Two years ago I tested 350 apps in a single year. Last year I tested 202. I’ve tested iOS apps. I’ve tested Android apps. I’ve attempted to test Windows Phone apps but really haven’t seen any. And here’s what I’ve found: Setting aside apps that are purpose-built for media production, most of the best products I’ve seen for journalists weren’t designed with journalism in mind.
I was at a conference a few weeks ago and ran into ThingLink’s founder. The app puts an interactive layer on top of photos. It has a robust desktop presence and a mobile app. She had no idea so many journalists were using ThingLink, she said. I think a lot of app developers out there would say the same thing.
Since then I’ve been looking at my apps and what makes them good and what makes them bad. Why do I like some apps more than others, other than the obvious reason that some apps are just crashy and stupid? I’ve semi-developed this Unified Theory of Translational Apps:
The apps that I use for journalism either fill a need I have or point out to me a need I didn’t know I had. Most of the apps I use the most are in the second category.
I’d put ThingLink in this category. I had no idea that I’d need to create interactive graphics with embeddable media from the field. And yet it’s one of my most used apps. PicPlayPost is another one. It’s a collage app that allows for video collages. Never thought I’d do video collages. But it’s become one of the most interesting and unique content forms that I do. The people I train love it. Going through the list of apps I use the most, it’s pretty clear that very few of them were designed for journalism. And yet they’re breaking new ground for journalism (no, this isn’t an app column; you can see my lists here, here and here).
These apps are translational apps – designed for one purpose, able to be used for another. So what makes them like that? I found common attributes:
- They all display information that I’m already gathering in a unique way. That is, I don’t have to go out of my way to get info that fits into the app. If I’m doing video interviews, I can use those interviews as embeddable video in ThingLink or for collages in PicPlayPost. If I’m taking photos, I can bring them into TypeA and create extended captions.
- They all are three taps or less. There’s very little learning curve in the apps that I’m using. At most, it takes me three taps to generate the most basic level of content. All of my translational apps took me less than 10 minutes to learn the depths of.
- They keep the entire creation session within the app. I don’t have to double-tap my home button and go searching for things. They seamlessly import files from the camera roll/Photos/gallery/whatever-we’re-calling-it and let me get on with creating my content.
- They work all the time. I have some great apps that crash. A lot. These don’t. They work and they work consistently in the same way. I don’t have blow ups or crashes.
- They have stable design. This might a sign of benevolent neglect in some cases, but I don’t have to search for functions. Also, in every case, the design is clean, straightforward and doesn’t hide crucial functions in menu upon me.
- Other than ThingLink, Bubbli and Steller, which are hosted on those company’s servers for logistical reasons, the translational apps all save to the the camera roll/Photos/gallery/whatever-we’re-calling-it. It’s the intersectional hub of my phone. I want my stuff there, not solely exportable to social media from a proprietary library.
- They all are designed to create products that are consumed socially.
This is as far as I’ve gotten. But I’m intrigued with this. Maybe you will be, too? Where are you on this?
I teach mobile journalism. I work with companies that want to do mobile journalism (Cellphones! Reporters! Action News!). I’ve tested more than 700 apps in two years (and took the spousal asskicking that came with that).
I talk about mobile a lot, and I’ve come to this conclusion: We’re doing mobile journalism wrong. We’re trying to fight the last war. The technology is rapidly improving, but we’re using mobile journalism for something that it’s not really designed to do.
An example, ripped from the headlines, as it were:
A manager at a TV station was very excited about the camera improvements in the iPhone6 and he purchased them for his reporters.
“They’re not producing the quality that we can run on the air,” he fumed to me a few months later.
“What did you buy for them?” I asked.
And that’s the problem right there. The camera on the iPhone6 is great (so is the camera on the Nokia Lumia 1020, by the way). But it creates a wide field of view, can’t zoom and the phone doesn’t provide broadcast quality sound. Unless you supplement with other tools, you’re not going to get the results you want. The people who are doing broadcast-quality mobile journalism that’s actually being broadcast? They’re not just using a phone. It creates a paradox: The more quality we add, the less mobile we become.
Except that we’re acting like the phone can be a thoughtless replacement for shoulder cameras and DSLRs.
There are four advantages that we have using mobile tools (given the current technology):
1. Mobile gives a force multiplier effect. Think of a story — tragic or otherwise — where you’ve needed to flood the area with assets. Let’s say you’re a newspaper that has a vibrant online site, a strong social media presence and six photographer/videographers. There’s a bank standoff. You can spare one photographer and that person has to really be in a fixed position in case something happens at the front of the bank. But you have 30 reporters in the newsroom. They probably all have mobile phones. And even if we don’t equip them with all the extras, we can use them — and their phones — to gather the kind of quick-hit video and interviews that resonate over social media.
2. Mobile gives us a single production platform. We can break the story process into five parts: gathering, assembling, editing, publishing, reacting. Typically we’d report on a camera or audio recorder, transfer a card to a laptop and assemble and edit there, transmit either from the laptop or through a sat transmitter and then watch social reaction via phone or laptop. Mobile consolidates that. It takes out minutes, and in our hyper-tiny-fast social news cycle, minutes mean beating the competition. Producing on a mobile platform reduces our time-to-publish.
3. We can go direct to social fast. This is where the brand battle is going to be increasingly won and lost, as flagship products such as newscasts and websites become places for deep story details. That hyper-tiny-fast-social newscycle lives on Twitter or whatever evolves in that space next. Mobile platforms are built as social tools and can help us get accurate information to the audience ahead of our competitors.
4. The app universe lets us build novel content. Content doesn’t look the same when we build it from a phone — and that’s a good thing. On a desktop, we’d do a photo gallery, with a click-for-next-photo architecture. Great for pageviews. Painful to do on a mobile handset. Using a collage app like Diptic or PicPlayPost, I can take my slideshow and put into a collage and show you my entire visual story in a glance and you decide how you want to interact with it. Or, using PicPlayPost or Diptic Video, I can create video collages that play videos all at once or sequentially and tell my story that way. It’s something different. I can use 360 Panorama to do an immersive 360-degree shot to show the breadth of damage at a natural disaster or what a football field looks like at halftime of a big game.
I don’t mean to say that we should abandon the pursuit of broadcast-quality pieces shot on mobile devices. Far from it. But there’s a better way to use mobile tools than just trying to reconstruct the past.
I’ll serve up some examples over the next several weeks to try and prove my point.
Judd Slivka Tools and Toys 360 panorama, AirStash+, camera+, chartmaker pro, clips, Diptic, diptic video, filmic pro, Hyperlapse, LapseIt, meerkat, periscope, picplaypost, Pinnacle Studio, Steller, Storehouse, StoryByte, ThingLink, twisted wave editor, type a, video in video, voice record hd pro