A short guide to tools for citizen journalists
Before you sign up as an amateur reporter, here are some essentials.
Recently, I've been working as a consultant on a new media project that focuses on citizen journalists. While “professional” journalists may raise an eyebrow at the idea, the reality of the new 24/7 news world – combined with a decline of local coverage in many cities and regions because of cutbacks – is that citizen journalists are no longer just a passing fad. In many places, they are contributing valuable reporting because of their determination to make sure important stories in their communities do not go uncovered.So I thought I would offer a few suggestions about ideas and tools for budding citizen journalists.Skip to next paragraph
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The most important thing any reporter can have, of course, is curiosity and the courage to keep digging when you're told to go away or “there's no story here.” Those skills are hard to teach. But one good place to look for suggestions is at J-Lab's J-Learning site. J-Lab, located at American University in Washington, D.C., frequently focuses on citizen media. At J-Learning, you'll find suggestions on everything from how to do interviews, or how to do a slideshow, to how to understand site metrics (translation: who is reading you and how often.)
When it comes to technology, I'm going to recommend two specific tools – an iPhone (Blackberry is good too) and a Flip video camera. (I'm assuming that you have access to a laptop or desktop computer.) These two pieces of equipment can basically fit into one pants pocket or handbag. And they're not that expensive; the 3G iPhone is now $99 (along with a service contract), and a Flip video camera is about $149.
“Why those?” you ask. Let’s start with the Flip video camera. Originally sold as a point-and-shoot family video camera (it reminds me a lot of the old Polaroid camera in a way), Flip literally makes shooting video as easy as pushing a button. Make no mistake: this may not be the camera you want to use to make a high quality documentary, but it’s a great tool to capture, say, protesters outside a healthcare town hall or quick street interviews or some background footage for a multimedia piece.
Or you can use it to turn the subjects of your story into “assistant” reporters. For instance, earlier this year, CNN armed two new freshmen representatives with Flip video cameras and asked them to record their first steps on Capitol Hill. As Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah later told the New York Times "The camera makes it doable. I can literally put it in my shirt pocket."