Up close and personal? Mobile journalist Twan Spierts on reporting with smartphones

twan spierts

Dutch journalist Twan Spierts says mobile journalism doesn’t just get the job done more quickly — it can also get you better access. Interview by Jonny Jacobsen.

When Dutch journalist Twan Spierts first starting using a smartphone to cover local football matches, his colleagues looked askance at him.

“All the other journalists, all the other reporters there, looked at me and thought ‘Okay, that guy’s crazy,’” he recalls.

But not the players. “They didn’t mind at all.”

That was the point when he thought, well, if the people he was interviewing didn’t care what kit he was using, then why should he?

Spierts, 27, only started his journalism studies a decade ago, in 2007, and by 2010 he was freelancing for Dutch broadcasters.

But as a self-confessed dabbler in gadgets he was quick to try out new techniques when the opportunity presented itself.

No in-house cameras

So when in September 2015 one of his employers found it had no in-house cameras available to cover a football match and was ready to pay 300 euros to hire what they needed, he saw his chance.

“I just said, ‘No, we are not going to do that. It’s a waste of money and a waste of time. I’m going to do those post-match interviews by myself with my phone.’”

And that’s what he did: with his phone, a tripod and microphone and not much else. And since no one back at the station noticed any drop in quality, he kept at it.

These days, he combines his reporting with training courses in mobile journalism for media professionals.

And at his Mobile Journalism Blog, he argues the case for the Mojo approach to video journalism as a faster, cheaper alternative to conventional camerawork.


Better access

In the training sessions he does with local organisations, he underlines the speed of mobile journalism, which is especially important when it comes to breaking news.

There is no point in a broadcast journalist standing around at the scene waiting for the camera crew to arrive when he has what he needs in his pocket, he says.

He cites an adage that has become something of a mantra in this field of journalism: “The best camera is you have is the camera you have with you.”

But he has also noticed that this approach appears to gives you better access. People are often less intimidated by a smartphone camera than a conventional rig — and thus more willing to open up.

He cites the example of a story he covered on a migrant workers’ hostel that was attracting a lot of hostility from local people.

“I had to go to do a report on that and those people didn’t really want want to talk with me because they were angry at everybody— you know how that stuff goes.”

He was convinced that if he went with a big camera he would have little chance of getting anything out of these people, so he chose the mobile option.

“I went there just with my phone and a small microphone, that was all, so it was much less intimidating and it was much easier for me to get the story in there — just because I used the small equipment instead of the large equipment.”

Significantly better response rate

Recent research seems to confirm his hunch.

Spierts sends over a link to a BBC story on an experiment conducted by Finnish journalist Panu Karhunen for the Reuters Institute.

Karhunen sent a conventional two-person camera crew to a shopping centre in the Finnish capital Helsinki to do a vox pop; then a mobile journalist filming with just a smartphone. The mobile journalist got a significantly better response rate.

In a review of the existing literature, Karhunen cited several examples of reporters covering difficult stories, such as the refugee crisis, who were convinced that they could never have got the footage they captured using a conventional rig.

But he also noted that mobile journalists said they sometimes ran into a credibility problem: they had trouble being taken seriously by potential interviewees precisely because they were not using the conventional paraphernalia.

You can download Karhunen’s full report over at the Reuters Institute website.

Unleashing your smartphone


Panorama used in one tweet by Twan Spierts

Part of Spierts’ work consists of training sessions in which he tries to open people’s eyes to the still largely untapped potential of mobile journalism. After a recent session he tweeted:

So what was it that had surprised them?

“They really hadn’t discovered much of what they could do with their phone … Most of them didn’t know that they could anything when it comes to editing with their phones … They didn’t know all the possibilities.

“I have this list with all the simple stuff you can do like slow-motion and time lapse and making stop-motion and making a panorama picture and stuff like that. The really basic stuff, the stuff that’s mainly in your phone already so you don’t need many extra apps for that.

“When I train people, they get really enthusiastic that the phone in their hands already can be so much more powerful than they knew before.”

Another thing he tries to be clear on is what a smartphone can and cannot do: where it scores over a conventional camera, but also its limitations.

“When it comes to technical stuff what I see go wrong with a lot of people, people think, ‘This is my phone and I can use my phone as I use my normal camera’.”

But that is not actually how it works, he says. For while your smartphone is a very powerful device — especially when it comes to filming — it has drawbacks as well as advantages.

“The disadvantages of your phone are of course you don’t have a good optical zoom so you can’t really get close to people. When the light environment on your phone changes it doesn’t look nice when you walk from a light area to a dark area …

“So when I teach people how to film with their phone … I always tell them ‘Please, every shot you make, think of the shot. Lock your focus, lock your exposure maybe even lock your white balance to make sure you have a controlled environment’…”

In that respect then, an old-school camera scores over a smartphone.

“On the other hand, you can use your phone to get really close to your subject. I see people not really thinking of that and just forgetting that — because they are not used to getting really close to someone with their big camera…

“You can go to four, five centimetres of a subject and still get a sharp shot of that subject,” he says.

Resistance from the broadcast giants

There still appears to be resistance to mobile journalism from some of the big players in broadcasting, says Spierts. He recently attended the latest conference of the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC2017) in Amsterdam.

In a post at his blog, he noted:

Apart from all these innovations, what surprised me the most at this edition of IBC was the total lack of attention for the whole mojo movement. Of course, IBC is focused at these multi-million dollar companies, it’s not organized for indie filmmakers or individual journalists. But still, it’s so strange that a lot of these big companies try to ignore that there is a huge shift going on in content creation.

While there is plenty of innovation in the broadcasting industry, there is a tendency for really big organisations to react slowly to change, he explains.

“The small companies are doing a lot of innovative mojo stuff, and all those big, big companies don’t do it that much.”

Top industry names such as Canon, JVC, and Sony are still developing lightweight cameras designed for mobile journalism, and a lot of reporters were still using them — as he does too on occasion.

But most of the time he sticks with his phone because “I can deliver to my broadcaster, I can post it online, much, much faster than I would do with a VJ camera”.

And with the quality of smartphone cameras steadily improving, Spierts sees more and more reporters switching to their phones.

Already, he says, smaller broadcasters who cannot afford to send big crews to cover stories are sending one person to do it all. “That person has to file a TV report, a radio report, online content and all the other stuff for all the outlets that that broadcaster has…

“You don’t need a laptop, you don’t need to drive back to the studio to do the editing, I can do all that on my phone or maybe on my iPad or a laptop.

“For me mobile journalism means that we get rid of that old-school stuff and when you look at those VJ cameras there is not much innovation…

“Those VJ cameras are about the same as they were 10 years ago.” There may have been some improvements, he says, but not at the pace we are seeing in the smartphone market.

Getting started

Today, says Spierts, all a mobile journalist needs to get started is their smartphone; a decent grip or tripod to stabilise the shot; a light to make sure they can get the shot; and a microphone.

For less than a 100 euros, if you know where to look, you can kit out your phone for mobile journalism — though a few decent apps might also help, he adds.

And while for top-of-the-range choices he would still recommend iPhones for their ease of use and the range of apps available, Android devices are becoming increasingly competitive.

“At this point, I still recommend an iPhone, but the gap is getting smaller and Androids are getting better … so maybe in a year or two I would advise something else.”

But if there is one mistake he has seen beginners make over and over, it is that they just don’t give the new techniques a real chance.

“… [T]hey try it once or twice and then they think ‘Okay, maybe this is more complicated than I thought, or maybe the quality is not as good as I wanted it to be, I’ll just stop using it for recording’.”

People in particular get frustrated that the screen of their phone is so small it makes it difficult to edit their material, he says.

“They try for 10 minutes or half an hour and they say ‘This is too difficult, I’ll stop doing it, I’ll go back to my old workload’.

“What I try to convince people of is that … your phone, when you use it as a journalism device — as a filming and editing device — it’s basically a new device for you, because that’s a way of working you are not used to. And with any new way of working, you need time to get used to it, and time to master it.

“So I always tell people, ‘Please, give yourself the time to work for let’s say 10 or 20 or 30 hours filming and recording on your phone, because you need that time to master what you do, to get better and better…

“Don’t get annoyed when you don’t get results after 30 minutes, or maybe one hour, because you have to try harder and ask questions and get better. Don’t stop so early.”

It is the same story when it comes to editing material on a desktop or portable, he says: in the first hour, they want to throw their device out the window, it seems so difficult.

“But it’s not that difficult,” he insists. “Because when you do it for a couple of hours, it gets really easy, it gets really easy quickly.”

He has got to the stage where he can edit faster on his phone than he can on his big-screen computer.

The message is simple then: stick at it. Practice makes perfect.

Twan Spierts blogs on the latest developments in mobile journalism at mobilejournalism.blog.

Jonny Jacobsen is on sabbatical from Agence France-Presse to do an MA in Data Journalism (with a side order of mojo).


7 thoughts on “Up close and personal? Mobile journalist Twan Spierts on reporting with smartphones

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