Technology has filled the journalistic toolbox with an array of innovative gadgets that enable journalists to gather and deliver the news with speed and sophistication. But which ones does a multimedia journalist need? It’s an apt question to ponder given the time of year. That way, if family, friends, perhaps even a wise boss, ask, “What do you want for the holidays?” you’ll be prepared.
In the spirit of gift giving, and receiving, I asked three leading multimedia journalists and a college professor who teaches multimedia journalism to build a “holiday wish list for multimedia journalists.” Their admittedly subjective suggestions for hardware and accessories range from the reasonably priced to the wildly extravagant. Note: Prices vary. In this post-Black Friday market, these experts advise hunting for bargains but always stick with reputable sellers. Be sure to read customer reviews.
Smartphone. With still photo and audio/video capability, wireless access and the right mobile apps, a smartphone is the Swiss Army knife for multimedia journalists. Says Sara Ganim, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter who recently joined CNN as a correspondent: “I call my smartphone my mobile newsroom, because it really is essential to how I gather news daily. I can shoot, edit and post video to the Web. I can get photos up almost instantly. I’ve even had people tweet during a press conference, giving me questions they want answered.”
Buyers have lots of choices as wireless providers compete by offering deals for feature-laden models in exchange for usage contracts. Ganim’s pick: the iPhone5. “I’ve had several but none were as fast and efficient.” Price: Without a provider contract, the cost is $649 for the 16-gigabyte model. If you already have wireless service, it can be as low as $199. Another contender is the Android Samsung Galaxy S III, which has a bigger screen than the iPhone. Price: $600 and up. With service contract adding $100 or less.
Computer. Naka Nathaniel, a multimedia journalist who has traveled the world’s hotspots with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, recently updated his gear. His choice: the 13-inch retinal display MacBook Pro. It’s light, quick and ideally suited for editing and producing audio and video stories. Price: $1,700. Macs are not the only option; deals abound for less expensive Window-based personal computers.
Digital camera. For the serious multimedia journalist, these professionals agree on a full-featured Digital Single Lens Reflex camera to capture high quality still photos and video.
Nikon’s D5100 with a variable zoon lens is a good option. Price: $550. But Casey Frechette, who teaches multimedia journalism at the University of South Florida, prefers the entry-level Canon EOS Rebel T3i 18 MP CMOS. Price: $600 for the body and a 18mm-55mm zoom lens.
Video camera. DSLRs may be a replacement in many circumstances, but video cameras remain viable for “run and gun” style shoots, when it’s important to be mobile and constantly reframe and refocus shots in fast-moving environments. Check out the Canon VIXIA HF G10. Price: About $1,100. Or the Sony HDR CX160. Price: $319.
Portable Digital Audio Recorder. Smartphones and digital cameras can capture sound, but a high-quality audio digital audio recorder is “a must-have for the multimedia journalist” to capture voice-overs, interview soundbites and on-location sound, says Frechette. His choice: the Zoom H4N, which features on board mics and jacks for three external mics and can record to four tracks simultaneously and independently.” Price: $250.
iPad. Multimedia journalists who use the iPad prize the device for its versatility and small footprint to conduct live interviews from Times Square to the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. For iPhone lover Ganim, the iPad is the only other device she carries. Google’s Android and the new Windows Surface tablets offer video output and USB ports for greater connectivity, but as New York Times techno-gadget guru David Pogue notes, they are still woefully shy of the iPad’s 275,000 tablets designed apps. IPad Price: $399 for 16-gigabyte model. Note: You’ll need a wireless contract to connect on the road.
Remote Controlled Helicopter Video Camera. For the 1 percenters out there, Mark Briggs, director of digital media at KING5-TV in Seattle, is high on the $8,000 radio and GPS operated HexaKopter XL equipped with a Go Pro Hero 3 video camera for $300. It can fly up to 500 meters high for 22 minutes (demo). “It would be amazing to fly this over protests, parades, sporting events and so much more,” he says. “Journalism is so often about access and this would provide the kind of access we’ve never seen before.”
Headphones. You’ve got to hear what you’re recording to ensure quality. Pick up the Sony MDR-7506. Its closed ear design makes it easy to monitor sound and the fold-up design fits easy into your gear bag. Price: $100.
Tripod. Effective video requires steady hands, especially during interviews. Enter the tripod, the three-legged stand that secures your camera for jiggle-free shots. Look for the Manfrotto 055XPROB Tripod. Price: $115 with mail-in rebate. Or the Canon Deluxe Tripod 300 Tripod. Price: $40.
Monopod. Says Frechette, “Tripods are useful, but they’re bulky. Monopods are a terrific alternative. They’re telescopic and can be used in lots of different positions — anchored to the ground, hoisted above head and anywhere in-between.” He recommends the affordable and sturdy Manfrotto 679B 3 Section Monopod with Head. Price: $60.
Shotgun microphone. Built-in camera mics are usually ill-equipped to capture high-quality sound. Multimedia journalists work around the problem with a shotgun mic attached to even the smallest video cameras. Nathaniel and Frechette suggest the Rode VideoMic Mini Shotgun. Price: $149.
Wired and wireless microphones. Lavalier mics, tucked in a subject’s shirt or lapel, are the best way to capture high-quality interview audio. They plug into your camera or audio recorder and “are affordable, custom made and feature great construction and sound quality,” says Frechette. His choice: Giant Squid Mono Omni Lav. Price: $40. Wireless mics enable the subject to move around and still transmit high-quality sound. Naka Nathaniel likes the Sennheiser EW 100-ENG G2. But it comes at a stiff price: $779.
Lights. Lighting is a critical component of quality video, especially for interviews, but that doesn’t mean you have to lug and set up complicated equipment. LED lights are bright, require little power, don’t heat up and are affordable. The 160 Dimmable LED Camera Light easily mounts to a camera or light stand and the lights can be dimmed, too. Price: $40.
Backpack. Multimedia journalists need something to carry all their gear in. The Lowe Photo Backpack is big and sturdy enough for a DSLR camera, lenses, accessories, even a laptop and a tripod side pocket. Price: $150.
Storage. Taking stunning photos and videos won’t matter if your device runs out of storage space. Nathaniel recently upgraded his stock of 8-gigabyte SD cards with 32 and 64-gigabyte versions. Prices: $20-$75. For larger files and editing on the fly, he relies on 2-terabyte Passport portable hard drives for Mac and PC. Price: $140.
USB 3.0 card reader. If your computer doesn’t feature a card reader, you’ll want one to copy files from your media cards to your computer for display and editing. It’s powered by the USB port on your computer, no batteries needed. Version 3.0 supports the fastest transfer speeds. Price: $16.
Batteries. There’s nothing worse than running out of power at a critical newsgathering moment. Stock plenty of extra batteries as well as a battery charger to keep them primed.
I wish all you multimedia journalists the gift-happiest of holidays. But remember: Your gadgets are essential — and cool — but nothing substitutes for reporting and writing skills, curiosity and tenacity.
“At the end of the day, no gadget can tell you how to report,” says Ganim. “Those things only help make you better and more efficient. The most important tool is your head.”
Chip Scanlan’s new book, “Reporting and Writing: The Complete Guide for Today’s Journalist,” co-authored with Richard Craig, is due out this spring from Oxford University Press.