Even pre-pandemic, the mobile journalist movement was on the rise, but the pandemic has demonstrated the strength of this model in a way no one could have anticipated.
In this episode, we ask: How has the mobile journalism model evolved and gained a foothold in traditional broadcast organizations? How have the events of 2020 changed the conversation around mobile journalism, and where do we go from here?
Listen to Hear:
- How advances in mobile technology have changed the game for mobile journalists
- What makes a great mobile journalist
- How the pressures of the pandemic have demonstrated the value of mobile journalism
Our Guest This Episode
Philip Bromwell, a pioneer of mobile journalism, is the Digital Native Content Editor at RTÉ, Ireland’s national public service broadcaster. In over two decades as a journalist, he has reported on a wealth of stories at home and abroad, including covering the Olympics, the Oscars, the refugee crisis, and a rare assignment in Tibet. At RTÉ, Philip leads a team of mobile journalists creating original “digital-first” stories on mobile devices for audiences that are increasingly consuming content on their phones.
One of the things enthusiasts about mobile journalism say is if you are using your phone just to do Facebook and answer emails and telephone calls, it's really like driving a Ferrari in first gear.
Philip Bromwell, Digital Native Content Editor, RTÉ
Mentioned in This Episode
Tools for Mobile Journalism: Breaking Broadcast News from the Scene
Mobile technology provides some of the best tools for journalists to break broadcast news and share buzzworthy video quickly.
The Evolving Role of the Broadcast Journalist
The role of the broadcast journalist has become increasingly complex as digital-first directives—and now COVID-19—transform the broadcast workflow.
Craig Wilson: Hi, I’m Craig Wilson, your host for the Making the Media podcast. Thanks so much for joining me for the latest episode in our season. This time, we’re talking mobile journalism with Philip Bromwell, Digital Native Content Editor at RTÉ in Ireland.
As phones and their cameras have become more powerful, so their use in the editorial world has steadily increased. But there’s a huge difference between user-generated content and crafting quality stories. With Philip we discussed the mindset needed to make mobile a success, the techniques he deploys, and the longer-term impacts of the events of the past year, but I began by asking him about his current role and background in journalism.
Philip Bromwell: I'm currently leading a small team of mobile journalists. These are guys who essentially shoot and edit news stories for all platforms on mobile devices. My actual background, first and foremost, is as a journalist at the BBC, before I moved to Ireland in 2005 to join RTÉ. Very early in my career as a journalist, I learned to shoot to film and then I learned to edit. So for much of my career, I was essentially a one-man band video journalist, shooting and editing my own stories both for the BBC and for RTÉ.
First and foremost I see myself as a storyteller. I've managed to become a fairly technically efficient storyteller. The last thing I'd confess to being is a sort of technology geek, but I can get bits of kit to work for me to tell the stories that I want to tell and right now, as I said, the kits that I use are on mobile devices. But throughout my career I've used various cameras. I’ve used various bits of editing software, but nowadays, it's all pretty much done on mobile.
CW: How has that technology evolved since you first started? Because I think there was a sense, when the concept first came out, of a robo-journalist where you had relatively large bits of kit that you had to carry around, which is very different to the kind of kit that you can use now.
PB: Most of my career I was using kind of medium-size or small ENG-type cameras, and always editing either on desktop or on a laptop. And about five or six years ago a former colleague of mine are RTÉ, who was exploring the potential of mobile, sort of gently persuaded me to give it a go. And what I did purely and simply was I just one day had a story where I just decided to give it a go, shooting on my phone, as opposed to my bigger camera, and at the time I suppose all I did was apply everything I knew about filming with other cameras to filming with this obviously much smaller camera which looked like a phone (because it was a phone) and just applied all that knowledge and just shot the story. And to be honest we broadcast that story on television. No one really questioned at the time what the camera was. I mean, obviously in television use, the quality threshold—it's not like we're shooting high-end documentaries, so there is perhaps a more forgiving space. But no one questioned at the time, and I suppose that was a bit of an eye-opener for me to show what could be done.
As this has become more of a thing, suddenly the accessories have increased around it, the technology is improved, the workflows have been refined and to the point where even at this stage of my career where I've kind of been in journalism now for more than 20 or 20-odd years, while I haven't resigned my big camera and my, sort of, conventional editing setup, it's still there in the background, but it's not what I use most of the time, which is almost exclusively mobile devices.
Yes, there's still a curiosity. People always say, you know, “Can you really film that on your phone?” But then most people don't really realize that their phone nowadays can film, you know—phones have been able to film in HD for years. My phone films in 4K! You know, my colleagues who using bigger sort of ENG cameras resent not filming in 4K.
I can do an awful lot with my phone. And one of the things enthusiasts about mobile journalism always say is if you are using your phone just to do Facebook and answer emails and telephone calls, it's really like driving a Ferrari in first gear. A bit of application, you can move through the gears, and really start to explore what you can do with your phone because there's a hell of a lot of technology loaded into these everyday devices—most of which, people only use a fraction of. I suppose what we're doing is really sort of pushing what you can do with the phone.
CW: I want to ask a few questions about the team that you have there, Philip. When people join the team or you're looking to hire people for the team, are you looking for people with a particular skill set or you looking for people with a particular mindset about how they want to deliver the news?
PB: I think the interesting thing about mobile journalism is that it's not that hard to acquire the skill set. Because it's a lot easier, I think, for me to teach a person how to film something on a mobile device than it is on a bigger camera, for example. I just think it's an easier get for the person. And I think what you're looking for is an enthusiasm for learning the technology. And to some degree—although I said to you before that when I started filming on mobile, I just really applied everything that I knew about filming on other cameras. But Interestingly, most of the people on the team now, they've never filmed with a bigger camera, so they don't come with that. So really their first experience of filming with any camera is with filming with the phone. And perhaps that's going to become increasingly the model going forwards, I suppose.
So what we're looking for is not so much that they come fully tooled up—although that would be great as well—it's more about the appetite for using the technology and kind of getting the philosophy behind it and the willingness to give it ago—they’re important. So, I suppose, in that respect, that mindset is important. And people often say the very phrase “mobile journalism"—What does mobile journalism mean? Does the mobile refer to the fact that it's all being done on mobile or does the mobile refer to perhaps something broader, the idea that it's just a different way of doing journalism? And I think it's a mix of both. It's inevitably because we are using mobile devices, but you can't really use them successfully unless you have that kind of mobile mindset, that willingness to give it a go and to show what's possible.
Because in my newsroom, for example, obviously, we're in the fortunate position that people can film with camera operators if they want to, they can film with bigger cameras if they want to. Nobody is making anyone do this, so there has to be a willingness, I suppose, to give it a go. And I suppose what I'm trying to do with my team is to sell the idea that it's perfectly possible to produce broadcast-quality content using these everyday mobile devices—iPhones in our case.
There's lots of opportunities to tell the kind of stories that we're not telling already, and we know we need to start reaching parts of the audience that we're not reaching already, and I think I'm looking for that sort of level of enthusiasm, that willingness to embrace the technology, to show that it's not about thinking about the weaknesses or the restrictions of using the technology—it's about really exploring the opportunities and the possibilities.
For me, it's not about saying, “Just use iPhones and consign everything else to the bin.” It's really about saying, “Why not have a mixed economy where all sorts of devices are in play, where you have the flexibility of thought and the flexibility of skill sets to use those to achieve the ends that you need to achieve?"
To go back to your original question, that mobile mindset is so important there and without it, if I gave someone the latest iPhone 12, unless they have that sort of flexibility of thought and that willingness to give it a go, unless they have the idea as to what the story might look like, then it doesn't really matter what the technology is unless you have those kind of key strengths and creativity and imagination and determination and enthusiasm to give things a go.
So what I'm looking for in my team, regardless of how we get the stories—it's ideas, it's imagination, it's trying to do things differently, it’s a willingness to give things a go.
CW: It’s obviously wider than RTÉ, is the mojo movement. I mean, I follow yourself and lots of other people on Twitter and other mediums where people you know, talk and discuss these things. Do you think it's a movement that's continuing to grow? And do you think this is this is perhaps the future of how journalism is going to be delivered in the future?
PB: It's growing. I've seen it grow within an organization like many other public service broadcasters where, just because of the nature of the organization and the responsibilities of the organization, change doesn't happen overnight. We have huge responsibilities day in and day out. But what I have seen within the RTÉ situation is it's gone from an idea and an experiment to very much a definite part of our offering. So it has grown. It has evolved. I have to be honest, it's still only a fragment of what we do as an organization, but we have a foothold and that's important. It's not a case of saying, “This this is the future,” but it's definitely part of the future. It's not just part of the future, it's part of the present. I mean, it's happening. It’s there.
I think what happens next, probably inevitably, will be dictated by, again, those key drivers which I keep referring to: the audience and what technology does. I tend to look at things through—because I work for a big news organization, you know, we're never going to simply just swap over to mobile. I don’t think we are, anyway to mobile journalism, that's never going to happen. But if you and I were to decide tomorrow that we're setting up a newsroom I don't think, even though that we are coming—Why don't we do this, Craig? Why don't we set up a newsroom!—But you know, we probably wouldn't build it along the lines of what most newsrooms are built, because most newsrooms were built along a previous model and they've had to sort of evolve themselves, I think. If we were building that newsroom from scratch tomorrow, the chances are that we’d be even more reliant on a mobile journalism workflow.
CW: A couple of final questions I wanted to ask about—specifically about this year and how you think that this year, perhaps, is impacted on mobile journalism. You can't work in teams that perhaps you’ve been able to do before, so the fact that as a mobile journalist, you are that sort of self-contained entity that can go out and do stuff has actually offered—and perhaps accelerated—some people's view and adoption of different types of workflows. That's certainly something we've seen in other areas is something that, had you said to people maybe a year ago they would work in the way that they're working now, a) they probably wouldn't have believed you and b) probably wouldn't have accepted it, whereas now that perhaps people are more willing to adapt and adopt different types of working practices—and I'm wondering if you've seen the same kind of thing with people’s, perhaps, acceptance of the way that mobile journalism is done.
PB: Yeah, I think we've seen there are a few lessons hopefully to take from this whole experience. The first was that when we had to do that very quick pivot, when we all as a team went to remote, certainly I think for my team the mobile setup was very easy to transition to remote working because essentially we were mobile before we needed to be mobile. Basically we were then really lucky that there was obviously one huge story to tell. Arguably the biggest story any of us are ever going to work on in our careers. And in terms of the story itself, I think for a long long time and still prevailing today is the idea that there has only been one story in town, and broadly speaking, it's either being the really bad news, or the really good news. Or rather, the really positive human response to the bad news basically. And fortunately, while we have done some of the bad news, a lot of what we have done is looked at that sort of human response to it. So we were able to, I suppose, get going providing content in that space right from the start because humans started responding right from the start. So there were stories there straightaway.
I think, obviously, like anyone else who's working, when we're in the field, we've had to adapt how we work. You know, well, this is respecting social distancing. We've had to make certain sort of accommodations for the kit that we use, and that's all being—but again, mobile journalism was about improvisation before any of this started. I mean, you know the ability to improvise and willingness to improvise was important before we got into a pandemic.
The other thing we saw, and this is again working remotely, I would have, to this day, get plenty of my colleagues who again I haven't seen, but they're asking me, “So how do I do that on my phone?” Because suddenly their workflow has slightly changed. Or perhaps they’re working under a slightly different way. Maybe they don't have access to a crew. So increasingly, we have seen from my colleagues who are—perhaps they're never going to be mobile journalists—but they definitely have seen a need to acquire mobile journalism skills because again, the pandemic has changed the way the newsroom works. It's changed, you know, even the volume of content that we have. It's been relentless. There's been no let up in all of this.
As a team leader you have to be appreciative of what the rest of the team is going through, and you don't always know exactly how the whole world situation is weighing on individuals, so it's been a challenge, but I think we've come through it this far, touch wood, while remaining well, which is really important. The other thing that we have seen is, I think not only did we as journalists realize the absolute—it’s a cliché to call it unprecedented times that we were—but the audience was realizing these unprecedented times.
So what does the audience do in those things? They go and start filming more stuff than they were ever—so there was one stage during the pandemic, I'm sure it was the same in the UK, where you started to see all these videos emerge. Viral videos of things that were happening and communities coming together. All those kind of emotional shots of people leaving hospital and stuff like that—all this content starts to emerge. None of that was being filmed on big cameras. That was all being filmed on mobile devices by members of the public. And I think certainly what we, as an organization have done this year, we've probably absorbed a broadcast, repurposed more UGC than we have ever done? And I think, in telling the story of this pandemic, because obviously there were so many times where it just wasn't safe for us to be in the place where the story was, but footage would still emerge and we've been able to give a platform to that.
So the game has changed and I just don't think, at this stage, that we're in a position to really acknowledge just how much it has changed. There's probably going to come a point when we're on the other side of this, where we can really stop to consider the lessons that we've learned and how we need to work and what were the advantages of different ways of working. And I would hope, like I said to you earlier, I have never been totally evangelical about saying, "You've got to film things on phones, you've got to edit it on phones." Really, I just use the technology because it's available to me, but I do hope on the other side of this, that mobile journalism as a concept will have definitely been further consolidated and definitely there will be a greater confidence in trusting it going forwards as becoming, you know, absolutely part of what I said, a mixed-economy approach to newsgathering and storytelling.
CW: One final question for you, and this is actually a question that I'm asking all of the guests who are doing the podcast series. Is there anything that keeps you awake at night?
PB: If I look at this in a broad sense, I said this at the start: I'm always thinking about stories and I'm always thinking about my next story. And usually, one of the whole joys of this, for me, has been that it's consistently challenged me as a storyteller. So it doesn't really matter if I'm doing an important story or whether I'm doing an “And finally” kind of story. I'll always approach each story as fully invested in it and wanting to do it the best way I can. So I suppose I'm never resting on my laurels as a storyteller, so I'm always probably mulling over maybe something I've seen that evening that possibly could be a story. Or maybe I've seen something on television where I've seen a nice shot, and I think, oh God, I can emulate that, and perhaps use that. There's always takeaways, and I'm always on the lookout for ideas. So broadly speaking, I'll always be mulling over ideas or thinking about, you know, what can we do next?
CW: Thanks to Philip Bromwell there for sharing his insights, and we’ll hear more from him later in the season.
Now, if you want to find out more about some of the topics that came up in our interview, take a look at the links in the show notes, where we have a discussion on how technology has supported an evolution in the role of broadcast journalists, as well as a survey of some of the most important tools available for mobile journalism.
Join me next time on Making the Media where I’ll be talking to Jill Mitchell of Syracuse University in New York state in the USA about developing the next generation of talent and building closer ties between academics and industry. Have a little listen to some of what she had to say.
Jill Mitchell: It’s incumbent upon the faculty and staff to keep up to date and to keep relevant. And also, to keep thinking of new ways to do things. And they really push being a disruptor. What’s the next thing? What are we working towards? You know, what’s going to be hot next? And so it’s identifying these trends, and so I think it’s helpful not only while you’re in school, to learn the different trends, but to be able to recognize where things are going, where technology is going, and then think about how you can use that to your advantage.
CW: A really interesting viewpoint to come there from Jill. Now don’t forget to subscribe to the Making the Media podcast, please feel free to leave a review and to share with friends. You can reach out to me on twitter, I’m @craigaw1969, or email the team at [email protected]. And you can also follow Avid on your social channel of choice, of course, to get updates on new episodes and a whole lot more.
That’s all for this episode of the podcast. A special thanks to our producer, Rachel Haberman. I’m Craig Wilson. Until next time, thanks for listening.