The outset might have been a little bold: We wanted to try out the possibilities of mobile journalism for a regional newsroom. And we wanted to do it with colleagues who had quite some journalistic experience, but hadn´t tried reporting from their mobile phones yet. The goal was to produce a proper special edition of our regional news. It wouldn´t go out on air, but we would use the studio crew, our known workflows and structures. The only thing that was different: The whole content should be produced on smartphones. Would it work?
I work at NDR, the public service broadcaster providing Northern Germany with television, radio and internet. My department is the Hamburg Newsroom, which contributes to ARD´s national news in „Tagesschau“ and „Tagesthemen“, but also produces its own regional news bulletin „NDR Aktuell“. We had started introducing a VJ workflow into our daily routines about a year ago, and we had looked into mobile journalism. Though so far we hadn´t actively tried it out.
It was a Friday afternoon, when eight of my colleagues gathered around our conference table. They had a proper day´s work behind them already. But they were enthusiastic enough to try out something new. We had about three hours to prepare for the „big day“ on Saturday: We wanted to cover a civil protection exercise that the Hamburg regional government had organized with more than 300 volunteers. Their story: Hamburg was suffering from a great flood and had to open up emergency shelters for citizens who had lost their homes.
For producing packages, I introduced my colleagues to filming with FilmicPro and editing with Pinnacle Studio. I had chosen both Apps in order to be able to film and edit with 25 frames per second. We had tried Pinnacle Studio beforehand and compared an edited report to the same material gone through iMovie which only does 30 fps – Pinnacle´s result on air was remarkably better.
We used iPhone5s with iRig Pre, the low-cost-alternative to iRig Pro (and that´s the reason – to keep it cheap…), and Rode (NTG1 & 3) microphones. The issues were the usual ones during our first trials: The focus was not in the face of an interviewee, but on the wall behind him. Same for the exposure, which highlighted a window, but not the person in shot. Sound was too low and editing was quite rough.
We also planned to go live from the scene via LiveU and Dejero mobile Apps. We had asked the companies to install a server for this trial, and they had agreed. ARD had introduced a ReporterApp (VizReporter) about 2 years ago which we used for the upload of the finished packages. It doesn´t provide good enough quality for live links though.
Then came Saturday morning. We had split up in four groups with two reporters, each having to produce one package and a live talk. And we had arranged a WhatsApp group for internal communication which helped a lot. I introduced my colleagues to the scenario bit by bit, like it was a real developing news situation: „There´s severe flooding in the South of Hamburg, homes being evacuated.“ „We´ll produce a ´NDR Aktuell extra´ at 2pm“. Which meant: My colleagues had about two hours on the scene to film, edit and overvoice their packages before getting ready for the live link.
About an hour before the programme I sat nervously in front of my computer screen waiting for the first reports to come in. The first uploads appeared on the screen, the blue progress bars moved nerv wreckingly slowly. When the first transmission was done, I looked at the news piece: It was a great report of nearly two minutes length, focussing on the story of a family who had come into one of the emergency shelters. Four soundbites, good pictures – I was amazed at what my colleagues had done. All four reports would have been broadcast quality in an emergency scenario though some sound transitions were a bit rough and some pictures weren´t perfect.
On two iPhones, we encountered a problem with Pinnacle Studio: During saving the finished report to camera roll, some pictures were distorted by artefacts. I did some research with Glen Mulcahy´s help and spoke to Luma Touch. They came back to me quickly and acknowledged that Pinnacle Studio produces some glitches with the Apple H264 decoder when writing in „best“ quality.
We started our bulletin on time at 2 pm. It went through without any interruption. Our sound engineer had to do some serious correcting on the packages and the life links, the audience though would possibly not have noticed a lot.
The first live link via Dejero was great: My colleague Michael reported standing in front of a school that was used as an emergency shelter. The picture was good, he transmitted with around 5 Megabit per second. Little artefacts only showed up some seconds long. The second live link via LiveU app was about as good though the latency wasn´t put in correctly. Therefore we had a delay of about 5 seconds. Torben, the reporter on scene, didn´t get a second question therefore. The third live link to Elena via LiveU had some serious connection problems with only 2Mbps. Also, the camera tried to refocus throughout the link. It would have still been good enough in an emergency. With Daniel standing inside a building where an emergency task force was set up, everything went fine via Dejero.
This is one feedback we gave to the Dejero and LiveU developers: Their apps need some simple camera control like locking focus and exposure. That wouldn´t make the Apps much more complex, but it would improve the broadcast quality immensly.
After 12 minutes, our bulletin was over. The studio crew was a little irritated by the picture quality and sound problems. They are used to perfect material. On our side though, we found the result at least good enough to use it in case of an emergency. And some stuff was really amazing. My colleagues had only three hours of training, and they had done some great work. Which was a surprising result to me: Mobile journalism doesn´t seem to be too complicated to open it up to many colleagues throughout a broadcasting company.
Everyone taking part in our little experiment was enthusiastic afterwards. I am sure they will stay friends of #mojo. And for NDR Hamburg, we have discovered a way to improve our coverage of breaking news situations and go on air quicker, with more material from the scene.
This article was written for Glen Mulcahy´s great Mobile and Video Journalism Technology Blog
A shorter German version of this blog post can be found here.