Smartphones for News: how the Academy is helping journalists get more mobile than ever
Academy website editor Tuesday, 17th July 2012 16:55 GMT
Guest blog: The College of Journalism’s Marc Settle outlines how and why the BBC Academy is providing smartphone training for journalists, and BBC Wales BJ Stephen Fairclough gives a first-hand account of how he used an iPhone to cover a high-profile story the day after doing the BBC Academy’s course.
Smartphones are undeniably taking over as the device in our pockets: the latest data shows more than half of Britons with a mobile now have them as their main gadget. The use of smartphones for newsgathering is also increasing exponentially.
All smartphones, as the name suggests, have many more uses beyond simply sending text messages and making phone calls. They are truly multimedia devices: they enable journalists to produce, with just one machine, content for which they would previously have needed half a dozen or so.
High-end, purpose-built devices undoubtedly give better results, but in the current financial climate the BBC can't give each and every journalist their own portable digital audio recorder, laptop, video camera, stills camera etc. Neither would many of them want to carry a bag containing all of those around with them all the time. Nor are there enough radio cars and satellite trucks to go around. But they do carry their smartphones with them all the time – just like you do, in all likelihood.
End Quote Stephen Fairclough, broadcast journalist, BBC
If I hadn’t been able to use an iPhone at the scene, the coverage across all platforms on BBC Wales would have been much less comprehensive
For the last year or so my co-trainer at the College of Journalism, Samantha Upton, and I have been showing BBC journalists from Belfast to Cardiff, from Glasgow to London, and also outside the UK, just what they can achieve with their smartphone. Nearly 400 staff have been on the course and, while few will go on to use their smartphone as their primary device on every given occasion, many are finding that this one unit can do each of the tasks asked of it very efficiently.
You'd perhaps not want to record an entire documentary on an iPhone (although this has been achieved by BBC correspondent Natalia Anteleva, for Crossing Continents on Radio 4). But for an item for radio bulletins it does a pretty good job from wherever the reporter happens to be.
On our day-long course delegates find out about how to record, edit and send both audio and video, as well as how to take and send better photos. They also find out about the essential apps that every journalist should have, as well as getting tips on how they can get the most out of their battery and what they should do to protect the data on their phone.
Here are just a few tips you might find useful (these will in broad terms apply to all smartphones as general principles, but results will differ by make and model):
+ When taking photos, don't tap the shutter button with your finger, as this could shake the camera and lead to a blurry photo. Instead, put your finger on the shutter button and lift it off. This much smoother action won't risk jogging the camera as you take your snap.
+ When recording audio, don’t talk directly into the microphone, as you may see happen on The Apprentice. Instead, hold the phone as you would normally when making a phone call (for some voices, it works better held under the chin).
+ When recording video, don't hold the camera vertically. Our eyes are horizontal; TV screens are horizontal; computer monitors are horizontal. Vertical video looks wrong, and the finished product will more than likely have nasty thick black borders.
The feedback from delegates who've attended has been hugely satisfying, with comments ranging from "the best course I've done in 10 years at the BBC" to "it was a real life-saver". But how it has benefitted output on air and online is of course far more important.
The amount of video from smartphones making it to national bulletins is increasing: this piece from the BBC's Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar recently ran on BBC1’s 10 O'Clock News.
Photographs taken with smartphones are also being used increasingly on the BBC News website, but it's with radio that they’re having the greatest impact. Almost daily, reporters are recording items which they then email direct to the BBC's playout systems; while others are using an application called Luci Live to broadcast live, in quality, from wherever they are - unthinkable barely two years ago.
It is perhaps not going too far to say smartphones are transforming BBC journalism, getting the BBC's reporters into, and their content out from, places where it would have been problematic in the past.
While these devices are a fantastic step forward, it is ultimately only a means of recording, editing and transmitting material: the core journalistic skills of an enquiring and persistent mind, an eye for a good image and an ear for a turn of phrase will remain the bedrock of BBC journalism.
Putting it into practice: broadcast journalist Stephen Fairclough on how he reported a high-profile story for BBC Wales the day after doing the course
"Within nine hours of completing the Smartphones for News course, I was at a murder scene. Two people had been stabbed. One had died. One was in a critical condition in hospital. I was the only journalist at the scene. It was the middle of the night and it was raining.
I had my iPhone with me and the recollections of what I’d been shown a few hours earlier in a warm, dry classroom with high-speed wi-fi. Now I was hoping to put some of it into practice.
As soon as I arrived, I used the phone to film some short bursts of video. It was dark but the street lights, police floodlights, reflective clothing and white boiler suits of the scenes of crime officers showed up well.
I emailed still pictures back to the newsroom so they could visualise the scene and use the pictures online. I also tweeted the pictures.
When the camera crew arrived, it was not allowed into the area where I was. The police had widened the cordon around the scene, but I was told I could stay close to where the forensic examinations were taking place. I emailed the video back to the newsroom in 30-second blocks so there were pictures available for the breakfast bulletins.
I recorded a radio voice piece on the phone using the PNG app. I was then able to upload it directly to Cardiff.
It was now nearly 6am and I could concentrate on radio two-way interviews. I used Skype and was able to broadcast, in quality, every half hour, giving live updates as dawn broke and police started combing the mountainside with dogs as they sought to make an arrest.
All I used that morning was my iPhone, and in some ways I was lucky. The 3G coverage was strong in an area where it can be patchy. The battery on the phone also just about held out, although it was very close to expiring. I now have a battery booster pack and a mobile wireless device on a different phone network to increase my chances of a strong 3G signal.
I tried to use what I’d learnt on the course the day before. Some of it I’d done previously. Some of it was completely new and it took a couple of attempts to get it right. If I hadn’t been able to use an iPhone at the scene, the coverage across all platforms on BBC Wales would have been much less comprehensive: all I would have been able to do was talk on the phone."
For more on smartphone and connected journalism, see the College of Journalism website.