Many journalists know what it’s like to have a source freeze when you pull out a microphone or start recording them on camera. What were once colorful anecdotes can quickly turn into stilted monologues.
Now that the quality of mobile and tablet devices is so advanced, however, reporters are finding new ways to use them — and lower the barriers between themselves and their sources.
My first experience of iPad reporting was illuminating. A few days after the first generation device came out in 2010, I tried using it on a New York City subway. I wanted to do something simple like read a news app, but each time I tried, the person sitting next to me asked if she could touch the screen.
Even standing up, I’d get curious stares from around the carriage and I would put the device away. It was the first week of its much-hyped release after all, but I was feeling more self-conscious than the people on the street with a video camera in their face.
I decided to embrace the feeling for a radio story. My first piece about the iPad was a look at why it was drawing so much attention. I took the device to Washington Square Park in downtown Manhattan and brandished it without reserve. Dozens of people stopped me to ask for a look, and I interviewed them all with the iPad’s voice recorder. The story’s headline was apt: Can the iPad Get You a Date? (It turns out, it can.)
More than a year — and another iPad generation later — the device is far more ubiquitous. Now that more people are using smartphones and tablets, sources are less likely to freeze up when you pull out a device they’re used to seeing.
I’ve found mobile devices to be especially effective for on-the-street interviews. When New York City brought in a new system of letter grades for restaurant health inspections last year, the WNYC newsroom asked me to get reaction from New Yorkers. Using my iPad, I asked people on the street where they liked to eat and then looked up the restaurant’s inspection report online. I was able to capture their reactions when they heard the details — things like evidence of live vermin at their favorite restaurants. It was tape I could not have gotten in the moment without an iPad.
I used it in a similar way for a story about surveillance cameras in New York. It was after the attempted bombing of Times Square last year, when there was a focus on the street cameras that captured a man police were looking for. With the iPad, I interviewed people below government traffic cameras and then showed them live images from those cameras on the iPad to get their reaction.
Richard Gutjahr, a Germany-based TV, print and radio journalist, has also used mobile devices to enhance his reporting.
“I was in Tahrir Square in Egypt when the revolution broke out and they stole my camera at the checkpoint when I tried to enter Cairo,” Gutjahr told me via Skype.
He didn’t argue when they took the broadcast equipment, fearing they would also take his iPhone and Macbook Air. When he got to the square, he used his phone as a hot spot on the only working cellular data network available. (The government had shut down the Internet). He took pictures with his iPhone and filed stories with his Air. Far from limiting his abilities, he says it helped.
“I didn’t have fancy equipment or a camera crew with me,” Gutjahr said. “I was just sitting in front of the protesters, who also had their gadgets. It was the perfect camouflage.”
Gutjahr said he noticed that standard TV cameras would attract raucous crowds that overshadowed the peaceful singing and quiet protests happening away from the cameras. The benefits of blending in were so great that he says he now prefers to leave his camera crew behind whenever possible. While reporting, Gutjahr uses apps like Ustream, Audioboo, Tweetdeck for iPhone, Camera+ and iMovie.
Reporter Neal Augenstein got attention earlier this year for being one of the first radio reporters to ditch his broadcast gear entirely for an iPhone and iPad. He said he can do his job as a reporter at Washington D.C.’s commercial all-news station, WTOP, just as well without it.
“After it’s gone through production [and] played on the air, my sense is it’s the same as audio recorded by anyone else,” Augenstein told me via Skype.
Augenstein uses his iPhone to record interviews using the built-in microphone. When he’s at a press conference, he uses his iPad to take notes with the phone at the podium. The devices, he said, have changed his entire workflow. He now begins a story with a tweet, takes photos and videos for the Web, and then files a radio report. Before Augenstein made the switch, he wasn’t even using social media. He uses a series of apps in his reporting, including 1st Video by Vericorder, Twitter, Ustream, Skype and Camera+.
Like any profession, the quality of the journalism depends more on the journalist than on the tools. But if the tools let you capture stories you wouldn’t otherwise get and expose you to platforms you wouldn’t ordinarily go to, they can greatly improve the quality of the stories you tell.
Have you used an iPhone, iPad or other mobile device to help your reporting? If so, what apps would you recommend?