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NPR tunes in to multimedia reporting

The Web is prompting radio programmers and newspapers to encourage a new breed of war correspondents that play the roles of reporter, producer, editor, IT manager and engineer.

Bari Gul holds a fan of crisp $100 dollar bills next to his weathered face, his expression bordering on indignant. Gul is showing the camera the compensation he received from U.S. military officials for his brother's death during a raid in his Afghan village.

Gul's image has been beamed to households around the world after TV networks broadcast the photo as evidence that the U.S military gave money to victims of a mistaken Special Forces commandos raid in the remote village of Oruzgan. But the image wasn't credited to the usual pool of photographers from the Associated Press, Reuters, or Agence France-Presse. It came from National Public Radio news correspondent Steve Inskeep.

For the past year, NPR has been asking its radio reporters to lug digital cameras and video cameras an assignments as a way of enhancing its Web site. Reporters are not required to add cameras to their usual bag of sound recorders, but the station's push for a greater Web presence has made incorporating multimedia into its reports inevitable.

"These people are certainly not professional photographers, but they capture what reporters are seeing on the ground," said Maria Thomas, vice president of NPR Online.

NPR joins a growing list of news organizations that have increasingly turned to the Web to tap an expanding audience. Particularly since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. military's subsequent intervention in Afghanistan, news sites have weaved more video, audio and text into their online reports.

In a sense, digital technology's inextricable link with the Internet has caused many reporters to wear multiple hats. During the armed conflict in Afghanistan, TV war correspondents were beaming reports from their satellite phones. The Web sites for major news outlets, including MSNBC.com, CNN.com and ABCNews.com, archived video streams of their earlier reports. Major Web portals such as Yahoo continually updated its site with pictures taken by pool photographers.

MSNBC foreign correspondent Preston Mendenhall has spent most of his eight-year career as a TV reporter for NBC News. The advent of new digital technologies has made transmitting information easier, but it has also made his job a bit more complicated. Mendenhall's reporting increasingly has become a one-man show where he simultaneously plays the roles of reporter, producer, editor, information-technology manager and engineer.

Heading into his first tour of duty in Pakistan last fall, Mendenhall hauled enough gear to impress an Army Ranger. In his alpine backpack, Mendenhall lugs a Toshiba Techra 7200 laptop, a satellite phone (roughly the size of a laptop), a mini digital video camera, a digital still camera, wireless microphones, and a heap of batteries, power cords and adaptors.

"We are encouraged to do as many tasks as possible...in most cases we are one-man bands," Mendenhall, who is now in Kandahar, said during an interview in October. "It's a wonderful mix of all mediums. We still have text and video, but we can work like radio reporters, with storytelling, using natural sound."

The next wave of reporters may be cut from a similar cloth. At Columbia University School of Journalism, students are required to learn reporting skills from different mediums to increase their abilities in a converged newsroom. Indeed, news organizations are experimenting with ways to make reporters more efficient in their information gathering.

"If you can get one person to do more things, you're saving more money," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, professor of journalism at Columbia.

But, Sreenivasan added, what's good for the employer's bottom line may not always be good for the reporter's state of mind. More equipment means more work and more management of the gadgets being used.

For NPR reporters, a camera adds to the bulk of their audio kits. On top of their usual arsenal of a digital audio tape recorder, battery packs, headphones, microphones and a hodgepodge of accessories, a camera is one more piece of hardware that needs to be looked after in the field.

Some NPR reporters, such as cultural correspondent Rick Karr, don't view the equipment as an extra burden; they see it as a necessity for survival. NPR reporters are primarily responsible for the radio product. But some believe their future rests on expanding their skills into new mediums.

"For me, there's an underlying question about the future of radio and (the) future of radio journalism," Karr said in an interview. "We can't just stick our heads in the sand and say, 'Oh we're just fine,' because somebody might come along in a new medium and steal our lunch."