Russell Midori, a former combat correspondent in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2008-2012 and currently a news photographer and editor with WPIX 11 in New York and cofounder of Military Veterans in Journalism, reflects on his passion for visual storytelling and what prompted him to create an organization to transition veterans into broadcasting.
Edited and Paraphrased for Print
Welcome to a new Voices from the Field where we highlight stories of broadcasters giving an introspective look on their experiences in broadcasting. I would like to introduce Russell Midori, photo journalist, Emmy Award winner, drone pilot, and president of the Military Veterans in Journalism. Hey, Russ.
Hi, how are you today?
I'm doing well, sir. This is a great honor to have you featured in this episode as we will be launching for Veterans Day and highlighting the importance of veterans in broadcasting. And specifically, knowing that you work in journalism, we're going to take everyone on a journey of what it means to you to be a broadcaster, or excuse me, a photo journalist within the field and some of the things that you've done to enhance the industry.
To start off, when did you actually realize that you wanted to become a photo journalist or work in the broadcast field?
I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. And, you know, I knew that I loved writing and I loved reporting. And I think that the photojournalism aspect came a little bit later, because I was writing for local news outlets. I remember especially in South Carolina, I was writing for Bluffton Today, which was a really great local newspaper, and they became a weekly while I was there. And at first I wanted to get better at photography, so that I would have a better chance of getting my stories on the front page. You know, if you if you work in local newspapers, you find that sometimes just great art alone will get you on the front page. And so that was kind of the first motivation for me. And then as I began to build my skills as a photographer, and as I learned more about still photography and video, and it sort of took on a life of its own, and became the thing that I love the most and really, it's because it's an aspect of storytelling that invites the viewer in and invites the audience to be a part of the story and feel present. And so I just love it. I really love the the photojournalism aspect of the work that we do in broadcast and that's that's my jam.
So speaking of local, you know, at NAB, which hosts Voices in the Field, we are very, very focused on on local. And you mentioned how important it is for someone wanting to get into the field, different ways to maximize the potential and maximize what you're looking to do. When you did finally say, you know, this is the route that I'm going to go, can you describe how you were able to actually enter the field of broadcasting? What was that window of opportunity? Like that exact moment? Who gave you that opportunity? And and how did it make you feel?
I think that a broadcast is one medium of storytelling and, and I think that that as my life as I grew in storytelling, and as I became more of a professional and explored different mediums, broadcast became sort of one of the canvases that that I could work on. And, you know, I originally started out as a documentary producer. I worked on different types of more long-form video, and funded a lot of my own projects, I traveled around the world with myself and a small group of journalists and taught ourselves stuff, for lack of a better word. We figured out ways to do things, and ways to tell stories through video. And this kind of lent itself into a broadcast career. I won an Overseas Press Club Foundation award, and I think that's an excellent foundation. And they do really great work at teaching reporters who are who are students to submit their work and to demonstrate their work. So what happened was, after I won that award, I gave a speech and I got into the community a little bit. Sometimes winning an award can be a really positive thing for your career, and it can really bring a lot of attention to the work that you're doing. And so, I'd say I have to thank very much the Overseas Press Club for giving me the opportunity and putting me in a room with a bunch of broadcast and journalism professionals. And that's where a lot of the opportunities eventually came for me to grow as a producer to work in network and national news. And then to ultimately discover my passion for photography, for news, photojournalism. And, and then, some of the people and the mentors that I met along that path guided me toward Channel 11 in New York, and that's where I make my broadcasting home right now. I very much love to get to work, and get my gear ready, get it all loaded up in the truck, head out to whatever event of spot news we're covering that day, and then shoot it in a way that is sincere and edited in a way that that brings attention to important issues that have real meaning to our community, to our audience that we serve. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to do it. I love the work. I love being in the truck. I love shooting and editing the news and bringing true stories to our audience. And that is great.
Being in New York, it's kind of a hub for news. A lot of it can be local. But you also have some national news, then you have some international news there. From your perspective, what is the most important news? Is it what's around you immediately? Is it what's happening, you know, with within your country, or is it what's happening globally?
I think that as journalists, and as broadcasters, we have to think about our audience and we have to meet our audience where they are. And we we have to put them first and if you put them first, I think everything else falls into place. It is incredibly important that we have local news. And it is it is frightening what is happening the way that some local news providers in both print and broadcast around the country have been gutted. You know, sometimes by venture capitalism sometimes by inability to adapt to changing audience preferences. And it's scary. It's scary because I know from the work that I've done in national news, how important local news is, you know, all the way up, if you have a strong local news, historically, it's shown that that strong local news is what leads to impactful stories at the national level and at the international level. And even even if we're working for one of these great organizations, that sort of parachutes people into places, a lot of times their first contact is with the local news affiliates, who they work with there, it's where they get their understanding about the area and the community. And so I think that all news is important, I think that that news at every level is important. But I think that local news is the one that's sort of most under attack, and the one that needs the most thought and energy put into it to ensure its survival. Because I think that that's a major foundational part of the the news Americans consume.
So that being said, with as much consolidation as we're seeing, and as many things happening within our industry, where do you see local broadcasting or local journalism in the next five to 10 years?
On the one hand, I think that we will eventually become a little bit more adaptive to new technologies. I know that for me, I've been very resistant to give up my PX 400, camera and my 55 pound setup and all that. But I have seen my colleagues do really great work on their cell phones, and you know with gimbals, and lightweight cameras, and incorporating new technology, and a lot of the times that the experimentation that they are doing leads to real breakthroughs in how news is presented. So it's not exactly shocking to say that over the next five years, I think that will incorporate more aspects of technology. But I think that that's really what has to happen. I think we will get a little bit lighter, a little bit faster. But at the same time, we're still doing storytelling and serving the audience and meeting meeting our obligations as local news broadcasters.
One thing that I did not mention at the top of this is the fact that you are also a veteran. I'm a veteran of the U.S. Army. And from our previous conversations, I understand that you were in another branch of service. Let us know what branch that was and how that actually helped you carry all of that weight of your lighting, the equipment and your cameras and probably the truck if you could, let us know how that got you prepared for your current career.
I did serve in the Marine Corps, and I'm very proud of that. And I think, maybe Steven Pressfield said it best in his book, The War of Art. He was a Marine as well and and he ultimately became a great author and he said that the Marines taught me to be miserable. And the ability to be miserable, I think is kind of a superpower for broadcast journalists, especially during storm coverage. That's not to say that all veterans should be put to work in austere conditions. But for me, it has been a great experience, you know. And the military is also really good at getting things done. It's useful when you're writing copy on your cell phone in the in the news truck, or, you know, figuring out whatever it is that you have to do for you to make slot at 6 p.m. You know, the Marine Corps, sort of a great training ground to get you used to getting into deadlines, and just sort of pushing past any kind of momentary suffering that you're going through. But, you know, every branch of service has plenty to offer, the people who serve within it. And I think that veterans in general have a lot of great advantages as news employees, and not all of them are related to being miserable. That just happens to be the one that that most appealed to me as my career developed.
We'll touch on that a little bit more later. But was the Marine Corps the start of your photo journalism career was that where you first learned about journalism and how to do the different aspects of your job now.
I have to give the Department of Defense a lot of credit for teaching me the technical proficiency to do journalism work. I studied at the Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Maryland before I had an undergrad degree. And I started at the the Defense Information School, which is kind of like the art school of the military. You know, they've got a bunch of writers and broadcasters and they have combat illustrators who are artists who will draw scenes, kind of like courtroom reporters and stuff. And so it's a really cool program, and all services, including international services, like partner nations and the Coast Guard and all of them train at that school. It's called the purple environment. So we're brought together with a whole bunch of different people. It's the first time that I held the camera, it's the first time that I learned how shutter speed affects an image and an aperture and ISO and, how to write an AP style news story, you know, so similar to a newspaper or a press release format. And again, you'll also get three years of experience.
What I would like for you to do next is kind of talk about some of those skills that you learned in the Marine Corps, and what that journey was like coming out as you were transitioning into the civilian world. I know that I have stories, and every veteran that I talk to has a different story, which is why I have advocated for making sure that we assist veterans who want to get into the broadcasting field. We'll touch more on that later as well. But for you, can you describe that transition, and some of the skills that you thought that you had, and you would be a great journalist?
I think when I first got out, I guess I did have kind of an expectation that because I had so many transferable skills, I would sort of jump right into a journalism career. And of course, I wanted to be a journalist in one way or another ever since I was a kid. And to me when I was a kid, the coolest two things you could be were a journalist or the President of the United States, and I wasn't even sure which one was better, if you know what I mean. So, you know, and I do think that that ultimately, our society needs to get back to a place where to be a journalist is a real position of prestige, so that we can attract the best people into this field. But I will say that initially trying to get in it was pretty tough to break into the industry and I ended up doing a lot of work on my own, developing a lot on my own. And maybe it was my own fault that I didn't know how to reach out to the right mentors, or maybe I didn't have a lot of great programs that I was a part of early in my transition to learn how to build those skills. But one thing that I did learn in the military, and that I think a lot of veterans learn is I learned how to fit into a hierarchy. I learned how to understand goals from a leadership and a strategic perspective. And I think that that is a skill that even though my particular job in the military was one that is very, very conducive to journalism, at least from a technical sense. But I think that the life experience that I got out of the military was much more valuable than that. Because, ultimately, look, the technology of photography changed a dozen times by the time I got out, and I had to relearn everything and reteach myself everything every couple of years anyway. And so even more important than learning a skill or trade, as as I did in the military, was learning how to fit in to an organization learning how to be a part of a team. And I know that sounds cliche, but it's true. And it's hard. It's not easy for a bunch of people from different places and different backgrounds with different values to come together and to produce one cohesive piece of television package. You know what I mean? And, and we do it and and I think that the military prepared me enormously for that. And I think it would have done so regardless of the particular occupational specialty that I did. That's, where I think that the military kind of prepared me for that. And yet, it still was tough to get a job. And I think it's still tough to get a job. I know that there are a lot of people who are struggling to break into the news journalism industry, and I try to help them when I can.
So can you talk a little bit or expand a little bit more on how you are helping veterans transition through your works with Military Veterans in Journalism? And I understand you just celebrated your your first convention this year as well. So if you wouldn't mind just talking a little bit more about what what you do as the president of Military Veterans in Journalism, aka MVJ. And how you got that started, why you got that started. And where you see that going?
Military Veterans in Journalism started out as kind of just a passion project. It started out very informally a couple of years ago, when veterans would reach out to me and ask how they could break into journalism. And I would try and give them the best advice that I could, sometimes I would connect them with mentors. And it was a sort of an informal thing that grew into the 500, member 501(C)3 professional association that it is today. And what it is, is, a bunch of military veterans who either work in journalism or who aspire to work in journalism. And the first thing that we do is that we create a community for them, you know, a place where they can all be together and and be connected to one another. And also, we work to soften the military civilian divide and get more veterans working in newsrooms so that they can communicate with journalists, we pair them with with mentors so that they can grow in the field and learn from learn from some of the best journalists in the world who volunteer to work with us to provide training and resources. And a lot of the times in those mentorship sessions that the mentors end up learning a whole lot about veterans as well and learning from them. too. And so it becomes a two-way street the way any good mentorship should be. And so the thing that I'm most proud of, of the Military Veterans in Journalism, is the work that we put into the mentorship program and the people who have volunteered to be a part of it and show us that they believe in our diversity initiative. We just had our first convention, it was unbelievable. CNN was the keynote sponsor, Jake Tapper came in and gave a speech. And this year, it was virtual. And it was awesome. I couldn't be happier with it. We're very much looking forward to getting back to an in-person format, which we're going to do next year for our second annual convention. And, yeah, this year with COVID and all that it wasn't it wasn't the right move, as you guys know.
Absolutely. We know firsthand. Absolutely.
But we are very, very eager to get our whole community together in one place, and share these ideas of the world. But the convention that we had was an absolutely wonderful success. It was great to see how much support there is in the broadcast and journalism industry for what we're doing, and to show the members who are part of our community that they have a really bright future in journalism.
Awesome. I have a couple of other things that I wanted to touch on. But one thing that I've heard several times throughout this time as we are talking, and that's the word "mentor," and "mentorship." How important is it for a transitioning veteran to have a mentor? Or anyone for that matter, to have a mentor to get that guidance to figure out where to go and what the next steps are?
Having a mentor is absolutely essential. We learn about mentorship a lot in the military. And yet, it's something that is kind of tough to apply when you become a civilian, because you know, not everybody's in uniform with you anymore. And we don't know if we all agree on things. And it's tough to get by in a changing world with dynamic opinions. But having a mentor is essential that I'm absolutely sure of, I know that for me, I found great mentors in journalism, and they helped me to achieve any of this success that I've had. And for our community, in the military, veterans and journalism community, the mentorship program is the heart of what we've done. And, you know, it works by recruiting top journalists from around the country to work as mentors to our diverse group of veterans, and they do a one-time one-hour Zoom session with them. And the veterans get three mentors over the course of six months or so. And the hope is that that after we create that initial meeting, that they'll want to stay in touch, and some of them do, and some of them don't. And that's why we try and pair them with multiple mentors to increase the chances that they'll have that chemistry with at least one of them, and that will expose them to different career opportunities, but especially that it will just help them grow as journalists and as people.
The other topic that you brought up while speaking about MVJ is diversity, and the fact that speaking to diversity is very important. Whenever I have a conversation with folks, I remind them that, hey, as a veteran, because we have so little representation, I think it's seven-point something percent of the population are veterans, but only two percent are within the broadcast industry. And so I remind people, as a veteran, that equals diversity for any organization. And so I do want to highlight that, so thank you for that as well. One other question that I would like to ask and you, you hit on it earlier, but I would love for you to give a pitch to a veteran or anyone that is aspiring to get into broadcast or photo journalism, why you think that is the career path someone should take?
Let me tell you, here's the thing about it. It's a hard road. It can be anyway, not for everybody, but it's a hard road to break into this industry. And you have to really love it in your guts. You have to love it. So much that you're willing to stand in front of a place where there's a political candidate and be spit on by by his supporters. I think journalism needs veterans more than veterans need journalism. And the reason that I say that is because look, I don't think that this job is for everybody. Anybody who's in this field and they're watching this they know it's not for everybody. You need a bulletproof heart. You need tight and sharp elbows to get in there. You've got to really want to do this work. You know, you're not going to get rich doing it probably, and the thing is that you have to love the work but if you love the work, if you love informing the audience, if there is some storytelling bone in your body, if there's something that is just dying to get out, then you have to be in this industry, and you'll put up with the years of, you know, pain and working on your own and receiving poverty wages to do it. So that's kind of the thing is that that I think that I'm not trying to, to pitch anybody and say you should be you should be immediate, the thing is, you've got to kind of examine people and determine like, is this somebody who needs this job who loves this work, and if they are, then they have to be in it, then and they'll know it too.
I do encourage our members that military veterans in journalism, and they're in their moments of doubt, and weakness, which we all certainly face, but at the end of the day, you'll figure out if this industry is for you, you've got to get into it, and you've got to find a way to do it, and no other job will suffice. Nothing else that you come across, will be satisfying to you. Because you have to love broadcasting, you have to love journalism. I think that's what our mentors help our members of our community do. You know, some of them might not be right for broadcast, but they might be good in other aspects of journalism, you know, and so that's why we keep it pretty broad in our focus on journalism, and the different mediums that you can work in, but the mentors we have, who are trained to give protegees resume guidance and work on their career goals and build an online portfolio of journalistic works. They're giving them all the tools that they need to get into this career field. But whether or not they should do it, that that's a choice that's got to come from deep inside their own hearts.
I think that's a great piece of advice for anyone that that happens to watch this. You've got to have the passion, and you've got to have the want and the will to do it. And I think that that is one characteristic that most veterans who are coming out and transitioning, they've already possessed that particular characteristic. Because in order to get through basic training, you've got to have that intestinal fortitude, in order to get through living outside of home, whether you were 18, 19 or 20. Some were 17 and some were 35.
Some are 35, you know, starting that career, yeah. And the physical demands and the mental demands, I think that having a veteran, it definitely creates an opportunity for that mindset to come into journalism or come into broadcasting and media and be an asset to an organization, whether it's on the local level, national level or global level. So thank you for that insight as well. Lastly, what I would love to hear is kind of take us through a day in the world of Russell Midori.
Well, so I have my work at Channel 11 is on a on a freelance basis. So my schedule changes every week. Sometimes I'm working the 2 a.m. shifts, sometimes I'm working the 10 a.m. or the the 2:30 or the you know, five o'clock, so I never quite know when I'm gonna get into work. But when I do get into work, I'm very fortunate that I work with an awesome team of reporters. They're in the number one media market in the world. They're ambitious they're dedicated they are talented and and they're pretty good looking and I try to help them with that by giving them good lighting. I get to work, I load up my truck, I get out to whatever story we're covering shoot it work with our reporters edited get it up on air, you know, I work with the web team as well to make sure that we're providing them assets. I think that a camera person is very much in like a utility infielder. You've got to be able to do everything, you've got to be able to shoot, you got to be able to edit, you've got to be able to solve last minute computer crashes and get through all kinds of stuff like that. Well, I think that's what a day looks like for me, that is awesome foot sounds like full of adrenaline full of that passion, still giving that emotion.
Russ, thank you so much for your time today. I greatly appreciate it. I know that we'll be talking soon. And, you know, I look forward to hearing what else is coming out of MVJ. I look forward to seeing some more of your editorial pieces and some more of your photo journalists pieces.
I look forward to the people who watch this and the people who are involved with NAB signing up to be mentors at at MVJ. We've talked a lot about mentorship on this discussion. And if you care about newsroom diversity, if you care about you know, and I say newsroom diversity, because I think of veterans as having an intersectional role within newsroom diversity, we make sure that our own organization is very, very diverse., Forty percent of our people in our mentorship program, for instance, are people of color, even though only 20 percent of staff positions filled in, generally in news media are people of color. And we have about 25 percent women even though only about 10 percent of veterans are women. So we put a real heavy emphasis on diversity. And it is important that we have a really diverse group of mentors as well, to help our our veterans, you know, break into this industry. And also the mentors that we have get get all kinds of training. We're talking about opening up points or training so that that becomes free to our mentors as well. So there's a lot of great opportunities, but most of all, you get to meet some cool veterans, you know, I described my day picks, but the other half of my day is that I come home at night and I pair, you know, mentors with our veterans, and, and help them to get great opportunities in the field. And, and I look to the professionals who are part of your community to to help us and engage with us and to and to be of service to our veterans.
Russell Midori is a news photographer and editor for WPIX Channel 11 in New York City and a documentary filmmaker for Drum Circle Media. He has produced prime-time documentaries, features, and breaking news for CBS News in Iraq, Kurdistan, Korea, India, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and all around the U.S - typically reporting on conflict, crime, and civil unrest. He worked as a cinematographer and researcher for VICE News on HBO, and he has produced independent investigative documentaries in Haiti, Standing Rock, and New York.
Russell is an Overseas Press Club Foundation board member, a frequent guest lecturer at colleges and universities, and he volunteers as an alumni mentor for students in the Brooklyn College Radio and Television department. But he spends the bulk of his volunteer energy working as the program director for the MVJ Mentorship Program. In that role he connects seasoned journalists with transitioning veterans to advance their careers, works to soften the civilian/military divide, and promotes newsroom diversity.
Russell used the post-9/11 GI Bill to earn a master's degree in investigative journalism from Columbia University, and is the recipient of a college Emmy, an Overseas Press Club Foundation award, and a Mark of Excellence Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
He served as a combat correspondent in the Marine Corps from 2008 - 2012 working as a video producer for Marine Forces Europe and Africa and the NCOIC of the Parris Island Public Affairs Office. During his enlistment he held the rank of sergeant and was twice named an honor graduate of courses at the Defense Information School.
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