Mobile social media can unchain journalists from their desks

I’ve spent most of my career as a field journalist and, like most journalists, I’d rather not be stuck in the office all day sitting in front of a computer. I live for being as close to the story as possible.

When technologies are first introduced, they often have limitations that impose restrictions on what is possible. Initially, internet journalism was desk-based journalism for all but a lucky few. It was mostly production and re-purposing of content from print, radio or television news. For most of us who saw the journalistic possibilities of the internet, using it simply as a repository for content from other media was akin to using a Porsche to haul manure because, like a cart, a Porsche also has wheels. Yes, the internet can be a simple distribution platform for content, but that entirely misses the point, which is one of the reasons journalism is in the predicament it is today. The internet is a highly networked platform to tell stories using text, audio and video that can connect not only content from almost anywhere but, more importantly, connect people.

I was lucky enough to be one of those early few who could use the internet for original, multimedia journalism, and I remember the limits of what we could do in the late 1990s before wifi and mobile data outside of cities. In 1999, I remember running smack into the limitations of the technology of the time when I was covering Hurricane Floyd for the BBC. As the storm rolled through North Carolina, it knocked out power and communications. My mobile phone worked, but there was no way that I could file the pictures I had because I couldn’t get a data connection. Two months later, I got my first mobile data kit: A cable that connected to my phone. I could at least file pictures and copy back to base. It was slow, but it worked.

Many journalists have a very odd relationship with technology and those who use it. It is similar to executives who have their secretaries print out emails for them to read: Not using technology is seen by some journalists as a sign of their position and importance. They have worn (and many still wear) their ignorance as a tribal badge setting them apart for those who must toil in front of a glowing screen.

For me, technology sometimes frustrates, but more often liberates me in the work that I do. I remember a jaw-dropping moment at the US Democratic Party conventions in 2000. I watched as an Indy media journalist streamed live video of the LA police bearing down on protesters. He was peddling backwards, holding a black PowerBook, a webcam and an early high-speed mobile modem from a company called Richochet. He was closer to the action than the TV camera crews.

Our production technology lagged behind as it required a faster data connection than many of the early data modems, which topped out at 9600 baud, could provide. But I could email my copy in from anywhere. I didn’t have to hunt for a phone socket. By 2001, I was totally mobile. Laptop. Wireless modem. Portable printer. The speeds went up to 128kbps, and I could just about use production tools in the field.

Fast forward to today, and not only do we have 500kbps+ wireless data connections in many areas in the US, western Europe and Asia, but we also have a suite of applications that can instantly upload photos, video and text. As I said last week at media140, the technology to produce the content is there, but the production systems and the presentation still need work. But Twitter is a liberating technology, not a technology that “will keep reporters off the streets and in front of their screens”, as journalism professor Edward Wasserman writes.

And if he thinks that mobile phone technology is just for “the young, the hip, the technically sophisticated, the well-off”, he obviously hasn’t travelled to South Asia or Africa or even to most neighbourhoods in the US. He obviously doesn’t understand the prevalence of pay-as-you-go phones, not only for communications, but also for micropayments and information services in the developing world. This isn’t just about kilobits and data, it’s also about SMS and the inventiveness of the human mind that takes a simple tool and carves out a revolution. When I worked on the World Have Your Say programme at the BBC World Service, we were overwhelmed with text messages from people in who Africa wanted to take part in the discussion.

Wasserman’s implication that technology is to blame for the skewing of news to cover demographics attractive to advertisers is a red herring. The idea that Twitter will chain journalists to their desks shows rank ignorance of Twitter’s mobile functions in the US.

There are no links in Wasserman’s commentary to support his views. Professor Wasserman, links are the footnotes of the internet age. They give you authority by showing that you’ve done your research. The internet isn’t killing newspapers. The internet might be killing the US newspaper model of local monopolies, but that’s the death of an accidental business model not the death of journalism.

Twitter can liberate journalists to stay in the field and cover important stories, as we did here at the Guardian during the G20 protests. Technology isn’t the enemy of journalism, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that uninformed commentary is.

One thought on “Mobile social media can unchain journalists from their desks

  1. Kevin,

    I guess the technology is liberating as long as someone is willing to pay reporters to get out and use it. Surely too many organizations are tempted to use the technology to cut the cost of news production, and that involves more stories and more desk time? Your point on uninformed commentary is a key one. Much of the comment stream is like people shouting at each other at a public meeting once the chair has lost control. Maybe hosts need to be a bit braver in asserting moderation and, crucially, explaining why they think some views are irrelevant or destructive?

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