OCTOBER 11, 2021

Inside the Rise of the Mobile Journalist

mobile journalist edits story on mobile phone

"Phoning it in" traditionally means making a half-hearted effort—but the journalists phoning in stories today aren't doing slipshod work. Instead, they're simply embracing the role of mobile journalist.

In traditional field reporting, a reporter and camera operator team up to shoot interviews, b-roll, and standups on location with heavy, cumbersome gear. Then, they return to the newsroom to write and edit material for broadcast. Mobile journalists, or "mojos," are trained and equipped to tell stories in the field using a phone or tablet. In turn, their work speeds up the publication process, lowers equipment costs, and does more with a leaner team.

While some broadcasters have embraced this emerging model of newsgathering, others have waited, perhaps due to lingering perceptions that mobile journalism couldn't match the quality of traditional reporting and would be complicated to adopt into existing workflows. It took a pandemic and its work-from-home orders to truly open eyes to what's possible.

Take Al Arabiya in Dubai, for example. When COVID-19 forced crews into isolation, they turned to their phones to capture content from the field. Al Arabiya's director of operations, Ruba Ibrahim, praises smartphones for their high-quality video and ease of use.

"Now, more and more, when reporters are asking for a solution to go live, this is what we adopt," she told the Making the Media podcast.

The Power of Smartphones

The modern smartphone is the Swiss Army knife of journalism. Armed with a phone, journalists can capture photos and video, perform light edits, and even stream live from the scene of breaking news—all with a few taps.

Phones are small, light, and unobtrusive, giving field reporters greater mobility and access than ever before. Thanks to the rapid evolution of digital technology, video shot on newer phone models now rivals or in some cases exceeds that of a professional TV camera or DSLR. What's more, there's a wide range of tools for mobile journalism to ensure broadcast-quality audio and good lighting.

While it may be tempting to allow mobile journalists to use their personal phones for newsgathering, a better alternative has broadcasters create station-owned kits equipped with the same make and model of phone and accessories. A consistent set of tools makes for easier training and troubleshooting. Mojos will still pretty much always have their own phones for communication and as a backup in case of technical issues.

The Mobile Journalism Workflow

Mobile journalism is a natural fit for the digital-first workflow that many journalism and broadcasting organizations are already adopting. In a competitive news environment, there's no faster way to break stories in the field than with a phone. Journalists are able to "go live" within minutes, provided they can access a network. They can publish content directly to social media platforms, where today's audiences tend to consume their news first.

"Initially when people started talking mobile journalism, what they were trying to do was just take everything that's done back at the newsroom and make it available to journalists out in the field," said Colleen Smith, vice president of global marketing for Avid, in a TVTech e-book, "The Newsroom of the Future." "But what you really need to do is change the tools and give them just the tools that are necessary."

A robust media workflow platform like MediaCentral is key to merging mobile journalism into the newsroom workflow. With a simple-to-use graphical web interface, it ensures journalists can access tasks, projects, and assets from anywhere, as well as upload raw video for transcoding and editing.

The Mobile Journalism Mindset

Mobile journalism requires a different set of tools, but it also takes a different mindset. Just because reporters are using smaller, less expensive gear doesn't mean the finished product should be of lower quality. Mobile journalists can and should be expected to meet the same high standards—both technically and editorially—as traditional reporting teams.

Speaking on the Making the Media podcast, Philip Bromwell, digital native content editor for Ireland's RTÉ, said that what he's trying to do with his team of mobile journalists "is to sell the idea that it's perfectly possible to produce broadcast-quality content using these everyday mobile devices." He hires for "mobile mindset"—an enthusiasm for experimentation and trying something new and different—first, and skill set second.

While Bromwell notes that the learning curve isn't as steep on a mobile device than it is on a bigger camera, there's still a place for proper training. As with any new tool or workflow, a combination of training and documentation with the resources and time to practice will give reporters the confidence to add mobile journalism skills to their arsenal.

The global COVID-19 pandemic accelerated acceptance of new workflows and new technologies, particularly when it comes to remote collaboration. In an age of shrinking budgets, growing demands for content on multiple platforms, and ongoing advancements in mobile technology, it's a safe bet that the mobile journalist is here to stay.

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  • Cindy Burgess Headshot

    Cindy Burgess is a Toronto journalist, educator, and entrepreneur with more than 25 years of experiences working with video.

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