May 11, 2010

“Hi, I’m Jim. I’m from the Internet.”

That was the moment Jim MacMillan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, veteran of 17 years at the Philadelphia Daily News and former embedded journalist of the war in Iraq, realized the game had changed.

He uttered those words two years ago to a fire chief at a scene in Philadelphia while shooting video and still photos for the Daily News website. Pursuing a Web-first strategy was relatively new for the paper. And that was the confusion, said MacMillan.

“If I barked ‘Daily News,’ it said something about the cultural and social authority [of my presence] and where they could find the pictures the next day,” he said. But explaining that he was shooting video for the Web and pulling video stills for print, and that the video could be found online via a series of clicks on the site, lacked the same efficiency and charm. “Trying to boil down the shorthand in the middle of a crisis is really difficult,” he said.

MacMillan, who is finishing up a year teaching at the University of Missouri J-school, said that moment was emblematic of his transition from a street photographer covering crime in Philadelphia to a “social media” journalist who at last count had more Twitter followers than Katie Couric (but fewer than Steven Colbert).

Adapting to mobile Web journalism

The epiphany took place in April 2008, some months after MacMillan had returned to the Daily News from a fellowship, after which he taught himself video and Web skills. As the paper’s first video journalist, he was working that day with a Sony HD video camera, using still images from the video for the newspaper.

MacMillan shared the despair of many newspaper videographers at the time: The craft was still new enough that few media websites displayed video prominently, which meant a lot of innovative work went unseen. “You couldn’t find my content,” he said. There were “no distributable media players and no RSS feeds” on the Daily News site to help the videos get shared and discussed around the Web.

As much as he was concerned with distribution, the technology of remote electronic newsgathering was also a challenge. MacMillan was working at the time to fit a TV live truck into a backpack so he could stream video directly to the Web from anywhere in town. In 2007 that required a laptop, digital video camera, wireless modem and a fair amount of luck. Now, of course, the live truck fits in his pocket in the form of an iPhone.

The first lesson from the live video experiment was that so-called unlimited mobile data plans really do have limits. The second lesson was that if he wanted to get his Web efforts noticed, a bit of social media promotion couldn’t hurt.

In 2007 MacMillan attended Blog World Expo and had another epiphany. “You are just five minutes behind me,” said one speaker, referring to the time it takes to launch a blog.

MacMillan’s five minutes came shortly after taking a buyout from the Daily News, when he found himself an independent journalist with a new blog, on the way to 78,000 Twitter followers.

Operating outside the umbrella of a news organization

That reality of his new situation struck him when photographing another fire in Philadelphia, this time without a newspaper credential. Using his iPhone, MacMillan covered a Christmastime tragedy in which seven people died.

From that experience he learned two things. A working journalist using a cell phone is difficult to distinguish from any other citizen on the street. “The response of first responders to a shooter with an iPhone is extremely negative,” MacMillan said. Even after 17 years of working in the city, he felt the public safety officials viewed him as a voyeur, not a journalist, because of the equipment he was using.

Secondly, if you are going to publish serious news and photos to your social media accounts, context is important. “Having a big smiling face” as your Twitter or Facebook profile photo “does not juxtapose well with breaking news,” he said.

MacMillan said he has seen others run into this problem as well. After the fire he changed his headshot to one that was “warm and approachable but not smiling like an idiot.”

That’s one of the challenges these days of being a journalist amid rapid social and technological change. “It used to be there was a right way to do things” as a reporter, he said. “Now there is no wrong way,” just lessons not yet learned.

To MacMillan that is one of the secrets to being successful in social media and mobile journalism — making mistakes and learning from them. He worries that the industry is spending too much time “spinning its wheels” in frequent “future of journalism” conferences and not enough time actually trying new things.

“Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everybody has ideas,” he said. “Go do something.”

MacMillan spent the past year doing and teaching converged journalism at the University of Missouri. He continues to play with the latest toys to figure out how they can serve mobile newsgathering.

He is still impressed by some of the technological advances, such as being able to send live video from a cell phone. MacMillan said he recently spotted one of his students playing accordion on the street, took out his phone and fired up the video camera. By the time he walked home, it was already archived in the Qik player and on his blog.

How to be a prepared, mobile journalist

Though these mobile journalism tools look easy to use, preparation is key. MacMillan suggests setting up your gear and testing your workflow with fun projects before the breaking news event hits.

He said it helped that he was a news photographer who was “already obsessive about keeping equipment charged.” The same principle applies to cell phones and Flip cameras; you have to always know where your gear is and what mode it’s in.

To use a smart phone effectively for news coverage, he advises placing all the relevant apps on the first screen and practicing how to stream video instantly. “Shoot all the things that don’t matter just to see what happens.”

MacMillan said he can now broadcast via Ustream with a single keystroke. When he starts broadcasting, it sends a tweet, and when he stops, the app prompts him to upload it to YouTube.

Some of his other discoveries are not quite so high-tech. He recommends carrying a cloth to dry or clean the screen of your mobile device. And to his surprise, the gift of a pair of “iPhone gloves” has been a valuable addition to his toolkit.

Even with a trunk full of mobile gear, the trick is finding the balance between speed and storytelling. “You want the right job done right away,” MacMillan said, but not at the expense of the reporting. “The goal is the best combination of the skilled journalist and the immediate turnaround.” Mastering mobile tools can support that goal.

MacMillan is planning to return to Philadelphia after summer classes to be with his wife, who works for the Associated Press there. He is exploring a concept (and looking for funding) for a local, digital news operation that would be part aggregator, part community organizer.

He has seen how crowdsourced journalism and social networks now do some of the work that used to be handled by professionals. And while a crowd can be everywhere, everyone can’t read everything that’s written, photographed or captured on video from hundreds or thousands of sources.

He wonders if there is a place for editing, verifying and updating that stream of information for a local community. “People feel overwhelmed and don’t know who to trust,” he said.

Still, he will have the challenge of explaining his new job on a business card. “What do you do for a living?” he asks rhetorically. “Where do I start? It depends on the day.”

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