Compact Gear Kept Reporters Rolling in Iraq

KKTV's Nancarrow and KWTX's Heath toted cameras, laptops in backpacks

When reporters embed with U.S. troops in Iraq, they need to travel light. But David Nancarrow of KKTV Colorado Springs, Colo., and Christopher Heath of KWTX Waco, Texas, traveled so light, the troops couldn't believe they were TV journalists.

“The soldiers thought we were print-media people,” says Nancarrow with a chuckle.

The reason? The compact gear that he and Heath took along on their five-week embed with the 4th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. “They looked at the size of the cameras and thought there's no way these guys are doing TV news,” Nancarrow says days after returning to the U.S. “That the cameras we had were for home video maybe and that our job was to ride along with them and write up an article and transmit it through the Internet.”

The two Gray Television Inc. stations collaborated on Assignment: Iraq to tell the stories of soldiers from major bases in their markets: Fort Hood for KWTX and Fort Carson for KKTV.

KWTX General Manager Rich Adams, who is also a Gray VP, and Assistant Production Manager Ben Ranzinger carefully chose equipment for each reporter that included a Sony HVR-Z1U HDV-format camera and a Dell XPS laptop, along with their body armor. Sponsors helped fund the $20,000-per-reporter price tag.

The idea was to allow the pair to do high-quality work but also remain highly mobile. And if a $5,000 camera was damaged along the way, that would be less of a problem than with a regular news camera that costs several times that.

The two reporters say the small HDV cameras were essential to an assignment largely carried out in the crowded backseats of Humvees and jumping on and off Blackhawk helicopters. They moved camp 10 times while filing packages almost every day.

“We were over there to do soldier stories, to do what the soldiers do and go where they go. We did that for close to five weeks,” Nancarrow says. “We needed to climb into vehicles that have a lot of armor but not a lot of legroom or a whole lot of space to carry stuff as passengers. Being able to boil it down to this handheld, 'prosumer' type of camera and a laptop that we could fit into a soft-sided case was incredibly convenient to accomplishing what we were trying to do over there.”

Heath, who was recently named a weekend anchor, says they applied a military approach to the mission. “Every system has a built-in redundancy, so that, if system A fails, system B is in place,” he says. “We were very lucky in that we never had to use [Nancarrow's] camera the entire trip. Our feeling was, we'll get one camera out of the box and we'll use it, and if something happens, we'll move to the next one.

“We shot in just regular DV [standard-def at 25 megabytes per second], and the quality was great,” he adds. “We shot in 100% auto, where [the camera] does the white balance, it does the focus—all the things a photojournalist normally has to think about. So much of the time we were going with the flow, going at military speed, and being able to just flip into auto and know the camera was doing its job was a great advantage.”

They shot video and standups as a team but downloaded the clips to their individual laptops and cut their pieces separately, on Sony Vegas 6 nonlinear editing software. Then the reporters uploaded the finished packages back to the camera, which they plugged directly into the military's DVIDS (Digital Video and Imagery Distribution System) satellite transmitter to send to their stations. Communication with their newsrooms was by e-mail and satellite phone; they even blogged for their stations' Web sites.

Iraq's notoriously harsh, dusty environment was a constant concern. “We did everything we could not to expose the laptops to anything but a roofed-in, air-conditioned environment,” Heath says. And the camera, which Nancarrow compares to a slightly slimmer toaster, stayed in a backpack as much as possible.

While the reporters put pretty much everything they had to good use, one piece of gear they might've left home were the Focus Enhancements Firestore FS4 hard drives each had.

“If you were shooting in a controlled environment, it would probably be a great asset,” Heath explains. “But when you're moving constantly and you never know when you're going to roll up on something and have to jump out of the Humvee and get cool video of them kicking down a door or examining an IED crater or whatever, you don't want to have to worry, 'Is the cable hooked up? Is the hard drive rolling?'”

Instead, the two used standard 60-minute DV tapes. “We found it was easier to just toss a brand-new tape in and leave it in there for the day,” Heath says. “We did our best never to open up the cartridge where you load the tape in while we were in the field.”

Once the soldiers realized the reporters were delivering same-day taped packages and live standups to the stations back home, they were happy to have them in their company.

“Generally, they were pretty tickled by the whole thing,” Nancarrow says. “You've got [soldiers] saying, 'Hey, Chris and Dave, my wife heard on the news this is where you are. Is there a chance that I could let my wife see that I'm OK?' And then the challenge is fitting them into the package.”