Ask any contemporary journalist what pieces of equipment they couldn’t live without and chances are most will immediately mention their smartphone. With it, they can take notes, live-tweet, record interviews and, send through on-the-spot footage. We’re all pretty comfortable with that kind of journalism, especially in the online space, but is the smartphone about to have a seriously disruptive effect on TV news?
Before you scroll straight to the comments section and type a long essay on the vast amounts of user-generated videos TV news channels ram down our throats on a daily basis, that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we’re envisioning is a future where the traditional TV news crew is replaced by a single journalist with a selfie stick and microphone.
To some that might seem ridiculous — including the words “selfie stick” in a sentence tends to have that effect — but there are signs that it’s already happening.
Earlier this year, a Swiss TV station went “100% iPhone”. Léman Bleu equipped each of its journalists with an iPhone 6 and a few accessories to shoot their stories and for live crossings.
“It’s a search for lightness and responsiveness, but also a way to reduce the costs of producing a newscast,” the station’s news director Laurent Keller told the Swiss newspaper Le Temps.
Léman Bleu isn’t the only broadcaster taking this approach either. A Scandinavian channel has reportedly gone 100% iPhone too. Chinese journalists are increasingly making use of selfie sticks and Sky News has its own take on the technology. In South Africa meanwhile, eNCA’s Yusuf Omar is steadily making a name for himself with his distinctive style of “selfie journalism”.
“Being able to shoot, edit and send on one device, like a smartphone, means I’m packaging news stories faster, and creating content with mobile viewers in mind (i.e mobile-first), as opposed to simply making TV content resized to fit on a cellphone screen,” Omar writes in a story published in September which explains the approach.
While eNCA still largely uses traditional TV crews, there are signs that it’s starting to embrace the style of journalism produced by Omar. In late October, the broadcaster announced a search for intern candidates looking to do great things with mobile storytelling.
— eNCA (@eNCA) October 26, 2015
It’s unlikely that eNCA will switch to a smartphone-only journalism model anytime soon but for a small station like Léman Bleu, which operates in a highly localised environment, it makes a lot of sense.
A question of quality
A large reason TV news outfits feel comfortable enough to hand over smartphones to their journalists is because of how much their cameras have improved since the launch of the first iPhone in 2007. Even the front-facing cameras on most high-end smartphones are now capable of recording in HD, but there are still limits to what they can do.
It’s those limitations which led a local Fox station in the US to scrap its experiment with iPad-based reporting.
As Mark Washburn writes in the Charlotte Observer, the experiment was “plagued by technical problems and relying on journalists with little experience, it had an amateurish quality.” That in turn led to viewers turning away.
Of course, smartphones tend to be a lot less unwieldy than iPads and as Keller notes, it’s as much about being innovative with the way you use the technology as it is about the technology itself. “It’s up to us to reinvent the grammar of the image, to learn to shoot differently,” he said.
Omar meanwhile believes that quality isn’t as big a problem if you recognise what you’re working and use it to tell good stories. “In the age of YouTube,” he writes, “audiences have never been more forgiving of handheld, poorly lit content. Mobile journalism too, is as much about using a phone to capture the footage, as producing made-for-mobile content”.
Getting the story
Journalism has always been about telling stories and the kind of mobile approach used by Omar can actually aid in getting the kind of stories traditional TV news crews can’t. Aside from the agility and speed it offers, people are far less likely to be intimidated by a single journalist carrying a smartphone and selfie stick than they are by two or three-person crew with a shoulder-mounted camera.
That level of access brings its own challenges though. Omar discovered as much while covering Operation Fiela, the controversial joint crime crackdown by the South African police service and South African National Defence Force:
When the latest xenophobia violence sparked the South African police and military to launch Operation Fiela, I live streamed with the Periscope app, walking viewers deep into Joburg’s hostels as police broke down doors.
But almost immediately after the broadcasts, negative feedback flooded social media. We’d taken live reporting too far. Police were dragging seemingly innocent half-nude men out of their beds and we were broadcasting the unadulterated visuals live. I tried to avoid identifying faces, but some made it on air. Mobile technology allows us to do live crossings in more places than ever before, bringing new ethical conundrums. Greater awareness of the right to privacy is required.
The tech powering the tech
Whatever the ethical considerations, it seems inevitable that smartphones will play an increasingly important role in TV newsrooms. Right now, most organisations seem to be using cobbled together solutions, combining selfie-sticks with plugged in or Bluetooth microphones, but that all looks set to change. Take the SoloCam for instance, currently the subject of a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. On the funding page, SoloCam’s inventors describe it as “the first selfie stick that integrates a new and improved stick design with a high definition sound and recording system”.
Aside from the built-in microphone, one of the other benefits of SoloCam is that it allows users to easily switch between the phone’s front and rear-facing cameras. It’s also got a double handed grip on the microphone, which is great if you suffer from shaky hands. Sky News meanwhile uses the LiveU Smart Grip, which holds a chargeable battery and MiFi channel (or any other mobile hotspot), which is bonded together with the smartphone’s internal 3G/4G connection to combine two cellular connections beyond the smartphone, something which the company claims boosts live video transmission time, quality, reliability and performance.
The fact that these companies believe strongly enough in this kind of journalism to have built a business proposition around it is probably the strongest evidence of the role smartphones will play in the future of TV news journalism.
“Adaptability is survival,” Omar writes. “If you’re in the media, it’s best you listen up”.