One of the problems with mobile phones is that they’re so ubiquitous. Oddly, that’s one of the advantages, too. But if you’re trying to convert your newsroom into a group of gatherers, the ubiquity of the phone presents a problem on both the management side and on the reporter side.
The crux of the problem is summarized in this verbatim account of a conversation I had with a reporter after seeing shaky mobile video taken up an interview subject’s nose:
Me: A monopod would have really helped stabilize that shot.
Reporter: They told me, “Just get some video.”
“Just get some video” is a problem for reporters who have to get it, particularly print reporters who may not understand how to translate that. It’s a problem for managers, especially print managers, who may not understand that it takes more than a mobile phone in someone’s hand to make quality video.
Some newsrooms have made significant investments in videography resources. Others haven’t, but still want video, because that’s what readers say they want and the advertising department wants to sell pre-roll ads. Even newsrooms that have made an investment in videography have a vested interest in teaching all reporters how to produce quality mobile journalism: the phone functions as a force multiplier in breaking news situations.
Bringing mobile journalism into a newsroom that doesn’t have much training in it is tough. Here are some tips I’ve found while rolling out mobile journalism to newsrooms:
1. Instill a culture of quality
We’ll file this under “Easy to say but harder to do,” but it’s essential. I can think of one newspaper that gave a sports reporter a smartphone and said, “Go make video of your interview.” The sound of a blower could be heard in the interview’s background, making it almost impossible to hear the interview. But the video made it on the website.
I asked the paper’s editor about this. He said, “It was a value-added piece and good enough for the Web.”
“Would you knowingly run a piece with garbled quotes in a print story,” I asked back.
And there was silence.
Just because something is in a different medium than what we’re used to working in doesn’t mean we should give it short shrift. Can something for the Web have a different quality than a piece on the 6 p.m. news? Yes. But it shouldn’t be a piece of crap. And too often we’re seeing pieces of crap. Outlets need to be paying attention to the bare minimums that convey that we care about what we’re producing. For online video, that means sound quality and stability.
2. Explain what “quality” means
There’s a sliding scale for quality in mobile journalism. Consider footage taken on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in the midst of a tear-gas barrage. We can excuse the shakiness and the yelling in the background. Interview with a legislator? It should be stable and understandable.
Employees need to understand that. Managers need to communicate that expectation, complete with examples (and training and equipment, but more on that in a minute).
Here’s a quick checklist:
- Is the camera or the interview subject moving?
- Are the subject’s facial features definable, or was it shot into a bright light source so the interview subject is a silhouette or close to it?
- Is the audio understandable? Is the voice – the most important part of the interview — the most prominent sound?
Hit those three things every time and I guarantee better quality video.
3. Invest in simple equipment that will make every piece better
If mobile is a top-down initiative the top needs to make a modest investment to get better quality. How modest? That depends on what you want to do. A $1,500 investment will get you professional quality audio and stability and excellent video. A $100 investment will get you stability and better-than-usual video.
Here’s the bare minimum:
- Monopod with feet. For $76, this will help stabilize video. A tripod is better, and those start at $100.
- Grip-connector for the mobile phone. Your phone lacks the right connector to attach directly to the tripod, so you’ll need one of these. There’s a bunch of them out there, so here’s a link to the one I like for $19.95. Here’s another one that a lot of people like since it can be used as a tripod mount or a handle. It’s $35.
In review: $86 takes care of stability, the No. 1 reason video looks unprofessional.
There are a number of things you can do for audio, but the price gets up there quickly and the pieces can get unwieldy. iRig just released a pretty good solution, a $100 microphone that connects into an iOS device’s Lightning dock connector. If you go further than that, you’re moving into a two-piece set: a microphone and a pre-amp to power it (here’s a $100 version of the other pre-amp that’s built better). That adds a minimum of $80 to the equation.
If you use the $100 audio solution, you’ve now solved or come close to solving the two biggest problems with mobile video for less than $300.
4. Give your staff the right apps
Equipment’s helpful to get better quality in some ways. But relying on the native camera and video apps on any phone isn’t a good idea. Third-party developers are out there pushing the edge on stuff and creating some really good products. The $7.99 FiLMiC Pro is my – and pretty much everybody in mobile journalism – go-to video app. It allows you to expose separately from where you’re focusing, and set shutter speeds and frame rates. The latest release allows you to do post-production color grading within the app. Using Android? The $3.95 Cinema FV 5 has pretty much the same functionality as FiLMiC Pro: separate exposures and the ability to finely tune settings.
5. Teach the staff where the equipment works best
Half the battle in getting good mobile video is knowing when and where to gather it. Mobile equipment isn’t as flexible as dedicated equipment, and there are limitations. Phone video works best in well-lit situations. Gathering audio works best when there’s relatively little space between the phone and the audio being gathered and when there’s not a lot of distinct background sounds.
Teaching a staff some visual basics like framing a shot (or conversely, what not to have in a shot), not to use the zoom function and how to hold the smartphone for maximum effect goes a long way.
All this stuff seems stupid and basic. But most of the good stuff usually is.