Monday, April 4, 2011

Smart phones for journalists: Sketchy notes from the MCMA awards conference... smart phones as brain ad-ons, reporting tools, awards ceremonies

I hate awards. They're not good for the profession.

So, why did I spend the weekend in Springfield, Mo., at the Missouri College Media Association awards banquet? Because I love the look on my students' faces when they win. I also dread the look on their faces when they don't. I want to be there for the smiles and I need to be there for the blank stares and the disappointment.

I could do without the chicken breast, rice, and carrots. Or the long wait every year for the vegetarian dishes.

And, I'm really uncomfortable with the cost, even if it does come from advertising money the newspaper has earned during the year. I have to say, though, this year's event was top notch all the way even if it did cost a lot. The host school did a fine job.

And, I always enjoy the speakers.

This year's speaker -- Dr. Clyde Bentley, an associate professor at the University of Missouri who led the charge in citizen journalism and now leads the charge in smart phone journalism -- was stimulating. The essence of his talk was this: Just as those of us in journalism are beginning -- just beginning -- to understand how to present news on the computer screen, we should be focusing instead on the smart phone screen. The computer screen is over. The smart phone screen is now.

Whew! And, I'm still teaching students how to count heads. Why? Because it's good for them... I think.

(Here is an aside I will develop more in a later post because I've been thinking about it a lot lately. Why headline counting -- or headline writing, for that matter? I see my role as a teacher in a way not shared by everyone who teaches and unrecognized, for the most part, by students. My model is the tour director, the fishing guide, the trail guide. I see my duty in those terms. It's my job to take the students to all these places and be sure they experience all these important events and headline counting in one such event. My expertise is in knowing what is important, what works, what helps them grow, where these things are located and how to get there. I can't control much of what happens when I get them there. They can either notice this fossil or not, look out across the Grand Canyon... or not.

So, I think headline writing is still an important stop on the tour... a learning experience to have, even if you will soon be writing headlines for smart phones. And, I could be wrong.)

Back to the speaker and the smart phones. His presentation was fascinating. I had already read about what a reporter could do with a smart phone as a reporting tool but I had never considered the possibilities in the breadth and depth he presented them. This will sound funny if you know the reference, but I think it is accurate. With a smart phone and a smart head, a journalist could, if so inclined, do much of the reporting William Least Heat Moon did to light up Blue Highways. She could find out the crime statistics for a place she visits by pointing her phone at it, know all the previous owners of a building, know the geography of the place in incredible depth as well as the geological history. All of this Least Heat Moon had to track down during years of research. It is at least half the reason to read his fine journalistic novel.

Of course, the other half is the people he met and brought to life from his journey. Blue Highways is driven by the people Least Heat Moon encountered -- good and bad. So, to do the work Least Heat Moon did she would still have to be really good at interviewing and at relating to other humans in general. Would the smart phone help? Well, yes. Our speaker said the next generation of smart phone -- the smarter phone -- will provide a surface to take notes in long hand which the device will translate to type. So, even in this important skill, the smart phone would be a helpful tool.

Of course, you still need to know what questions to ask, how to keep a conversation going, how to love to know what makes people tick, a deep sense of curiosity bordering on the pathological. But at least with your smart phone you would never want for something to write on.

To be fair, the smart phone would help her research the genealogy of the people she interviewed. She might also be able to check whether her subject has a criminal record -- helpful in some kinds of journalism. She could in an instant research how many people on the planet are in some way like the person she interviewed. No doubt the smart phone could help her do interviews in a hundred ways this old cat hasn't imagined and is probably not capable of imagining.

Of course, during the whole speech I was nagged by the question of what's next. If the computer is over, the net is waining, and the smart phone is the new 'it,' well... what's next. I'm tired of living behind the curve. I had a record player in my '55 Chevy in 1964. It worked like a jukebox with a very strong spring on the needle to keep my 45-rpm-copy of Maybellene from slipping during street racing burnouts. I went through three copies of that record in 1964. But in 1965, the stereo 8-track tape hit the market and my record player hit the garbage can -- pretty as its chrome self was. The car record player was available at Sears for one year, I think. One year.

Then I got to thinking about the event itself. It cost a good deal for us to attend. We rented a van, drove for three hours across the state on $3.50-a gallon gasoline, took hotel rooms, paid a large price for a small meal, then drove home the next day. One year a student of mine -- I shudder at this -- went out at the last minute and bought a $200 dress for the event in the city where it was held and, I double-shudder to point out -- just as the baked chicken breast cost a lot per fork load -- that dress cost even more per inch. At any rate, the event is costly to everyone and we may not always be able to participate because of the cost. To put the cost in perspective, we could print another issue of the paper for what we spend to attend the event.

So, why not just get ahead of the curve now and mount the next MCMA awards banquet and conference on the smart phone?

The working sessions could easily be broadcast through Skype or whatever technology is available next year. Same for the business meeting which we usually have to miss because we can't afford two nights in a hotel and the students can't get away from families or work.

Instead of the banquet, each school's journalism students could gather at a favorite watering hole on campus, sit around a big booth, enjoy a nice meal and then set their smart phones on the table in front of them the way they do anyway -- even at the formal banquet. The awards could be announced from afar, the division would pop up on smart phone screens all around the state, then the category, then the honorable mentions would pop up, the third places, the second places, and, with the drama building, the first places would appear. Difficult to pronounce names would not be a problem by smart phone. Certificates would be downloaded to the winner's phones -- they could print them out on nice stock ... or turn them into wallpaper for their dusty computer screens or just turn them into aps on their smart phones. Their smart phones are, after all, them; not an extension of who they are but who they are. As a smart phone ap they could wear their award like an electronic tattoo etched into their electronic skin.

This would be a smart way to meet the future and I offer it as an idea only partly in jest.

-- Lofflin

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1 comment:

  1. Tiffany A. MillerJuly 5, 2011 at 2:45 PM

    The pronunciation of the names...was so painful. Maybe at first it was understandable, but as they continued it seemed they thought it was a joke. Nails on a chalkboard would have been less annoying.

    I don't like the idea of reporting by smart phone. It alienates the person you are interviewing. They don't know if you're texting, or surfing the web, or listening to them.

    Call me old-fashioned, but I just don't think smart phones are a good substitute for concrete objects. Yes, they can be maps, but if I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere with a dead phone and no reception, I hope I have an actual map.

    As far as taking notes, I need a pen and paper.

    I have a smart phone and it runs so slow, it might as well be an ancient PC. No, it's not an Iphone but it is from AT&T. I took it in after three months and told one of the sales girls my issue.

    "Oh," she said, "we don't sell those any more because people were having a lot of problems."

    What the hell? They probably sold me the last one. It's a rat race, how can we ever keep up with the Joneses now?

    I know smart phones are the future, but I don't have to like it.