From carrying a phone the size and weight of a bowling ball, to now using a device that fits in the palm of his hand, Neal Augenstein has seen technology change. In February 2010, Augenstein made the bold decision to put away his laptop, digital recorders, and the rest of his clunky equipment, to do all of his field reporting on an iPhone.
As a general assignment reporter for WTOP-FM for 16 years and now the technology director for WTOP and WTOP.com, Augenstein, 54, became the first major-market radio reporter to solely do iPhone reporting and he hasn’t looked back since. The Newseum in Washington, D.C. recognized his pioneering work in mobile journalism last year when it asked him and WTOP to donate his iPhone 4S as an artifact representing this new era of reporting.
Here, Augenstein recalls his days of working in the field before the invention of the smartphone and how the iPhone’s creation completely changed his way of reporting. He also shares his tips and experiences with iPhone reporting on his website.
Conversation has been shortened and edited for clarity.
How did you get into the journalism industry?
Neal Augenstein: I went to American University and majored in broadcast journalism. I got into the news business in 1992, with United Press International when they still had a radio division. Back then we used reel-to-reel tape recorders and cassette recorders. While I was there, we got our first taste of digital audio editing with the software Cool Edit, which was a pre-cursor to the Adobe Audition Software audio editing software we have now.
How has the technology changed over time?
NA: When I came to WTOP in 1997, we still had reel-to-reel machines, and we made calls from the field from a bag phone; it weighed 15 pounds. You had to carry it like a suitcase. I also carried two large cassette recorders, several microphones, a laptop computer, a whole bunch of cables, eventually a still camera and a video camera.
You could imagine that could be a lot of schlepping.
I also had to wait around a lot because every time you would go out in the field and do an interview and you’d want to transfer it over to your laptop computer, you would have to boot up your computer and wait several minutes for that. It was very time consuming.
Before smartphones were introduced, there was never any mobile device good enough to be used. I remember waiting for some software that could have made the job easier. But when the iPhone came out, and more specifically when the multi-track audio editing software app VC Audio Pro made by a company called VeriCorder came out, that was the first time I was able to start doing the mobile journalism.
When I started doing all of my field reporting on iPhones and later on an iPad, I returned the laptop after having forgotten what the password was. And I’ve never looked back.
What are your current job duties as WTOP’s technology director?
NA: We recently launched a new tech section on WTOP.com, which is an award-winning website that started in 1999. The website has grown as we’ve transitioned from being a radio station to being a digital news organization. We realized we can no longer just be a radio station. Because the audience has changed, technology is changing and in order to continue to be successful, we’re going to have to change the way we do things.
All the stories we cover have to work on all of the platforms. Nowadays, we do stories that can complement rather than duplicate each other. So people who are following us on any platform can feel confident to look at the news first from us on whatever platform they’re plugged into at that particular moment.
People are very interested in their smartphones, tablets, in social media, in consumer tech gadgets. It’s something that has become a very big part of our lives. So while we’re not a geeky tech page, we’re reporting more on the way that technology affects our lives rather than the technology itself.
Why did you decide to do reporting only on the iPhone?
NA: When I started doing iPhone reporting, I wanted to make sure the quality of my work didn’t suffer. So I listened with a critical ear to what I was doing. I found that the sound quality of speaking into an iPhone is 92 percent as good as if I were speaking into a standard microphone and a digital recorder. But by the time the audio goes through editing and the end user hears the reports, they sound the same. No one has ever asked me ‘Neal, do you record your work with a different recorder than the other people at your station?’ So the fact that nobody seems to notice the difference I think is a pretty good indication that it is working well.
How has reporting only using an iPhone changed the way you report?
NA: What I’ve noticed is that my work flow has changed. I’m not sure if that’s specifically because of the equipment I’m using or because of the way the industry and the demand on reporters has changed. In the old days, the radio reporter just got the radio story. Now a multimedia reporter is expected to not only get the audio for radio, but also is expected to shoot pictures, shoot videos if necessary, and also write the story. But being able to do all the elements on a single device makes it much easier to report on all of those platforms at the same time.
(See recent work by Augenstein: Below, he demonstrates how to use the new winking feature on Google Glass.)
What kind of apps do you use for reporting?
NA: The app I use the most for my audio and video editing is Voddio. Other apps are SoundCloud and Twitter. The basic Twitter app is important not only because of the way it shares information, but also as a transmission device. It becomes an important way to share audio and video. I use Camera+ to tweak photos before they go on the air. I use the YouTube Capture app, which is helpful for uploading video quickly. Sometimes I use Instagram for short videos, which I prefer over Vine because of its editing capabilities.
I use the Skype or FaceTime apps for times I want to do a live interview. A big improvement is the FaceTime audio release, which happened in September.
How do you make sure you get the best quality out of the iPhone?
NA: I spend a lot of time … helping newsmakers sound better. For instance, if I’m sitting here in the newsroom and I call someone to do a phone interview, the phone quality sounds lousy. So now, when I set up an interview, I ask if the person has access to an iPhone, iPad or an iPod Touch. And then I work up how-to videos where I explain to them how we can hold a phone conversations over a landline and they can speak their answers into their device and email me studio-quality audio.
So instead of me having to use lousy quality audio on the air, it sounds like we were in the same room. So that has greatly improved the station’s sound quality and that’s something that a lot of reporters have adopted.
What are some limitations of using the iPhone for reporting?
Obviously, you can’t do everything all at once. There’s been times I’ve been plugged into what’s happening at a podium with my iPad, and I’ve used my iPhone to go gather video. I’m not going to be able to shoot as good of a video package as a trained TV videographer using a camera that costs tens of thousands of dollars. But I can shoot some HD-quality video with my iPhone and post it up online faster than that trained TV videographer can.
So there are tradeoffs. There are times where you have to maximize what the device does well, and minimize what it doesn’t do well. For instance, there’s no good zoom lens on the iPhone, so you need to get closer to the subject if you want to get a good picture.
What type of stories are the best to cover with an iPhone?
NA: It’s great during breaking news because of the ways you can quickly disseminate. If I was doing a big production piece with lots of elements, I would not do that on my phone. I would bring that back to the newsroom and use a desktop because it’s still much easier to do the work on the desktop. So if there’s not a time crunch, then it’s easier to produce on a desktop. It’s important to remember the iPhone is just a tool. It helps you gather and transmit the information faster.
It doesn’t replace at all the old school journalism, the ethics, the context, there’s not an app for that. Those are things you have to learn in school. Now, as quickly as information can be spread with these devices, it’s more difficult than ever to retract bad information. So reporters using these tools should think twice before hitting send.
Should more journalism schools be teaching about mobile journalism?
NA: Well a lot of colleges are offering courses in mobile journalism. It’s something that younger people who are growing up with smartphones are able to grasp easier than older journalists, who are stuck in the old “well, that’s not the way we used to do it” mind frame.
The technology can be easily taught and schools are recognizing this is helpful for students and it is the way that the industry is going. The days of specializing in only one thing are over. Somebody who goes to college to only be a newspaper reporter isn’t going to find much work. But someone who is able to write a good print article, and also shoot some video and edit it is someone who will always work.