In Depth

Smart Phones, Smarter News

By Hillary Atkin

Some are calling it "the newsroom in the palm of your hand." For news professionals across all strata of the business, the recent proliferation of information-based apps for iPhones and other smart phones has been a boon to the newsgathering process — as well as for audiences.

MSNBC, CBS News, CNN, The New York Times, NPR, Bloomberg, Time Magazine, Slate, the BBC, USA Today, Huffington Post, ABC News — just about every major news organization, publication and Web site has a mobile app. Several local stations, including NBC affiliate 9News Denver, ABC7 Los Angeles and WALA Fox10TV, have also jumped onto the mobile phone screen with their own applications.

The evolution of up-to-the minute information has been remarkable. "For me, it’s dramatic, even from yesterday. It seems to grow every day. The beauty is it keeps growing exponentially," said Steve Lange, news director and vice president of content or KNBC-TV, Los Angeles. "You can grind down to very specific niches, which helps in coverage and shaping stories. You can sit in one place and survey what's going on and get a sense of different voices on complex subjects like health care reform."

The staffers in KNBC's Burbank, Calif. newsroom — like those in newsrooms everywhere — generally find themselves in one of two camps: iPhone or BlackBerry. “We have wars going on here," said Lange. “But everybody is copying that iPhone app format, so whoever is supplying it, you're getting the same kind of stuff at your fingertips. It gives us more information and then we figure out how to use it.”

Although other cell phones are not precluded, BlackBerrys are the company-approved device at the Hearst Television station group, which is working on rolling out its "next-generation newsroom" initiative. It incorporates cell phones, laptops, webcams and editing tools in an effort to integrate everything and enable publishing, posting and broadcasting on any platform.

“Using apps on our BlackBerrys allows us to type text quickly, and send pictures and video back," said Brian Bracco, vice president of news for Hearst Television. “The smart phone itself untethers us from the newsroom, and lets people get documents in the field quickly, like contact lists. It’s one of the tools that is quickly revolutionizing how we do our job. It also allows us to put things on Twitter and Facebook right from field, attaching a photo or a short video clip.”

Bracco said he is excited by all the new technology that makes newsgathering more efficient, but he is mindful of the fact that when it comes to mobile phones, especially, many become obsolete within about 18 months.

“Whether it is new devices or apps for devices, it's mind-numbing and amazing how fast the technology is changing," he said. "While we are currently using BlackBerrys, there may be something else on the horizon that’s better, that will make our jobs easier in getting information faster to all these platforms.”

Lange, who reflected back on the days when reporters had pagers and then alphanumeric pagers before they carried basic cell phones — which they often didn't answer — said that with every bit of technology, the communication also gets infinitely better. He counts The New York Times, ESPN and the Los Angeles Times among his go-to mobile phone apps, saying, “There’s great access to a lot of different things that can help you.”