As mobile applications and tools continue to develop, mobile journalists have been able to experiment with different forms of storytelling to make their work more appealing for a digital audience.
Yusuf Omar, mobile editor at Hindustan Times, told Journalism.co.uk that his publication is taking that one step further, and is currently using Snapchat, the popular chat app, as a content management system in a bid to help both staff workflow and content creation.
"The big 'F word' for mojo trainers is fragmentation," said Omar.
"When I first started, we surveyed our journalists and found there were over 75 different types of phones in my newsroom alone, which is an absolute nightmare as it's critically important to find apps that will work on every model and device, whether they are four years old or brand new."
Snapchat offers just that, and is helping Omar in his mission to build a 750 strong mobile journalism team at Hindustan Times. He is able to use the app in six different ways to monitor the progress of his trainee mobile reporters and experiment with new ways to tell stories.
1. Technology exploration
"The amount in which Snapchat invests in technology is what differentiates it from all the other players in the social media space – that's what they do really well," said Omar.
He explained that the publisher recognises the advanced technological features Snapchat offers that other apps don't, from the ability to zoom with your thumb whilst recording, to elegant face recognition software.
"Before you see Snapchat as a messaging service or a discovery platform, it is a really good way of creating content – and you won't find that technology anywhere else," he said.
Omar was recently able to use Snapchat filters to enable young sexual assault survivors to speak freely on camera without needing to blur or silhouette their faces, by asking them to speak into the camera using the face recognition software.
2. Cloud-based video solution
"I don't ever want to have to worry about the footage being stuck on someone's camera roll, or them not having enough space on their device – I want an app that makes it available for me to see the story as it happens," said Omar.
Not only does the app allow journalists to publish their footage without worrying too much about their phone storage, but the cloud-based nature of the app allows journalists using Snapchat to easily cover controversial stories, by getting footage out to their audience almost in real time.
Omar used Snapchat recently to produce a video feature in which he tried to find out how difficult it was to buy drugs in Punjab, after a Bollywood movie which focused on drug abuse called Udta Punjab came under controversy.
Aware that his phone might be stolen by drug dealers or be taken by the police, he wanted to make sure as much of his footage was published as possible before this could happen.
"It's the same fear that people in the USA are having when they are covering the Black Lives Matter movement and you end up seeing police brutality live on Facebook or other apps," he said.
"Snapchat is a powerful cloud-based solution when you are doing those types of stories, as you're automatically putting out content right then and there, as opposed to having the conventional workflow of a mojo."
Hindustan Times asked six students to document their weekly experience in the stressful six weeks prior to applying for Delhi University, in what the publisher has named 'Campus Calling' – the "world's first Snapchat reality show".
"For a media company, it is effortless content. You've got young people who are already going to be Snapchatting and taking pictures of their lives, sending footage directly to you in a personal way," he said, highlighting the combination of personal Snapchat narratives with professional visuals as a new way of storytelling.
"Most people don't think of Snapchat as an app for crowdsourcing because it is so difficult to find what is happening – there's no discovery or search function," he said.
He pointed to Snapchat's shortcomings as a source of information in breaking news situations.
"You could never go on Snapchat and be like 'let me see what's happening', because you wouldn't be able to find the right people who are on the ground.
"But if you build your own community in Snapchat, then you have the most exclusive citizen-driven content where you've created your own little microcosm of people around one narrative."
Everybody has access to the same Twitter feeds and viral videos, he noted, but Snapchat is a different kind of crowdsourcing where publishers can create their own stories by building up loyal communities that communicate to you on a regular basis.
However, publishers need to be switched on with app updates and changes if they are going to be using this form of crowdsourcing, as changes to Snapchat's interface can leave them in trouble – like it did the Hindustan Times.
"If you are not rapid to respond to updates in the software, your entire workflow falls apart, and that is what happened to us overnight," he said.
"When the recent software update that brought us Snapchat Memories came, all of the students from Campus Calling suddenly couldn't save their 24 hour story anymore – they were all panicking because they didn't know how to get into the Memories cloud-based news service and save their work onto their phone.
"Snapchat is rapidly evolving and they are coming up with updates on what feels like a weekly basis, and as a mojo mobile editor and publisher you need to be really quick to understand what the updates are, and be educating and conveying a new workflow to your reporters and your storytellers as quickly as possible, otherwise you will find yourself in big trouble."
Verifying the authenticity of images and videos posted on social media has been a growing issue for publishers working in both breaking news and feature stories, but Omar explained that Snapchat's geotag-based filter allows him to quickly verify the time stamp and location of the footage, enabling Hindustan Times to publish stories faster and more reliably.
If you are not rapid to respond to updates in the software, your entire workflow falls apart and that is what happened to us overnightYusuf Omar, Hindustan Times
"You swipe across the media and the tag displays its location, and swipe again to reveal the time filter, which is very difficult to manipulate on Snapchat," he said.
If he was receiving footage from someone in a breaking news situation, he could ask the person to use the location and time filters on the footage to authenticate it.
"Although the Memories feature allows you to post old photos to your Story, it will have a white border around it to indicate that it’s from the past, which is also useful for verification."
5. Communication between reporters
"As a one-to-one communication tool, Snapchat is a fantastic way to keep in touch with your reporters – far more intimate and regular than I have seen through any other app, be it WhatsApp, emails or phone calls," said Omar.
"They can send me a quick voice note and tell me where they are and to check out their footage, and in real-time I can give them some feedback of what shots to get and what to retake.
"There are very few video tools that allow me to give regular feedback in the moment while my reporters are in the field, and let me essentially follow their day."
6. Storytelling tool
Although Omar is training reporters to use a variety of different storytelling tools, he explained that Snapchat stands out because it is "digitally-centred", offering text, emojis, music and vertical video in one place – giving his reporters a huge amount of creativity.
"We have no rules," he said.
"They can paint over their images and add text or emojis if they think it's appropriate – I'm not even telling them to shoot vertical or landscape."
He notes that footage published through Snapchat can be quite suspense-driven, as viewers can watch the story unfold as the reporter is covering it, keeping audiences coming back to your channel.
"But I must emphasise that this is not easy," said Omar.
"The more you storyboard and plan your shots, the more you're going to produce good Snapchat video stories – it is the most difficult mojo storytelling tool to pull off well."
Indeed, reporters using Snapchat have to tell their story as they are going along, editing shots immediately after they are taken.
Although this makes the post-production much faster, the shooting process is slowed down, and journalists must know where they are going to start and end their coverage.
"People are also challenged by 10 second video bites, where they have to get the comment they need from their interviewee in a short amount of time," Omar said.
"We're realising that it's definitely not the tool that we should be rolling out for beginners – it is more for advanced mojos [mobile journalists]."
Omar found the millennials in his newsroom picked up the tool easily, but as older reporters struggled with using the app for storytelling, Snapchat will play less of a role when delivering the core stories and more during the interlude between the quiet moments of bigger video stories.
"It will continue to feed your social media beast between the big stories of the day, and will go a long way of taking viewers behind the scenes of stories, becoming a rapid-fire type of platform," he said.
"We export these smaller Snapchat stories, upload them on to Facebook, get an audience following that Snapchat story, and then migrate that audience to other videos.
"you are building up an audience, so by the time you put out your bigger piece at the end of the day, it is not a surprise to anyone and you have a loyal following that has been waiting for it."
The more you storyboard and plan your shots, the more you're going to produce good Snapchat video storiesYusuf Omar, Hindustan Times
It is not uncommon for journalists to become overwhelmed with the number of digital options available to them, so Omar is focused on teaching the culture of understanding what to do when.
"Most people have only got one phone and two hands so what do you do? Facebook live, Snapchat, produce GIFs or memes?
"We can base that on analytics, but a lot of that comes down to gut feeling and what you would want as someone who is digesting this on a mobile phone.
"That goes back to the very reason I am pro-mojo, because when you create content on mobile, you start thinking about how a mobile audience would want to digest it.
Yusuf Omar will be discussing using Snapchat as a content management system at the next MoJo London Meetup on 15 August at Thomson Reuters, London.
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