Mobile photography
Credit: By Das Fotoimaginarium on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Mobile reporting skills are becoming increasingly relevant and useful for reporters out in the field and therefore lessons in the best techniques to use mobile devices effectively are also working their way into the training room.

One example, which we reported on late last year, can be found at Leeds Trinity University, where postgraduate students studying broadcast journalism were given iPhone 5 handsets as part of their training at the start of term.

After some initial expert guidance and practice, the students were given the task of reporting from the university's recent Journalism Week, using the smartphones to drive coverage.

Now, having putting the theory into practice, course leader Richard Horsman and three of his students tell us about their experiences of both teaching and learning mobile reporting skills, key lessons they learned along the way, and how some of their expectations were challenged.

Horsman said the students were told to produce multimedia content, as well as provide live coverage on Twitter, for individual sessions of the week's agenda.

And it was not just the students who had new things to learn. "It was a steep learning curve too for the tutors," Horsman said.

"We were grateful for the support offered by industry professionals including BBC 5 Live correspondent Nick Garnett, an enthusiast for using the iPhone in reporting, who agreed to coach trainees in the best techniques for recording and processing audio over a Skype link from his kitchen."

Despite needing to equip themselves with, in some cases, new technology, as well as new skills, "the results probably exceeded our expectations", Horsman added.

"The trainees rose well to the challenge and gelled quickly into an effective newsroom, working alongside tutors in a combined effort to keep the website as fast, bright and attractive as possible.

"There are lessons to be learned from the experiment. It's clear we should dedicate more time to ensuring trainees become entirely confident with the iPhone ahead of a live assignment so there is no danger of the demands of the technology getting in the way of the journalism. That might mean rescheduling classes traditionally conducted early in the programme into a later stage."

He added that the project also highlighted a "need to experiment with more apps to be sure we're using those that offer the best combination of technical quality and user-friendliness".

"We'll all be more confident going into the teaching next year, and we'll all be more experienced in using the iPhone as an everyday reporting tool."

Horsman said the students "will again be using the iPhone as a field recorder during our month-long broadcast for Bradford Community Broadcasting scheduled in June/July, and here we hope the 'always ready' functionality of trainees with the device in their pockets to report stories as they come across them 'on the beat' in the city centre will come into its own".

"At other times groups of trainees will use the kit intensively for reporting on the brand new 'Leeds Northern' website (to be launched soon) and in producing VJ packages for Leeds Today, the University's annual webcast TV output in August and September."

Student James Grayson said some students were unsure at first, worried that using an iPhone to produce coverage would appear "unprofessional" and that they "would not be taken seriously by the speakers".

But he said this "view changed as the week progressed". "Despite being an iPhone 4S user, I have never used an iPhone for work purposes. But as we learnt, the top players in the industry use them every day as equipment to do their jobs."

The photos and the text went on the website within minutes, something which would have been impossible without an iPhoneJames Grayson
He said his initial concerns of appearing "unprofessional" soon gave way as he "focussed on the job in hand and managed to get some high quality images and also email some quotes".

"The photos and the text went on the website within minutes, something which would have been impossible without an iPhone."

When it came to video he found things a bit trickier. "Holding the phone steady is one of the hardest parts of recording video, especially when you are asking the questions as well.

"The picture quality turned out quite well, but for a video interview you have to go really close in to get a decent audio level."

But he added that overall "it was a good experience" and he would return to his iPhone for reporting in the future.

Fellow journalism student Tom Swain added that using the iPhone as a sole reporting tool was also new for him.

"There are, however, fewer and fewer reasons not to use smartphones to cover news," he added. "As time passes, the technology used in smartphones improves, and video is now high-definition, photographs are high-resolution, and audio is high fidelity."

But despite this, he, like Grayson, had "reservations".

"I was concerned the quality of the media may not be up to a good enough standard for public consumption. But the iPhones were well-stocked with specialist apps such as Voddio for video and audio editing, giving us trainees every chance to create something usable."

But some hesitation about using the smartphone remained when it came to video, with one article in particular where he felt text alone told the story adequately.

Of course the audio quality on the iPhone doesn't match the FlashMic, and a good DSLR will always take better photos. But what came through quite clearly during Journalism Week was just how convenient it is to have everything on the same device that can publish instantlyJon Cronshaw
"I would question whether always carrying an iPhone is necessary since (I hope) the article stands very well on its own, without any video or audio. I don't think video would ever detract from a story, but I do think it might not add much," he said.

And, like Grayson, Swain also had concerns about not appearing as professional as you might with "a cameraman alongside you".

"But in an age of financial cutbacks and streamlining, using a smartphone is a good compromise between top-quality content and mobility," he added.

For fellow student Jon Cronshaw, there were further challenges he had to deal with when it came to mobile reporting.

"I have a progressive eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa which means I have no peripheral vision and I have trouble with certain lights and colours".

For him this meant "relying on fellow students to select the app I needed as the icons were too small for me to read".

"I found the screen to be either too dim or too glary to comfortably look at, and some of the apps were too small and detailed to use."

Therefore during Journalism Week he used "technology I was comfortable with: a Nikon D3100 DSLR camera, a laptop computer, and a HHB FlashMic".

"I spent the week photographing speakers, writing articles, and conducting audio interviews. One tutor joked that I was 'off-roading'."

But he added it soon became clear "that those using the iPhones were ahead of the game".

"They could simply record an audio, edit it on screen, and have it sent to SoundCloud within seconds. I had to use card readers, USB leads, and wait while things transferred from one device to another, before editing it and then uploading it manually to SoundCloud."

He added: "Of course the audio quality on the iPhone doesn't match the FlashMic, and a good DSLR will always take better photos. But what came through quite clearly during Journalism Week was just how convenient it is to have everything on the same device that can publish instantly."

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