August 18, 2010

As consumers migrate from the desktop Web and toward mobile apps and devices, media organizations are rushing to figure out what these new tools mean for their operations.

The Seattle Times has been experimenting with a variety of tools, including Twitter and Qik, to enhance its mobile news gathering and distribution. Those tools were a key part of the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the slayings of four police officers and the ensuing two-day manhunt for the suspect.

The Pulitzer citation specifically notes the Times’ “special emphasis on the speed and accuracy of the initial coverage” of the shooting in November 2009.

In this edited e-mail interview, Tiffany Campbell, a six-year veteran of the paper and a lead producer for, shares some of their successes and discoveries. Campbell also recently presented some of these findings at the Asian American Journalists Association conference in Los Angeles.

This is the first in a series of occasional Q&A’s with journalists around the country working on mobile projects. If you’re practicing mobile journalism and want to share your successes and challenges, let me know.

Damon Kiesow: What is your general mobile strategy?

Tiffany Campbell: We use Twitter as a content creation platform, and people all across the newsroom have Twitter accounts: reporters, photographers, bloggers, producers.

Twitter is also, of course, used as a distribution tool. We have several Seattle Times-branded Twitter feeds that push our stories and other content out to both general and niche audiences.

On the hardware side of the equation, we are really starting to focus on smart phones as a primary production platform for covering live events, particularly when streaming video or social media updates are called for.

What are a few of the successes you have had with mobile so far?

Campbell: We’ve been experimenting with mobile for about the last year, as soon as the iPhone 3Gs came out and was capable of capturing and streaming video.

We’ve seen three big areas of success: live events or press conferences; the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.; and breaking news, specifically the killing of four police officers and subsequent manhunt for the killer in the fall of 2009.

Four officers slain

During the coverage of the Lakewood, Wash., slayings, we used Twitter as a critical platform not just to report news updates in real time, but also to talk to and track what community members were saying. Using hashtags like #washooting, we were able to become a town square and clearing house for tips, updates and conversation.

With our reporters, photographers and producers dispatched across the region, we were able to publish real-time updates from the scene. One photographer spent most of the night camped out on a resident’s deck with a view of a house under siege by the police, tweeting updates throughout. It allowed for a merging of mobile reporting and community conversation.

We also made use of video apps like Ustream, Qik and Twitvid to stream live video. Whether it was 2 a.m. police press briefings or the neighborhood scene after the suspect was shot and killed, we were able to go live at a moment’s notice.

2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.

Beyond the sports coverage, the Web team wanted to provide coverage from a ground level, to try and capture a bit of the flavor and what it’s like to attend an Olympics. We used blogs, stories and video to tell the stories, but our phones became the critical production tool for producers on the ground, feeding the Olympic Outsiders blog.

Using smart phones as a major production platform allowed us to travel light, capture moments in real time and build on the audience we started cultivating before we left Seattle (via the blog and specific questions we posed to our local users). For example, I used Twitter and Twitpic to cover a public taping of The Colbert Report in a park, and I was contacted by many Seattle residents on Twitter who were tweeting from the same location.

We used Twitter and Twitvid to cover street protests. And we used our camera phone, Picasa and Google Maps to map photos and update our blog in real time, live, without ever stopping to file.

Some highlights of what we learned

Streaming live video is an extraordinarily powerful way to get information out during breaking news. It’s immediate, tangible and simple with a smart phone.

By using Twitter as a mobile platform, we were able to give real-time updates and maintain users’ interest in an event. We found the more we pushed out, the more our audience would grow. Critically, we didn’t stay with just the Twitter community — we used Twitter widgets on our blog pages and other pages so that general users not following us on Twitter could still see our content. We also tried to wrap up this coverage in blog posts later, so that our general audience could access everything.

On a practical note, we learned that nothing is more important than battery life. We struggled with being in the field and not able to recharge. Fortunately, there are now many accessories to extend battery life with the phones.

Which mobile tools are you using that have had the biggest impact?

Campbell: By far, Ustream and Qik‘s mobile apps have had the biggest effect on how we approach video production and live production. This ability to stream a news conference live, rather than film it, edit and publish it hours later, has meant we have the power of a TV satellite truck in the form of an iPhone.

We can go live from anywhere and I think we’re only beginning to recognize what that could mean. Imagine natural disasters or other events, unfolding in real time. The technology has become so relatively cheap and simple to use that it’s giving a lot of power to all kinds of journalists and their audience. It’s also just the proximity factor: Because the phone is always on you, you’re more likely to use it.

On an equipment note, the accessories being developed for the phone are nothing short of astounding. Not just battery chargers, but external microphones, wide-angle lenses, tripod mounts and more that make it possible to boost the video camera in the phone to the level of professional video equipment. Combine that with the possibilities of constant connection to the Internet, and the phone becomes an even more powerful reporting tool.

How has your audience responded to these efforts?

Campbell: I’m afraid I’m not able to release specific metrics. What I can tell you is that we always see a spike in traffic when we are live, whether we’re live tweeting or pushing out a live video stream. We’ve also seen an increase in followers on whichever account we’re live from, which gives us a sense that people are engaging.

When we promote live events on our homepage, it’s typical that viewers will increase over the time we’re live. For example, we might start out with small number that steadily climbs over the course of the event. Content still dictates the traffic, however. A police briefing is only as interesting as whatever they are talking about, whether it’s live video or not.

Any suggestions for other newsroom just getting started with mobile?

Campbell: Make choices about what to cover, and target what works best for mobile — particularly events unfolding in real time. Consider pooling your equipment so you can experiment with what works best for your newsroom without having to outfit everyone with their own kit.

Consider integrating your live video with your newsroom’s video CMS or the professional-level accounts on sites like Ustream, Livestream and Justin.TV, which will allow you to serve ads on your streams and possibly monetize your video content.

How has the Times prepared its journalists to use these tools?

Campbell: We’re experimenting with journalists in the newsroom who have these devices. We try to approach emerging stories organically, taking each on a case-by-case basis, and we learn a great deal that way.

Generally, I think the questions emerging now surround the ethics of real-time journalism. Now that it’s simple to go live, it’s more of a question of when, not how.

How would you describe the importance of mobile?

Campbell: For me, this idea of a newsgathering tool that is constantly connected online has transformed the way I approach stories as a journalist. New possibilities are opening up as fast as the technology develops.

But beyond that, I suspect the way the audience interacts with their devices is the most critical change we’re seeing: Not only are they viewing content on their phones, iPads and laptops, but they are able to contribute, comment and participate in almost real-time. I suspect that soon, the norm will be an audience that accesses news content from a mobile device as users continue to migrate away from desktop computers.

What questions do you have for other newsrooms working with mobile?

Campbell: I would be very interested in hearing other how journalists in other newsrooms are changing their approach (if at all) taking mobile into account. Are they changing any of their formats to work better with mobile, and if so, how? Are they changing how they dispatch their reporters into the field? Are they changing their expectations of photographers/videographers?

Also, what are the ethical implications of going to live video at any moment? How do you prepare journalists on deciding not just how but when to go to live video?

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