RJI project tests and rates mobile journalism tools, from apps to hardware

The mobile landscape is changing fast, says Will Sullivan, and journalists need help keeping up.

Figuring out which apps to use can be a challenge, not to mention picking a phone. Aside from deciding between two iPhones (Verizon or AT&T) there are also dozens of Android models across multiple wireless carriers.

This environment demands that editors and managers become more informed and able to respond more quickly to new mobile technologies.

From his time as the interactive director of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sullivan understands the challenges of mobile reporting first-hand. He spent part of last summer visiting other newspapers in the Lee Enterprises chain and training staffers on mobile tools.

While working with those newsrooms, Sullivan said, he could not find a good, one-stop resource for journalists focused on mobile gear and apps. So when he became a fellow at the University of Missouri’s Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute last fall, his first project was to create that resource: the Mobile Journalism Reporting Tools Guide, which officially was launched in December.

Sullivan talked to me about the blog and the focus of his fellowship, the journalistic use of mobile tools.

Sullivan and a small group of student reviewers have so far tested and reviewed more than 75 apps, accessories and Web services -- everything from audio editing tools to batteries to tripods. Each review includes the price, a rating and a short description focused on potential newsroom uses.

For instance, Andrew Dumas road tested the Blue Mikey external iPhone microphone, giving it a "recommended" rating:

"In a quiet room, this thing sounds clear as crystal. It's light, it's small, it's fairly durable, you're not going to break it by storing it in a pocket while you travel.”

Addressing the variety of photo editing apps available for the iPhone, Jennifer Elston picked Photogene as her favorite, writing:

“It is very simple, yet effective. It does everything that you would want to do to edit your photos in a journalistic function and then some."

And testing out portable keyboards, Amanda Heisey found that the foldable Freedom Pro was not perfect, but it did beat trying to type on an iPhone or Android’s touch screen:

“The keyboard is a little cramped because of the folding, so it does take a little getting used to. It's not a big problem, but it is annoying at first."

Sullivan said he hopes the site, which has also been converted into a downloadable PDF, will be a useful guide for the industry.

Of course, identifying the tools is only the first step. The best way for journalists to learn is to actually use mobile devices in their reporting, he said. To do that, editors must get mobile technology into their newsrooms.

Journalists are "more engaged when they have [a smart phone] as their personal device,” Sullivan said. “Even if it is just a select few people – maybe the photographers or breaking news reporters" to start.

Looking ahead, Sullivan just returned from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which he described as a “cornucopia” of Android tablets. Among the devices he's watching this year are the newly announced Motorola Xoom tablet as well as the Motorola Atrix 4G smart phone.

A key part of making the guide relevant for newsrooms is identifying tools that not only function well, but fit specific job descriptions, Sullivan said. So this semester, reviewers will address the question, “Who would this tool be ideal for?” The answer is changing rapidly as smart phones and tablets evolve.

Reflecting on the devices he saw at CES, Sullivan said, “It was really amazing to see a demo and wrap your head around how these mobile phone devices are powerful enough to work as a desktop computer replacement, multimedia media center, as well as a mobile phone.”


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