Article about mobile journalism

This is a story about how a pair of burning trousers inspired a broadcast revolution.

In 2004 Gary Symons was covering a forest fire in rural Canada for CBC, lugging the heavy pack of equipment needed to be a mobile journalist. His pack snagged a tree and he fell 20 metres down a hill. His equipment scattered.

As he rescued his gear in the burning undergrowth his pants caught fire. “That was my Eureka day,” said Symons. “I learned, one, that I needed fireproof pants and, two, I needed a better mobile kit.”

The latter led to the creation of VeriCorder Technology, a start-up that puts a television studio in the palm of your hand. Vericorder started by creating newsgathering apps for iPhone and Android phones that allow people to shoot, edit and package on the phone.

In May this year (2011) Vericorder released its mobile integration management system (MIMS). The system allows media organisations to create, collect and broadcast video content from mobile sources anywhere in the world.

Media houses could have their reporters edit and file on-the-spot video stories or they could tap into Vericorder’s user base to find freelancers and citizen journalists around the world for video content. The beta version of the users’ database, Findstringers, went online in September 2010. The full version became available in April (2011).

Around the world we are seeing a revolution in the way journalists gather and deliver news. The mobile journalist, often abbreviated as a mojo, can report from anywhere with a cell phone provided they have a reliable 3G connection or wifi.

History shows that journalists adopt new technologies for newsgathering if those tools are easy to use, if they enhance the storytelling process, and if they accelerate the gathering of news. The reverse also applies: Reporters will reject newsgathering technologies if those tools are too complicated to use.

Journalists will not waste time with complex technologies. The constant tick of the clock makes editorial staff aware of deadlines, and those deadlines have increased in number with the advent of the 24/7 newsroom. All of the technologies journalism has embraced since the telegraph from the 1860s have reflected the twin desires for speed and increased efficiencies.

Vericorder technologies currently work only with the iPhone and Android operating systems. Technology from Proskope in the Netherlands that works with the Symbian operating system – think Nokia and Sony-Ericsson – was discussed in an earlier edition of this magazine.

Mojos attract their share of nay-sayers. The detractors usually point to the poor quality of images and the lack of depth of field. Recent events suggest these objectors might have to re-think their objections.

South Korean director Park Chan-wook shot his latest movie Paranmanjang almost exclusively on an iPhone. It was released on 27 January 2011. Park’s revenge epic Old Boy won the Grand Prix at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2004 and his 2009 movie Thirst won the Jury Prize at Cannes.

The 30-minute Paranmanjang was mostly shot in black-and-white using up to eight iPhones. It cost $130,000 and was funded by iPhone’s South Korean distributor. Park champions cellphones as a cheap filmmaking tool. “You don’t even need sophisticated lighting. Just go out and make movies,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “These days, if you can afford to feed yourself, you can afford to make a film.”

The biggest difficulties mojos encounter are getting the story back to the newsroom from the field, and the fact that mojo work gobbles up batter power. Mojos need to know where to find free or cheap wifi networks for those occasions when a 3G network is not available. Vericorder technology takes care of the network issues. And seasoned mojos always ensure they have plenty of battery chargers.

In 2008 I pioneered mojo in Australia, working for the Geelong Advertiser. At one news conference in September that year officials said individual interviews would not be available. I approached the talent, introduced myself, and streamed a video interview live to the newspaper’s web site. It was an exclusive. The discreet nature of mojo is one of its main attractions.

In March and April 2011 Ivo Burum trained indigenous mojos in the northern regions of Australia for the Australian government. Burum is a former executive producer with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The mojos’ work can be seen at http://ntmojos.indigenous.gov.au/

Apart from Vericorder apps, here are some of the iPhone apps I use when working as a mojo.

In Australia an app called Laptop Cafes was great for finding restaurants and cafes with free wifi. Starbucks and McDonalds are usually reliable places for wifi, as are some restaurants, and university and school campuses.

Another way to control access to wifi is to buy a portable wfi router. I have tested a D-Link myPocket router (DIR-457) that costs $200. You need to pay for the data loaded on the router via a SIM card.

If you have access to Ethernet you can buy Apple AirPort devices for between $100 and $400 that connect to an Ethernet cable. These devices create a wifi bubble of about three metres, and can sustain several connections. It is best to password protect these devices to stop people from feeding off your free (to them) wifi.

A metal device called an OWLE Bubo improves the quality of video or stills and the mojo reporting package (available online) includes a small microphone. You can watch a review here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ndXyV3FIP0

Other ways to ensure stable images is through a range of tripods such as the Gorillapod, the Glif and the Handgrip.

For breaking news I use the free Dragon Dictation app for quick bites of text. Once trained to my voice, the app allows me to dictate a breaking news story and then watch as the software transcribes the words. I then email or SMS the news brief to the newsroom.

A free app called AudioBoo lets me podcast from my iPhone (it also works with Android phones). Touch the record button, conduct the interview, and send the sound file to a dedicated AudioBoo site within seconds of completing the interview.

A more professional way to do this, which allows you to edit sound on your iPhone, is with Vericorder’s VC Audio Pro app. It costs $6 and offers broadcast quality audio. In April 2010 I worked with student mojos at the University of Missouri’s journalism program in the US. Erica Zucco and Brian Pellot covered local government elections for the NPR affiliate while I was there. The news director told me the audio from Audio Pro was as good as that obtained from traditional digital recorders. One way to improve audio is to plug a broadcast quality microphone into the iPhone’s audio jack.

Zucco and Pellot wrote a report for their university comparing the time it would take to shoot, edit and produce a one-minute multi-media slideshow using an iPhone against traditional methods. For the traditional report they used a Marantz digital recorder, a Nikon D70 camera, and Cool Edit Pro and Soundslides software. For the mobile reporting approach they used Vericorder’s ShowCase app, an Owle Bubo case for the phone and a VeriCorder microphone. At 14 minutes and 25 seconds the mojo approach took about half the time for the traditional report (25:46). The mojo equipment also cost about a quarter of the price of the traditional gear.

It would be fascinating to conduct a similar comparison of Vericorder’s First Video app against a traditional television news production team.

Various free or relatively cheap software packages available on the web let you stream video to the web almost live. Best known of these are Qik (www.qik.com), Bambuser (www.bambuser.com), Flixwagon (www.flixwagon.com) and Livestream (www.livestream.com).

I trialled these and others for a report the World Association of Newspapers published in July 2009 entitled “From backpack to pocket journalism”. The downside of using this free software is the fact the video goes to the software provider’s web site. If you have an exclusive the world can see it at the websites of those software companies.

All transfer files, but none provides a mobile editing platform. The best option is Vericorder’s First Video app for $10.

This app lets you record HD video on an iPhone 4 or iPod touch 4th generation, and shoot SD video on an iPhone 3GS. Both record CD quality audio. You edit the video on the screen of the phone with one video and two audio tracks.

Here is an example of HD video shot in Australia with an iPhone and put on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RNWyhG8c7M

A version of First Video is also available for the iPad. Symons described the app as the “most advanced mobile video editing solution on the market today”.

One possible approach is to have reporters gather news with iPhones, and a producer or editor cutting the pictures on the screen of an iPad. Compare this approach with the cost of an outside broadcast truck. The mojo method costs a fraction of the price.

Apps for mojo work
Other useful apps for reporting include Fluent News for monitoring news via RSS, LinkedIn for research, WordPress for updating blogs, JotNot Pro for scanning documents, Business Card Reader for scanning business cards and AroundMe for locating things like petrol stations or cafes when on the road. I use Skype on my iPhone for most of my international phone calls, provided I have a reasonable wifi connection.

As of February this year (2011) the number of mobile phones had surged to 5.2 billion worldwide, effectively one for every adult on the planet who has access to a regular supply of electricity. More than half of those phones have a camera. This means potentially a pool of more than 2.5 billion reporters. Obviously not everyone will take photographs, but it means news organisations need to find ways to embrace those potential reporters.

A convergence of cheap technology, fast broadband and wireless networks, and a booming interest in citizen involvement in news could see a revolution in the way news is covered over the next decade. To quote film director Park: “The technology changes so fast,” he said. “Who knows what’s going to be available next year?”

In April 2011 Vericorder also released software that allows small businesses to create television advertising. VeriTV and VeriLocal lets companies and businesses launch a hyper-local website, making it possible to insert low-cost advertising into news bulletins.

Vericorder’s CEO Symons said that unless newspapers and media chains could lower the cost of production to the same as that of individual bloggers, those media houses could not win. “What is now obvious,” Symons said, “is that the entire news industry is in a state of crisis. Individual bloggers armed with cellphones can produce content at a fraction of the cost of traditional broadcasters.

“At the same time, traditional advertising is fragmenting at an ever-increasing rate. The point of what we’re doing is to create a system that lowers that cost of production so it is virtually identical to that of the individual blogger … and at the same time, we are creating a new method of monetizing news networks that lets them take advantage of both national and very local advertisers. If we can lower the cost of production and administration, which is what VeriLocal does, then large media networks can survive in this new paradigm.”

Want to know more? Two Canadian journalism students, Ashley Rowe and Nick Wynja, used Vericorder software to make a video about how mojo worked at last year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbK_OrbKHLM

Vericorder will be showcasing their apps at this year’s IBC in Amsterdam and the Online News Association in Boston in September.

* Professor Stephen Quinn is head of the International Communications division at the University of Nottingham campus in Ningbo in China. Prior to becoming an academic Dr Quinn worked for two decades with some of the world’s premier news organisations. He has written the only print book about mobile journalism, MOJO: Mobile Journalism in the Asian Region.

Update: The third edition appeared in early 2013.

* This article appeared in The Channel, the magazine of the Association for International Broadcasting, under the headline “Cool tools for the mojo” in September 2011, pages 42-44.

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