Backpack Journalist: Kevin Sites in Kathmandu
Sites points his camera at a Maoist guerilla in Kailali, in the far west of Nepal.

Backpack Journalist: Kevin Sites in Kathmandu

A one-man media machine takes his reporting -- and his equipment -- on the road

By Dinesh Wagle
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Kathmandu --- A soldier heading for a war zone would carry a loaded rifle along with a bandolier of bullets. And a journalist who is going to cover that war? Pen and a notebook, a still camera if he is a photo journalist, video camera for a broadcast reporter.

If that journalist is Kevin Sites then he would carry a pen and a notebook in a small pouch, a still camera in one hand, a digital video camera in another and a backpack containing a powerful laptop computer on one side, Thuraya Satellite phone on the other, a backup digital video camera in between, a satellite modem in a pocket to transfer photos and videos to California from anywhere in the world, plus, a palmtop mobile phone on a shirt pocket.

Welcome to the new world of reporting where a correspondent creates audio, visual, text and photo journalism at the same time using high-tech gadgets. Kevin Sites is a renowned American reporter of contemporary world war journalism and is currently observing the effects of war on the streets of Kathmandu.

After observing a rally of Maoist victims in Singhadurbar last week, this American journalist is now enjoying dal, bhat and tarkari in a restaurant in Thamel. Sites, winner of this year's Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism, is on a mission that will take him to 20 of the most conflict-affected countries of the world in a single year. That is why he was in Haiti before landing in Kathmandu on Wednesday. Before Haiti, he was in Columbia and Afghanistan. (In the last four weeks, Sites has also been to New York to deliver speeches, to Arizona to see his sick mother and to Los Angeles to spend some time with his girlfriend.) He has been to 13 countries since he started the mission seven months ago and more than 20 million people read the multimedia reports he files to Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone each week.

When Yahoo!, one of the world's largest Internet portals, hired Sites as the first correspondent for their popular agency-based news operation, it was big news. "His carefully constructed travel ensemble includes a rolling suitcase filled with lightweight clothing treated with insect repellent, a sleeping bag and a custom backpack that contains an array of gadgets that would put James Bond to shame," wrote the New York Times of Sites last September.

But Kevin won't spy like Bond while reporting: "We journalists are storytellers," he said as we walked in Putali Sadak, smelling the fried meat emanating from hotels and street vendors. "And we are living in a digital age. Stories aren't just flat. They are dynamic. The collaboration of pictures, video and words makes it easy to tell them more credibly."

Traditional media (newspapers, radio and televions) don't allow reporters to use all three mediums at the same time to tell stories. The rise and popularity of Internet has made true multimedia news possible. That is why Sites says he rejected lucrative job offers from all three big networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, in the United States. "Print lacks smell," he says. "There is no context in TV and photos. That is why I use a notebook to collect details, a still camera to take pictures of faces that are an important part of storytelling and video to grab movements."

The concept of a "sojo," Sites' abbreviation for "solo journalist," started with television reporters who wanted to operate their own cameras as they moved. But many, especially traditional journalists in the United States, frown upon the sojo concept because, they say, it is difficult to for a reporter to concentrate if he operates a camera and takes note at the same time.

"I faced some difficulties in the beginning," Sites explained. "But now I am comfortable with this type of working style. You learn as you do it."

How would Sites compare his sojo experience with his days with CNN and NBC? "An NBC crew would welcome me in Kathmandu as I land at the airport," he said. "Everything would be set up. But now I have to do all of that on my own."

Sites earned fame when he captured footage in Fallujah of an American marine killing an unarmed Iraqi in 2003. After NBC broadcast that video, which was later picked up by other international television stations, he was branded as both a traitor and a hero at the same time.

Backpack journalism has both challenges and opportunities: "We don't get a lot of time to tell our stories at the networks," he said. "But here you tell the stories the way you like it and help the audience understand the issues more effectively."

When I told Sites that his appearance and muscles inspired a Nepali journalist to compare him with Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallone, famous as Rambo and Rocky Balboa, Sites responded with a smile. His long hair, he said, is a reporting tool: "I spend most of my time in war zones," the veteran war correspondent said. "When I had short hair, people didn't cooperate with me thinking that I was a soldier or a spy. Long hair helps people relax."

Sites, who has been filing as many reports as possible in a limited time from different countries for weeks upon weeks, says he will take a long vacation after finishing the mission. He then plans to write a book and start the Hot Zone America series. He might also set up a new web site or help Yahoo! continue Hot Zone using foreign correspondents.

Photos by Dinesh Wagle.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared on Dinesh Wagle's website, United We Blog!, and was translated from a Nepali version originally published in the May 13 issue of Kantipur Daily. Wagle is Kevin Site's translator in Nepal.