Mobile Reporting exercise using Soundcloud, smartphones and Storify

Digital Journalism is fun in the sunshine!

Digital Journalism is fun in the sunshine!

This is a class project I worked on with first year Journalism undergraduates at Salford University, MediaCityUK. It was part of their Digital Journalism module. There are four groups each with about 15-20 students. My aim was to get them to explore audio recording on their smartphones/iPads and to create digital stories using curation techniques.

Choosing a storyBEhgHIXCEAAhATP.jpg-large

Every week, students complain about the bus service which goes from the main university campus to our MediaCityUK building. It’s free to students on the stretch between the two campuses but it’s unreliable, they tell me. It’s a frequent reason they give me for being late to class! So let’s turn a negative into a positive and use this as the basis for our mobile reporting class.

The Tools

Most students in the class have smartphones or iPads – certainly enough to make this exercise work. Not many have done any serious audio work with them though so there are plenty of learning opportunities here. I’m indebted to Mark Settle at the BBC College of Journalism who specialises in smartphone reporting. His video tutorial on recording audio came out the day after this exercise so it was pretty timely! But my favourite tip came from Nick Garnett, a BBC 5Live reporter. He’s a bit of a pioneer when it comes to iPhone reporting and has pretty much ditched other recording equipment. His blog about his experiments and discoveries is incredibly useful. I’ve always been worried about using the internal mic on the iPhone for serious audio recording because it’s so prone to wind noise but I’m yet to find the perfect external mic solution. His tip is simple –  an ordinary windshield on the microphone end of the iPhone!

Windshield on iPhoneSee my twitter conversation with him about this. So I bought one the day before my first session with the students so I could get them to experiment for me. £4.49 in Maplins!

Most students already use Soundcloud for sharing and searching music so this seemed like a good place to start. I set up an account for all our students to use and gave them a quick demo in class, including the simple “top and tail” editing facility. I told them to save their audio as private. Not everybody had devices or 3G but so long as 5 or 6 in the class had it, we were OK. I also showed them Voddio in case some of them were feeling ambitious and wanted to do some proper editing and mixing on the go. Nobody did but that’s probably because you need to pay £6.99 to get the sharing/sending facility on Voddio.

The final element was Storify. I love Storify and was really keen to introduce it to my students! Again, I set up an account for the class to use and gave a quick demo. Storify is not perfect and sometimes it doesn’t hook up to Twitter as it should. We had some issues with it in the first two sessions but found a workaround. It was fine the following day with the other two groups. I know some people have given up with Storify completely because of its problems. I’m sticking with it because, when it does all work, it opens up so many creative opportunities for storytelling and engaging. Great teaching tool too.

The Task

I asked three students in each group to volunteer to man our digital newsroom (an ordinary classroom with PCs). There was no shortage of volunteers, I’m pleased to report! Everybody else teamed up into reporting teams – mostly pairs but some slightly bigger groups. We decided which aspects of the story we were interested in and what kind of audio material we wanted.

The newsroom team then took charge of deploying their reporters with additional instructions to take photos and tweet information.

Once the reporters were despatched, I briefed the newsroom team in more detail. I gave more instruction on Storify but, to be honest, they didn’t really need it. We talked about what makes good curation. Again, credit here to Mu Lin at Georgian Court University, New Jersey for putting together some guidelines. Basically, don’t drag and dump; provide context and background; have a structure; be selective.

One student specifically looked after the Soundcloud material once that started coming through. They listened through to all the material and made public the ones which were good enough for our story. They then alerted the Storify editor to the availability of the material.

I also wanted the newsroom team to use social media to engage the broader student community which also relies on this bus service. Could they get people outside this exercise to contribute to the debate? They came up with the hashtag #50busprobs.

Once the exercise was over and everybody was back in the classroom, the newsroom team briefed the reporters on what they’d been doing. we published the stories and explained the “notify” option on Storify.

I encouraged students to embed/export the Storify to their personal blogs and add a paragraph about their own contribution and analysis of the task. This was not assessed.

The Outcome

You can see an example of the stories created by students here just to give you a flavour of what they were able to do in the limited time (about 75 minutes).

The newsroom team worked really hard to engage with the broader community with some success. Maybe we should have started doing this in the week before the exercise to build momentum.

Working with Storify was great. It’s a really intuitive tool for building digital stories quickly. The students picked up the concept of curation v drag ‘n’ dump really well. They worked together to find relevant background context and structure whilst they waited for the audio material to come in from the field.BEhd7oUCcAAha7E.jpg-large

The students assigned to editing the Soundcloud material quickly worked out what kind of material would work best in a digital story. They also made sure to add titles and, in most cases, relevant photos to each Soundcloud to maximise their visual impact on the final story.

The reporters in the field all managed to find interesting audio material and get it back to the newsroom. We also got lots of really useful photographic evidence of buses standing idle round the corner rather then en route! All students reported finding Soundcloud easy and fun to use.

Some students has borrowed my windshield to experiment with. Apart from one group which had put it on the wrong end (!! my fault. I should have showed them), they reported good results

Evaluation

The students loved Storify and several of them went away and experimented with it on their own. Really pleased about this!

One student said she’d have liked longer for the exercise so that we could have rotated roles. I agree but on the plus side, she said she’d go and experiment with Storify on her own which is a good outcome!

Overall, the audio quality needed some work. That was mainly down to lack of editing. They needed to be ruthless with their material! This is largely my fault for not emphasising enough the need to edit BEFORE uploading the material. But on the plus side there was a great range of material and creative use of the medium. They definitely used audio to enhance our appreciation of the story.

Interestingly, the students doubted they’d be taken seriously with an iPhone as opposed to a “professional” recording device. That’s at odds with the professionals’ view. I suspect it will change as iPhones become a more acceptable part of the broadcast industry. Watch this space!

Conclusion

This was a fun exercise and I would definitely do it again. There is so much learning and thinking involved. The tools worked well. They’re free and easy to learn and use straightaway so everyone benefits.

We were lucky with the weather on both days – bright and sunny with minimal wind. I’m not sure how much we would have got done in more typical MediacityUK weather (howling wind, rain, cold)

I left the BBC…..but I’m OK!

In July this year, I left the BBC after 22 years.  This is my journey beyond the BBC and into the unknown.

On 1st July 2011, I will cease to be a BBC employee.  I will hand over my dangly ID and henceforth my only relationship with the BBC will be as a license fee payer.  I will no longer be able to waltz into a newsroom and rearrange a running order, write the lead story or demand the presence of correspondents on air.  And for some reason, I really don’t mind.

I’ve worked at BBC World Service since 1989.  It was where I’d always wanted to work and I loved it.  By the mid 90s, I was in my dream job as a World Service journalist and had the time of my life working with some fantastic editors, producers, presenters and reporters from all over the world on Newshour and the World Today.  We were full of ideas, phone bashed like crazy to get people on air, never gave up, spoke God knows how many languages between us, travelled to bizarre corners of the World and had fun.  I learnt so much in that department.

I did work in other parts of the BBC too (eg Good Morning Scotland, Today in Parliament), but always felt drawn back to Bush House.

In recent years, I’ve been in the Newsroom at World Service.  The newsroom deals with fact – fact without the trimmings.  The emphasis is on the written word, providing a definitive summary of the world that could be relied on as accurate and impartial.  News room programmes – bulletins and World Briefing – were programmes of record and that meant correspondents’ despatches, live reporting and clips of the main players.  That’s exciting when there’s a big breaking news story and you’re taking listeners around the world to build up a picture of a developing event.  But most of the time, putting together that kind of programme isn’t very exciting.   When you go on air in the studio, your main job is to watch the clock to make sure all the material fits the time slot, hitting all those “hard posts” which enable rebroadcasters to opt in and out of our schedule.

As time went on, I realised I was becoming bored and losing confidence in my ability to make programmes.

Then I met Claire Wardle.  She’d just started running one-day courses for BBC journalists on “Making the Web Work for You.”  I signed up and went on one of the first ones.  My God, she packs a lot in to a one day course!  I was such a social media beginner, the vast majority of it went way over my head and by the end of the day, I’d forgotten everything I’d learnt in the morning and felt a bit unwell.  But I was really excited by it all and over the next few months, I invested some time into exploring the various tools and ideas she’d talked about.  I was still a novice, but I was a happy novice getting excited when I found  practical applications for these new skills.

But there was another consequence of her course.  I found myself becoming more and more interested in the processes of journalism and less interested in the stories themselves.  Yeah, yeah so it’s another election somewhere in the world, but how are different journalists and media organisations and start-ups finding the new angles, verifying the facts, sharing the story?   It was an exciting world and I felt left behind.

So now I find myself living on the edge of the Pennines having left London after 22 years.  My husband now works at BBC North, soon to transfer to MediaCity.  For a long time, I desperately wanted to work there too, excited by a new project.  But I gradually realised my heart wasn’t in it any more.  If I was going to relocate to the other end of the country, it seemed silly to just shoehorn myself into an unsatisfactory BBC job when I could take the opportunity to reinvent myself completely.  I was lucky my husband had a full time job now and I had the luxury of not having to be a breadwinner.  It seemed foolish to let this freedom go to waste.  So I took voluntary redundancy from the World Service which, following savage cuts, was having to shed staff by the van-load.

To cut a long-ish story short, that’s how I’ve found myself about to become a visiting lecturer in radio journalism at the University of Salford on its BA degree course (so I will be working in MediaCity after all!)  I’m also seriously looking for research opportunities and am pretty sure that’ll be in the “geeky” end of journalism, thanks to Dr Wardle’s inspiration.  But the first step is to see whether I actually like being back in academia.  I think I will.  When I left the University of Sheffield, I was adamant I did not want to stay on as a post-graduate.  I wanted to get a proper job and do something useful!  But there was always a little niggle at the back of my mind telling me I would probably end up back in academia some day.

So, that’s pretty much how I got to this point.  I’m at the start of a journey and, as I hope you can tell, I’m pretty excited about it.