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Filing from the field: Systems that make mobile reporting work

by: Amy Gahran |

July 05, 2011

Filing from the field: Systems that make mobile reporting work

Increasingly, reporters are heading out into the field armed with smartphones. They’re shooting photos and video, recording audio, posting updates, gathering geodata, and much more. But how are they filing all that great content back to the newsroom? Too often, this key part of the process is an unwieldy, inefficient hack centered around e-mail. Here’s how newsrooms might better manage the flow of inbound content from mobile devices…

By Amy Gahran

Usually, when field reporters file content from their smartphones, they simply e-mail it to an editor’s e-mail address (or perhaps to the general newsroom e-mail address).  This may be the easiest and fastest way for a field reporter to file from a phone, but it’s not the best approach because of how e-mail gets used on the receiving end.

E-mail remains popular because it’s the lowest common denominator of digital media. It’s inherently cross-platform and bridges the mobile/computer divide. Almost anyone can send and receive e-mail from almost any internet-connected device. But it has big problems, too.

Problem: E-mail is hard to parse

The reason why everyone complains of e-mail overload is because, for most people, their inbox is one largely undifferentiated mass of messages from various sources about various topics, both expected and not. In the recipient’s mind, subject lines rarely translate clearly to current projects and tasks.

For instance, imagine a copy desk editor gets an e-mail from a field reporter with a subject line that says simply: School board meeting. Before opening the e-mail, the editor must take a moment to consider:

  • What story was that reporter working on today?
  • Is this an update to the school board story that the reporter filed for the morning deadline?
  • Is this for an entirely different school-related story?
  • Were any important decisions or news expected from this meeting?
  • How fast might we need to publish this content?
  • Who needs to handle this content next?

All of this questioning might happen in just a second or two—but it’s a demanding couple of seconds.

When the editor opens and scan the reporter’s e-mail to answer those questions, she’ll mentally parse it into categories such as “new story” and “not for tonight’s deadline.” Then she’ll decide which action to take. If she doesn’t handle the new content herself, she’ll forward the original e-mail along (probably without adjusting the subject line) to another editor—who will probably repeat this process.

Of course, if either editor is dealing with other pressing concerns, the cryptic nature of the subject line might be enough to cause them to put off opening it for minutes or longer.

In the big picture, the cumulative cognitive burden of constantly having to do so much mental processing and sorting can significantly increase the stress that newsroom staff experience. You may not even realize how much work you’re doing in your head to solve puzzles presented by vague e-mail subject lines—but your brain definitely feels it.

Solution 1: Actionable e-mail subject lines

Ultimately it’s best to get content filing out of your e-mail and into some kind of real content management process. Smartphones offer useful tools for this.

But before you add new tools, consider training your newsroom staff in better e-mail techniques—specifically, how to write more useful, actionable e-mail subject lines.

You can develop your own subject line conventions, from fairly informal to very rigid. Just make sure that the reporters understand how important it is to clearly signify which e-mails contain publishable content.

For instance, the reporter in my example could have titled that mobile e-mail: URGENT Update Wed metro: middle school consolidation delayed.

This subject line makes several key points obvious:

  • Type of content (update to published story)
  • Level of urgency (and thus, timing)
  • Who should be handling this content (probably the metro editor)
  • The news value

...All of this makes the editorial decision making process easier and faster as soon as the e-mail arrives.

Reporters may resist this or dismiss it as a hassle. Typing on even the best smartphone is generally a chore, and mobile e-mail clients have awkward interfaces. But when you file copy, it’s not an ordinary message, it’s part of an editorial process. In effect: If e-mail is part of your content management system, you need to be systematic about how you use it

If your mobile filing system relies on e-mail, you could get fancier with custom e-mail addresses, automated labeling, etc. But in my experience, clear, actionable subject lines are the simplest and best way to ensure that filed content gets handled appropriately.

Solution 2: Apps for sharing services

If your field reporters are using smartphones (especially Android or iPhone models), you could choose a good third-party service for filing content, and use its associated apps. The advantage is that you can set up dedicated categories or other ways to designate specific projects, sections, or beats; provide access only to staff; and use feeds or sharing mechanisms to transfer content into your content management system.

Posterous is one good option because the basic service is free, and you can configure it for private group use. It was designed as a publishing platform, but you can use it to manage part of your internal content workflow.

Set up private Posterous groups based upon your workflow for handling content coming in from reporters in the field—which might be based on who reports to whom, or by section, or type of content (daily stories, features, etc.).

Posterous has free native smartphone apps for iPhone and Android. Make sure your reporters install this app on their phones, and set up their own free Posterous accounts.

Once they’ve done that, invite mobile reporters to join the appropriate groups you’ve set up for filing. The Posterous interface makes it easier to choose from multiple groups (one reporter might have to file different kinds of content different ways), add media and tags, and even geotag content.

For reporters who use other types of phones, a key advantage of Posterous is that you can post directly to this system via special e-mail addresses. But unlike ordinary e-mail, these messages feed directly into your editorial handling process—not into your regular inbox where all sorts of messages go.

Once everyone’s set up to use Posterous, ask reporters to practice filing via Posterous in non-critical situations. Or maybe bring reporters on to Posterous one at a time or in small groups to ease the transition and refine your process.

You also could use Evernote‘s shared notebooks or a private Tumblr group blog in similar ways. Find the tools that work for you.

Solution 3: Build your own CMS app

A more advanced approach would be to develop or customize a smartphone app that integrates directly with your content management system. This is easier if you’re using a digital-first CMS such as WordPress, Drupal, or Ellington. The point is: You could build an app that’s meant for internal staff use, rather than external publishing.

The key benefit is that it allows field reporters to directly enter content into your real CMS—not just send it to someone else who has to enter it for them. Ultimately, this saves time and effort for everyone. It allows your reporters to take the newsroom with them into the field.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Amy Gahran, 07/05/11 at 1:00 am

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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