From small screen to big screen?

by Amar Patel in ,

Mobile journalists are making the leap to documentary and Leonor Suarez is among those leading the way…


The thought of making films with a smartphone is so liberating. I’ve often shared my love for documentaries, and many of you will remember how Hollywood cooed over Sundance feature Tangerine, shot entirely on an iPhone. Now, as Apple prepares for its latest launch, the journalism and film industries both stand to benefit. And this is progress, let’s be clear. Ideas and effort should be the only real barriers to entry, not technology or privilege.

For every old school skeptic looking on as they caress their RED, Alexa or Canon 7D, there’s another person – iPhone tucked in pocket – getting out there and surprising themselves with their ability. One example is Leonor Suarez, who gave an inspiring talk yesterday at monthly meet-up MoJo London. Suarez is a news editor and reporter for Televisión del Principado de Asturias (TPA) and makes 20-minute packages for the broadcaster, working with a specialist cameraman. Two years ago she had never tried to film any type of journalistic content on her phone, and had no interest in the technical side. After attending a MoJo gathering she dived straight into long-form.

One catalyst was the abundance of great stories Suarez would come across from day to day. She also wanted to have more creative control over how the final broadcast would look. Her first piece was an 11-minute report on a community arts project under threat in Oviedo, shot and edited on an iPhone 4 and delivered against a tight deadline.

Patience was key. Suarez had to handle every aspect of the report, from lighting to interviewing. It’s what she describes as a “handcrafted job”. However, the added responsibility also became an opportunity for Suarez to “grow as a journalist” because “filming enhances your creativity”. Since then, she has gone on to cover a broad range of topics: a new wave of farmers in Picos de Europa; Michelin-starred chef Nacho Manzano cooking with flowers; and the Potosi silver mines in Bolivia.

Suarez showed clips of these on the night. She stumbled upon the Potosi mines story while on holiday. Many of us were impressed by quality of the shots captured in such poor light. She said that focusing using Filmic Pro, the “gold standard of mobile video”, was difficult so she reverted to the native camera on her iPhone 5s. And that wasn’t the only useful tip. Here are a few more:

  • Phone capacity is still an issue for documentary makers so if you are shooting for more than an hour then always have a spare memory stick to hand. Suarez Velcros one to the tripod, together with a battery.
  • Back up everything at least twice. Once to an external hard disk such as a 256gb iPad (using AirDrop), and again to the Google Drive or a similar cloud provider.
  • Make use of in-built image stabilisation. Don’t be afraid to try pans and tilts if you think this will help to convey the story.
  • Edit in iMovie if you can. Using a phone can be really hard on the eyes and it’s awkward to perform tasks such as editing audio.
  • Learn to work within your particular constraints, eg time and conditions. For instance, use any existing light sources around you. A good example is the hardhat lamps in the mines documentary. Keep interviews short and have a preliminary conversation off camera beforehand to identify key questions.
  • Don’t feel unprofessional just because you are using a phone instead of a bigger camera and crew. This is the now!
  • Think about engagement. That means cutting trailers and teasers with instant visual appeal and snappy soundbites.

Core kit

– iPhone 6s

– Auxiliary battery

Shoulderpod s1

– Stabiliser

Manfrotto 500 series tripod

Joby GorillaPod 

Rode RODElink

Rode NTG2 shotgun mic

iRig Pro audio interface

TRRS adaptor cable

SanDisk iXpand flash drive

Pico dolly

– Velcro!

So what next? Suarez predicts that the line between camera operator and scriptwriter will continue to blur as journalists become more adept at visualising the stories they want to tell. Judging by her next project about the last days of the Spanish Civil War, Suarez will also be experimenting with form and narrative, making the most of the iPhone’s close-up capability and employing other techniques such as reconstruction.

As the technology becomes even more powerful and compact, reporters will be able to get right into the nooks and crannies of a piece to capture amazing footage. A mine, an attic, an ants’ nest… Given time, space and money, filmmakers would still prefer traditional broadcast set-ups for capturing footage to air on giant home TVs. But there are advantages to using a smartphone, not least because people are familiar with them. Hence, they are put at ease.

"I didn't have to take a camera crew with me, says RTE new co-ordinator Eleanor Mannion, who shot an hour-long documentary called The Collectors on an iPhone 6s Plus in 4K for RTE. “I could just go on my own and have conversations with people about their collections. The medium didn’t get in the way of the story and that was really important to me. It allowed me another level of intimacy and honesty…”

You can hear more about Mannion’s experiences on the production at the next Mojo London meet up on 11 October. See you there.

Amar Patel

Political journalism in the Buzzfeed age – an evening with Emily Ashton

by Amar Patel in ,

Regular readers will know that I tend to jump around a bit when it comes to the topics covered. But one bedrock is definitely journalism. You can fill your boots with countless posts and podcasts but sometimes only a face-to-face conversation will do. Thankfully there are a number of events in London that professionals can attend to discuss the key issues. Take Modern Journalism or example, organised by Eleanor Goodman, who is features editor at Metal Hammer. Last week we were lucky enough to meet Emily Ashton, senior political correspondent at Buzzfeed.

Buzzfeed's senior political correspondent Emily Ashton

Buzzfeed's senior political correspondent Emily Ashton

Think Buzzfeed and the first word that pops into your head will probably be "lists". The second might be "GIFs". And yes, those are key features of the irreverent power publisher. They have pioneered a 'less and more often' approach to digital media with their oh so clickable take on pop culture and current affairs. Or, as founder Jonah Peretti once put it: “Catering for the bored at work network, the largest network in the world.” However there is another side to the company that is causing a stir – their news and current affairs coverage. The Prime Minister granted them an audience in the build up to the last General Election: to some a validation of an infamous cat site, to others a cynical move from Cameron to appeal to young voters. Even their lists have become more serious.

Could their strategy be to attract attention through light-hearted fodder before presenting the weightier content that generates greater investment through native advertising. Surely, not. Peretti, who also co-founded the Huffington Post, was quick to spot a gap in the market, outlining his vision in a memo to staff in 2013: "The world needs sustainable, profitable, vibrant content companies staffed by dedicated professionals; especially content for people that grew up on the web, whose entertainment and news interests are largely neglected by television and newspapers."

Let's consider the “dedicated professionals” part. Attracting 16-34s on web and mobile with shareable content is important but so is reporting and breaking stories – very traditional skills of a news journalist. Since the beginning of last year – where Buzzfeed UK traffic accounted for 10 per cent of the company’s global total (200 million, apparently) – there have been a number of high-profile acquisitions: 

  • Janine Gibson, Deputy Editor, The Guardian
  • Stuart Millar, Head of News, The Guardian
  • Heidi Blake, Assistant Editor, Sunday Times
  • Richard James, Deputy Online Editor of 
  • Tom Chivers, Assistant Comment Editor, The Telegraph
  • Robert Colvile, The Telegraph
  • Michael Gillard, Sunday Times
  • Monica Mark, The Guardian
  • Ali Watkins, Huffington Post
  • Jane Bradley, BBC Panorama
  • Tom Warren, Bureau of Investigative Journalism

[Buzzfeed is also moving into local news, recruiting 14 more staff and four regional reporters.]

To that list you can add Ashton, who joined in 2014 having spent three years at The Sun (as Whitehall correspondent) and five at the Press Association. Two traditional publishers that have needed to quickly adapt to a digital age where agility and accessibility are everything. But listening to Ashton run through her day, it soon obvious that some things haven’t changed. She still needs to produce a steady stream of short pitches – sourced from contacts at Westminster, lunches with MPs and little chats at Portcullis House – and she still needs to write around 200-300 words per piece in short sentences just as she once had to for The Sun. The newsroom does operate slightly differently though, thanks to tools such as Slack.

Her most popular piece for the tabloid was this story about David Cameron leaving his daughter in a pub. A sympathetic viewpoint; he was devastated apparently. The Mirror would have been more cutting, said Ashton. Her most popular piece to date for Buzzfeed is this – a witty collective response on social media to Jeremy Hunt after he threatened to make doctors work weekends.


Notice the difference in format. Ashton loves having more control over the headline at Buzzfeed. Writers will input options into a CMS, which recommends the optimum composition to offer the best chance of going viral. Breaking news is immediately posted and headlines are tweaked based on how well each piece performs on social media.

Ashton had been keen to move into digital for a while and, at 28, felt the time was right to make the leap “before she missed the boat”. She described the experience at Buzzfeed as feeling “more like a rolling Sunday newspaper”. But while a newspaper pitch might end up on page 14, a similar story at Buzzfeed becomes a standalone page with countless shares. And there is still scope to tackle big stories, long reads, profiles… For example, she would like to pitch an interview with Iain Duncan Smith and Labour MP Jess Phillips is keen to do a Snapchat quiz with them. “And why not? she asks. You may not be the best but you’ll be the first and likely to be the most popular.”

Ashton also shared her excitement about video, something her employer is investing heavily in through its Buzzfeed Motion Pictures venture. For a company that strives to go viral every day by producing surprising content that makes millennials want share, you can see why 30-second videos are the way ahead. They will try anything and that’s their strength, as long as they continue to harness data to decide what to cover and where.

One anecdote that had us all chuckling was where Ashton recalled MPs' reactions to Buzzfeed reporters introducing the website and probing for stories. “Bird Seed? Breastfeed?” they would ask dumbfoundedly … perhaps mockingly. Well those days have surely passed. In a world where every vote counts, those that win the clicks wield the power. Buzzfeed executives such as Peretti and editor-in-chief Ben Smith often talk about the word “impact”. Using the company’s distribution model and knowledge about how stories spread to influence popular culture. This is the company that can generate more than 25 million hits by convincing us that #TheDress is blue and black one minute and white and gold the next. Imagine what they could do in a country where half of 18-34s reject the political system?

Amar Patel

Is there a place for traditional reporters in the age of citizen journalism?

by Amar Patel in , ,

You probably have a smartphone in your pocket. Powerful little thing isn't it. TV. Films. Music. Games. Apps. Limitless selfies. All at your fingertips within seconds. Now imagine if a protest kicks off outside the cafe you're supping at. You rush outside, press record and capture events as they unfold. Then, you share it to Facebook and Twitter. Does that make you a journalist? Did you get the whole story or simply your view of events? These questions were at the heart of a recent Intelligence Squared debate in London, presented in association with Google+ and ITV News.

Some of the most powerful and indelible images of breaking news stories during the past few years have come from so-called citizen journalists on the ground: the tsunami in Thailand, the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, Syria, the Boston Marathon, the Japanese earthquake, the London riots, the brutal murder of Lee Rigby… A window to events as they unfold. Traditional media and trained reporters cannot be everywhere and when they do shimmy their way to the front, they are hardly the most inconspicuous, agile or welcomed. So surely having more information at hand is good for both the press and the public?

But this tidal wave of media can be a double-edged sword. There is a danger of misinformation and misinterpretations, hoaxes and vested interests. I still remember the Boston bombings wildfire on Twitter, major news organisations posting with scant regard for journalistic ethics and standards. As Mark Austin, ITV News anchor and chair for the evening, asked in his introduction, "Should we always believe what we see? And is citizen journalism informing or distorting our understanding of world events?"

Here are a few soundbites from the panellists that evening:

Oren Yakobovich
Founder of Videre (set credere), a human rights group that works to expose violations around the globe through covert filming. Yakobovich, a former Israeli soldier, has trained hundreds of citizens in the West Bank to use cameras to fight for justice.

"Journalists can't be everywhere. They're not always able to be on the ground. Citizen journalists are an underground and sustainable network of people that can give us the news that we wouldn't normally hear about."

"Everyone has an agenda. Everyone should verify sources and do their own checking."

Claire Fox
Renowned libertarian writer and director of Britain's Institute of Ideas. She writes regularly for national newspapers and is a member of the European Cultural Parliament.

"Citizens with cameras: good. But not journalism. Journalism is about developing context, being skeptical and asking awkward questions. These people are just watching events and not really understanding or asking the big questions [who, why etc]."

"There is the potential for a distortion of the truth in some citizen footage."

"Detachment and objectivity are important benefits of the parachuted in journalist. They are there to convince us why this news is important."

"[Traditional] journalists are trying to ape the citizen journalists too much. There has been a collapse of editorial confidence [retweets as a metric of success at some papers]."

"We [the public] should hold journalists to account. Demand the best of truth. Not try to do it ourselves."

Will Self
Author, journalist and broadcaster, who writes two fortnightly columns for the New Statesman.

"The best definition of journalism is by HL Mencken: 'It is the job of the journalist to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.' It's my watchword. Run that test…"

"There is a frisson that lies behind a lot of this smartphone footage, a rather grotesque form of entertainment – a form of comfort, if that's what it is – that responsible journalism should not be involved in."

"Citizen journalism is coming in to fill a vacuum but it's a mistake to call it journalism."

"Everybody can be heard now, but nobody's listening."

"Here is an example of non-journalism: the use of chemical weapons in Syria, supposedly by the al-Assad regime, which was not in fact the case. Footage almost triggered ground force invasion by the US. Decontextualised citizen journalism could have precipitated a human rights violation on a gargantuan scale."

"Of course [the citizen journalism debate] is about money and revenue streams. There is a febrile mood that's created an atmosphere of hysteria. Everyone's tweeting, sending in this smartphone material… But who get to use this head of effectively useless steam that this material generates?"

"Anyone over the age of 50 will remember growing up around the time of Vietnam and witnessing unmediated news coverage for the first time. It took a while for the media to understand what a responsible relationship with that material was. It is the responsibility of mainstream news media to try to develop a way of dealing with [citizen journalism] material and developing an ethic around it."

Paul Conroy 
World-renowned photojournalist and war photographer. In 2012 Conroy suffered severe injuries in the Syrian city of Homs during an attack that killed two other reporters, including celebrated Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin.

"We wouldn't dream of printing hearsay. We would go to the spot. The job of the journalist is to bear witness. Marie was incredible at going one step further, one step further… With citizen journalists there isn't that depth."

"Give me 20 minutes with that footage and I can tell any story you like."

Jessica Mayberry 
Citizen journalist and founder of Video Volunteers, an organisation that works to empower India's rural and slum communities, who have been excluded from the traditional media.

"There has always been a continuum between activism and journalism. They go hand in hand. We [Video Volunteers] talk about video for change. Our network of community corespondents work as reporters. They don't just make the videos, they use them to try to solve the problem that the video addresses. If they see that opportunity … they seize it."

"Subjective personal experience is certainly not journalism, but it's nonetheless valid. A real opportunity now exists…"

Simon Ostrovsky
Soviet-born American journalist, director and producer, currently reporting for VICE News. He was recently held captive for three days by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"In Ukraine, a lot of people have started setting up Livestreams from occupied public buildings but I wouldn't call this journalism so much as activism. They use it for co-ordination but us journalists can follow the cameras set up to know what's going on where."

"Citizen journalists are mostly endangering themselves." 


Tim Singelton 
Director of Newsgathering at ITV News, who was sitting in the audience that night. He is chiefly responsible for handling citizen journalism submissions to the channel.

"In Syria, where access becomes increasingly difficult, meaningful contacts are hard to come by and reporters are treated as outsiders, citizen journalists can be a great resource. We've always needed citizen journalists in one shape or another – eg fixers – but now they have the power to help make the news."

"Mainstream media organisations are more important and relevant than ever. We continue to have bureaus and to report news from around the world because we must confront the fact that a lot of material on the internet isn't unreliable."

From left to right: Will Self, Paul Conroy, Mark Austin, Oren Yakobovich and Claire Fox

From left to right: Will Self, Paul Conroy, Mark Austin, Oren Yakobovich and Claire Fox

The subject of verification came up time and again. Several companies have tried to answer this challenge by helping to filter the authentic and reliable from the noise and successfully bridge the gap between traditional and social media. CNN employs various mechanisms to verify information posted to their iReport platform, including checking the source's account for multiple videos or photos, and proximity to the location of the incident using geolocation information. However, CNN is also aware of the dangers in identifying sources and their locations, particularly in oppressed countries or where violent acts have occurred. So certain submissions can appear anonymously to the public.

Storyful is a news agency that came to prominence during the Arab Spring uprising, delivering a stream of reliable footage from the frontline. They use a combination of old-fashioned journalistic manpower and clever algorithm software to identify, verify and provide social media content for some of the biggest names in news, including Reuters, the Wall Street Street Journal and Channel 4.

On a recent blog post the company identified a "fundamental difference" between the work of the citizen journalist and the professional journalist: "While this [difference] makes neither less important, it must be kept in mind. Many citizen journalists have more obvious vested interests and personal biases. They may, for instance, be participants entrenched in the situation they are reporting on, their views thus involuntarily skewed. This does not necessarily invalidate what they see and record, but taking theirs as the 'whole truth' can lead to a view about news events that has more than just a few blind spots." A clear example of this is the reporting of conflict in the Ukraine

Tim Pool was one name strangely absent from the panel. He has helped to popularise the term "citizen journalist" more than anyone else. It is, however, a title that he quickly rejected when I asked him about the debate and the reliability of footage from reporters such as himself. "I am not a citizen journalist," he replied. "I am the Head of Live News at Vice. What they are really arguing is that if you don't have a degree or get a salary that somehow you are less ethical than they are. Rubbish. Always consider your sources."

The 28-year-old American came to prominence in 2011 when he hopped on a bus to New York and broadcast from his phone for 21 hours non-stop during Occupy Wall Street's eviction from Zuccotti Park. His DIY ethos, "commitment to the decentralisation of information" and determination to "tell it like it is" using everyday technology really chimed with hundreds of thousands of news-hungry streamers across the world. Although some have questioned his gung-ho approach, filming everything and everyone without first seeking consent. Since then he has experimented with a drone, hacked a pair of Google Glass to report from Istanbul and even co-created Taggly, an attribution app that allows the user to instantly share photos and video footage with an optional watermark. The citizen journalist gets credit for their content, while news agencies are able to check the veracity of the material they wish to use.

If there was a consensus among the panel it is that the footage from these citizen journalists  has some value – particularly in closed countries where, as Mark Austin put it, mainstream journalism does not exist. But professional in traditional media are the masters of their own destiny. The onus is on editors and trained journalists to be collaborative and resourceful in their mission to make sense of the world in an informative and accessible way. But they should, as always, rigorously check their sources.

And that's not all. A good journalist is skeptical, always quick to question their own assumptions and investigate the possibility that they are wrong. As Guardian reporter Paul Lewis did during the investigation into the unlawful death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in 2009. After speaking about this – and the Jimmy Mubenga case – at a TED talk on citizen journalism in 2011, Lewis concluded with the following line: "That process of witnessing, recording and sharing … is journalism. And we can all do it."

A powerful ideal and an impulse to be encouraged in every person.

Amar Patel