Eeks! Mobile phones killed the DSLR…Never!!…Or?…

I have long been a healthy skeptic in the idea of mobile phones being the future of convergent newsrooms. I say healthy because my argument, as other nay-sayers before, often rests solely on the quality. I’m unconvinced smart phones can replace the sensors and glass of DSLRs.

Living in Mongolia where countryside assignments can leave you without mobile reception for weeks, 3G was rather useless. I owned assorted paraphernalia for professional grade multimedia gathering. I am not a breaking-news reporter but focus on features.

I clung to the why go smart affront.

Then I got me an iPhone. For emails only I said. Then, not too bad these shots in good light. And wow it’s discreet. I’d never try shoving my 24-70mm f2.8 there.  And what more, a visit to a manual textile-weaving workshop in Spain minus gear-bag resulted in an impromptu inspired video (see below).

In today’s world of instant news where Twitter is the new newswire, smart phones are essential for news gathering as much as for news dissemination and digestion. They are handy for clandestine shots and when essential gear gets left behind when absent-mindedness attacks, as in the case of  WBUR Public Radio’s Bianca Toness.

I doubt smart phones will ever truly replace mirrors and lenses for antiquity romantics just embracing digital. But in todays’ nano tech world, practicality will dominate for a majority. As Mobile Journalism Pundit Stephen Quinn spells in his book – “A revolution is happening in the way journalists gather and deliver news using only a mobile phone.”

The smart phone is here to stay and can only evolve to something better. DSLR sound saviors Rhode are already testing an iPhone equivalent. But till then, there’s still room for the gear-lugging-loving field journalist.

How can social networking and social media best work with converged media?

The first thought that crossed my mind when asked this question by a professor was – Could  online convergence work without social media? Where would the audience be without the community of web trawling, sharing, re-sharing, reposting, networking, faithful lot.

The first ever Youtube video was posted in April 2005 and since, almost every major media organization with multimedia content has an Youtube account, regardless of the video streaming service utilized on their homepage. The same can be said of Twitter and Facebook.

Social media has become a necessary medium for drawing traffic. A research by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) found that news sites receive 9 percent of their traffic from social media, a modest figure but one expected to grow. In March 2012, the Guardian discovered Facebook referrals drove 30 percent of its 70 million unique monthly browsers to their website.

Twitter director of content and programming, Chloe Sladden, created a stir when she remarked “Twitter is the new newswire,” at a media conference, to assert her belief that newsrooms should be breaking news on twitter and drawing audiences to their home page for follow up. The relationship between social media and convergent newsrooms is a symbiotic one. In the words of the Chief Executive of Digital First Media, John Patton – “No social media connection. No news organization.”

The present challenge, as the PEJ report presents, is how can this translate to revenue?

N.B: Much of this post is a rough summary of the linked PEJ report. A resourceful read for more on the relationship between social media and online newsrooms.

Subsidizing my Journalism: The year in Client Commissioned Work

In trying to establish myself as a freelance journalist while experimenting with video and photography, I realized the bills and gear acquisition list were piling up faster than income was pouring in. As a freelancer, I was making more money editing, shooting photographs  and writing for commercial magazines than from journalism direct. But journalist was the title I liked to use best when asked my métier. Freelancer was too vague and media professional seemed a trite too lofty when said, though inscribed so on my LinkedIn page. But then what do you call someone willing to write and shoot for money so long as the subject complemented my interest and to an extent beliefs.  Then, at a time when loved ones were subsidizing both me and my various expensive hobbies and journalism gave me some credibility but little else materially, came a chance from a  private business. “Can you make us a video?,” said they. “You mean a corporate ad?,” said I. “No,” said they. “Not about us. Just a video that captures the youth and dynamic energy of Ulaanbaatar and gives outsiders a visual clue of the enormous growth potential in Mongolia…and a glimpse of the real estate market. We’d like you to give us a quote.”

It was that last sentence that echoed awhile in my year and, equally important, I also liked the subject but truth was till then I had filed a few TV reports moonlighting as a TV correspondent for Iran’s Press TV, made a few honest rough cut self-shot edited videos but that was it. And I wanted a new pair of lens bad. Audacity had a big part to play in fairing out a creative brief and making a quote that was instantly approved. No pledging my case for additional production allowance from stern editors.  But was I really capable of producing work that could please clients and how much creative independence would I have? UB Rising was the video that came out of my first commercial commissioned work. I listed the help of a brilliant photographer friend to help with shooting footage. Pierre graduated from one of the best agricultural engineering schools in France but decided to trade his degree for his passion for photography. He had come to Mongolia with his wife who had been sent to head a NGO project. Though hard schooled in analog photography, Pierre was no analog snob and keenly followed digital advancements. It didn’t take much convincing to entice him to experiment with the movie mode on his DSLR. All seemed well till a crisis struck. The professional editor I was hoping to sub-contract the project to dropped out for better paying options. So there I was stuck with tons of raw footage, ticking deadline and at risk of fumbling up my first commercial gig, as simple as the brief was. No option left, as my modest fees meant I couldn’t interest anyone  else,  I was forced to sit and edit it myself. Pierre stepped in again as his technical brain and professional workflow helped sort me through the messy process of transcoding and organizing the files for editing on the Vegas suite I was using at the time. And the clients were happy as was I with the results. A little rough here and there and a few things I wouldn’t mind changing but this is the video that marked a badge earned to step into the professional multimedia world.

The clients must have been happy because a few months later they asked me to produce another video for them. “A journalistic piece,” they said. Could you commission journalism as a private company?  That was the naive me wondering. Till that point I had largely viewed my need to take on additional non-journalistic pieces a little bit like my failure to be a real journalist able to sustain self only through journalism. But then there’s a limit to unanswered pitches and ignored emails you can take. But I was proud of UB Rising and ready to tackle another subject. I was asked to make an in-depth 15-20 min report on the state of infrastructure in Ulaanbaatar. The system was crumbling and they wanted a video presenting all the problems the city was facing with regard to traffic, energy, water and the mounting problems in the suburban ger-districts, Ulaanbaatar’s vast unplanned shanty towns.

The dearth of information in Mongolia had convinced this company to be willing to pay to raise awareness on issues affecting the real estate sector. What Now UB? was next piece I produced for the company and this was the longest piece I had tackled and one that was enormously challenging in both obtaining relevant footage and using them in a coherent flow. Many Mongolians do not like to be photographed nor video taped and some can get quite aggressive and  physical. Also, a seemingly dull story like infrastructure has its limits when it comes to presenting it in a visually interesting way. Again Pierre Thiriet helped enormously in obtaining the footage for this piece that was a huge challenge to complete for the subject matter and I sorely missed having an editor to help me along. But end result – the clients were happy.

In July,  I was once again asked to produce another journalistic piece for the same company. This time my brief was “Go to the Gobi and tell us what is happening. Talk about the infrastructure, the building boom, the economic growth, the power supply problem, the corruption….just show us what is happening. But also add something about real estate development in Dalanzadgad.”  And while I appreciate loose briefs, it doesn’t always help for a tight knit story. I took the trip as an opportunity to present a few real journalistic stories as well for news outlets. But the video I admit could do with more focus though once again it had all the elements required from the commissioners. And I admit a sense of self-satisfaction when I received the feedback – “A bit eco-warrior towards the end but we like it.” I had been a little worried about being so frank about the environmental and social impacts being wreaked by the very resources propelling Mongolia’s economy and  something most investors like the client were depending on. But like many, a lot of people do believe transparent good governance is still possible and shying away from very real problems is not doing anyone any good in the long run.

I am still immensely happy for the chance I’ve had to tell these stories and meet the people who made both stories possible. And these projects have also provided the fodder, both equipment and ideas wise, to realise personal projects. Your thoughts?

Converging Skills and an expanding list of Essential Tools

Four years as a Radio Host for a music station, a few months moonlighting as a TV correspondent for Iran’s Press TV and finally a journalist wielding pen and camera – all these experiences have helped equip me with some essential skills required at a time when multimedia journalism is the industry buzzword.

Easy availability of essential software and clandestine online supply chains for sharing goods has made multi-media tools available to anyone who seeks. The launch of the DSLR with HD video recording spurned the birth of a generation of self-taught filmmakers.  I was among those excited and amazed by the possibilities of the new breed of DSLR cameras. I followed a few film makers and online forums waiting  for the day I  could afford one. By then, despite having sold a few pictures taken by my humble Lumix bridge, I was increasingly aware of its limitations and my brief experience with Press TV made me want to continue creating video stories, minus the conservative editorial dictates. In 2011, I finally got the Canon 5D Mark II – may it forever be remembered in the annals of photography and HD filmmaking – and till today, this continues to be the most important tool for my visual journalism and despite the many other technical acquisitions, the most cherished.  

And let’s not forget the power of Google for research and publishing platforms like Vimeo and WordPress to build an online community for constructive critique, support and inspiration and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to share work and find peers. As for the iPhone as a tool to replace all my heavy expensive reporting tools? I still a sceptic but an open minded one.

A special mention to and its founder Dan Chung, a site without which I may have never made the leap into making visual news.

My main media tools

Canon 5D Mark II, Zoom H4n recorder, Sennheiser ew112 wireless pack, Rhode VideoMic, Preferred lens: Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L, Canon 70-200mm f4.0 L, Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4, Sirui N1204 tripod, Monfrotto 701HDV Pro Fluid Head, A cheap lens hood I hope to soon replace, An unused unwieldy Wondlan shoulder rig with a follow focus that needs some DIY re-designing for run and gun shots, An iPhone for web browsing but little else, A notebook, A Sony dictaphone and a pen.