A short guide to tools for citizen journalists

Before you sign up as an amateur reporter, here are some essentials.

By , Columnist for The Christian Science Monitor

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    IPhones and Flip cameras are two great ways to start.
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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.

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.)

Another good place for tips is the Poynter Institute's training section. Many of their webinars and online courses are free of charge or at relatively small fee.

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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."

One of my favorite features about the Flip is that it comes complete with its own editing software. OK, it’s no Final Cut Pro, but if you need to cut out a quick clip to include in a story, just stick that puppy into a computer’s USB slot and the editing software downloads on to the machine.

But for me, it’s the iPhone that’s the real star of “put it in your pocket” reporting. Thanks to iPhone app’s, you can literally do almost anything. But I want to focus on the two or three things that work the best:
The camera built into an iPhone is surprisingly good. When I first used it, I expected yet another poor-quality output – a little too pixilated perhaps or the colors would be off. Nope. Not at all. The digital photos that you can take with an iPhone are surprisingly crisp and clear.

Recently, Melissa Lyttle, a photographer at Poynter's St. Petersburg Times used her iPhone to take photos for one of her paper’s weekend features. She noted on her blog that "the best camera is the one you have with you." (Al Tompkins at Poynter has a good piece on using the iPhone for journalism at Poynter.org.)

But the iPhone doesn’t just do pictures. I frequently use it to record interviews. I use a free app called Quick Voice. It records the interview, allows me to catalog it, and then download it to my computer. This feature is now standard on new iPhones.

If you’re interested in having a real-time conversation with your readers, apps that allow you to send messages to your Twitter or Facebook accounts are readily available (and they are free, I might add).

The new iPhone 3GS has a video feature, but Flip’s $149 price tag, no monthly bills, and better editing software give it the edge.

If you don't have the money to purchase these tools, many new citizen journalist sites (and there are lots of them out there) may be able to help. I've found lots of them are already using Flip Video camera. And they are always looking for good citizen journalists.

Also remember, these days it's relatively easy to start up your own citizen-journalist website. Most Internet accounts come with web space. Or if you're more ambitious, sign up for the free service at Live Stream (formerly known as Mogulus) that allows you to create you own TV channel on the Web.

To repeat what I said above: in the days when many local media outlets are cutting back on coverage of things such as school board meetings or county councils, a citizen journalist can really contribute something important to his or her community.

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