Mobile Reporting: Peer-to-Peer News
By Justin Hall, Wed Feb 20 00:00:00 GMT 2002

High-speed videophones mean high-speed reporting from the field.

Breaking news footage today is often the work of some citizen with a handicam who was on location before CNN could dispatch their crew. If you distribute high-speed video-phones, what news might result? Fast and cheap mobile Internet communications allow a wider range of people to serve as reporters.

Essential equipment

For most working journalists, mobile phones have become an essential part of their work routine. Jon Healy works as a staff reporter for the Business section of the Los Angeles Times; he says he uses his mobile phone "constantly." Dan Fost, a media reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, remarks that it's not his mobile phone that is convenient, but other people's: "I do have a cell phone and it has come in handy at times; more likely, though, wireless works to my advantage when I can get hold of a source's cell phone number and track them down any time, any place."

While mobile phones have simply extended the reach of many reporters, some journalists are picking up on twenty-first century technology. Charles Mayer is an Associate Producer with America's National Public Radio, based in Washington DC. He says his wireless PDA has become a vital part of his field reporting.

He uses a tape recorder to record interviews and sound for his radio pieces, and he uses a keyboard attached to his PDA to log the content of the tapes. He sends this data back to the home office over wireless Internet. The wireless PDA helps him keep track of his hectic schedule and contacts, since it can synchronize with his home office through Microsoft Outlook. And for Mayer, remote access to online maps and business directories is invaluable.

Making use of mobile data

Jon Healy at the Los Angeles Times is becoming a fan of wireless Internet access as well: "I'm on my second cell phone, and for the latest model, I picked one that also worked as a modem. I've used it several times to file stories or check e-mail from the road, although it's pretty fricking expensive (39 cents per minute, 14.4 Kbps)." In spite of the slow speed and high cost, Healy finds it's "surprisingly effective" and now he takes a cord to connect this phone to his laptop with him on each assignment.

Dan Fost at the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out that in the newspaper business it's often not the reporters on the leading edge of digital technology, but the photographers: "What an advantage it is to scrap the cumbersome process of having to drive back to the newsroom, develop film, and then select a photo. Instead, they shoot digital pictures, edit in the field and ship via cell phone or Ricochet modem. No traffic jams keep the photos from reaching the picture desk, no messy darkrooms - what a boon." With some of the recent digital camera technology threatening to finally overtake the quality of print film, digital photography developed in a laptop and sent from remote location is undoubtedly the future for photojournalism.

These high quality photos will produce larger files, and so these photographers will likely look forward to higher speed wireless Internet connections, like those promised by 3G.

But Dan Fost expresses some common reservations about videophones: "Two-way video... I think I'd just as soon pass on that. I'd rather not be seen during a telephone interview - that way I can roll my eyes, or multi-task, or whatever. Then again, there probably are times where it would be useful to see the person I'm talking to - to describe what they're doing while we chat." Healy at the Los Angeles Times thinks a phone with a camera would be an occasional convenience for those times when "we reporters stumble across things with no photographer in sight."

Live from Kabul

The news industry has their own advanced technology for remote high-speed access: satellite phones. These were the devices used by CNN in their much-ballyhooed reports from Kabul, Afghanistan during the first days of the American bombing. Charles Mayer from National Public Radio describes the setup as a small satellite dish, "about the size of a large laptop." There's an ISDN box "about the size of a portable printer" and a transceiver/power supply that's sized between the two: "These three components together can send clear audio from just about any place on the globe." But it's not cheap; about $8 per minute to use it at the high speeds required for data connections: mobile Internet, jerky video or radio-quality audio. The "Sat Phone" (as they call it at NPR) can run for a few hours before it should be hooked up to charge off a car battery.

While mobile technologies make it easier for professional journalists to collect and report the news, they also enable amateur and alternative press to beat big organizations to some hot stories, and to report news that would otherwise be overlooked.

Dennis Bernstein has made a career of reporting corruption and right-wing cover-ups in numerous publications and on the Northern California-based radio show Flashpoints. He's excited about the use of mobiles phone in his work: "The ability a cell phone gives a live radio news magazine with a low budget to be right on the scene of a major demonstration or speech or historical action such as the independence vote in East Timor, changes the whole nature of the game." This was proven recently, as he hosted a live phone interview on his radio show with protestors outside of the Olympic games in Salt Lake City: "We heard speeches and marchers live during a series of powerful protests that were not covered at all by the mainstream press."

Wireless weblogs

The business of mainstream press is news packaging. If you stripped away that packaging, what would be left? When we see a plane crash into a building on the TV news, we generally believe it to be true; experts are called in to talk about what's happened, maps show where the event took place, we can see old clips of other plane crashes. If you saw a plane crash into a building in a video clip you received in your email, would you believe the footage was real? When video news is being distributed over mobile phone through networks of friends, and friends of friends, this could challenge the way we watch the news.

Weblogs are a thriving example of this. These niche reporting services of the web aggregate information on a specific subject, serving a targeted community of like minds. Today most Weblogs are run by people chained to their computers. When video phones are widespread, we should expect to see these Weblogs go wireless, with more up to date information and multimedia collected from remote locations.

The technology won't be a problem. The number two Japanese mobile service provider Vodaphone/J-Phone just announced the first mobile phone video-mail service using Sharp's SH-51 handset, which even offers some video editing capabilities. In Japan you can use some of the new Sony handicams to send quality video to the Internet through a KDDI Bluetooth-Enabled phone. With the technology in place, it's only a matter of time before an important amateur news video is directly distributed to the web, or to ten friends with video-mail in a news chain letter. When that happens, this new form of news distribution will become the news, and then ultimately, it will be no big deal.

Peer-to-peer news, starting with Portapaks

Perhaps we will see the same flourishing of amateur reporting and video experimentation witnessed after the release of the Sony PortaPak in the mid-sixties. That was the first device that allowed people to record cheap and ready footage with a portable camera out in the field. Suddenly, do-it-yourself video was born. As Ed Hugetz writes in his essay about Experimental Video: "The Sony Portapak gave makers a chance to produce. It did not matter that the Portapak produced low resolution black and white images, that the tape was almost impossible to edit, or that the equipment was sold by a large corporation. It was cheap, portable enough for one person to operate, and reproduced images instantly."

Still if you have a great piece of video news that thousands of folks might want to see, where do you put it? American amateurs working with the Portapak were aided by the American government's insistence that cable providers provide free "public access" stations for sharing community video. Will the mobile phone providers follow suit? Encouraging amateur video making from mobile phones should drive increased data use of their subscribers.

Perhaps some businesses will host wireless weblogs. This month Jiqoo, a software development company based in Tokyo, released the first working version of something they're calling "Picnic," software that takes incoming photos and text emailed from a mobile phone and immediately posts them to a web page. Instant still-picture mobile reporting; I've been using it for a few weeks, you can see the results in Japanese here.

Jiqoo doesn't want to host all the news pages for all the camera-phone kids in Shibuya, but this software forms a ready model for the GeoCities of mobile content. No one has yet announced a similar product for video clips from 3G phones, but it can't be far off.

It's already here

Most mobile reporting is not likely to be terrifically high culture or urgent human calamity. It will probably be people sending pictures of parties from one phone to another, so friends will know where to get their boogie on.

Each of us already uses our mobile phones to be a reporter: "Where are you?" and "What's happening there?" are among the most frequent exchanges between mobile phone users. After some dogs attacked a lady in an apartment building in San Francisco, a friend drove by to take a look. As she dialed me on her mobile phone, she looked and saw three other cars parked nearby, each with someone inside looking at the apartment building and chatting on their mobile.

My older brother likes to call me from concerts and hold the phone up to share
the music. I'm hoping he gets a 3G handset so that when he holds up his phone, I can tell whether he's listening to rap or country and western.

Justin Hall wrote his first article exploring technology culture in 1990; since then he's written over 2,000 web pages at Today he writes and speaks on electronic entertainment and he's bootstrapping his own TV talk show.