How to get started with Mobile Journalism
Reporting live from a demonstration, filming an interview and editing the footage on the way back to your office, doing an Insta story for your local news outlet: mobile journalism (mojo) means that you’re producing journalistic stories on the go, mainly with a smartphone. Here’s (almost) all you need to know to become a mobile journalist
1. Story comes first, first, first.
Hey, wait, you may think, isn’t this going to be about smartphones, cool apps and gadgets? Yes, sure, in a minute. But everything starts with a story you want to tell. And if it’s a good story, it must …
… be relevant to your readers, watchers, listeners, social community.
… be new.
… have a protagonist, a plot and a setting.
You can learn a lot about storytelling, the characterization of people, the creation of a plot and its setting from — Steven King. Yes, the “Shining-Carrie-Pet-Sematary” award winning master of suspense himself. He even wrote a book on writing.
If you’re working for TV or websites and mainly do video, then check out the Twitter accounts of Philip Bromwell and Eleanor Mannion (both RTÉ), Dougal Shaw (BBC), Leonor Suárez (documentary film maker) and Wytse Vellinga (a Dutch mojo specialist). They are great storytellers — and all work with smartphones. In the US, one of my favourite storytellers is Mike Castellucci. He created “Phoning it in”, a 30 minute show, entirely shot with his iPhone and broadcast on TV. Mike received two Emmy Awards for it. Have a look at one of his videos here.
Another good bet is to study what people post in social media — on Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and TikTok. Find your favourite storytellers and analyze how they tell their stories and why they get so many likes. Mind you: a story doesn’t have to be long, it may only last a few seconds and can still be captivating.
So, first think of the story you want to tell: is it new? Is it relevant or useful to your followers or community? And does it sound like a good yarn? Then think of the tools you want to use to produce this story. Tools are important, but second to story. You want people to remember your story, not the brand of your smartphone. ;-)
2. Tools come second: the smartphone
There are people who swear that iPhones are the best tools for mobile journalists. iPhones are great tools, indeed. But they are not readily available in all parts of the world. And they tend to be more expensive than Android devices.
So, it’s not bad to spend a few moments pondering the question: what smartphone do I acually need? (And, related: can I do quality videos and photos with an entry level smartphone? How much money do I actually have to spend?)
I’ve written several articles about these questions. More recently: The (almost) ultimate guide to buying an Android smartphone and Can you use the Nokia 4.2 budget smartphone for mobile journalism?
The quintessence is: you don’t have to buy the latest flagship phone, be it an iPhone or an Android phone, to produce videos or other stories for TV or the web. On the other hand: don’t buy too cheap, either. For budget smartphones usually don’t have cameras which are good enough for TV or large screens. So if you can still lay your hands on, for instance, a used iPhone 8 (good condition, 64 GB: from 300 €) or a Samsung S8 (very good condition: from 290 €) and invest some more money into a new battery, then you’re good to go. Almost. Because you will also need to know a bit more about apps and gadgets, such as external microphones, light, rigs and grips for your phone
3. The best apps to start with
If you want to film videos with your smartphone, it’s essential that you can lock focus and exposure in the camera app. Check the onboard camera of your (new) phone for manual control. On iPhones, you can lock focus and exposure by tapping on the screen and holding the finger down until you see a square and a little sun icon. At the top you can also read the note “AE/AF Lock”. If you want to adjust exposure, simply slide the sun icon up or down.
With Android devices, it’s a bit more difficult to say, because there are thousands of different handsets around. This is how it looks like in the native camera app of the Google Pixel 3a.
On the Galaxy S8, on the other hand, you have to swipe to the right to use ProMode to lock focus and exposure (see image below: MF = Manual Focus). And you can only do that if you haven’t upgraded your S8 to Android 9 yet, because the later Android version has done away with the ProMode. (See what I meant by “With Android devices, it’s a bit more difficult to say, ..”?)
If you’re not satisfied with the amount of manual control the native camera app of your phone offers you, you can still try third party camera apps in the App Store or Google Play.
FiLMiC Pro sets the gold standard as far as video camera apps for iPhones are concerned. You can get it in the App Store for 16,99 € (it’s a one pay off, not a subscription). FiLMiC Pro is only for filming videos. If you want an app for both video and photos, try ProCamera (8,99 €). In a lot of cases, however, the native camera app of your iPhone will do.
FiLMiC Pro also exists for Android phones, but isn’t compatible with all devices. Before you shell out 12,99 € (yes, the Android version is less expensive than the iOS app), you can check if your phone works with FiLMiC Pro: just download the FiLMiC Pro Evaluator app and let it analyze your phone. Other options for Android devices are Open Camera, Footej Camera and Bacon Camera. Open Camera is for free, the other two offer free but limited versions.
For video editing, there are several apps I can recommend: Lumafusion is a very powerful and professional app for iOS (iPhones and iPads). It sets you back 32,99 € but is as good as you can get. Kinemaster is also great and works on both platforms, iOS and Android. You can use it for free with a watermark. But if you want it without the watermark, you have to subscribe: the iOS version costs 45,99 €/year, while you can get the Android app for 35,99 € /year. (Another reason to consider Android phones, hmmm?!) Vlogit is a free video editing app for iOS and Android; it’s good for some basic editing. UPDATE: 29.6.2020 | There’s a new free video editing app in town: VN Video Editor. And that’s much better than Vlogit. Here you’ll get the Android version and here the iOS version.
If you’re a radio journalist going smartphone, have a look at the following apps: Voice Record Pro is a free and very good recording app for iOS and Android. The IOS version can also transcribe your recorded interview — very handy. The Android version can’t. A good alternative for Android devices are Field Recorder (4,99 €) with a lot of professional settings and Google’s free Rekorder with little settings but a transcription feature for English. For basic audio editing you can also use Voice Record Pro or Ferrite (iOS, free/up to 32,99 € in app purchases) and Audio Evolution Mobile (Android; 6,99 €) for more complex audio editing. One of the first English radio journalists who experimented with smartphones at work is Nick Garnett (BBC 5 Live). In the US, Neal Augenstein is a staunch smartphone advocate: he uses his iPhone as the main production device and works for the broadcaster WTOP.
If you’re a social media journalist, there are plenty of (free) apps to help you create snackable content for Instagram, Facebook, Twitter & Co.: from teaser videos, graphic novels and photo text collages to interactive or animated graphics. You’ll find a list here.
For more Android mobile journalism apps check out Florian Reichart’s comprehensive Android Appcyclopedia.
For iPhone apps follow Marc Blank-Settle on Twitter. He works for the BBC Academy and I doubt there’s an app he doesn’t know. Okay, there may be one, or even two … :)
4. External microphones for every purpose
The internal microphones of iPhones and a lot of Android phones aren’t bad, if you just want to record sound in a quiet environment and can get close to the speaker’s mouth. But as soon as you start filming in a big hall or on the street you will need an external mic. There are basically four different types: lavalier microphones which you clip on your interviewee’s lapel, shotgun microphones, handheld reporter microphones for interviews and wireless solutions.
I tested several microphones with the iPhone 11. Watch the following video and decide for yourself which mic sounds best to you. I usually work most with Røde’s Smartlav+ (48 €) and the Boya BY-LM1 (20 €). The latter is also a good lavalier mic — for less than half the price ;-)
If you want to move more freely in front of your smartphone camera, a wireless solution may be best. The Røde Wireless Go offers good value for its price (from 170 €).
You can save money and transform your Røde Wireless Go into a handheld reporter microphone. All you need is a shampoo bottle and a windshield. :) Just watch my mojo hack in this video.
If you’re at an event and want to interview many people, a shotgun mic like Røde’s VideoMicro (49 €) may come in handy. The package includes a windshield, a so called “dead cat”. In the following video you can hear the difference a windshield makes (first part of the video).
When you’re using a shotgun microphone, make sure that your interviewees are less than one meter away from the microphone. Otherwise the sound will be less than ideal.
For a piece to camera, I usually choose a reporter or handheld microphone: when I use my iPhone, I take the iRig Mic HD2 (115 €)which comes with a Lightning cable. When I’m on Android and the phone has a 3,5 mm headphone jack, I use the cheaper iRig Mic (35 €).
One word of caution for users of Android devices: not all native camera apps recognize external microphones. In the past, I had difficulties with Huawei and Sony phones. If you think that the sound of your recording isn’t that great despite an external microphone, install Open Camera on your Android device. Go to the app’s settings → then Video Settings → Audio Source → and then choose “External mic (if present)”. So you can make sure that your phone is truely recording via the external mic.
5. Equipment you can really use — or make yourself
Of yourse you can carry a large tripod to your next assignment and a gimbal and several battery packs and a rig for your smartphone, … ah, and maybe a compact, little drone for cool aerial shots! But, do you really want to carry all that? As a mobile journalist you want to travel with light luggage.
Mobile Journalism is also a state of mind: to make do with as little equipment as possible and to find creative workarounds to achieve your results. When NDR reporter Björn Staschen (below) had to do his piece to camera, he attached his smartphone to a street sign — with the help of a little magnetic tripod.
So besides your external microphone you really need, for starters, only two other pieces of equipment in your mobile journalism bag: a grip or rig for your smartphone and a small tripod.
The Spanish company Shoulderpod has developed a modular grip system which holds your smartphone secure. Compare their different rigs on their website. Or get a first idea here:
Those grips are so good and sturdy that they have been widely copied by Chinese manufacturers.
My favourite tripods are produced by the company Joby, they are called Gorillapods, and they come in different sizes and versions and are lightweight. The best thing is that you can wrap their legs around almost everything: lamp posts, street signs (as Björn Staschen did in the example above) or tree branches. So, in combination with a grip, you can always find a way to attach your phone to something and then do your piece to camera.
However, if you don’t have much money to spend, go for a decent microphone first. And improvise with the smartphone stabilisation. A bottle and a rubber band will almost always do the trick:
Now the only thing you have to do now is to get started: grab your phone, get more familiar with the camera app, and try things out. Because this is what mobile journalism is also about: curiosity and practice, practice, practice.
And don’t forget: you’re not alone out there. There are quite a number of journalists around who work the mojo way. And they are usually very friendly. Two of my personal mojo heroes, besides those I already mentioned in this article, are Marcel Anderwert and Umashankar Singh. The former is a reporter with Swiss TV (SRF). You can watch some of his smartphone videos here. And the latter is a mobile journalist from India, who reports with his Samsung phone and selfie stick for the tv station NDTV — even from the UN in New York City. He’s the gentleman on the cover photo of this article.
Out you go now! Journalists shouldn’t sit in front of their desks all the time. Walk the streets, take photos with your phone, film videos. Good luck — and have fun!
6. Other resources
- The Mobile Journalism Manual by Corinne Podger is an excellent free online resource for all things mojo: from apps and eqipment to filming and editing and other workflows.
- Björn Staschen’s and Wytse Vellinga’s book Mobile Storytelling: A journalist´s guide to the smartphone galaxy has become the standard guide book for journalists and editorial offices who want to embrace the mojo way. You can get it in print for 19,99€ or as an e-book (e.g. via Amazon and Apple Books, both for 9,99€)
- #mojofest is a Facebook group with more than 5,500 members worldwide. They are all passionate about mobile journalism — and share their vast knowledge freely. (Be smart, take part!) This group was established by Glen Mulcahy, founder of MojoCon and MojoFest and the driving force behind a world wide mobile journalism movement.
- Questions? Remarks? Thoughts? Get in touch here or on Twitter: @dermedientyp. Thanks.
DISCLAIMER: I’m, not paid to mention or recommend certain products in this article. All the products I mentioned, I bought myself and tested them during my work as a mobile journalist and trainer.