It was journalism that was mobile and it should have had a long and happy life.
But Mobile Journalism, or MoJo as it became known, is dead.
It has ceased to be.
MoJo’s obituary reads that it was a way for journalists or reporters to work single-handedly to create audio, video, photographic and text based content without having to carry huge amounts of equipment around. It existed before the launch of the iPhone but, inevitably, Mobile Journalism and smartphones have been linked from the first time they were able to record and manipulate text, photographs, audio and video. Perhaps the premise was wrong in the first place? Perhaps MoJo wasn’t important? Maybe it was the central idea that was wrong and that was what did for MoJo?
No, it wasn’t that.
Where’s All the Video?
What’s interesting when you study the social media flow regarding Mobile Journalism is that despite most social and industry interest being in the video work created by a Mobile Journalist workflow, more radio has been created using it than broadcast TV. A whole lot more. There’ve been a handful of full TV programmes created on mobile and lots of UGC (user generated content) has been used in news bulletins but far more radio has hit the airwaves via a phone: Whole documentaries have been created on them, complete programmes presented on one, thousands upon thousands of shorter items for radio stations around the world and yet it’s in TV terms that Mobile Journalism is measured in. Which seems a little unfair when you consider how difficult it appears to be to get broadcast quality video out of a phone. Maybe MoJo should have stayed ‘just radio’?
Phones and TV were never joined at the hip whereas radio had a particular affinity with telephone communication. There’s the staple part of any radio station: The Phone-In. As a reporter, before the days of mobile, I used to regularly phone my radio station from a dank and smelly red phone box in Blackpool in North West England, read my voice pieces out for news bulletins and do two-ways down the line. I once slept in one of those phone boxes … but that’s another story. My mis-spent youth came to an end when smartphones were invented. Now we could record our voices in better quality and edit them on the phone into multi-tracked mixed pieces that could be filed back to base over the mobile phone network and the essential slightly echoey sound quality that was created by the glass phone box was gone for good.
TV has always been more of a problem for a phone. We have to ask what we’re actually DOING with the mobile’s camera when we create material. And why. Is it a one-stop shop device which is used to capture, manipulate and feed the content? Or is it just a camera which records pictures that are then edited on a laptop or PC? Has a phone camera just become a replacement for a GoPro? Is it just there for the ‘trick shot’? If it is then you’re picking a camera that’s more expensive, less easy to ‘strap’ to things, for the most part doesn’t have a replaceable battery and isn’t very waterproof or hard wearing. Again, you have to ask why. If you’re wondering if this is the reason MoJo is no more then I’ll put you out of your misery. No it isn’t.
Was It The Hardware?
The difficulty for people using phones for all their footage is that many of the cameras on them just aren’t very good. Every time a new model is released, be it Apple or Android, we all run off to test it only to find that it’s … much the same as it was before. In other words, no matter what the phone manufacturers do all they’re doing is getting pictures that are about as good as a £500 camcorder from 2010. Without night vision. And without stereo mics. And without swappable batteries. And without a tripod thread on the bottom. And with questionable image stabilisation. And with a finite memory (although swappable micro SD on some Android devices gets round that). I could go on. Of course, the nuts and bolts of the camera sensor on a phone do change – a promise of 4k at 60fps was this year’s leap for the iPhone 8 Plus and X – but I’ve filmed my kid’s goldfish at the highest setting I could get and, trust me, Sir David Attenborough’s not going to be knocking on my door for the footage for Blue Planet 3 and, for the most part, 4K isn’t a goer because, at some stage, the footage has to be lifted off the phone and we’d like to run the pictures some time this year. The problems with the phone cameras doesn’t just stop there: I’d question their (in)ability, in many people’s hands, to keep focus on a moving object, cope well with rolling shutter, get a decent maintained exposure which doesn’t flare or wash-out half the shot, have a stock app frame rate that works for everyone around the world and a colour balance that isn’t over saturated or flat as a pancake. Once we’ve got all that sorted, let’s then work at getting quality audio recording out of a microphone the size of a pinhead. Sometimes it’s easier not to restrict yourself to just using a phone. Of course there will be people who can get great footage from a phone and they’ll vehemently tell me I’m wrong. But, in the dark of night, when they’re alone in their bed, secretly they’ll admit that it’s easier to get a better shot out of a better camera. The voices in your head should be telling you that Mobile Journalism doesn’t mean cheap journalism. But, again, that’s not what caused MoJo to expire.
Was It The Gadgets?
Like many people I’ve tried to improve the wonky shots and poor sound I’ve captured using gadgets, gimbals and gizmos (I hereby trademark that as the name for my podcast).
My bank balance is testament to the amount of kit I’ve bought, my kit bag now weighs a ton and yet all I’m doing is compensating for the junk shots that the phone often creates. No wonder then that most of my ‘craft’ footage comes from a mirrorless digital camera with a range of lenses and filters and my audio comes from a dedicated audio recorder which slips into a guest’s pocket. My craft gear camera retails for £835, my audio recorder and personal mic: £96. Less than an iPhone X. Just saying.
But the realisation that it, honestly, took a lot more than just using a phone to get decent shots isn’t the cause of death either. .
Was It The Film-Makers?
Perhaps it was because MoJo is MORE than journalism now? It’s becoming a form of film making in its own right, it also allows people to create higher quality promotional content on their phone – we’re always being told that video is the future for social media (Oh, we could talk all day about that one…). Instead of it being ‘just about the journos’, film making on mobile phones should be considered for what it has become – a wider landscape on which all sorts of films can be made, not just a fat minute of strange-angled video?
Like all good murder mysteries I’ll now reveal who really killed Mobile Journalism:
Journalists killed MoJo.
We’re All Mobile Now
At one stage few people had a smartphone. We felt special. We even had a business reason for one. Mobile Journalists were journalists plus a bit more. The truth is that nowadays more and more people have smartphones. It’s estimated that by 2019 the number of smartphones will pass five billion (although I know someone who has six…). Most journalists have one and most journalists now have the ability to be ‘mobile’. Anyone who’s not taking pictures, capable of filming something the ‘correct way’ (for whatever outlet they’re filing for), or recording an audio interview with someone they meet is living on borrowed time. The doorway marked redundant is just over there. Furthermore, not only journalists use their phones in this way. We all do. We all film and document our own and each other’s every move. Phones are everything. Apple’s avowed intention was to make its phone the most ubiquitous camera – and video camera – in the world. The success of that aim was MoJo’s death knell.
Gadgets are everywhere. You don’t have to flash your PRESS card to get them, you know.Apple stores sell gimbals, drones, tripods, lights, microphones. You can buy brackets in any phone shop, supermarket, car parts store in town. The things we used to get excited about are now common place. Every smartphone has a camera. The Mojo difference is defunct. The gimbals we all get over excited about? In two years that level of stabilisation will be hard baked into the phone. If Hyperlapse can make such a good go of it then the people building iOS and Android updates can probably do it too. Wobbly footage will be a thing of the past.
That doesn’t mean that ‘anyone’ can do what journalists who use mobile phones can. Most of the time, let’s be honest, why would they want to (“I’m just nipping out to walk the dog and do a quick vox pop. Back in ten minutes”)? But simply knowing ‘what to do’ doesn’t mean you know ‘how to do’ it. If you take the ‘journalist’ out of ‘Mobile Journalism’ you might get a great story, shot in an exciting way, that really tells a story well. Or, and we’ve all seen it, what you might get are some great shots of tall buildings in slo-mo in Chicago at dawn on a deserted winter’s day. Lovely to look at but not much use in terms of linear story telling.
Can Anyone Do It?
One of my best friends suggests I’m following what Michael Rosenblum has suggested: the concept that if anyone can do it, then we’re all, to quote the originator of the VideoJournalist concept, “f*cked” because nothing we do is better than someone else doing it. I don’t agree. Completely. Journalists ‘should’ be able to skill up, using the technology as a stepping stone to create content. They use their story-telling skills and the technology at hand to blend the narrative and the gadgets together. We’re all capable of content creation now and it’s become part of everybody’s job who works in news. The very idea of going out on a story without your phone is madness. Not checking your emails would be crazy. Not just journalists even, we’re all creating content on our mobiles: It might be the story of a child’s first birthday party, a dance competition or it could be how we were walking down the road when we saw a coach teeter on the edge of a cliff and decided to film it. News or memories – they’re each created using the same gear. So what will differentiate us from the rest? Are we any different? What will make our work different to other people’s?
And that’s not a bad thing. The future doesn’t need to reference the past. We don’t need the term MoJo anymore. The skillset still exists, the need for journalists to be mobile still exists… but it means nothing to anyone who’s started out in the world of journalism in the last five years or so.
It’s a redundant phrase.
Students have never known anything other than using consumer equipment to record people’s voices and film events happening around them. Even the words consumer, prosumer and professional are out of date now. The gear is the same, the gadgets are too. We’re now at a stage where documenting everything we do is how we measure our lives. We are the content we create.
So what are the differences between a Mobile Journalist and a Member of the Public? An ability to tell a story succinctly and edit it perhaps? A knowledge of the why as well as the how? An interest in people and stories outside their family group? Is it simply having an outlet, a platform, other than Facebook, which will publicise their version of events? We’re back to exactly the same place we were when everyone had pen and paper. WE all had the tools and we chose what do with them.
Great reporters and authors existed then and they will exist for evermore. They’ll expose amazing stories and shine a light where some people don’t want to look but they probably won’t rush to the nearest phone box, 20p piece in hand, wearing a trilby with the word PRESS on it and file the copy to someone tapping away on a typewriter with an ink ribbon. The image here, from Minicam Photography, was published in 1942. Her camera rig is about the same size as the one lots of Mobile Journalists use nowadays.
The training we need to give now is not how to create the content. We can all create. There is still a need to explain and ease the editing process – it’s getting easier but the learning curve is a steep one but, more importantly, we have a duty to those who are joining us to explain the nuts and bolts of truth, self-editing, an awareness of journalistic law, of defamation, of libel, of the importance of cultivating contacts, about responsibility and the pre-requisite of desire to uncover the things that people don’t want you to talk about. We need to be able to tell people what’s happened.
The term, ‘Mobile Journalism’ is dead and we should stop using it.
Long live Journalism.