How the smartphone could be the saviour of journalism

18 Feb 2015

Pictured: Patricia O'Callaghan, an RTE mobile journalist who was featured at this year's World Press Photography exhibition in Dublin

Whether capturing water protests in Ireland or documenting the savagery of ISIS in Syria, innovation lead at broadcaster RTÉ Glen Mulcahy tells how smart devices are changing the narrative of news.

The intelligence of smartphones in the hands of most users are rarely utilised to their full potential in terms of their ability to capture HD video, photos, sound and transmit that to the world in seconds. Unless of course you consider the 300 hours of video that finds its way to YouTube every minute or the countless tracts of Ice Bucket Challenge videos that found their way onto Facebook last year

But for media professionals all of this material is a gold mine that offers previously unimaginable views of the world we live in. These tools in the hands of journalists on location offer a myriad of incalculable advantages that reporters in previous decades would dismiss as science fiction.

The transformative effect of mobile devices on media – not only phones but also drones and Oculus VR – will be discussed at the RTÉ International Mobile Journalism Conference at the National Convention Centre on 27 and 28 March. It will be the first such conference dedicated to mobile journalism, filmmaking, photography and storytelling.

Over 40 speakers will be attending including BBC, Sky News, NRK, CNN, the Huffington Post, Aljazeera, Irish Times, Storyful, NewsWhip, Touchcast and more.

Eats, shoots and leaves

“I think the ultimate examples of mobile transformation is the fact that not only does a journalist now have a shoot, edit and send production kit in their pocket but they also potentially have a live HD video feed in there with it,” explains Mulcahy, whose passion and enthusiam for the mobile genre is clear to anyone he meets.

“In my role as innovation lead I’m extremely interested in UAV/RPV (drones), wearables, Immersive 360 degree video and the AR/VR headsets which will allow you to consume that content – Oculus Rift being just one example.”

The key game-changer, says Mulcahy, is broadband. “The continuing rollout of LTE/4G networks is bringing with it the reality that you can livestream HD quality video from your mobile device which is good enough to broadcast. Because of network contention it is not as reliable as a dedicated satellite unit but nonetheless for breaking news the high risk is very much worth the high gain when it works. 

“A classic example of this is where Sky News’s Harriet Hadfield managed to live video from Geneva Airport after a hijacked airplane had been forced to land there. Harriet was live for an entire 30 minutes before traditional news vehicles were sending live pictures. 

Mulcahy says RTÉ has been trialling similar technology. “As a case study we live-streamed video from a mobile device during the recent water protests in Dublin. Even with thousands of people in a condensed area we still had a ratio of 50/50 useable video – which is quite remarkable. 

“All the recent statistics show more and more news is being consumed on mobile devices with video showing exponential growth, so in a way mobile content creation is part of a natural holistic cycle which in time will contribute to content which is inherently optimised for consumption on mobile also.”

While smartphone technology might seem a godsend to a 21st century journalist, the technoology arrives amid a seismic economic shift that is rocking the boat for newsrooms in print, TV and online. I ask Mulcahy are these devices a journalist’s best friend or could they also contribute to rationalisation and budget cutting?

“That question comes up a lot. I think the truth is that its potentially both, depending on the strategy and motivations of the organisation adopting mobile journalism. My experience, having trained over a thousand journalists at this stage, is that some journalists realise the potential of mobile immediately and they fully embrace that potential because they can see how these additional skills can add ‘value’ to them as a multi-skilled employee.

“In the right environment, where journalists are included in the discussions for adopting mobile for content creation, journalists can really embrace and push the boundaries of what can be created and achieved. However in an organisation where the motivations are not clear I can completely understand journalists (and other staff) being suspicious that the real reason for adopting mobile is to offer up opportunities for rationalisation and cost cutting. 

“There are unfortunately some case studies to support this. In May 2013, when the Chicago Sun Times laid off its entire photography department and replaced them with smartphone training for journalists it set alarm bells ringing in other newspapers around the globe. The former photographers created a website to prove the point that a journalist with an iPhone could not replace a skilled photographer with a DSLR camera. 

“A similar event with the Orlando Sentinel in February 2014 added fuel to the fire. If I had been involved with the process in those organsiations I would have actually upskilled the photographers to shoot video with their DSLRs and then encourage the best photographers to train journalists in photo and video skills with smartphones. This is part of the strategy that the Irish Times and other newspapers have sucessfully adopted.

In the last few months since MojoCon was announced Mulcahy says he has learned of more organisations experimenting with and creating content with mobile.

“Its appears that media companies in Europe are leading the way but I’m still unsure that is factually correct. The BBC is so far unique in the sense that it developed a dedicated App for BBC journalists to shoot, and send photos, video and record audio. It appears that ARD Germany are about to follow BBC’s lead with their own bespoke app.

“Sky News as I mentioned above have been pioneering live streaming solutions in particular but have also shot and broadcast mobile footage. Aljazeera are somewhat unique in that they created an entire documentary on smartphones called “ Syria:Songs of Defiance.”

New adventures in mobile

As Mulcahy explains it RTÉ has been experimenting in mobile for over three years now.

”I’ve delivered one day training courses for over 200 RTÉ staff at this stage – which is the introduction course and 16 members of staff in News have completed the four day masterclass which includes photography, shooting and editing video and will now include livestreaming also.

“We haven’t yet hit a ‘big win’ using mobile – what I mean by that is we haven’t had a situation where mobile has been the key enabler in a breaking news situation, as has been the case with some other broadcasters, but we have produced over 40 stories for broadcast using smartphones and we have been experimenting with visual story platforms like Storehouse and Shorthand which are designed to combine text, video and photographs into a story form which is particularly suited to mobile and tablets.

“I think the key thing is that mobile can empower every journalists as as a storyteller and as a content creator. I’m hoping that Twitter video will bring some new opportunities for realtime updates via mobile also.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years