Sunday, April 7, 2013

Drone Reporting 101... journalism education atwitter again as technology drives innovative storytelling and shoe leather -- shoe rubber actually -- becomes obsolete

Tony Botello's new awesome unmanned tipster


We’re falling behind again. It is just impossible to keep up with the technological curve in the field of journalism.

For a while, journalism educators were all atwitter about teaching students to tweet their stories. This doesn’t make much sense, in practice, because students already know more about tweeting than even the most thumb adept professor. Most of the students can tweet with ease but can’t write a simple declarative sentence to save their souls. Come to think of it, being able to write a simple subject-verb sentence may be the most important skill a tweeting reporter needs to learn.

Some educators have been intrigued by video games designed to teach journalism.  Others are falling all over themselves to teach Facebook journalism. Of course, cell phone journalism is passé. Ipad journalism is teetering on the edge of passé. Four square anyone? Not your father’s playground.

Technology isn’t new to journalism. Reporters have always made nearly instant use of whatever tools they could. The job demands it.

My own career spans tools from the old Associated Press teletype to Google search. I nearly got fired over a teletype machine. The old machine had bells to tell you how important a story crossing the wire was. When Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation crossed the wire, the machine sounded four bells. Having never heard four bells I rushed to see what was being transmitted. When I saw the news I let out a hoot.

My boss, unfortunately, was a died-in-the-wool Republican. He was not amused.

I also got into trouble with a phony story I cooked up with another reporter on one of the first generation newsroom computers… but I’ll save that tale of nearly career-fatal obscenity for another time. Our pioneering mini-computer system was fragile, to say the least. One morning I was picking out my readheaded Afro in front of the screen and the static electricity turned everything to Zs, including the page I had spent an hour building.

Later, as computers moved to the desktop, I bought an early IBM PC to be able to transmit stories to New York without having to go through the rigmarole of Western Union. The first day the $3,000 machine was on my desk at home I got frustrated because I couldn’t get the dial-up modem to work. Not that I knew what a dial up modem was. I just knew the damned thing would not connect to New York, or any place else. I went to the bookstore and got a book on Basic thinking something must be wrong with the programming. Within a half-day of freeing the computer from the box, I had done something irreparable to the system. From that day until the day I finally retired the machine six years later, the second message on the screen every time it booted up read: “Unrecognized command in config system.”

I don't know to this day what that message actually means, but to me it says, "Think before you tinker, you idiot."

And, now, I am to be turned loose with a drone to do my reporting. All day I’ve been trying to figure out how I would use it -- as the Kansas City Star writers put it – to tell stories. I assume the primary use for the Lofflin-Bot will be research, not actually storytelling. I can’t see the advantage of hovering it over the keyboard, but, with technology, you never know. Maybe it could watch me type and edit my work in real time.

I can see how it might be good for interviewing. I could sit home in my pajamas and interview over the phone while sending the L-Bot through the door of the subject’s workplace to provide environmental elements for the lede.

Or, in the case of a corporate interview, the L-Bot could be unleashed to read the notes the PR guy is slipping to the CEO while he's talking to me on the phone. Intriguing.

Of course, I understand I couldn't send it into the women’s shower at the health club, but if I turned off the video couldn't I use it to eavesdrop on women council members in the powder room? Some interesting ethical issues arise. In some cities, three or four women council members might actually be a quorum and, thus, a meeting. Sunshine laws might apply.

I like the idea of sending L-Bot to city council and school board meetings instead of young reporters who are easily bored and eternally distracted. L-Bot suffers neither malady and, when the council or the board decides to hide out in executive session L-Bot might well slip through the door in pursuit of government transparency. I can see the headline: "From bathroom to backroom, we seek the truth."

I can see how useful it would be to cover fires. Ernest Hemmingway complained in a letter to his brother at the turn of the last century that covering a Kansas City fire had put holes in his cashmere overcoat and the Star had been too cheap to pay for the damage. Always be ready for the worst, he warned. The L-Bot, naturally, will eliminate this danger.

Speaking of heat, next time the temperature tops 110-degrees and we need to send someone out to fry an egg on the sidewalk – I did, actually, try this once and to no avail – we’ll send L-Bot instead and stay cool in the newsroom.

Note to students: Be warned. We’ll have a 10-point piloting quiz on Monday. I won’t be there, however. The university has decided to jump right into the unmanned classroom craze. Don’t be late because L-Bot will only call roll once.

--Lofflin – wondering after watching a few minutes of the ACM awards on television tonight, what the C stands for.


  1. Will L-bot be armed? If so, perhaps it can be programmed to zap tardy students or those texting in class. Seriously, I'm glad that here at Park University we are more concerned about giving students the right foundation and less obsessed with generating headlines by exploiting the latest fad. --Steven Youngblood, Park Univ.

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