We’re doing it wrong: The mobile journalism problem

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.

“Phones.”

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.