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So What Do You Do, Mara Schiavocampo, NBC Digital Journalist?

NBC's digital report on producing original online content, access to the bigwigs, and her love of trade organizations

- January 9, 2008
On May 1, 2005, NBC launched its Nightly News' Daily Nightly blog, a site that anchor Brian Williams declared "a useful supplement to viewers of Nightly News, as both a narrative and as a window into our editorial process." Since that time, the digital side of NBC's long-running nightly newscast has grown by leaps and bounds. In October 2007, the channel named Mara Schiavocampo, a veteran of new media journalism, digital journalist for Nightly News, with the responsibility to produce original content exclusively for the Web.

The majority of Schiavocampo's reporting experience comes overseas. She has reported on hate crimes in Russia, the bird flu in Indonesia, and Iraqi refugees in Jordan. Recently, she visited India for a series of reports. But she also found poignant digital stories domestically. During November 2007, her work during the Nightly News' weeklong focus on issues facing African American women was widely viewed and discussed across the Web. Today's launch of the redesigned Nightly News Web site only add to her status as the digital arm of a well-renowned traditional medium.

Name: Mara Schiavocampo
Position: Digital journalist, NBC Nightly News
Resume: Formerly a contributor/guest commentator for numerous outlets and online news sites including ABC News Now,, NPR, Current TV, Yahoo!, Ebony, and Uptown; worked as anchor/reporter for CBS News on MTVU
Birthday: September 28, 1979
Hometown: Silver Spring, MD
Education: Undergrad at UCLA; masters at University of Maryland-College Park
Marital Status: Married
First section of Sunday Times: "'A' section, front section, no matter what day it is."
Favorite TV Show: 60 Minutes
Last Book You Read: Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye
Guilty pleasure: "US Weekly for sure, which I buy every week and my husband says, 'Why don't you get a subscription,' and I say, 'Because that would be admitting that I read it every week.'"

What does it mean to be a digital journalist for a network news organization, combining the old school and new school of journalism?
I think the two things, the two obvious things, are that I work with digital shooting and editing equipment and my work is intended for a digital medium. The one thing that does not change is the journalism and the storytelling. So the tools of the trade, the tricks of the trade, are a little different but the basics stay the same and the storytelling stays the same.

Brian Williams has a lot of influence on the Nightly blog, but other correspondents write as well. I've read some of your stuff there, too. It's very widely read across the Web, maybe more than some other network news blogs. What do you think of NBC's digital influence compared to the whole network news competition?
One thing that is really clear is that NBC is committed. They get it. They understand that the Web is not going to be a sibling, a step-child anymore. They want it to be an equal sibling to everything else that's going on. So they are really committed to that, to making sure that it has its own life. It has its own identity. It has its own Web exclusives. They're not just trying to take the scraps from the cutting room floor. We're doing stuff just for our Web audience. So that's really impressive that they get it, that they're committed to that. I think that there's the Daily Nightly and all these other elements that are just indicative of that. You know Brian gets it also, that people want to know him on more of an intimate level and that's what the blog is about. So they really understand what's happening, and are committed to being a part of the growth of Web viewership.

It seems there's two angles to the Web, with the Nightly blog, like the more personal behind the scenes look at what it takes to do the newscast or what stories they're working on and how its happening. But also, there's the added element of Web exclusive material, which I know you're very much a part of with the Digital Dispatch page. Can you talk a little about the Digital Dispatch page and what that means to the whole site?
It's really cool that you have items that are Web exclusives that are intended for the Web that then the broadcast uses afterwards. I think that's huge. That says a lot about what NBC thinks of the Web. Because its not just, "Let's use the Web to repurpose stuff which is posted after it airs," or it's the stuff that wasn't good enough for air. It really is to build its own thing there. And so that's what the Digital Dispatch is all about. It's creating exclusive material for the Web for that audience. It really is indicative of their commitment to moving into this new realm. You see it with the Digital Dispatch, all that stuff is exclusive material for the Web, not for broadcast. If stuff is aired for broadcast it comes after. It goes on the Web site first.

Think how great it is that you can go and have a discussion with Brian Williams [on the site].

The redesign of the site launches today. What changed?
The biggest thing is its moving from a text-based site, which we see all across the Web, what all the other networks have, to a video based site. So its huge. It looks fantastic -- I can't wait for the world to see it. You can see little snippets of it here and there with the video player. So really the focus is on the video and it allows the user to customize what they want to see, so you can decide how you want to see the Nightly News broadcast. You can go on, you can create your play list, you can decide, "I really care about health stories. Let me make a play list of health stories." You are customizing your experience. I mean imagine if you could do that on the TV. If you can say, "No Brian, I want to see these stories in this order." I mean its huge. So a lot of thought has been put into creating a great viewer experience and something the viewers can drive. It's not a passive medium at all. You can go on and you can decide how you want your experience to be.

One of the stories that the Nightly News did that was also big on the Web was the weeklong focus on issues facing African American women.
Yeah, that was huge.

It got a very strong response from the public, especially through the Web. One of the major critiques of it was the length of time that was given to each story, which is something that you addressed in the blog you wrote. What can the digital platform do to solve some of those problems?
Well you know its unlimited real estate, like they say. You don't have that consideration on the Web. So I did a piece on the Web, and also I had a roundtable with black women who had dated interracially. And I found that the little sound bites that went in the piece didn't speak fully to what the discussion was about. So we put a six-minute cut of the discussion on the Web. So if you see the piece and you want to see more you can see that. I did a hip-hop roundtable, which was six minutes. So it's just the advantage of making it as long or as short as it needs to be. Its not, "Let me make this 20 minutes because I can." Its, "How long does it need to be?" And if someone is clicking on it then they're interested. So you have viewers that are already invested in the topic. You're not forcing them to watch and running the risk of them changing the channel. And also the comments -- people were able to respond on the Daily Nightly, they were able to post a ton of comments. We're really interested in creating a community that speaks to the relationship with Newsvine. Now people can create their profile in Newsvine and they can talk about what's happening in the news and all of this builds community. We love how the Web gives us the opportunity to do all that.

It seems like your blog post addressed a lot of the comments either on the Nightly site or elsewhere on the Web. It adds a quick element, with fast responses.
It's awesome. Think how great it is that you can go and have a discussion with Brian Williams. When I was growing up, if I was able to send a letter and get a signed picture from Tom Brokaw, it would have made my life. Now, to send an email or post a comment, to have fun on the Daily Nightly with Williams or myself or Rahema Ellis, that's just so great. It says a lot about where the medium is going. It's wonderful; it brings us to a new level of transparency.

Much of your work has taken place outside of the United States, recently with your work in India. Talk a little about how that can translate to the Web and what other factors you can do when you're working specifically for digital.
I think the one thing that's nice is you can send one person to India, and still maintain the integrity of the journalism and the storytelling. You can just do more with less and that's not a bad thing because the equipment now enables one person to shoot and edit their work. It still maintains the things that are really important, but you're able to do it in a different way. As a perfect example, when I was in India working on a story, Chris Rock from HBO was there too. Now they spent two days meeting with officials and they couldn't dip under the radar. They had the officials really leaning on them hard. I got approval over the phone, and they didn't see me at all when I was there. I was totally under the radar. One person can do that. Chris Rock and his crew from HBO can't do that. And I've seen that time and time and time again. For me, I get a lot of access because one woman with a camera is easily ignored, easily missed. And then it's the same thing with viewer interest. Maybe everyone doesn't want to see the stories from India, but the fact is that people can go on the Web and find it, and the people who are clicking on the stories want to see it. So I can devote the time, the storytelling, the resources to it, because I know the people watching are interested in it.

And this will be airing with the launch?
Yes, the week of the 7th.

This year, you won the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Emerging Journalist of the Year. Previous winners have all been in the print field. What does that say about the emergence of digital reporting?
I think that says a lot about NABJ. I owe so much to them and am so grateful to the organization since they've been with me since my student days. Anyone who asks me for advice I say, "Join a professional organization." So it says a lot about them, to the fact that they're paying attention to where the field is going. They devoted that whole convention to next media type of things. So I think it says a lot about the fact that they're paying attention to where things are going and how we can prepare our membership for the future. How we can recognize the work that is being done in this field. I think that speaks more to them and what they value and what their mindset is.

Also you're a member of You've got a sleek personal Web site. What interests you about the Web and its impact on journalism?
Well Lighstalkers has been huge. I could not have done any of the things I've done without Lightstalkers, literally. Every trip that I ever went on, including this one, I have made contact with Lightstalkers. It's a network that's global, truly global, and these are people that are doing essentially the same work that I'm doing. They're primarily photo-journalists, but they're in the field and doing the same kind of stuff. They're working with pictures. They're trying to find their own accommodations. So it's unbelievable that I can go on the Web site and say, "I'm going to the middle of nowhere and I need help," and have all these responses come in. That is what I think the Web is really about. Connecting people, bringing people together, helping you find people offering a helping hand. It's just the best example of the Web. It's really a community of people, likeminded people, who are working towards common goals.

It's interesting. I had never heard about it before. It's a whole other community. It seems like there are places on the Web that could be huge resources as far as news gathering or journalism go that you might not know about.
I recommend them to everyone I ever talk to. It's the way to go, even when you have to only get back-up options. I mean I got back-up names. NBC took great care of me, they gave me great people. But just to have some back-ups in case something goes wrong, it gives you who to call on for help.

Previously you worked for up-and-coming TV stations like MTVU and Current TV. How does the work there prepare you to be a digital journalist? I'm sure they had some sort of focus on digital there as well.
I'll talk about Current because that's the most relevant to the experience I have now. Again, I have nothing but good things to say about them. They really, really helped me in kind of breaking out of the traditional news mold and trying to think of telling stories in different ways, which now is great on the Web. You're seeing that a lot more on the Web because it's not tied to format. And they did understand that very well so it helped with a lot of the things I do now such as asking questions off camera and keeping it in the piece. It's a little rough around the edges, but it adds another element to it, another layer of realness, like there's a real person behind the camera shooting, and they can speak. A lot of those rough around the edges things I do now came from Current. And those are the kind of things where, when I was in school, in the traditional model of news, you had to be very polished, and you didn't do those things. They really encouraged me, not only gave me the freedom but encouraged me, to do things a little more ragged because it does provide another element of reality to it. It's phenomenal.

Although, I would imagine that the work you do for Nightly News would feel a little bit different stylistically.
Well I have to say NBC has been phenomenal. All they've ever said to me since I got here was, "Do what you do." And they support me on that so they haven't given me any restrictions on format, on style, on content, nothing. All they said was, "Do what you do and we will support you." And again, that speaks to the fact that this is a news organization that has such a long history, but they're not saying, "You have to do it X-Y-Z," they're saying, "We're open." And I think that's huge, especially coming from NBC. You know its one thing for Current to say, "We're open." They're new, so they're going to be open, but for NBC to say, "You do what you do and we'll kind of develop together," I think that's great.

With the Internet and 24-hour cable channels there's been some discussion of the decline and influence of nightly news broadcasts. Do you think your work with NBC News and others like it can essentially save the medium, or help to lead it back to what it once was?
I don't think it needs to be saved, and I don't think it will ever be what it once was because the world is different now. I think that it's great that NBC gets that. They're not trying to hold on to sinking ship. They're very aware of how the world is changing, how the Web is influencing things, and they're moving and changing with that. The broadcast benefits from that, everything benefits from that. Someone who can go online and read Brian's blog and feel a personal connection to him, and then want to watch him on the broadcast, I think that's great. It all works together, and I think they're very aware of that. No one is trying to go back to the heyday of TV networks because now it's all changed, and they're moving and changing with it so I think that's a testament to the people who are making the decisions.

You previously taught a class at in video journalism. Do you see any difference in the principles and practices when you go from video to print to digital? Any differences or are the principles the same?
No, and that's what I tell people all the time. The basics are the same. The ethical rules, all the different standards of journalism, those do not change at all. And anybody that tells you they have, steer clear of. I think that's a concern, because the great thing that we're seeing right now is kind of the democratization of media. So everyone can do it -- they can buy a camera, they can get editing equipment. The bad thing is that not everyone realizes there are rules to it. And so that's something I address in my class I tell people that if you want to do this, that's great. You know, it's your first amendment right to do journalism. Go for it, but recognize that there are rules to it. You owe it to all of us to uphold what comes along with it. People can't forget that, yes be a citizen journalist, but one half of journalism is that you have to be bound by those same rules that NBC News is bound by.

Steve Krakauer is the associate editor of TVNewser. You can reach him at STEVE at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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