It’s been more than a year since I packed away my laptop computer, digital recorders, microphones, cables and cameras, and began covering Washington, D.C. with only my iPhone.
When I first came to the top-rated all-news WTOP in 1997, the bag phone I carried weighed as much as a bowling ball. Reel-to-reel tape recorders (ask your parents) were the newsroom staple, but early versions of Cool Edit audio editing software signaled that the times, they were a-changin’.
As cell phones became smaller, and laptops more prevalent, radio reporters could finally produce studio-quality reports in the field, and email them to the newsroom. But that involved schlepping, booting, connecting, dubbing, and a lot of waiting.
Now, with the Apple iPhone 4 and several apps, I can produce intricate audio and video reports, broadcast live, take and edit photos, write web content and distribute it through social media from a single device.
How It’s Done
With the VC Audio Pro app from VeriCorder, I can quickly pull cuts, edit and assemble audio wraps, and adjust volumes on a three-track screen similar to the popular Adobe Audition used in many newsrooms. The amount of time saved by not having to boot up the laptop and transfer audio has been my single greatest workflow improvement. The finished report that used to take 30 minutes to produce and transmit can now be done in 10. Here’s a rundown of all the key ways I use my iPhone:
When I started my iPhone-only reporting on a 3Gs, I was pleased with the Blue Microphone Mikey. The small microphone connects to the charging port of the iPhone and iPod. Mikey provided nice bass response, but when Apple iPhone 4 was introduced, Mikey was no longer compatible. I tested several compact microphones, but all sounded thin and hissy. Currently I’m using the built-in microphone of the iPhone and am satisfied with the sound quality. The iPhone is very susceptible to wind.
For video, VC 1stVideo has many of the same features as its audio cousin. It provides two HD video tracks and two audio tracks. The iPhone’s built-in microphone points away from the subject being interviewed. I’ve experimented with the JK Audio BlueDriver-F3. It’s a Bluetooth unit that allows a broadcast microphone to pair with the iPhone. It’s expensive (more than $200), and while it does allow the mic to transmit to the phone, it doesn’t mute the iPhone’s built-in microphone. So, currently the only way to get good audio with video is to use an XLR adapter cable.
With photos, the ability to quickly snap, edit and transmit photos to wtop.com from the same device is causing me to rethink my newsgathering workflow. In years past my first priority at a breaking news scene was to gather audio. Now, I find myself taking a few pictures first. While dozens of photo apps are available, I use the iPhone 4’s built-in camera. For editing, I select the photo from Camera Roll, re-frame, then take a screenshot of the cropped image by simultaneously touching the sleep/wake button on the top of the phone and the Home button. It’s then ready to be emailed.
For live reports, I’ve experimented with two mobile voice-over-IP (VoIP) apps — Report-IT Live and Media5-fone. Each requires a receiver in the newsroom that costs several thousand dollars. I haven’t been satisfied with the stability of either, and have decided it’s too risky to use for a live report, so will usually pre-feed a pre-recorded spot. Skype — especially in a WiFi hotspot — provides a free live alternative that often sounds as good as the pricy apps.
Twitter is complementing and redefining my on-air and website reporting. I’ll often break stories on Twitter, and follow-up with audio and website reports. Tweeting pictures and video has a faster upload time than emailing, so often the website will capture tweeted elements for inclusion on wtop.com. I’m very happy with the free version from Twitter Inc. My backup is TwitVid.
iPad + accessories
These days I also carry an iPad to take notes, while my iPhone is on a podium during a news conference. Before that, I liked the Apple Wireless Keyboard, which paired easily with the phone.
In attempting to reduce my load, I carry a few accessories. Because nobody makes a microphone clip for the iPhone, I jury-rigged one by super-gluing thin foam to a standard clip, which holds the phone snugly while preventing scratching. I also just purchased the Joby Gorilla for iPhone 4, which can be wrapped around other microphones on a podium.
So is it worth it? A year in, iPhone-only reporting isn’t perfect. While audio editing works great, with the phone’s built-in microphone I’d estimate the sound quality of my field reports is 92% as good as when I use bulky broadcast equipment. Getting better audio for my video is a real challenge. And if I ever have to cover a story from a subway tunnel or location where there’s no WiFi or cell coverage, I won’t be able to file until I resurface.
As digital equipment continues to morph I’m sure my tools will be substantially different within a few years. Every day, new applications open new opportunities for a reporter who’s willing to work around the limitations of iPhone-only reporting while maximizing the benefits.
UPDATE (4/5/11): Because of a request in the comments, here’s a sampling of various iPhone-generated reports from Neal:
UPDATE (4/6/11): Here’s a video that Neal made showing how he does audio editing with his iPhone 4:
For the past 14 years, Neal Augenstein has been an award-winning reporter with WTOP-FM and wtop.com in Washington, D.C. He’s the first major-market radio reporter to do all his field reporting on an iPhone. Neal is a frequent contributor to CBS News Radio. Born in Connecticut, he graduated from American University in Washington, with a degree in broadcast journalism. On Twitter, follow @NealAugenstein and @wtop.