Self-exposure key to broadcast storytelling

A SELFIE STICK, a smart phone and a bit of practice is all you need to make compelling, broadcast-quality video packages, enthused Aileen O'Meara. Then, with a cheap extendable pole braced to her side, she thrust her phone towards audience members quick-firing interview-style questions. Moments later she deployed the same pound-shop technology to demonstrate how she records a link "to camera".

Aileen O'Meara

Aileen O'Meara with a selfie stick

"A good story will always have value and, in a lot of cases, this is all that you need to tell one", the veteran television journalist and radio producer said. "The technology that matters is the kit that you have with you when you come upon something interesting - and for most of us, that means our phone".

The afternoon workshop on mobile journalism (MoJo, insist the cognoscenti) was the concluding session at the Dublin Freelance Branch Autumn Freelance Forum, a twice-yearly training-cum-networking event for NUJ members.

O'Meara was joined on the stage by Glen Mulcahy, (@GlenBMulcahy) head of innovation at national broadcaster RTÉ, who predicted a bright future for freelance journalists able to offer short exclusive broadcastable clips. "User-generated content only has value where there is a real exclusivity. After that, the skills of a professional journalist reap benefits - thinking about camera stability, lighting and sound quality as well as dependable attribution - these are essential skills if you want to work on our news staff as well".

By way of example, event organiser Gerrard Cunningham showed off the dramatic camera phone footage he had taken of an air ambulance winching onboard a gravely ill American tourist from a remote Donegal hillside. "I was driving my mother home after a routine hospital visit when I spotted the flashing lights from police cars and rescue vehicles. I made more money selling that clip than I have from any single piece that I have written in many years as a journalist".

O'Meara's technique is strikingly simple. She recommends post-producing and uploading from a smartphone - "editing on a laptop is easier, but I never seem to get round to it". She tops and tails clips using inexpensive apps such as iMovie, Vidtrim or VidEditor and uploads to YouTube "unlisted". She sends links to the video to potential clients, who can then download what they want to buy.

The only additional equipment she uses is a Rode Smart Lav microphone and an extension cable. Even this is substitutable, though: iPhone headphones include a useable microphone on the volume controller that works perfectly well in extremis, she says.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

Formerly RTÉ's health correspondent, O'Meara suggests a basic checklist for smartphone journalism:

  • clear your phone's memory to create capacity for what you shoot
  • switch to "flight mode" so that calls and texts don't disrupt filming
  • keep spare power with you at all times
  • clean your camera before filming; and
  • always shoot landscape.

A bit of practice before you hit narrative gold dust will also pay dividends.

Much of RTÉ's news footage is now recorded this way and the channel has recently screened a hour-long documentary, The Collectors by Eleanor Mannion, made entirely on an iPhone. "She actually found the minimal, familiar kit made her subjects feel more relaxed", Mulchay said. "The only special equipment she used was a gimbal to hold the camera steady as she walked around filming".

Mulchay, who organises MoJoCon, an annual event for mobile journalists, envisages this kind of reporting expanding and expanding. "5G will be the key to unlocking 4K", he prophesies, describing the next-generation phone network and the latest standard of video quality. He also predicts a rising demand for video news and features as driverless cars expand viewing time.

Other sessions at the Freelance Forum revealed the demands of two newspaper commissioning editors, Ros Dee of the Irish Daily Mail and Esther McCarthy (@estread) of the Irish Examiner. The latter said that freelances who could offer video and social media support for their work were particularly appealing to those who commission features.

A morning session on sports journalism also revealed the recent phenomenon of sports clubs employing embedded journalists to provide syndicatable coverage of their matches. Just as former staff photographers often find that their subjects now foot the bills once paid by publishers, sports reporters may be experiencing something similar.

Will selfie sticks become ubiquitous reporters' kit, alongside phones, notepads and laptops? Quite possibly. They do have the great merit of being cheap and accessible. Journalism has always been a craft where guile and graft are both entry standards and principal requirements of success. Evaporating barriers to broadcasting, hitherto our most rarefied medium, may well usher in scores of have-a-go hopefuls. Skill, patience and imagination, though, will remain the hallmarks of those who capture compelling stories using what some mockingly term the "narcissist's wand".