When Phones Become Reporters

    by Paul Lamb
    January 13, 2008

    In a recent post I shared some thoughts about the trend toward mobile phones being used to connect people in the real world – so called mobile social networking.

    Applying that same idea and tools to news reporting, some interesting possibilities appear on the horizon.

    First, a little context. Experts on the social and anthropological aspects of mobile phones, like Jan Chipchase, talk about how these devices give us the power to transcend space and time, and how our mobile devices allow for our identity to become portable and not merely attached to a particular place like our home or workplace.


    This notion of attaching greater importance to and paying more attention to our larger physical environment because we can control and interact with it through mobile devices has yet to catch on the world of media and the news. This is in part due to the relative newness of integrating mobile devices into the world of journalism. It also has a lot to due, IMHO, with the inability of the media to move beyond traditional reporting and information dissemination patterns, as well as concerns about handing over reporting power to average folks. Finally, there is a lack of mobile news gathering and distribution models, and the general public is still not yet experienced or comfortable with locative media in a news context.

    The traditional approach still holds, where it is the job of the news organization and professional journalists to decide what information to get to the public and how it gets there. It is still quite rare, other than in online blogs, for the public to decide what information gets shared, and for them to do the reporting themselves.

    At the same time we all know that citizen journalism is hot, and even established news organizations are experimenting with things like guests bloggers, and welcoming the submission of pictures and video by the general public.


    Pushing the envelope are hyperlocal reporting efforts like the Chi Town Daily News Jay Rosen’s attempt to create a social network of beat bloggers.

    But even the more cutting-edge projects are largerly Web and blog based, and don’t allow for instantaneous reporting and information sharing – via mobile devices – by anyone on the scene of a news event.

    Lets face it…we live in a world where half of all people possess cell phones (and over 90% in the U.S.). Most of these mobile devices now come fitted with or have the capability of utilizing information dissemination tools like geotagging (i.e., GPS and Google Maps), microblogging (i.e., Twitter), and soon live video streaming. As sensor technologies like RFID tagging gets added into the equation, giving us the ability to “tag” physical locations with information that can be accessed on the spot, there seems to be an interesting opportunity here for the combination of citizen media with place-based reporting and information sharing.

    Here are some examples:

    1. Local reporting that lives universally AND locally. Imagine reading a report about an accident in your neighborhood on the Internet. If you walk by the scene you are able to access eye-witness accounts and even video that is tagged to the actual physical location via mobile phone “reports” that live on the spot (but are also available on the Web). Not only can you access and review information via your mobile phone, but you can add to the story yourself, based on your own knowledge or interest. Similarly, eye-witnesses could easily “deposit” their accounts of an event, including text, video, and audio on the spot for access when mainstream reporters arrive on the scene.
    2. Citizen Media that is video and not text based. A large proportion of the of the world’s over 3 billion cell phone users are not functionally literate, nor do they have access to the Internet, and the ability to access visual and voice-activated information on cell phones is a tremendous and largely untapped market opportunity.
    3. News Networking. The “networking” of people that have an active interest in a story either because of their geographic proximity, direct involvement (say you know the people involved in an accident), or because of a general interest in following a story. Mobile Social Networking tools not only have the capability to link people with similar interests (via opt-in profiles), but can do it in real time.

    Overall, the application of mobile media and social networking tools to reporting offer an alternative to the traditional notion of stories fixed in time and place and to the medium that shares them – print, broadcast, or Web based. Stories and the reporting of them can now become attached to places where they happen and involve and a wider of array of people to interact with them and with each other. And stories can live on into the future as interested people, and not mainstream media channels, determine their ongoing relevance and lifespan.

    When phones become reporters, mass media truly has the potential of morphing into media of the masses.

    Tagged: mobile media locative media cellphone cell phone device news reporting social networking
    • Point 2 seems a tad silly. Most people functionally illiterate may struggle to operate the basics to learn what they need to in order to access the very data you’re talking about.

      Secondly, as a market, the probably not very attractive to advertisers as a demographic because traditionally those who are illiterate are not high-profile earners. Therefore if there isn’t a big return in it, media will not invest in the first place.

    • Perhaps the slowness to adopt has something to do with how people see mobile devices in relation to their lives. Where I live, in rural W. Mass, lots of people have cell phones–but, then again, lots of places don’t have good cell phone reception (as well as not having good high-speed internet.) Cell phones for some are still seen as devices to reach someone “in an emergency” or for social purposes such as sending pics or letting a friend know where to meet you–there’s no need to use the GPS to find a restaurant and twitter may not replace text messaging.

      Most of the time we know where the restaurants are–and word of mouth is still pretty good…

      And the thought of taking up reporting for the heck of it–well, if there’s an accident or some other in-the-moment event, then it’s a possibility. But, overall, I don’t believe that mobile reportings something that even many reporters around here (who seem *much* slower to adopt than the citizenry) feel that there’s a need to adopt.

      Further, average citizens don’t spend a heck of a lot of time comparing notes with one another about what devices they use to read blogs, celebrity gossip, or news. They don’t spend a heck of a lot of time obsessing over where and how they’re going to get info about a fire down the street or about stuff going on with the town council. So, that too may be why web-based apps are still ascending, and mobile will, more than likely, be slower. Minds don’t change all that quickly if a need is not obvious.

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