M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

Mobile journalism in the real world, or: How I work

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My Livescribe

My Livescribe notes from a recent (non-msnbc) food writing outing. If I tap anywhere in the notes, the pen begins playing the audio from that point.

Originally posted April 15, 2011, and revised Aug. 19, 2011, to reflect upgrades.

When I joined msnbc.com nearly 12 years ago, I made an abrupt transition at age 38 from a very traditional newspaper orientation.

When I worked at The Charlotte Observer, Congressional Quarterly, Knight-Ridder Washington and The Washington Post, I had been using the same tools for almost 20 years:

• The standard reporter’s notebook and pen.

• A landline telephone with an audio pickup to record interviews.

• A handheld audio recorder for field interviews.

• A “portable” (but actually fairly bulky) point-and-shoot camera. Later, that got traded in for an equally bulky portable camera that could shoot as much as 90 seconds  of grainy video.

With standard variations for specific assignments (if you were ever a cops reporter, you’ll remember clipping a brick-size beeper to your belt), those were the tools print reporters used for decades.

I recently returned to work after having taken a couple of weeks off, during which I did nothing remotely job-related, and the tools I use now were scattered on my desk where I’d left them. I was struck by how remarkably different they are.

For sure, the Web and other digital technologies have transformed how we package and sell our journalism. But I think we sometimes forget just how deeply Moore’s Law and its corollaries have changed how we gather and produce it, too.

When I go out on assignment, this is what I take with me:

August 2011 update: An Asus Transformer Android tablet. It comes with a detachable keyboard/dock, so I can use it as a slate for reading, social media and multimedia, or I can attach the keyboard and use it like a 1-pound netbook. They keyboard has its own battery, which in the wild gives you about 12 hours of battery life. And like the eee netbook I used to use, it remote access VPN applications that let me tunnel in to my work computer.

• An Asus eee netbook with remote access software. Rather than cart around a full-size — and full-weight — power laptop, I use the 1.5-pound eee to tunnel into my very powerful work computer.

• A Livescribe smartpen and notebook. If you’re not familiar with the Livescribe, get it now, because it is the essential  basic street reporting tool. You take notes exactly as you always did, but as you’re scribbling away, the smartpen is recording the audio and time-coding it to your written notes.

Afterward, you can simply tap a passage of your notes, and the pen will jump to that point in the audio and play it back to you. You can also download the written notes and audio to your desktop, where you can jump anywhere in the audio immediately by clicking with your mouse. At $100, the Livescribe is eminently worth paying for out of pocket if your company won’t reimburse you.

August 2011 update: A rooted, heavily modded HTC Thunderbolt Android smartphone (with a 2700mAh extended battery) and a Freedom Bluetooth keyboard. I can record interviews, shoot photos and video and write articles quite comfortably with this setup and transmit them to the desk from the field. Or, using the Android LogMeIn app ($30), I can tunnel into my office computer and work directly on it from the phone. The Thunderbolt runs on Verizon’s LTE network, unlike the Incredible; the difference in speed, which is considerable, is why I switched.

• A rooted, heavily modded HTC Incredible Android smartphone (with a 3500mAh extended battery) and a Freedom Bluetooth keyboard. I can record interviews, shoot photos and video and write articles quite comfortably with this setup and transmit them to the desk from the field. Or, using the Android LogMeIn app ($30), I can tunnel into my office computer and work directly on it from the phone.

• A Sprint Overdrive 4G wireless hot spot to keep all the devices connected in case there’s no WiFi.

With these tools — weighing, all told, about 4 3½ pounds and all fitting into one pocket of my shoulder bag or a backpack — I have written, produced and published full msnbc.com stories from the field.

The point of this is that the real revolution isn’t in the advancement of online publishing and design tools like those msnbc.com uses. It’s in the miniaturization of powerful mobile reporting tools that could allow me, if I so chose, to compete reasonably well with msnbc.com as a solo operator.

Or you. Or anyone else, for that matter.

These are my tools, but there are many others you might find more suitable. Will Sullivan (@journerdism) and co. at the Reynolds Journalism Institute maintain an extensive Mobile Journalism Reporting Tools Guide. And Robert Hernandez (@webjournalist) of the University of Southern California maintains a similar collection more directly focused on multimedia applications.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to anyone using mobile tools in a live situation is figuring out how to get a usable picture or acceptable video from an iPhone or other cell phone camera. Ramaa Sharma of the BBC has a terrific tutorial on “pocket-size video journalism.” It’s part of the BBC’s College of Journalism site (@BBCCollege), which is an immensely valuable resource for any journalist.

Written by Alex

April 15, 2011 at 11:35 am

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