Multimedia Journalist Covers Hot Sites

Kevin Sites (GJ89) has abided by the old journalism adage: Go where no one else is — and taken it to the extreme. As a roving war correspondent for Yahoo! News, Sites is on a mission to visit and report on every spot of armed conflict in the world over the course of one year. Among his recent stops: Kashmir, Nepal and Haiti.

Meanwhile, he is also the vanguard of what might be the future of newsgathering: the solo reporter outfitted with a backpack of multimedia tools. (While he reports alone, his support team includes two producers and a researcher.) His almost daily dispatches include text articles, photo essays and video stories, all published on a Yahoo! web page called “Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone.” (Scripps Howard News Service also distributed the dispatches.)

The concept has an air of Jules Verne mixed with Ernie Pyle. Instead of circumnavigating the world in 80 days and reporting on the front lines from a soldier’s perspective, Sites is taking a year, leapfrogging from danger zone to danger zone, telling stories about the lives of common people stuck in uncommonly bad conflicts.

“I’m trying to tell stories you’re not getting anywhere else,” says Sites, who readily acknowledges that he cannot possibly provide nuanced geopolitical expertise in each country he visits. “What I can do as a good journalist is find people who can illustrate the larger story, and through them tell the story of conflict, through their eyes.”

By the end of September, Sites will complete his journey — covering 21 countries in a year’s time. He has recorded some incredible finds. One profile in particular evoked a cascade of response from followers of his work for Yahoo! Her name is Gulsoma. The 43-year-old broadcast veteran and the 12-year-old child bride met in Afghanistan.

Gulsoma had been given away for marriage at the age of 4 to a man who was 30 years old, according to Sites. Her new family of 15 required her to do the household chores, forced her to sleep outside on a carpet, and then whipped her with electric wires when they felt like punishing her. Sites wrote a moving first-person account of meeting this young girl, who fled her abusive family and was eventually given refuge at an orphanage. He took photographs to document her scars and burns, and he also took portraits of her grinning face wrapped in an orange scarf.

Nearly 14,000 readers voted to recommend the story, and more than 8,400 comments poured into the Hot Zone page. Many people were moved to give donations to nonprofit organizations in Afghanistan via links provided by the web site.

As gripping as the individual tales are, Sites offers a humble assessment of the limitations of his work. When he visited Lebanon in December 2005, for instance, “The learning curve was so steep, I don’t know if I grasped it,” he says. “There were questions I really should have asked, but I didn’t have the knowledge.”

Sites, a seasoned war correspondent, had covered the conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq for NBC and CNN before signing on with Yahoo! In 2004 his video of a U.S. Marine shooting an apparently wounded and unarmed Iraqi insurgent in a Fallujah mosque set off a furor in the Middle East. As he reported from Iraq before the invasion and during the war, Sites experimented with blogging from the field. He found that he could provide more context for his stories than what could air in television broadcasts, and he was able to provide a fuller explanation for his videotape in the Fallujah mosque. Enticed by the chance to work with an innovative Internet company with deep pockets, Sites says, he joined Yahoo! in summer 2005.

Sites is now part of the leading edge in multimedia, where one journalist combines the foundational skills in reporting with the technical skills to produce stories using video, photographs, text, audio and interactive chat — what Sites calls the “five-fingered multimedia platform.”

“I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to do multimedia,” Sites says. And through a process of trial and error, he now asks himself for every story: “Am I going to shoot video or take stills or write down notes? And I have come to the decision that the text story has to be the backbone.” Sites will photograph portraits to give readers a human face to the story and shoot video to show action, movement and music. “I try to use the strengths of the different media.”

Apparently, Sites has taken off the training wheels. In May, Wired magazine called his stories a “pioneering web newscast with a balance of Cronkite gravitas and Gen X hip.” — J.K.