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Covering meetings with mobile

Judd Slivka slivkaj@missouri.edu Assistant Professor of Convergence Journalism University of Missouri

Meetings are the bread and butter of print journalism. The paper-of-record mindset tends to assign reporters to every city council hearing, every committee meeting. It’s a bit different from TV, where reporters will drop in on meetings to highlight an important issue.

But regardless of when we cover it, meetings can be an important ingredient in our recipe to dominate the social feed and assert our outlet as the must-consult on whatever issue is important. Meetings are in a fixed location, often with wireless. And the flow of information will be endless in the form of data from documents or quotes from the local councilperson. It’s a good fit for mobile journalism. But it takes a little preparation.

In my mind, there are a few different ways to cover this:

Live coverage. Maybe you’re going to live stream this puppy and Periscope or Facebook Live it for the masses. I love this idea, especially if you don’t have a body meeting that already runs a live stream. Even if you do, you’re going straight into the social feed with either of the two options and that gives you a different audience than those live streaming on their TVs or computers. The seditionist in me loves this because, well, no government actually likes transparency and live streaming a meeting that is public but not wanted to be widely distributed is getting one over on The Man.
The incremental highlights package. This is recording video and cutting it into bite-size pieces and putting it out there. You’re telling the story one sound bite at a time.  This works really well if you have an issue with conflict, since you can put up both sides as they speak. If you’re going to do this with speakers, though, be aware that you’re going to have to set up parallel to or slightly ahead of the speaker’s lectern, otherwise you’ll get the back of the local gadfly’s head.
The in-meeting summary. Here you’ll be video recording people’s arguments and comments in the context of the meeting. This works best when you have a single issue that has high interest. You’ll cut those relevant and juicy sound bites and put those into an app like ThingLink (and create an interactive video layer over an image of, say, the city council, with press buttons over each of the council members and their embedded video). Or use one of the four-or-six box layouts in PicPlayPost to display those same comments, turn on the sequential play feature that starts one video when the previous one ends, and tell the story with no framing: straight sound bites. Even more fun, if someone says something really controversial, use a combination of apps like Gravie (which puts text over video) and GIF Toaster to create a shareable loop of that moment. Trust me, it will move.  
The post-meeting summary. Same as above, but it happens afterwards.
Number mining.  Meetings are great for little bits of information that can be relevant. Every public meeting I’ve covered has provided an information packet, the same one the policymakers get. It’s ripe to mine. You can use an app like Chart Maker Pro to mine the documents, create charts out of the data right from your phone and send it out via social. But you’ll need some context around that. So take your Chart Maker output in the camera roll and bring it into Type A, which will let you bind text to the graphic. This way you’ve illustrated the numbers and provided the needed context, including quotes.
Document annotation. This one takes a bit more effort and probably some foreknowledge, but it’s worth it. Those meeting packets often have very interesting information in the documents. And our job should be to share that with the public. Snap a readable photo of a page, bring it into ThingLink, and provide context with video or other photos to make the document more than just words on paper. Think about a city trying to keep a football team. The local civic leaders put together a plan and hold a press conference to talk about it. As a good mobile journalist you’re using your phone to get video of the event anyway. When they talk about something on page 6, you’ve recorded it. Cut what they’re talking about into easily embeddable sound bites, shoot a picture of the page and embed away. This also works great for high-profile court cases when you can video-annotate the indictments with interview or press conference quotes.

Now let’s talk about some equipment considerations.

Audio

You have a phone with a tiny mic. You’re in a room that likely is going to have acoustic-reverberation-reducing ceiling, carpet and lots of bodies in it — all soft matter to absorb, rather than reflect, sound waves.  Your local policy-making body probably knows this, too, and uses microphones. This is a solution and a problem. If you’re using a pre-amp like the iRig Pre or the iRig Pro, you can bring a 20-foot XLR cord and a gender-bender (the doohickey that changes the end of a cable from male to female or vice-versa) and see if they’ll let you plug into the mult box they’re running the sound out of. Then you have great sound.

But maybe you don’t have that XLR cable. Or maybe your cable run sticks you way in the back of the room where you can’t see anything. Your next choice is a good external microphone that you can direct toward the council. A simple stick mic will do this via an XLR-capable pre-amp. So will a product like the IK Multimedia Rig HD. Shure has released the MV-88, a Lightning port condenser mic with a swivel head that lets you direct it at the sound. It has an accompanying app that lets you optimize how the mic records. I think the app is just OK, but the mic works nicely in a conference setting. You could also use a shotgun mic for this. And you want to be close to the sound source, so get up front.

Video

Your phone or tablet’s lens is very wide. It’s probably around the equivalent of a 26mm lens on a DSLR, so it’s not a true wide-angle, but it’s still going to cover a lot of real estate. That means you’ll get people who look farther away than they really are. A 2x telephoto lens is a necessity. That’ll at least get you back to about 50mm, which is around what the human eye sees. If you sit close enough, this should keep you from stick-figure TV. There are lots of recommendations for which of these to use, but the lens you choose really depends on if your phone is in a case or not. Lots of people like the Olloclip system, which fits over the phone, and I’m currently in love with the Exolens 3x lens, which mounts to a machined-aluminum frame on the phone.

You’re going to need some stability here, especially if you’re live streaming. Bring a tripod. A monopod is going to be more subtle and less awkward, but harder to keep still for a two- or three-hour meeting. If you’re lucky enough to be at a meeting where you sit at a table in close proximity to the council, a mini-tripod that converts easily to a hand-carry like the Manfrotto PIXI might work for you. You can lift it as needed and get fairly stable shots.

Live-ish production is always a little bit tricky. You don’t want to spend a lot of time editing while the meeting is going on. I’d suggest using a filming app that lets you trim in it. Because you’re going to have cut down that one-minute convoluted line of reasoning from Councilman Smith to the 15 seconds that matter. I use FilMic Pro for this, since it has an in-app trim function. Videon and MoviePro both have the same capability, too. You don’t want to be switching unnecessarily between apps either, since it’s awkward and more apps open equals more battery waste.

Power and the problem with it

Meetings are long, sometimes really long. Video and apps eat battery. So does broadcasting. You’re going to need more power. An accessory battery is a must. One of those small chargers you can get at a convenience store or a mall will get you by, but a long meeting will drain it. From a power perspective, you’d be better off in the long run getting a big charger, 10,000 mAh or above (a 12,000mAh battery can fully charge an iPhone 5 five times before it runs out of juice). This will guarantee you’ll have a charge. But those are huge. You’re going to have to find a compromise between the small ones and the giant ones. Look for chargers of reasonable size that are above 6,000 mAh (that’s enough to get an iPad Air up to about 60 percent charge from zero). Of course if you’re using an Android, you’re able to hotswap your battery with a spare.

But here’s the problem if you’re using an iOS device: You charge through the Lightning port. Your audio solution (such as the MV-88 or the iRig Pro) may run through the Lightning port. It may be impossible for you to charge and keep recording at quality. You have a couple options here: You can use an audio device that doesn’t go through the Lightning port, such as the Rode VideoMic Me. Or you can pick your moments, which is what I do. Is the city council talking about something boring? Charge the phone.

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