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New tools for new journalists

Rory Cellan-Jones | 11:25 UK time, Monday, 22 February 2010

A message arrived the other day asking:

"can u give me a crash course in citizen reporting? What tech is best and are there rules/tips?"

Citizen journalistI promised to think about this and get back - but soon realised that I had a problem. After all, I'm not a citizen reporter, but a professional journalist - you may of course disagree - with all the resources of the world's biggest news organisation at his beck and call.

Still, I do see it as my job to experiment with new tools, and it's clear to me that for a very small outlay, the citizen reporter can now equip him or herself to do quite a professional job.

What will be harder is to acquire all the different skills of a multimedia journalist - and, most important of all, to promote your work and to get an audience. So here are my first thoughts:

Text and general
List of weblog publishers

For absolutely nothing you can get yourself a blog, which is easy to customise, and can act as a central point for all your journalism. I've tried both WordPress and Blogger; each makes it simple to share your thoughts - and your photos and video content - with the world.

And now the web is going mobile, it's becoming easier to post to these blogs from anywhere, using a phone rather than a computer.

List of photo-sharing services

This may be the area where you have to spend most - while you can snap away with a mobile phone, decent photographs still require a digital single-lens-reflex camera. But once you've taken your pictures, getting them online and distributing them is free.

Sites like Flickr or Picasa make it very easy to share your photographs or simply store them before using them in a post. You can also get a memory card with wi-fi built in, enabling you to upload photos without a computer.

List of video-sharing services

Video journalism can still be quite expensive if you use high-end cameras and have ambitions to make a polished product, but there are now all sorts of tools that allow citizen reporters to turn out something rough and ready for virtually nothing.

Small solid-state video cameras costing around £100 are one option - plug them into the USB port of a laptop, use some free editing software, and very swiftly you can upload to YouTube, Blip TV, Vimeo or another video-sharing service.

But it's smartphones which are now transforming "instant" video. The latest models will all produce acceptable pictures - and, more importantly, will allow you to edit and upload your pictures to the web with a few clicks.

You can go live for free using mobile applications like Ustream, Bambuser or Qik - though I'm still waiting for the first real breaking-news story to arrive via one of these services.


Strangely, it used to be harder to record, broadcast and promote quality audio than to do the same with video. Now there's an explosion of new tools, and again many are based on smartphones.

So you can either simply record audio on your phone using the surprisingly high-quality microphones that are in many modern handsets, or you can plug in an external microphone.

Audioboo is one way of getting a quick one-take radio report out of your phone and on to the web. There are also lots of phone apps which allow you to edit audio without having to transfer it to a computer, though I still find editing on a phone very fiddly.

Then you can use tools like Soundcloud or Mixcloud to upload a finished report to the web.


None of this will be of any use if you can't tell people about your journalism, but social networking has made that easier.

Facebook has the biggest audience - over 400 million worldwide now - and it's easy enough to upload links to your blog, or some audio or video to your Facebook page.

But that may not reach people beyond your immediate friends and although some of you may wince to hear this, I really believe that Twitter is becoming an essential tool for all journalists, amateur or professional.

That's because its users are there for less social reasons than Facebookers. They're looking for useful information and if you post a link to your story about some breaking news, you've a fair chance that it will be read - and hopefully re-tweeted by other users. If you add a hashtag linking your story to some trending topic, so much the better.

And as you immerse yourself in Twitter - or other social networks - you will find you get back both stories and contact with your readers. Like the person who sent me the message which inspired this post.

In summary, a smartphone and a social network are the only two essential tools for a citizen reporter. But, as I said above, what do I know? I consulted an expert, Josh Halliday. He's a student journalist who runs a local news site in Sunderland, and has also tried out in earnest a lot of the tools that I've only played with. Here's what he told me:

"Dropbox is a great app for sending photos to a specific predetermined place in next to no time. I've used it for in-app photo taking, then wiring back to someone on an internet-connected computer to upload/edit. It's faster but more restrictive than e-mail as you can only send to someone with the same Dropbox account.
"The iTalk app surpasses any dictaphone I've ever bought (and I've bought a few). The catch is, it is just a dictaphone and can't upload files of any meaningful size. I use it solely as a dictaphone, for audio that I'm only transcribing rather than broadcasting.
"I use Audioboo for broadcasting interviews 'from the field'. Recording in great quality and embeddable into any HTML page, my only qualm is the shaky uploads.
"I use the Notes iPhone app for drafting out a report before copy/pasting into Wordpress and publishing, saving battery life. Notes were my saviour when reporting from the Amsterdam football tournament for a series of SAFC blogs. I finessed my prose offline before tentatively connecting to the web to file my report, saving me a fair bit of money.
"I'd also recommend MiFi (a mobile broadband device) as an invaluable citizen reporting tool, should the reporting be internet-dependent and event-based. Though I've not used it myself, I've heard how it was a life-saver when multiple people were uploading video/audio/images on the move."

So a few tips from both Josh and me on citizen reporting. What neither of us have come up with is any rules - the other part of my Twitter correspondent's request. Perhaps that's because in a fast-changing web world, and with the exception of certain basic standards of honesty and clarity, today's rule will be disproved by tomorrow's events.


  • Comment number 1.

    Is there really such a thing as Citizen Journalism or is it more Citizen Leads? All major reports are still published around the world by established media organisations. The Iran riots were spread initially on Twitter but they were sent to mainstream organisations to follow through.

    Similarly, even established bloggers use the mainstream media for major stories - as with the Guido Fawkes and the Telegraph.

    I also notice that there's no mention of defamation and other editorial concerns, only technical here - surely these concerns (including how to tell a good story) are more important than the means you use to broadcast? You can send your message via Twitter, Audioboo and on Flickr, but what's the point if its libellous and told badly?

  • Comment number 2.

    Aside from the technology of which there are thousands of tools out there to make it easy, the biggest thing that people get wrong is that to "report" on something, rather than just have an opinion about it, means getting out there and getting the information.

    Suddenly, the internet is meaningless. You need to go and talk to people, get good, substantiated quotes, supported images (not doctored!), get people on side and to trust you and all the rest of the things that has applied to journalism for 200 years or so.

    The internet has allowed people to publish what they write easily and for free, but it does not give them the skills and process of journalism. That is the advice I think most people are hungry for!

    Note About Audio Broadcasts

    I was a recording engineer for many years working for both the private sector and even the Beeb (as a client). The one thing I struggle with most on the internet is audio quality - it is quite frankly often abysmal.

    The reason behind this is the idea that digital = quality. This has been a myth since digital devices were first released and there was plenty of, umm, liberties taken with the truth! (This has also been true with vinyl romantics, to be fair).

    The main thing that digital recording offers is ease of use, but the quality of a recording will be far more to do with the quality of the hardware (microphones and so on) and how you use them.

    For any recording audio, here are some hints:

    • Purchase the highest quality microphone you can with a good pop-shield. Reasonable mics start from 50 to 100 pounds, though be warned that top pro mics are £2000 or more!

    • Record in a small room with at least some sound damping. Sound Proofing stops external sounds getting in (or you getting out) whereas sound damping stops the room sounding too much like a bathroom. Hanging heavy blankets or duvets around can help!

    • Sit comfortably, leaning forward at a desk with the mic around 8 inches or so in front of you and slightly above the line to your mouth.

    • PRINT your script - reading from a screen does not work. Space out the print nicely in a large font making sure that sentences do not wrap over page turns. If you are editing later, stop at the end of the page and change sheets rather than try and do it quietly.

    • Rehearse! We used the best voice overs in the world at the studios and they ALL rehearsed. There is no such thing as over rehearsing either. As you rehearse, mark up your script, underlining words that need to be emphasised or putting slashes where a pause would feel natural.

    • Remember you are selling something. Even a news item is a bit of advertising, except it is selling an idea or story rather than a product. Do not waffle, do not mutter, project and speak evenly and dont rush! Even the top line shock jocks, when you listen to them, are very careful with making sure that they are clear and understandable. You can sound amazingly out of control, without actually speeding up, if you are clever.

    There are loads of things to remember and learn, and it is worth learning it all. A well crafted, well thought out piece, whether it is celebrity gossip, or a Pulitzer winning political piece, will always win over the hastily put together, lazily produced bit of rubbish.

  • Comment number 3.

    There's another reason not to use Facebook, for video at least - beware of onerous copyright terms. Although they still allow you to retain the copyright on images, they grant themselves full rights to distribute and pass, and commercially exploit any of the images you post on facebook, in perpetuity. The same is also true of BBC photo competitions, while Twitter and Flickr still allow you full rights, and strictly limit their own rights. A pro could therefore feel much safer using Twitter and Flickr, for the time being, that is... You are never safe from unlawful piracy though.

  • Comment number 4.

    S/he should also check out Newsvine

    ‘Newsvine is a community-powered, collaborative journalism news website which draws content from its users and syndicated content from mainstream sources such as The Associated Press. Users can write articles, seed links to external content, and discuss news items submitted by both users and professional journalists.’

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm not a big fan of BT, by any means, but are we not missing a trick here? BT FON seems to be everywhere, and as long as you are a customer, you can use it for free.So get an IPod touch and use the wifi wherever you go. It seems to be everywhere and show me a mobile operator who has coverage like this

    My own town is saturated-ok, the rates are not great (512kbps) but judging by the feedback on O2, its up there with 3G data rates? And its free?

  • Comment number 6.

  • Comment number 7.

    Audio recording:

    Probably the best microphone available for the most affordable price, is the Shure SM57 (normally around £80). It has been an industry standard for decades, in both music recording, and broadcasting. It has even been widely used on the podium for presidential speeches. For simply recording speech (as opposed to music) there is no need to get a more expensive mic than this. It is a cardioid, dynamic mic.

    However, the mic is not the only factor in determining sound quality, and without a decent soundcard and pre-amp the benefits of a good mic may be a bit pointless. The extra money you might spend on these might make you reconsider whether its worth the outlay, when sound quality is not the most important factor for citizen journalism.

  • Comment number 8.

    "It's faster but more restrictive than e-mail as you can only send to someone with the same Dropbox account."

    Oh so not true! Dropbox has a feature called shared folders. If you share a given folder in your dropbox with several people with DB accounts, the contents will sync to all of them.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    Although, the citizen journalism will prosper, the overall consequences for professional journalism will not be so prosperous. User-generated video has received much of the hype lately and especially live video (ustream, ... there are a lot of me-too services to choose from). But, when did you last see the the good newsworthy video made by a citizen journalist? They are not easy to find from the sea of viral hoax videos and yellow DIY journalism. All that has happened is that the whole professional video producing scene will cease to exist. In this world it is all about the clicks and visitors. User-generated video will have a same devastating effect as blogs and internet had for press news media. The history will repeat itself - now for the TV news, sadly :(


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