florida where I participated in The Poynter Institute's College Fellowship. While there I started a website that will soon have multi-platform stories about home. There's one story there now. I plan to flesh it out after we return from Iraq. Oh, right, about Iraq...

... I've always wanted to go. So when the e-mail came in April about the opportunity to embed I was, well, surprised. Surprise transformed into excitement when I found out that I'd be going. Excitement became hesitation after I realized that I would have to take two months off of work and vacate my beloved apartment. Hesitation soon passed and then I got the itinerary for a flight to Kuwait city.

I'm back to being excited. July 17-18 I will be in Culver City, CA at NPR's west coast studios for their Impact of War training workshop.