By Alison Crisp Stockley
It was a fortuitous mistake that led Mara Schiavocampo to become the first digital correspondent in network television for NBC. When declaring her graduate major at the University of Maryland, she checked the wrong box—broadcast instead of print journalism. But this slip of the hand resulted in huge career dividends. Schiavocampo has produced and filed “virtual” news stories from around the world, covering nearly every major event in the last five years. We chatted with the Emmy Award-winning journalist about her pioneering career, expanding definitions of race and why everyone needs to embrace social media.
After graduation, Schiavocampo secured an internship at CBS New York, which led to a full-time job. She then worked as an anchor and reporter for CBS News on mtvU (University) and “ABC News Now.”
With a few years of reporting experience on her resume, Schiavocampo packed her bags and set out to travel internationally as an independent video journalist. She took with her some used equipment—a Panasonic Mini-DV DVX 100B camera, a tripod, a couple of microphones and editing software—and began her journey in Jordan, where she had contacts.
Schiavocampo then continued on to other countries, including Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Indonesia and Russia, choosing her destinations based on a combination of personal picks and locations she felt offered “sellable” stories. It wasn’t long before ABC News, ABCNews.com, Current TV, NPR, Yahoo!, Ebony magazine and UPTOWN magazine were running her reports. After tallying expenses and payments for a journey, Schiavocampo would consider it a good trip if she broke even financially.
Schiavocampo’s mother is African-American and her father is Italian. She grew up in Maryland and spent summers in Italy. Ironically, she did not enjoy traveling as a child. In 2010, just after the U.S. Census, Schiavocampo reported on the increasing number of young adults who consider themselves multiracial, the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group. But when it came to defining her own race, she said, “I never thought I had a choice.” She’s always checked black on the census, even though she’s half white. She made the point that our nation’s president considers himself black, though he could just as easily call himself biracial. What has changed with the younger, “color-blind” generation, she added, is their general acceptance of being multiracial.
Some of Schiavocampo’s most memorable trips were to Haiti—reporting on the riots of 2008 and the first anniversary of the 2010 earthquake. During the riots, her crew was driving down a crowded street, surrounded by a mob threatening to break the car windows.
Schiavocampo considers the attack on reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square earlier this year sobering for any woman in the field. It reminded her that “there’s always a risk, even when you do everything right.”The one place Schiavocampo hasn’t been that she’d love to report from is outer space?in orbit, looking down at Earth. With the development of space tourism, she hopes that can happen one day. She would also jump at the opportunity to interview camera-shy Chelsea Clinton.
In a 24/7 news cycle, stories always take priority for Schiavocampo; she schedules the rest of her life in pencil only. Once a story is green-lighted, her first question is: “How much time do I have, both to work on it and to tell it?” She now reports for all NBC News platforms?“The Today Show,” “Nightly News,” MSNBC and MSNBC.com. Two minutes is considered a long time on the Web, she noted: “Viewers like to snack; they don’t want to sit through a whole meal.” Schiavocampo travels about 50 percent of the time; the rest of time, she’s in New York. A typical workday is about 10 hours long. She spends her time pitching, writing, editing, shooting and staying on top of stories and trends via Twitter. During the revolution in Egypt, she tracked developments through tweets from people who claimed to be eyewitnesses. She sees technology as a net positive for her job as a journalist.
Schiavocampo likes to think of social media as a flowing river. “You don’t have to drink from it constantly, but every now and then you should take a cup, and when you’re thirsty, go back for more.” You find the big stories everywhere, said Schiavocampo, though she doesn’t read print editions of newspapers. By the time you read them, she admitted, something’s changed. She consumes virtually all of her news online. Sometimes she wonders, “How would I do my job without the Internet?”
To veteran professionals, Schiavocampo’s advice is not to dismiss social media. Discover the value that it can bring to you and to your career. To young professionals just starting out, she warns against undervaluing social media. Consider it a professional asset, harness your natural affinity for it…and you’ll be a rising star among your colleagues.
This article was first published in the Summer 2011 issue of NYWICI’s print newsletter CONNECT.