As if swiped to wide angle, Corinne Podger’s reliably informative MoJo London Meetup group expanded in size Monday to accommodate a larger audience than usual. The draw was Yusuf Omar, talking about ‘selfie journalism’, Snapchat, Facebook and mobile journalism, MoJo itself – new journalism by and for smartphone users.
The 27-year-old has made a name for himself hacking the user models of established social media platforms for innovative feature reports. He’s the Hindustan Times ‘Mobile Editor’ who used Snapchat’s filter function to obscure the faces of women talking about their experiences of sexual assault.
Conventional TV would simply blur out the victim, but it felt more truthful to use Snapchat filters, which fit a digitised ‘mask’ to the users’ face. You can see the victim’s eyes, her expressions. The ‘interviewees’ chose which filter they would use to hide their identity, then left to simply narrate their own story.
“This was a selfie. They were holding the phone,” he has said before. “I didn’t even press the record button, I walked away. This was them looking at themselves in the eye and telling the most horrific story they could possibly recount.”
Omar says he’s not exclusively ‘attached’ to Snapchat, or its rival platform Facebook Live. (Both were deployed to share the event to hundreds more who couldn’t make the Meetup at Thomson Reuters’ HQ, in London’s Canary Wharf district). The trick is to experiment with every platform and not taking any of them at face value. Look at how you can apply their underlying technology for storytelling, Omar advises.
Leave the question of distribution, shares and unique visitor numbers to your editors. Focus on finding the best platforms and tools to tell the story. Using Snapchat for news journalism requires breaking some traditional broadcast TV rules – shooting vertically for phones, embracing the hand-held shakiness, being liberal with text and emojis – and following others – mentally storyboarding your report as you shoot, remembering to add establishing shots, titles, graphics.
It’s particularly important to be ready and able to move your news across platforms, from Snapchat to Instagram, say, or from Facebook Live to Vine. That adds extra layers of editorial input – often essential when dealing with live streamed content – and options for repurposing stories for different audiences. Look beyond the gimmicks’ original use model, says Omar, and instead, look at the technology underpinning the gimmicks.
Omar is not hacking technology, he’s hacking the technology’s user models. It’s what’s called Jugaad in India – ‘frugal innovation’, making the most of very little to do an awful lot. Creativity is built into the apps by design, he says. How that function is used is up to you as a journalist.