Journalism is undergoing one of the greatest disruptions in the industry’s history.
Thousands of journalists are turning to mobile devices, many for the first time in their careers, to comply with social distancing rules by working in small teams or solo reporters covering news in their towns and cities.
We are seeing daily television and radio shows being put to air by producers and presenters working from home on lockdown or in isolation, using portable equipment.
In this “new normal”, smartphones have moved from the periphery to the centre as millions of journalists, communications staff and businesses embrace mobile journalism as an essential tool for telling their stories effectively and safely.
In the past few weeks I have seen an Australian newspaper publish its first-ever edition created by journalists working from home using Slack and the smartphone app WhatsApp. I have also seen NPR giant Ira Glass recording ‘This American Life’ in a makeshift studio consisting of a laptop, a microphone, and his wardrobe (to reduce room echo).
Not all of it has gone smoothly – and there’s a great article by Buzzfeed featuring some of the things that have gone wrong. But the point is that we’re all learning – and we’re learning incredibly quickly.
The disruption to our traditional ways of working is on par with the arrival of the internet in the 1990s – and is taking place against a level of social and economic upheaval unrivalled since the Second World War.
Journalism think tanks and learning providers have stepped up quickly with resources to help reporters cope with covering a fast-moving pandemic. The Dart Centre has created a series of webinars to reporting on COVID-19, the Global Investigative Journalism Network has created a COVID-19 guide specifically for investigative reporters, and in early April the verification think tank First Draft News created a 2-hour fast-track course to help journalists cover the pandemic safely and respond to misinformation and hoaxes.
Our lives are unlikely to be the same even after the coronavirus pandemic ends. Certainly the way we work as reporters has shifted radically in just a few weeks, with journalists in industrialised countries learning to cover a massive public health emergency for the first time in their lives, and to do so using agile, portable equipment of all shapes and sizes.
We have the internet to thank for making much of this possible, including the wholesale shift of education to online delivery as schools and universities shut their physical doors.
This includes journalism courses. I myself have been teaching Online Journalism at the University of Sydney using a laptop and Zoom to deliver classes to students locked down across Australia and other countries.
Lecturers and teachers have had to work rapidly to transform face-to-face courses for online delivery, and those of us teaching television and radio courses have redesigned assessments to allow students to use smartphones to create their content.
It’s all been done fast and reactively, so it’s not perfect, but we’re helped by the emergence of brilliant new resources like this Facebook group, Teaching Film, Media, Screenwriting & Production Online for COVID-19 – and every day, hundreds of thousands of teachers and lecturers get better and better at both online teaching, and at using mobile devices to create content and at teaching others how to do it.
If you had asked me in January what 2020 might hold for mobile journalism, I would have said that mojos in the West would continue to fight the same battles with legacy media over whether smartphones are good enough for TV and radio (which they are), while mojos in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific would continue to dominate in mojo innovation and uptake.
But COVID-19 has thrown our lives, jobs, communities and journalism industry into confusion and chaos. One prediction I am comfortable making is that with the economic fallout of COVID-19 putting intense pressure on already cash-strapped newsrooms, mojo offers a way of continuing to tell stories at a greatly reduced cost – and we will I think see it come into its own this year if for no other reason.