Ray Meese might describe himself as an early adopter. That’s the polite name for someone who would stand in line at 4 a.m. to get his hands on the Apple iPhone 3GS when it was first released last year.
But Meese, the Visuals Editor at the Ventura County Star in California, is also a traditionalist. For him, storytelling is the job and the iPhone is a tool, one that the staff in Ventura has recently been using for innovative breaking news coverage.
The paper this year purchased six iPhone 3Gs for the staff and trained much of the newsroom in basic video and audio capture, editing and transmission. Meese said the best approach to making this work is simply to lead by example. “Just go out and do it. If you do that one or two times people see the result and see (the video) on the website 30 minutes after the event happens.” That’s what gets people to buy-in to the concept, he says.
It wasn’t until he spoke at an Online News Association seminar in Nashville recently that he realized the paper was breaking new ground in mobile news gathering. “Once I started talking and realized what other people were doing,” he said he discovered Ventura’s approach “was more cutting edge than I gave it credit for.”
The Star sees the iPhone as being built for breaking news and Meese continually stresses that it is not meant to replace a real video camera. “If you want the video on your site immediately,” the iPhone is the right tool for the job. But if the story does not require immediate publication, the phone “has limited capabilities” that make using a real video kit preferable.
Those limitations, he said, include low resolution video, a single focal length built-in lens, no external microphone and a battery that tends to suffer greatly when transmitting large video files back to the office.
All of those limits can be mitigated, though, and that “good enough” approach is the secret to mobile journalism success. Meese and the Ventura County Star staff have developed a very usable kit of iPhone accessories and software that allow them to produce Web-quality video packages from the field without a laptop.
The primary obstacle to going mobile is connectivity, according to Meese. The benefit to using an iPhone for newsgathering is the built-in Internet access. Without a 3G or WiFi connection you might as well be carrying a regular video camera.
Meese said the 3G coverage in their area is spotty due to the mountains, “but we have not had a major problem with it yet.” As a back-up, the staff keeps track of the best free WiFi locations in town.
A close second in terms of challenges he says is battery power. For this, Meese uses two different battery boosters: the Mophie Juice Pack Air, which looks like a thick iPhone case; and the Griffin PowerBlock Reserve, which plugs in to the bottom of your phone to recharge your internal battery.
The advantage to the PowerBlock unit, Meese says, is that it fits on the phone even when you are using the next item in the kit: the Owle Bubo.
Once you get past the name, the Owle Bubo is simply a two pound aluminum iPhone case that includes four spots to attach a tripod, an external microphone, a cold shoe for an LED light or other accessories and an interchangeable lens.
Meese recommends that if you just want a way to stabilize the camera when shooting video, a suitable, and cheaper, choice may be the $30 XShot case which has a built-in tripod adapter.
Of course, all the captured audio and video in the world won’t help without a way to edit and transmit. Meese has a couple of favorite apps identified through trial and error.
For photo editing “the best still image app I have found is PhotoGene,” said Meese. “It has levels to adjust color channels individually in RGB mode,” giving desktop-like control over color balancing. The $1.99 iPhone app also includes the basics, such as cropping and sharpening.
When it comes to video, the paper relies largely on the iMovie-like ReelDirector editor. The $3.99 app lets you add video clips, trim and stitch sequences together, and add basic transitions and credits. Another favorite is iTimeLapse, which Meese used for a New Year’s Day feature at the beach.
The last hurdle for mobile journalists is getting content back to the office or onto the Web. Meese prefers Pixelpipe, an app that lets staffers transmit photos or video via an e-mail address. He says the transfer times can be horrible over a 3G connection due to the size of the video files. But it is their default transmission method “because it does not compress the video at all.” Unfortunately the app has been temporarily pulled from the iTunes store but the developer expects it back soon.
Meese admits that once you hang $200 worth of cases, tripods adapters and lenses off the iPhone, some of the “mobile” in mobile journalism is lost. But he doesn’t expect that to be a long-term problem. “The (new) phones are coming out with higher resolution cameras, the video quality is getting better, the mobile carriers are coming up with faster and faster networks.”
Eventually, if not sooner, he says, it is feasible that a smart phone will be able to replace your still camera, video camera and audio recorder.
Meese and other mobile journalism innovators will be featured in a News University Webinar on June 17, “Tools for Mobile Journalists.” The session will focus on mobile gear, software and best practices for mobile journalism.