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SEJ Finalist has Independent Streak

Freelancer Relies on Instincts to Dig Up the Stories the Others Missed

As a freelance video journalist, Mara Schiavocampo is accustomed to working alone. But she's not the only independent journalist in the running for awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists -- three other freelancers are finalists in various categories this year.

Ms. Schiavocampo, who was recently honored as the Emerging Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists, is a finalist for the SEJ Award for outstanding story in the television category for "When the Beaches Turned Black," a report she produced, shot and edited for Current TV.

Judges for the category cite Ms. Schiavocampo's enterprise reporting as a key reason this piece, about the effects of a massive oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea near Beirut, is a finalist. "She brought to light an environmental disaster most had never heard about and was able to show the effects on local people," the judges said. "The report showed how the environment can be another casualty of war, something most people don't think about."

That a freelance video journalist is earning such accolades might seem unusual, but it reflects a shift in the TV news business. With growing demand for content among media outlets including cable channels and online platforms, and with the availability of lighter, inexpensive, high-quality equipment, a new breed of TV journalist is on the rise.

"There are a lot more of us out there than I think most people would realize," said Ms. Schiavocampo, who travels with a Panasonic DVX100B mini-DV camera and uses the Final Cut Pro editing system on a Mac laptop. "I think in the next five, 10 years this is really going to revolutionize television, because why would a news organization pay for a sound guy, a camera guy and a correspondent to go somewhere when they can pay one person?"

Ms. Schiavocampo cites CNN's Anderson Cooper and Fox News Channel's Bill Hemmer as pioneers of independent journalism. "I took a page right from their books," she said.

Like Mr. Cooper and Mr. Hemmer, she quit her job, grabbed a camera and traveled to where the action was. "At least I had some model [of how it's done], but they were brave because they didn't even know if it would work or not."

Working solo comes with technical headaches. "Invariably something big or small goes wrong. Most of the time they're small things I can fix in edit," Ms. Schiavocampo said. She always uses two microphones, so if one goes out the other still captures important comments. "There's hardly any shooting sin that you can't fix in editing. I try to remember that so I'm not too hard on myself if something is not exposed properly or the color's not right."

Ms. Schiavocampo left a job as anchor and reporter for Regional News Network in New York to go independent in 2005. She quickly developed a keen eye for compelling stories overlooked by other journalists, an important factor in nabbing freelance assignments. She has also learned which stories to pitch to certain markets, and sometimes uses stills to create photo essays for print and online publications. But she learned perhaps her most important lesson when she arrived in the Middle East to cover the war.

"Every news organization in the world had their staff people there. Their best staff people," she said. "So when I got there I realized the kind of trouble I was in. How was I going to sell work to somebody who had their staff people there? What was I going to offer them that they couldn't take care of without spending money outside their staff budget? That was really an opportunity where I had to figure out what was not being covered at all.

"When I found out about the oil spill, I couldn't believe nobody was covering it because it was such a huge story. But at the same time I could believe no one was covering it because the loss of human life is always more important than the environment."

Ms. Schiavocampo self-funds her travels, enabling her to work on multiple projects at the same time. "When I'm traveling and see something I think is great, I have to use my judgment as to whether it's worth working on without an accepted pitch. But I have a pretty good success rate with that, because it has to be something pretty fascinating for me to drop what I'm doing and pick up another story."

For example, when she was preparing to go to Russia to do a story on press freedom in that country, people kept telling her to be careful because she's black, and she wanted to know why. That curiosity turned into a story about racial attacks in Russia.

"It's nice that I have the luxury of choosing my own stories, because I never work on anything I'm not interested in," Ms. Schiavocampo said.

She believes good ideas can surmount any obstacles. "My currency, I've realized, is always going to be in my ideas, because [news organizations] have the resources and the people to execute anything they can think of," she said. "But if they don't think of it, then it's mine for the taking."

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