Gear for the multimedia newsroom

How to meet the practical needs of digital journalists in the field

By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review

Every year at budget time, news organizations sort through the swarm of new technologies on the market, grappling with the question of how to outfit their operations to meet the needs of a multimedia age. A new generation of cool but practical digital tools offers print, broadcast and online journalists the chance to serve audiences that increasingly demand a more immediate, sophisticated news product.

The Advanced Journalist Technology Project, an initiative of the Ifra Centre for Advanced News Operations, has been studying the technological needs of media organizations since 1998, when it put together its first list of NewsGear components. “Several of our members came to us and asked for recommendations on the best equipment that would let their reporters become more mobile and agile,” recalls the center’s executive director, Kerry J. Northrup.

Northrup and his team began evaluating hundreds of technologies for their usefulness in a networked, converged newsroom: the best laptop, digital camera, digital camcorder and mobile networking device.  “After a while it dawned on us that we were essentially creating a backpack toolkit for journalists,” Northrup says. “We bought an airline-size suitcase, fit everything into the bag and, voila, we had NewsGear. One of the key issues was whether the pieces were all interoperable and how do you integrate all these elements without having to make a reporter carry around a ton of cords and power bricks. So the focus has been to get everything into a manageable size that a correspondent could work with in a car or on a plane.”

This year’s NewsGear recommendations were especially noteworthy because Northrup and his staff relied on the list of best-of-breed gadgets to outfit Ifra’s Newsplex, the $2 million converged newsroom prototype that opened on the campus of the University of South Carolina on Nov. 12.

For the Newsplex’s kickoff, Northrup and his staff framed an international conference around the theme of convergence and newsroom change. Some 150 attendees from 26 countries turned out to learn “how they can change their newsrooms technologically, organizationally and architecturally to work in multiple media,” says Northrup, who spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining Gannett in 1992 and then Ifra in 1995.

Inside the NewsGear toolkit

The 2003 NewsGear suite of products has not yet been posted on the Ifra Web site because of the swirl of activity around the Newsplex’s opening, so Northrup agreed to unveil them here. These aren’t pie-in-the-sky gizmos for a futuristic newsroom  — they’re practical, field-tested technologies that work together and help news organizations meet the audio, video and text-based needs of their audience today. (See OJR’s Backpack Journalism Is Here to Stay.)

Take a look inside the 2003 NewsGear toolkit:

Serious Magic Visual Communicator Pro
visual_communicatorProduct Web site

Specs: compatible with Windows 98 and later; includes personal broadcasting user manual

Price: $99

Overview: “This does for creating video news content what desktop publishing does for creating print content — it makes it as simple as 1-2-3,” Northrup says. “You write your story for the newspaper, you import it into Visual Communicator, and it becomes a scrolling script for you to read. You create bullet points for your story and plop them into your script at the points where they should pop up. It will automatically do high-end features like putting a green screen behind you, just like you see on a virtual news desk or on a weathercast with the digitally projected image behind the meteorologist. And when you’re ready it’ll scroll up your script for you to read while you’re looking into a Webcam. You can create a two-minute video news segment with almost no training. The quality of the finished product is just amazingly professional-looking. When I first saw this being demonstrated, I could not believe that this piece of software could basically put into a box for under $100 the kinds of elements you find in a professional TV studio.” The Visual Communicator won the 2002 PC Expo Best of Breed Award.

Logitech io Personal Digital Pen

logitechProduct Web site

Specs: Optical sensor pen that captures handwriting

Price: $100

Overview: Grab hold of this digital pen, which resembles a fat cigar, and begin jotting down notes on a special brand of white paper available at Office Depot, Staples and other office supply stores. Built into the pen near the point is a miniature camera, worthy of a spy gadget on “Alias,” that records all your strokes for up to 40 pages of notes. When you return to the office, set it down in its cradle and everything you’ve written gets downloaded into your computer as digital notes.

Sony ICD-MS515 digital voice recorder

sonyProduct Web site

Specs: Memory Stick cards from 8 MB (included, for 171 minutes of recording time) to 256 MB can be used; 2 5/8 oz.; 1 3/8″ x 4 1/8″ x 23/32″

Price: $150

Overview: “We’ve seen tremendous productivity gains in our research from switching people from analog recorders to digital voice recorders,” Northrup says. “Digital recorders are so much better not only for the quality of what they pick up, but you can also use audio software (not included) the same way you use Photoshop for pictures. You can take a piece of digital audio and clean it up.” Another handy element for journalists in the field: You can instantly access the portion of an interview that you want to transcribe or upload to the Web.

The MS515 comes with Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software for converting voice to text. New York Times tech columnist David Pogue swears by it. I’ve used it as well, and while it learned to recognize my dictations relatively well, it was a complete bust when I tried to use it to automatically transcribe remarks recorded at a meeting or in an interview setting. Northrup concurs: “Voice recognition is still several years away from achieving that. It works best when you’ve trained the software to a particular voice. In fact, I’m working with an organization in Washington whose job it is to put transcripts of the president’s speeches out onto the wires seconds after he talks. When the president’s not speaking from prepared remarks, they use a voice recorder like this model that’s trained to the reporter’s own voice, and as the president says something, the reporter repeats it into the recorder and the device is able to convert it to text.”

Linksys WPG11 Wireless Presentation Gateway

linksysProduct Web site

Specs: 3 pounds; up to 11 MB per second transfer rate; connects to any device with a Wi-Fi adapter

Price: $290

Overview: This wireless device hooks into a screen or LCD video projector. Wirelessly, any computer in the space with connectivity can take control of this presentation gateway to put its image up on the display device. Picture this: You put a single 17-inch monitor in your news meeting room and attach a Presentation Gateway to it. The editors come in toting their laptops or Palm devices. Now when it’s your turn if you want to put up a slide show, photo or PowerPoint presentation, you can take control of the gateway, finish your graphics-laden spiel, and then let the next person take control. No wires, no passing a gizmo around the room. With a fast enough connection, you can beam video on screen.

Visioneer Strobe XP100 portable scanner

visioneerProduct Web site

Specs: 600 dpi 36-bit portable color scanner

Price: $100

Overview: The Strobe XP100 is a portable sheet-fed scanner that requires no power connection. Just plug and scan — right through your computer’s USB port. “It’s lightweight and no bigger than an empty roll of paper towels,” Northrup says. “If a journalist needs to quick scan a document or a picture, you can just plug it into your laptop and scan away.”

Archos Jukebox Multimedia

archosProduct Web site

Specs: stores 20 gigabytes, converts to mini-camera or camcorder, plays MP3 and MP4

Price: $250

Overview: The Jukebox Multimedia essentially started life as an MP3 player, but Archos built into the device a color LCD screen, so unlike an iPod, say, you can manipulate stored files right on the device. Store photos or video and preview the images on screen. The Jukebox contains a microphone that lets you use it as a voice recorder to create digital audio files. It also has expansion capabilities that can convert it to a low-end video camera suitable for Web uses. “This single handheld device gives you a digital voice recorder, a digital video recorder, a still camera and a storage disk for transporting files,” Northrup says. (Last year OJR profiled its predecessor, the Archos Jukebox Recorder.)

Sony Ericsson T68

EricssonProduct Web site

Specs: GPRS protocol for speedy mobile Internet connections; check e-mail; organizer; text messaging; 256 full-color display

Price: $100

Overview: “One of the things that defines a smart phone is that it has a high data rate connection through built-in infrared,” Northrup says. “This phone can function as a modem, so if you’re not in Wi-Fi range you can dial the office with your T68, link it up to your computer and surf the Internet or transfer files through your mobile connection.” No guarantees it will work in Death Valley, though.


“When we started evaluating what’s important to a journalist in a laptop, the knee-jerk reaction suggested that everyone wanted a big screen,” Northrup says. “But when you actually evaluated what a journalist in the field needed, the big ticket was not the big screen but a big keyboard. A 12.2-inch or 15.3-inch screen is just fine, but journalists start hating it if the keyboard is squeezed down just 5 to 7 percent in size, which is what a lot of the subcompacts and ultralights do. Despite the big debate about touch pads vs. eraser-tip track points, which both substitute for a mouse, people have personal passions but it wasn’t really a differentiating factor. Journalists tend to steer away from the big, thick laptops of a couple of years ago. Besides being big and heavy, they’re too conspicuous at a city council meeting. They’re much happier working with laptops that are silver, titanium or aluminum in color because they’re less noticeable in a crowded meeting room.” NewsGear selected three laptops for 2003:

Acer TravelMate C100 Convertible Tablet PC

acerProduct Web site

Specs: 9.9″ x 8.2″ x 1-1.16″; 3.2 pounds with 10.4″ (diagonal) screen; built-in wireless networking

Price: $2,100-$2,400

Overview: It’s the first convertible notebook tablet PC on the market. You can open it up like a regular laptop and type on the keyboard. Then you can unhook the latches on the side, flip it around, fold it flat and you have a slate for writing. Press a button to change the screen’s orientation from landscape to portrait. Now you can walk around like it’s a pad of paper. It comes with the new Tablet PC edition of Windows XP, which has “surprisingly good handwriting recognition and pretty good voice recognition,” Northrup says. Included in the package is Microsoft Journal, an application that acts like electronic paper: use a stylus to save your scribbles as handwriting or convert it to text or save your drawings. Plus, the stylus lets you erase your scribbles.

“I found the Tablet PC amazing because of what it lets you do,” Northrup says. “A lot of journalists feel uncomfortable firing up a laptop during a one-on-one interview. They prefer to take handwritten notes when sitting across from a football coach or the mayor. This lets you take notes digitally.”

Downticks: The keyboard just barely fits into the lowest ends of a full-size keyboard. The screen’s a little small. On the upside, it’s high-resolution and electromagnetic resistant, so it only responds to the stylus and lets you rest your hand on the screen.

Apple iBook

ibookProduct Web site

Specs: 12.7″ x 10.2″ x 1.3″; 5.9 pounds with 12.1″ or 14.1″ screen (also comes with 12.1″ screen); built-in wireless networking

Price: $1,300-$2,000

Overview: The new iBooks have a nice, big screen and first-rate keyboard, Northrup says. Last year NewsGear recommended the higher-end Apple Titanium Powerbook, but received complaints that the CD slot jimmied up on them. The iBook has a traditional popout CD drawer instead. If you’re planning to produce video or audio, the Mac line still reigns supreme. The iBook comes with a built-in Airport card for Wi-Fi.

“The nice thing about wireless is that if you’re in a Wi-Fi bubble, you can just latch onto the Net and instantly send stuff up and bring things back,” Northrup says. “More and more newsrooms are using wireless networks so that a person isn’t fastened to one spot, he can get up and walk somewhere else without losing connectivity. If you’re a reporter out in the sticks, you can use the iBook with a mobile smart phone.”

Downticks: A bit on the bulky side.

Fujitsu S6110 LifeBook S Series Notebook

fujitsuProduct Web site

Specs: 11.5″ x 9.3″ x 1.3″; 4.5 pounds with DVD drive; built-in wireless networking

Price: $1,750

Overview: “This is a beautifully outfitted notebook,” Northrup says, “with a 13-inch screen, full-size keyboard and a DVD/CD-RW drive, all wrapped into a package that’s about 4 pounds and only an inch tall.”

JVC GY-DV300U Streamcorder

JVCProduct Web site

Specs: 14x power zoom lens; mini DV format; 3.1 pounds

Price: $3,500

Overview: This camcorder’s a bit pricey at about $3,500, but it’s a professional-level camera with a 3CCD (charged couple device) image sensor, resulting in high-end color quality. The Streamcorder is one of the first video cameras to capture images in the new mpeg4 file format that’s taking both broadcast television and Web production by storm, Northrup says. But perhaps its most impressive feature is an attachment called a network doc that lets a journalist stream video to the Web live. “If you’re at a concert or ballgame or protest where there’s a Wi-Fi network, you can take this camera with a battery pack — and without cables or wires — and shoot the scene and stream it from the camera to the Internet in real time,” Northrup says. “It’s just amazing to have the ability to do that.”

Panasonic PV-DV702 Digital Palmcorder

panasonicProduct Web site

Specs: 1/4″, 1.3 megapixel CCD; 10x high-definition zoom; mini DV format; 3.5″  (diagonal) color LCD monitor

Price: $750

Overview: Newsrooms with a more limited budget can still do well with this multicam camcorder. “The Palmcorder is a good choice for lower end work in digital video than the JVC Streamcorder but higher end than the Sony Mavica or Archos Jukebox Multimedia,” Northrup says.

Sony Mavica MVC-CD250 digital camera

mavicaProduct Web site

Specs:2 megapixels; 3x optical zoom; 1 pound, 6 ounces; 5 7/16″ wide x 3 3/4″ high x 4″ deep

Price: $500

Overview: The Mavica uses 8-centimeter mini-CDs that store 156 to 210 megabytes of data. The CD writer is built into the camera, letting you take hundreds of photos and up to 80 or so super-high-resolution images. It will also record up to two minutes of mpeg video with sound. “That’s not suitable for broadcast but it’s fine for a Web site,” Northrup says.

Downtick: Like almost all digital cameras, the Mavica suffers from shutter lag: Almost a second passes between the time you press the shutter and the picture is taken.

Olympus C730 Ultra Zoom digital camera

olympusProduct Web site

Specs: 3.2 megapixels; 10x optical zoom; 11.1 ounces; 4.2″ wide x 3″ high

Price: $600

Overview: The Ultra Zoom is a sharp, compact still camera that records to smart media cards. “We included it in NewsGear for two reasons: the 10x optical zoom, and the fact that there’s almost no shutter lag,” Northrup says. “It’s the kind of instantaneous shutter lag that you’d expect to see in a film camera from Canon or Nikon.”

Lapworks Laptop Desk Version 2.0

lapworksProduct Web site

Specs: Made of aircraft-quality plastic, it offers five ergonomically comfortable typing angles and raises the viewing screen height by 3 1/4″ closer to eye level

Price: $25

Overview: In outfitting the Newsplex, Northrup’s team faced a tough issue: how to create an ergonomic desk environment for journalists using laptops. “We were focused on journalists using laptops and mobile phones and being able to move around, sit with anyone, create a story team ad hoc in a corner or up in the mezzanine,” he says. “With a laptop, if you set your desk down at the normal keyboard height, it means your screen is too low. If you set your desk at desktop height, then you’re typing uphill and it’s bad for the wrists.” One solution: the Laptop Desk, which creates an incline of 7.5 to 15 degrees. When you set your desk at keyboard height on this slight incline, it sets the keyboard at an optimum angle for typing.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT