Smartphones challenge ENG camcorders

August 19, 2015 01:30

By Lynn Kenneth Packer

It’s obvious that camera-equipped smartphones would disrupt sales of digital single-lens reflex still cameras (DSLRs) and consumer camcorders. Smartphones have changed the way ordinary users shoot photos and video.

It was less predictable that smartphones would replace professional, electronic newsgathering (ENG) camcorders. But now there’s a tsunami forming that, when it hits full force, will revolutionize video newsgathering with a device not even designed for news photographers and video journalists.

Besides walloping pro-grade cameras, smartphones will also deal heavy blows to edit bays and mobile news trucks. Video editing and live reporting capabilities are now packed inside a phone that fits in a reporter’s pocket.
The Smartphone Powerhouse
It’s not nano-technology, but it’s certainly micro-tech. In the world of television journalism it’s a very small device, but with mind-boggling capability. Weighing mere ounces, it can replace hundreds of pounds of equipment.

How can something so tiny pack so much power?

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in January 2007 he held one up and proclaimed, “This the future.” That first iPhone had no video camera, but it did have enough punch to disrupt the entire newspaper industry by delivering news to a person’s cell phone without the expense and impediments of printing presses and paper carriers.

Jobs didn’t want his iPhone to destroy newspaper journalism. He wanted to help “news-gathering organizations find new ways of expression so they can afford to get paid so they can keep their news gathering editorial operations intact. What we have to do is figure out a way to get people to start paying for this hard earned content.”

Within two years Jobs’ iPhone added video capture. End users could not only view television news clips, but also shoot and edit them as well. His technology went from disrupting the way readers and viewers get their news, to disrupting the way video journalists shot news stories.

When Jobs died in 2011 iPhones and iPads, along with Android and similar devices, were making a huge difference in how people accessed news content. But, still, not a big difference in how journalists captured news video. Four years after his passing the smartphone’s full ENG power has yet to be uncorked. Fasten your seat belt!

Wait a minute! Aren’t ENG cameras steadily evolving and improving and have been for more than three decades? Resolution gets better and better going from SD to HD and now UHD. Cassettes got smaller and smaller and are were replaced with even tinier, solid-state memory cards. Plus today’s ENG cameras cost a fraction of the originals. It would seem like the next big thing in video newsgathering should simply be the next generation, pro camcorder.

But thanks to the Internet, amazingly inexpensive yet powerful smartphone apps, clever accessories and bonded cellular technology the next big thing in video newsgathering won’t be the next generation camcorder with another incremental change. Because the next big thing is the smartphone.

Like many disruptive technologies there’s often a lag between the time one is introduced and the time it’s widely accepted. It took a while, for example, for videotape to fully replace film in the news biz.

Diehards will go down with the ship. Ask Kodak, Blockbuster, Smith Corona, or any newspaper that’s dead or on its deathbed what happens when inevitable change is ignored. (Televised news is not facing certain doom like print. Nevertheless, viewers lost to the web and to death have resulted in layoffs and diminished news quality rather than investments in new technology and methods.)

The impending smartphone tsunami is no longer a prediction, but an observation. It’s a done deal. It’s already begun with news organizations around the world at least dabbling in smartphone video capture.

Okay, so far none has stuck more than a toe in the water, but full plunges are imminent. The tealeaves are already there for the reading:
  • The proliferation of smartphones among the general population along with the rise of so-called citizen/bytstander journalism where participants and observers of major breaking stories are first to transmit images from the scene. News consumers are ahead of news reporters.
  • The fairly widespread adoption of smartphones by many newspapers and some television stations. They’re now used to backup not replace pro-grade equipment, but their foot is well into the door.
  • The general decline and flattening of local television news ad revenues over the past five years. Many news staffs have been trimmed amid rising pressure to reduce production costs. One measure will be to replace—not just augment— pro camcorders with smartphones. Not to mention edit bays and live trucks.
  • The outright tanking of newspaper ad revenue with no sign of rebounding, even with online ad sales. There’s huge pressure to provide video news stories online. To do that many newspapers are not going to spring for pro camcorders, fancy edit suites and live trucks when smartphones will do the trick. (Skype, Google Hangouts and Apple’s FaceTime are also contributing to live trucks’ obsolescence.)
  • The emergence of bonded cellular technology which added higher quality live reporting (live shots) to the smartphone’s bag of tricks. Consumer-grade apps like Periscope and Meercat that use a single cell phone connection are good enough for consumer-grade live streaming. But now companies Like LiveU and Dejero offer cellular bonding technology that can bundle several cell links with available Wi-Fi and Ethernet to provide broadcast quality video signals.
  • The pending deployment of LTE-Advanced cellular networks along with the eventual adoption adoption of higher performance, H.265 video coding will uncork even more smartphone newsgathering power.
  • The introduction of apps and accessories that close the capability gap between smartphone cameras and pro camcorders.  Apps like FiLMiC Pro that enable more control over white balance, focus and exposure. Plus handgrip rigs like mCAM, iOgrapher and my free DIY rig plans ( that provide more stability control over the smartphone. Plus there’s an increasing variety of smartphone-specific lenses and external mics.
  • The huge success of MojoCon 2015 in Ireland, the first international conference centered on mobile filmmaking. The confab—organized by Glen Mulcahy— featured a long list of speakers and panelists who are pioneering the use of smartphones for newsgathering and filmmaking. (Several session videos are posted at .)
  • The proliferation of smartphone newsgathering/video journalism-related education, training and R&D.  Many universities and businesses are grappling with with issues like online news distribution and monetizing, and curating so-called citizen journalist video, almost all of which is shot on a phone.
Sadly, it’s also probable that the smartphone newsgathering revolution will be more disruptive than it needs to bebecause of the inability and unwillingness of many newspaper publishers and television station managers to invest time and money in new technologies, training and workflows.

Speaking of workflow: An accelerated adoption of smartphones could have not only slashed equipment costs but also enabled improved workflow. Take video editing, for example. Traditionally, most news packages are edited at the station. Editing in the field not only significantly cuts the time it takes to post packages online, the method can also reduce the need for fancy edit bays. Of course field-editing hardware was available long before smartphones, but never really caught on. Smartphones now make field editing a no-brainer.

Lynn Kenneth Packer is a freelance journalist and television news consultant. He has worked as reporter and a university adjunct instructor, and conducts newsgathering workshops.