Saturday, July 11, 2009

Of Course No One Was Suprised That A TV Story Was Shot with an IPhone

At the end of June, a producer for a Miami TV station shot an entire story with the new iPhone... and the journalism world went crazy. The TV station wrote a story about it. Tweeters tweeted. And Poynter interviewed the producer in question.

Most telling in the coverage, however, was one assertion, in the TV stations' story about the story. The story itself was about the launch of the new iPhone, and the iPhone-shot story happened by accident. The producer had lined up in the wee hours with hundreds of other Apple fans to get the new phone. A good reporter, it occured to him there was a story there, so he started taking still pics while in line and then started shooting interviews once he got his phone. One thing led to another, and the station said why don't you just do a whole story for us with iPhone footage?

So here's where the telling part comes in. The TV station's story about the story includes the following line: "Oddly enough, not one of these Apple fans found it strange that a television station was shooting video with an iPhone!"

Let's ponder this for a moment. The news world is all abuzz, but the folks on the street think this is perfectly normal. Moreover, the TV station thinks it's odd that the folks on the street don't think it's strange.

You can only draw one conclusion from all this, and it's an important one of the news business: The news industry is behind its audience. And, in being so, most likely holding itself back from finding its way forward.

The reason you don't see more TV news stations shooting with iPhones comes down to quality. A traditional camera obviously delivers much better quality than video-enabled smartphones. But maybe news organizations should ask themselves whether that really matters. Maybe the smartphone video is good enough.

Not that anyone is suggesting TV stations jettision all their professional-grade cameras in all circumstances. Rather, it might be useful if they were to regularly consider for what types of stories and events it might be just fine to use a smartphone or a Flip. And to regularly experiment with how far they can push the boundaries on this question.

What's the point, you might ask. Why bother trying to see how much coverage you can get away with with a smartphone when you have perfectly good professional-grade cameras on hand?

There are a couple reasons:

  • Video-enabled phones are obviously more mobile--and take less expertise to use--than professional cameras. TV stations might discover a range of situations they can access that the couldn't access before, and they might discover they're able to do stories they never could do before. Or simply that they might be able to do more coverage than they were able to do before. In other words, they might discover that, although they sacrifice some degree of quality, they gain more in content. And if viewers don't care about the lower quality or, alternatively, are psyched about the new coverage, that creates growth oppotunities for TV news.

  • Budget. Smartphones are obviously a lot less expensive than professional cameras. Again, no one is suggesting that TV stations completely ditch their professional cameras (and professional shooters), but it might be possible to substituted smartphones for the big equipment in some situations, thereby saving money for cash-strapped news operations or, alternatively, freeing up budget for use elsewhere.

Don't Bother with the Investigative Journalism "Strike Force" Idea

Reports say that the summit of nonprofit news organizations that met at the Rockefeller estate at the beginning of July discussed the idea of setting up an investigative journalism "mobile strike force" that could be deployed anywhere in the country, to pick up the slack on investigative reporting that, by all accounts, is falling by the wayside in these tight-budget days.

It's a lovely idea. But news organizations will actually get a lot farther a lot faster if they invest their energy and ingenuity elsewhere.

It's clear why the idea is compelling: In these days when newspapers are cutting back, when local journalism is suffering, when the scaling back on reporting is "putting democracy in jeopardy," wouldn't it be lovely to have an expert strike team to be able to swoop in and rescue the locals? Yes, it would. But it's neither practical nor, actually, is it ideal.

  • First, ask yourself: Who's going to fund this?

    OK, you might get the Knight Foundation or some other organization to pony up the funds for a novel idea like this for a year or two. But after that? You need a sustainable business model, and right now, I don't see one. Unless you get a coalition of newspapers to fund it. But I imagine that after they did an ROI analysis of the returns they get out of supporting a strike force that, most of the time, will not be doing any journalism in their neck of the woods, those newspapers will decide their money could be better spent elsewhere.

  • Next: ask yourself: Is a group of outsiders really the best team to look into local issues?

    Or, turn this around, ask yourself: How much further ahead could you get if, instead of bringing in outsiders, you figured out how to leverage insiders? Think of the pro-am approach Amanda Michel is spearheading at ProPublica and that Robert Rosenthal has talked about doing on the Center for Investigative Reporting's California project. Instead of looking back to the old days, when communities relied on hotshot investigative reporters to break open corruption and wrongdoing, news organizations should be looking to the more recent model of crowdsourced reporting--of the kind Talking Points Memo did in uncovering the U.S. Attorneys scandal--and figure out how to leverage the informed and motivated people within their own communities to bring issues to light that need to be brought to light.

The value that experienced investigative reporters bring is their understanding of how to do investigative reporting. But most of the hour-by-hour work they--placing requests for documents and sifting through them--is work any reasonably intelligent person could do. So, just as accountants can now outsource low level accounting tasks to India so that U.S. accountants can focus on higher-level tasks, we don't need investigative reporters to do the whole soup-to-nuts part of investigations anymore. Yes, we need their expertise in the form of guidance or mentoring. But much of the work can be done by motivated readers.

Instead of spending a lot of time dreaming about some fantasy team of super-reporters to rescue them, news organizations should start rescusing themselves: By investing in developing pro-am methods of gathering and interpreting the news.