Part I discussed the current state of ENG and the move to mobile journalism
Part II looked at Euronews’ adoption of smartphone newsgathering
When NBC News International President Deborah Turness made her "cut-the-cord" declaration at the 2018 IBC Show in Amsterdam she provided scant details about what her network calls “iPhone Journalism.” Inquiring minds want to know. What smartphone-related hardware and applications are Euronews NBC using to replace conventional ENG cameras and live trucks?
According to Ilyas Kirmani, executive producer at NBC News International in London, Euronews is the largest network in the world to go all-in on smartphone newsgathering, aka video journalism, aka mobile journalism. Kirmani responded via email to a list of questions about the hardware and apps his network is using in lieu of conventional ENG camcorders and SNG trucks.
IPHONE VS. ANDROID
NBC apparently did not even look to European rival BBC for guidance. The British television news outlet began experimenting with one-man news teams in the early 2000s, long before Euronews took interest. BBC VJs first shot with small, prosumer, digital camcorders, then later with smartphones. But in the almost two decades since the BBC has kept VJs as supplements to, not replacements for conventional camera teams and ENG cameras. After putting a toe in the water, the BBC is now not much past the ankles, where Euronews is now up to its eyeballs despite being a video journalism latecomer.
The Lyon France-based network “supplies the entire kit including the phone, tripod, selfie sticks, Osmos, mikes, lights, Wi-Fi dongles, and laptop,” Kirmani said.
Kirmani said Euronews equips all video journalists with iPhone Xs (5.8-inch display, 12 MP dual rear/main wide-angle and telephoto cameras, 7 MP front/selfie camera.) Even though Android smartphones outsell iOS devices worldwide, the Apple camera phone is not just preferred by Euronews but by a majority of video journalists as well.
(Note: The iPhone is also the BBC’s camera phone choice. I personally use an iPhone. One drawback is Apple eliminating the 3.5 mm mic/headphone jack and providing only a single Lightning port for both charging and peripherals. As of last October the new iPads have a single USB-C jack instead of the Lightning connection. Go figure. Some day at least one smartphone manufacturer will offer a pro model with at least three ports, a bigger batter, a built-in lens adapter, and a heat sink for longer recording and streaming times. Heavier and a bit bulkier is no bad thing for news work. Current smartphones are too light to hold steady as it is.)
The Euronews iPhone Journalism kit includes two rigs: a one-handle Zacro brand (Japanese) and a two-handle Ulanzi (Chinese). The Zacro smartphone holder and tripod adapter is a very good buy, at about $13. Its clamp concept is quite secure—the tighter you twist the knob the tighter the grip.
The two-handle Ulanzi rig is also a great value, $20, delivered on Amazon. But, after testing one, I found the slider-style clamp does not hold a smartphone nearly as tightly as brands that use clamps similar to Zacro’s. It may be worth it to pay more if the rig is used for heavy duty news work, like the Shoulderpod X1 (Spanish)—$120 plus shipping and the iOgrapher (USA)—starting at $49.99 plus shipping. (There are lots of good rig choices on the market. (I built by own rig out of steel for about $20. It may not be pretty but it’s bulletproof.)
The Euronews kit’s Osmo-brand gimbal stabilizer works much its much larger Steadicam counterpart used with ENG cameras to smooth camera movement. Gimbals, though, may be overkill for most VJs.
Consider my experience with gimbals: Last year Euronews’s bonded cellular app provider, LiveU, was thinking about bringing back an updated version of its SmartGrip product which it had taken off the market. The company began testing two and three-axis gimbals to see if a gimbal function should be part of a new design.
I volunteered to runs tests and compare gimbal stabilizer performance with conventional, two-handle rigs. LiveU sent me the gimbals. For comparison I added a one-pound weight to a conventional rig to provide passive stabilization.
I concluded that gimbals are not well-suited for most news work, especially breaking news. They’re too expensive, too fragile, and too hard to set up. Besides, in most cases video reporters should be standing still while shooting, not moving, and only panning with purpose. Plus it’s not easy to pan gimbals.
Euronews seems to agree or, at least, may be having second thoughts about including gimbals in its kits. “When we first launched our shows, we wanted our correspondents to come live via Osmo or selfie stick,” Kirmani said. “We later determined this was not the best user experience for the correspondent or the viewer, so decided to have them all use tripods when coming live, unless there is something significant to show.”
That makes sense. VJ’s, working alone, have enough to do during a live shot without having the worry and strain of steadying a camera. Plus, jittery video makes encoders, like LiveU ‘s app, work harder, effectively reducing bandwidth and resolution.
Speaking of apps. Which ones are loaded on Euronews reporters’ iPhones?
“LiveU, Latakoo, Filmic Pro, Taggly, Gravie, Square fit, cut story, and facetime,” according to Kirmani.
Here’s what they do:
LiveU, of course, is the cellular bonding app. It’s their go-to app for all live shots. “Ninety-nine percent of our correspondent live shots come via LiveU on the iPhones,” Kirmani said. (For more about bonded cellular and 5G see upcoming part IV in this series.)
Latakoo is an Austin, Texas-developed app Euronews uses to transfer video files from the field to the station. As opposed to using something lighter duty, like Dropbox. That’s the so-called store & forward function. (Latakoo, at the moment, does not do live shots. But company president Jade Kurian, in an interview for this article, said they’re working on a live streaming app that should be available next year. “I think it will be a game changer,” she said.)
Tagg.ly is an app for quickly adding name, logo, location, and timestamp to videos prior to sharing on social media.
Gravie, in similar fashion, permits reporters to stick text and some editing and formatting, such as changing the frame format, on video clips in their iPhone’s camera roll. Another tool for use prior to uploading to social media.
Square Fit is a video app for whipping widescreen video clips into shape (literally) for posting on Instagram with its square-frame format.
CutStory. Again, another app to spruce up clips for social media. The reporter clicks on the social media choice (Instagram, Facebook What’s App etc.) and the app automatically trims it to a 1:1 or other social-compatible vertical aspect ratio and also meets the duration limit.
FiLMiC Pro is pretty much a consensus favorite shooting app among video journalists. Reporters can get by with iMovie, but FiLMiC Pro as its names suggests, enables VJs to shoot more like pro videographers. (If a VJ is shooting a piece just for social media FiLMiC Pro has a 1:1 aspect setting.)
What about training? Euronews VJs needed to learn how to use the new hardware and apps.
It turns out that Euronews is not yet much into training, unlike some European stations— like the BBC in the UK and ARD-affiliated stations in Germany. They have comprehensive, ongoing employee training programs.) “They go through a two-day, in-person training course, and then the best training is practical, out in the field,” Kirmani wrote.
Euronews assumes many VJs already have some shooting and editing experience. Kimani says if a reporter has no proficiency there’s a Euronews team member to provide more training.
Even so, Euronews may need to substantially ramp up its training program if the network plans to pull off cutting the cord. At some point VJs need to learn how to film as well or better than videographers who only shoot and edit much better than editors who only edit. It’s a tall order. Instead of being jacks of all trades, masters of none, VJs need to become jacks of all trades, masters of all.
Less experienced VJs who don’t get sufficient in-house training should find their own online and in-person workshops, such as courses offered by mobile journalism professor Robb Montgomery, VJ guru Michael Rosenblum, (some online tips are free), and Mojocon founder Glen Mulcahy, among many others.
(Note: Rosenblum is in the process of training some 150 employees for the local tv station SoCal-1. “When we are done, SoCal-1 will be the biggest all VJ TV station in the world, and we expect, a model for the rest of the country,” Rosenblum says. “Many stations have one or two VJs, and play lip service to the concept. Here, it is all VJ all the time, and that is going to produce a very different on-air product.”)
(I also plan to offer advanced smartphone newsgathering workshops, especially in Germany for those who already have basic graining and some experience.)
Then there’s the matter of live reporting. It’s perhaps the main reason Euronews switched to iPhone journalism. The video news provider now has a substantial number of live-ready reporters dispersed across Europe giving the network far more opportunities to go live.
But danger lurks ahead. Giving a live-ready phone camera to a novice reporter is like handing Him or her a live grenade. There’s a substantial risk for serious technical and journalistic mistakes. Too many boo-boos could kill Euronews’s initiative.
Of course, most news stories are not covered live. Most of what VJs do is behind the camera, not in front of it. Besides live signals, cellular connections between the field and newsroom can transmit raw and edited footage. Which leads to another question I put to Kirmani: “How much/what percentage of iPhone journalists’ video is edited at the station?”
“Fifty percent is edited in the field vs station,” he replied.
Laptops loaded with Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro are included in the Euronews kit. But the high-end editing software seems like overkill for field editing. Programs like iMovie are much cheaper (some free), easier to learn and faster to use. Other lower cost, easier-to-use smartphone editing choices: Kinemaster, ViMoJo, and Lumafusion.
In any event, if half of Euronews’s packages are cut in the field, it’s a really good start for the network's cord-cutting initiative. The benefits of in-field over in-station editing are substantial. Above all, speed. No time is lost driving back to the station if the reporter edits at or near the news scene. It’s also much quicker and more bandwidth efficient to stream a 2.5-minute, edited package to the station than 20 minutes of raw footage/rushes. The goal—which mostly has old habits and traditions blocking the path—should be to edit almost all stories in the field.
Big question to Kirmani: “What are your biggest iPhone journalism hurdles yet to overcome?”
Interesting answer: “There are still interviews and stories that require traditional crews.”
Does that mean Euronews did not fully cut the cord, but merely stretched it?
At the very least NBC seems to have flipped the field, that is made ENG subservient to smartphone newsgathering. Made it second fiddle. Instead of video journalism being the backup, Euronews has at least put ENG under smartphone newsgathering’s shadow even if it’s not yet possible to completely cut the cord.
ENG will still not disappear overnight, especially given traditional television’s huge investment in legacy cameras and live trucks. In the late 70s, a at the birth of ENG, film did not vanish overnight either. But film’s demise was rather quick, at least in the states. In Europe it took about a decade.
But now Europe and Asia, arguably, are ahead of the U.S. transitioning away from ENG equipment and workflows. The fact NBC mostly cut the cord in Europe before doing in the states supports that perception.
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