When desperation leads to innovation — embracing mobile journalism

Tweeting about the live broadcast — technology begets technology; video courtesy of CBC Calgary

On a cool evening last March, a team of CBC Calgary reporters ran an experiment: we broadcast our first Facebook Live special, Calgary, The Road Ahead, produced entirely with iPhones.

The night of the broadcast, I was stationed way up in the Calgary Tower, nestled right in the heart of the city. As a business reporter, I was tasked with covering how people were coping with finding jobs in a tough economy. My fellow journalists, Angela Knight, Erin Collins and Bryan Labby, were spread out all over Calgary — on public transit (the C-train), at the Ship & Anchor Pub and at Central Memorial park.

“This is not your average kind of broadcast — we don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know if technology is going to fail, but we do know we’re going to talk to amazing Calgarians.” — Erin Collins

We had been preparing for the broadcast for some time — the packaged stories I introduced during my segment were recorded a few weeks earlier. They looked pretty sharp, especially the one about a former oilpatch worker now trying to make a living as a woodworker. The video and audio I captured of him working in his shop are beautiful.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing — the segment that gave me the most grief was an interview with former Dragons’ Den star Brett Wilson. An hour before the interview, which was to take place in a moving vehicle, I began setting up various iPhones on the dashboard to record the interview from different angles. I quickly discovered that I didn’t have the right equipment to mount the phones. Instead of suction cups to keep them anchored, I was using small tripods held down with equally small sandbags. It was shaping up to be a disaster.

I just kept adding more iPhones, hoping some of them would work. Since I was driving while interviewing Brett, I couldn’t monitor any of the recordings. In the end, even though some of the video was unusable, there was enough footage to put together a visually appealing segment that showcased the most entertaining moments of the conversation.

The Facebook Live was a test for our newsroom. There were some hiccups — about 20 minutes into the show, Erin’s microphone stopped working — but we rolled with the punches. We ended up hardwiring Erin’s mic into his iPhone, which solved the immediate problem but limited his ability to move around the pub where he was stationed.

That broadcast, later condensed into a TV program, was seminal work. While we were already using iPhones to report stories — even for long-form radio and television items — we wanted to push the boundaries and see what the technology could do. Our efforts were rewarded, and they even caught the attention of many in the journalism community overseas. It was a success.

While we’ve been using smartphones in the field for a few years, a significant change occurred in the summer of 2015. As a result of funding cuts, one-third of the CBC Calgary staff was laid off. It was brutal.

Desperation often ignites innovation. Our newsroom embraced mobile journalism — or MoJo — out of necessity. We decided to maximize the use of every remaining journalist. Whenever they went out into the field, they would be gathering video and audio with their iPhones for radio and television, as well as for digital platforms.

CBC is one of the first news organization in the world to embrace mobile journalism. I went to a MoJo conference earlier this year and talked to people from other organizations, such as the BBC and RTÉ. I learned that in addition to being early adopters, the CBC produces industry-leading MoJo content today.

When the Calgary newsroom was first testing the waters with mobile journalism several years ago, the video and sound quality wasn’t always up to CBC standards. The video quality was okay for the web but looked bad on television broadcasts. The audio was usable but needed to be cleaned up to make sure the sound was clear enough to be understood over the radio.

Over time, quality has improved substantially. Apps have helped — Filmic Pro in particular, since it records top-quality video and audio. We’ve even developed an in-house app, ViaMobile, to make sending video and audio back to the station easier. Equipment such as lightweight tripods, microphones and lights have also raised the production value.

CBC Calgary still has traditional camera operators who occasionally work with reporters, but those camera operators, also known as video producers, are now able to spend more time creating their own digital stories, like this one about cryptotherapy, the practice of climbing into a metal canister chilled to -145 C.

Mobile journalism training in Ottawa, photo courtesy of Kyle Bakx

The expertise developed in Calgary is now spreading to other newsrooms at the public broadcaster. A MoJo training program has been successfully launched and delivered in Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Montreal, Ottawa and, of course, Calgary. CBC viewers from coast to coast to coast are now watching news stories produced by mobile journalists, whether they appear on local news shows or The National. While a professional eye might notice a shift, in most cases viewers can’t tell the difference.

As for us in the CBC Calgary newsroom, we have a few more Facebook Live broadcasts in the works. We’d like to try using an iPad to control the production; previously, we used our station’s traditional TV control room to switch from one iPhone to another. To be more mobile, we’d like to test out some different programs on an iPad to run the whole production.

Mobile journalism is not without its challenges.

Some of these are technical. Critics suggest the quality still isn’t as good as using the traditional large television cameras or audio recorders. While iPhones can record sharp video with good colours and top-quality audio, the camera is small and struggles in low light. Quality deteriorates quickly when zooming. Sending a reporter to capture video highlights of a hockey game, for instance, will prove challenging. While apps help, they also crash and can become unstable.

A lack of storage space is a reoccurring problem, especially on older devices. The higher the quality of video recording, the more space it consumes. Another challenge is editing on a small screen — it can be a nuisance, using just your thumbs to move clips and change audio levels. Some reporters use a tablet or laptop when editing longer, more complicated stories.

Other challenges are people-based. There are those who argue MoJo could lead to fewer jobs in a newsroom. (Not true — anyone who works or has worked in a newsroom knows there is always more to do.) MoJo also blurs the lines between the traditional roles of a reporter, videographer and editor.

Journalist/videographer — mobile journalism in action; image courtesy of Kyle Bakx

The advantages are just as numerous.

Using a smartphone allows reporters to be discreet. Foreign correspondents in particular benefit from this, leaving television cameras behind when covering hostile events in dangerous locations. Even for regular, local, day-to-day assignments, people are far less intimidated by a smartphone than a big TV camera when they’re being interviewed.

Mobile journalism lowers the barrier to entry. The gear for MoJo is affordable — the most basic kit is only a few hundred dollars. In addition, the ability to record, edit and send stories back to the newsroom remotely from a single device is a huge time-saver. MoJo’s speed is unmatched.

We knew the deep cut to positions in CBC Calgary in 2015 would make it tough to keep producing the same volume and quality of news stories. Mobile journalism was an invaluable tool that enabled us to keep up serving our community — doing what we are mandated to do, finding voices and stories, and giving them platforms and an audience.