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A short guide to tools for citizen journalists

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

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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.

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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.