This piece originally appeared in American Journalism Review, March 13, 2014
Journalism, an old newspaper buddy argues, has always been mobile: Reporters go out in the field, collect information, scrawl it on whatever’s handy (I knew a reporter who covered the 2003 Gulf War whose computer broke and who handwrote his stories on cardboard pieces of MRE rations before screaming the story into his sat phone) and get it back to the audience. As a colleague mentions, there’s a long tradition of journalists on deadline who need to use whatever is around to file.
Is mobile journalism really new? Maybe we’re having trouble defining it because we aren’t sure what it is we’re defining. It might be something that’s new and fresh and cast in burnished aluminum. Or it might be simply an extension of what journalists have always done — using the tools and technology at hand to do the job. Is mobile journalism about the technology, about the content or about breaking news captured by citizens acting as journalists?
Is mobile journalism what the experienced videographers from Ireland’s RTE’ network do when they go out and use an iPhone 5S? Using a bunch of (relatively) inexpensive equipment, reporters create content to later edit in a non-linear editing system? Is it a reporter shooting and editing it on the same tablet before loading it directly into a CMS? Or, is mobile journalism a phone-wielding citizen on the streets of Syria sending media outlets raw footage?
Too many questions? Mobile journalism is about questions.
“Mobile journalism” is a ridiculous title, like “camera journalism.” It’s just journalism and the mobile part just refers to the tools. The techniques that make solid journalism don’t change when we carry our publishing equipment in our pocket.
Jim Wright, deputy editor at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, rightly points out, “Producing an expose of conditions at the county nursing home and producing a funny cat video involves exactly the same technical skills. One is journalism, the other is not.”
So if “mobile journalism” is defined as “journalism using mobile tools,” we should probably talk about how those tools look in the field.
Surveying the landscape seems to break current “mobile journalism” into three big parts:
- Mobile gathering: It’s what’s practiced by most organizations when they say “We’re doing mobile journalism.” A content producer goes out with a mobile unit – typically an iPhone, sometimes an iPad – and shoots video. They come back to the office, import the finished product into a traditional editor and publish in the new traditional way of direct-to-web. This is popular with established media outlets because they’ve already invested in editing and workflow systems and because those editing systems are very powerful. Using them allows mobily-obtained footage to be manipulated in the same manner as traditionally obtained footage. Ireland’s RTE’ has been especially good with this (here’s an example that was shot on the iPhone 5S and edited in Avid Console by the very talented Philip Bromwell).
- Single-platform production: A content provider goes out with a mobile tool and gathers. Instead of the upload/ingest process into an established editing system, the provider imports from the device directly into an editing app on the device itself, edits and exports into an outlet’s CMS or web channels. Neal Augenstein of WTOP-FM, in Washington, D.C., does this exclusively in his reporting; the Orlando Sentinel is hiring two journalists for what seems like this exact thing. This is likely the next wave of mobile journalism, as processor power increases and acquisition cost decreases. Both single-platform and mobile-gathering hew fairly closely to the traditional ideas about what produced pieces should be like: quality sound, framing, stable shots, adequate lighting, identifying the subjects.
- Gatekeeperless journalism: We’ve seen a lot of this lately. The photos and videos are spontaneous and lack the production values that we’ve come to expect in polished news products, such as supers and soundbeds that supplement the primary audio track. This is riot/disaster/crowd footage, for lack of a better term. It’s uploaded, generally, to a public outlet or private server and then distributed to the media, the public or a media outlet. Some of its attributes include proximity and timeliness being valued over production (because it’s hard to hold a cell phone stable when you’re dodging pepper spray).
It seems slightly ridiculous that we’re defining a genre based on workflow, but such is the state of mobile journalism: Like irony, we know it when we see it.