Mobile journalism, using your smartphone to film, take photos, record, edit and publish your material, comes with many opportunities for journalists: less kit to carry with you, a quick turnaround, producing a larger variety of formats, and having access to places that would otherwise deny a TV crew. But it can also be challenging.
Marc Blank-Settle worked for the BBC for many years before he started to train journalists. Today he is a trainer at the BBC College of Journalism. He is one of the pioneers in the field of mobile journalism training, and over the years he has taught thousands of colleagues how to produce quality content for radio and TV with the iPhone.
In this Q&A, he explains how to manage one of the key challenges of mobile journalism – ensuring you have a good network connection to share your material – and what you can do if your upload speeds let you down.
As a smartphone journalist who is out and about you are relying on three things: storage capacity, power and best possible connectivity. What do you do if there is no connectivity?
"I’ve been working as a journalist for 20 years. When I started I knocked at other people’s doors and asked: 'May I use your phone to call my editor, please?' Back then, there were no mobile phones. Nowadays it might still be worth knocking at doors. My question today is different: 'May I use your Wifi network, please?'
"The three pillars of mobile journalism are storage capacity, power and connectivity. This is not influenced by the apps that you are using or the story you want to tell. Connectivity might be of particular importance, especially if you want to upload large video files. If you were to upload even only one minute of video content – we can disregard the app or the resolution here – you will have a problem if your connection is slow. Which means: yes, a 'mobile journalist' always needs to make an effort to find acceptable network coverage.
"There are a few tricks: go into airplane mode as soon as possible and then re-activate network connections. This trick has helped me several times. I simply replaced the 2G or 3G network that I previously had by connecting to an 4G network. In other words: simply cut all connections first and then reconnect in a second step."
Does it make sense to use a different mobile hotspot than the one used by the smartphone?
"This is very wise. And a smartphone without a SIM lock that can be used with any network provider can be useful, too. If the phone only works with one SIM card, problems might come up if your own network is blocked. Many journalists have two phones with different providers so that they have a connection with at least one phone, or that they can compare which phone offers better connectivity."
If connectivity were really bad – what else would you recommend? Should I hold the phone high up in the air?
"This depends on the content you want to send. Social networks can deal with low bandwidth. There are services that turn a text message into a Tweet, for example. If all else fails, this could be an option to still report about an incident. A similar service is available for Facebook. So instead of sending simple text messages to single persons, you can send them to a service that converts them into postings on Twitter or Facebook, if the data network is bad or doesn’t work. In fact the biggest problem is big amounts of data, especially video content."
What’s your opinion – is "mobile journalism" still useful if one of its main pillars – connectivity – is missing, as for example in rural areas?
"You have to ask yourself which resources you have at hand. If you have a high-quality camera, a team and an OB van, you will achieve better results than using a smartphone with bad connectivity. Most people though don’t have an OB van parked in their lot. And for them a smartphone can turn into a pocket news headquarters, even without good network coverage, because smartphones can record in radio or TV quality, edit and send – maybe after returning to the office.
"The smartphone enables the journalist to always be a journalist. If something happens and the camera crew happens to be in the same place by coincidence – great. But how likely is this scenario? This is what I want journalists to understand: with the smartphone they can always report when something is happening."
What are your Mojo must-haves?
"I think that a handful of devices that fit in a small bag are more than enough: additional storage, a small microphone, and a small tripod. A light can be useful, but it is not always necessary. An external battery is a must, maybe a mobile hotspot, too. You can spend a lot of money on additional lenses, but all of these items add extra weight to your equipment, making it heavy and expensive. I now know: a few accessories for little money already improve your footage considerably."
This piece is an extract from Mobile storytelling: A journalist's guide to the smartphone galaxy, by Björn Staschen and Wytse Vellinga, republished here with permission. The book is available as paperback and ebook on Amazon, and as an ebook on iTunes.