How a seamless workflow and inexpensive tools empower communities and citizen journalists, reporting stories from where they happen.
By Marie Elisabeth Mueller and Devadas Rajaram.
Kickstarting in 2012
“The Global Pop-Up Newsroom is an example of how people from different countries and different cultures can work collaboratively and respectfully on shared projects with a common vision. This example is particularly important today”, says Melissa Wall, senior journalist and journalism professor at UCLA in California, US, who founded the Pop-Up Newsroom in 2012, back then the first of its kind worldwide, which we later in 2017 renamed the Global Pop-Up Newsroom. The project was born out of Wall’s experience as a senior journalist and researcher in citizen journalism inside and outside of the US.
Two years later, in 2014, she published an academic paper, “Change the space, Change the practice? Re-imagining journalism education with the Pop-Up Newsroom”, which explores the results of the introduction of this project among student journalists.
From the outset, Melissa Wall's reaching strived to start a global conversation and soon she started to work with two international educators who became her cofounders in this journalistic adventure across territorial and mental borders: David Baines, senior journalist and journalism professor at Newcastle University, UK, and Devadas Rajaram, senior journalist and former editor-in-chief of Info2cell.com, New Media professor at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) in Chennai, India, and multimedia trainer at NowAgeStorytelling.co. He was among the first to professionalise digital and mobile journalism in the pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter era, tweeting and texting news early as 1998. In one of his rare interviews, while teaching Multimedia Journalism at the American University in Bulgaria, he explains, “I don’t believe in one person talking and twenty people listening. Journalism is a conversation.”
Together, they came up with the concept of running a virtual newsroom grounded in communities, right where the news happens, joining hands with young, super talented student journalists and citizen reporters from diverse regions, starting from the US, UK and India, at the ACJ joined by student participants from Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Bengal and elsewhere from South-Asia.
“Smartphones were just beginning to become ubiquitous in 2013, but were not really regarded as serious journalistic tools. Several dozen student journalists working over two days in November 2013 used their phones and social media platforms to produce scores of hard-hitting reports in the USA, UK and India which interrogated the complex causes of poverty and the consequences of poverty played out in people’s lives, related in their rarely-heard voices. That first project achieved more than half a million impressions across Twitter and the reporting over 24 hours was followed by, among others, the United Nations. Nothing like it had been attempted before by student journalists — or by professional journalists. That project has become the longest-running international collaboration in journalism education. Over the years students in countries as diverse as Taiwan, Armenia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Rumania, Lebanon and Nigeria have joined in. They report on International Women’s Day and a further topic every year. Topics have included migration, food, civil rights, the environment, diversity and climate crisis”, recalls David Baines.
It’s an undervalued fact that the timeline of better mobile networks with increased speed and capacity mirrors that of change and multiplication of different types of content. For storytellers and journalists collaborating internationally, the recent move has been in the direction of mobile multimedia stories produced in real-time. This shift is especially thrilling, useful and lasting because engagements and conversations have become real-time, independent from space and time-zone restrictions without many technical obstructions.
Digital newsroom workflows and techniques of reporting content which have been explored and established over the last eight or so years in the virtual Global Pop-Up Newsroom ought to be understood as a reflection of new lines of reporting constantly emerging through the fast and improving mobile networks. They are further facilitated by affordable mobile technologies, tiny computers of high performance, and seamless methods and apps with no extra costs.
It’s important to also highlight that we won’t limit the digital skill-set to mobile storytelling, as it would be too little to cater to the complete newsroom workflow, smart goals and new revenue models. However, mobiles are presently the best and most powerful starting point for all storytellers and journalists, because of the following reasons:
Firstly, as of 2019, there are 5.11 billion unique mobile users in the world, with 100 million (2 percent) new users having emerged only in 2018.
Secondly, mobile devices now enable us to establish seamless, engaging and fast interactive multimedia communication in real-time - the “gold currency” for creating content that is beneficial to users and instrumental in building a loyal audience. Real-time storytelling across platforms is the new reality that is here to stay. Also, other than stationary desktop computers and laptops, mobile computers introduce us to high-end cameras with inbuilt sensors and connected to location services at our finger tip, which make for radical new storytelling — for example, create vertical stories and use this native mobile content type on the go — all sorts of innovative use-cases — for example , experience data as augmented 3D layers over printed texts — and personalised information sharing — for example, get news, relevant for you, augmented onto a public bus booth.
Thirdly, mobile devices are an excellent starting point to experience hands-on spatial computing technologies that will transform our everyday life as we know it today. So, we ought to demystify these emerging technologies for our users in order to empower and inform them. This will result in users making choices according to what they find beneficial. It will also enhance their skill of identifying misinformation.
In 2012, stories for our virtual newsrooms had to be pre-produced or/and post-produced because of the lack of interactive technologies available to us. Immersive and 3-D effects were also absent from the content and stories had to be structured in the print format, to be put up on a blog. Although, with the advent of Twitter, real-time micro-blogging had become a possibility, the space for engagements on stories still remained scarce. Likes, comments and retweets were the only options available to obtain any sort of interactivity.
Since then, we have developed production workflows that enable us to publish and stream our stories in real-time. The young and brilliant reporters even manage to include interactive data stories in the live-stream breathing life into the definition of “open journalism”.
Alan Rusbridger, legendary journalist and former editor-in-chief at The Guardian, talked about open journalism during a Q&A in 2012. “Open journalism is journalism which is fully knitted into the web of information that exists in the world today. It links to it; sifts and filters it; collaborates with it and generally uses the ability of anyone to publish and share material to give a better account of the world,” he said.
For the real-time content broadcasted during the virtual Global Pop-Up Newsroom, we have primarily been using Twitter and Facebook. The stories published during a pop-up are then curated for documentation. Storify — a social networking service that let the user create lists and timelines — was initially used for this purpose. But after it shut down in May 2018, the ACJ students curated these stories on Wakelet, for example #PopUpWellbeing from December 5, 2018 and #IWD2019 from March 8, 2019.
“Journalism is fluid — liquid, as media scholar Mark Deuze argues — and we need to create ways for students to learn that the only constant is change”, explains Melissa Wall, “Always be open to change!” (See also: Melissa Wall, Liquid journalism for the next generation, 2017.) The Global Pop-Up Newsroom insofar establishes a liquid working environment in which participants develop an open-mind and commit themselves to adapt to a changing working environment and master the most valuable and sophisticated digital skill-set in five key areas for comms teams and newsrooms in the Now Age:
1. Smart preparation.
2. High speed adoption to new emerging methods and tools.
3. Skillful visual storytelling both profound and on the fly as well as specified across platforms.
4. Keeping one’s cool and finding quick solutions under pressure of time and technical glitches which could happen any time.
5. Playing ball in favor of incorruptible commitment to a mutual goal in a temporary team with diverse roles and tasks.
These five competencies are key in a digital environment because their internalization can turn every journalist and storyteller into an extremely valuable team player for any newsroom or comms team. “Pop-up newsroom, for me, is a collaborative event for colleges and students across the globe. It should be looked at like an occasion, where we have the opportunity to converse with others like us about the same issues and experiences that we face. It is not as if only journalists have the power or ability to tell stories, anyone with a story to tell can come on the platform of the pop-up newsroom and talk to a global audience”, concludes Rishab Bathnagar, from the Asian College of Journalism, who produced several virtual newsrooms in 2018 and 2019.
After the initial events under the project were successful, educators and teams from several other universities also joined the Global Pop-Up Newsroom. The permanent core team currently consists of Faith Sidlow, senior journalist and journalism professor at Fresno State University in California, US, Sandra Whitehead, writer and journalism professor at Marquette University, US and Lebanon, Priya Rajasekar, researcher and journalism professor at Coventry University, UK, and Dr. Marie Elisabeth Mueller, senior journalist, multimedia trainer at NowAgeStorytelling.co and journalism educator from Germany. Student journalists, independent journalists, experts and citizen journalists temporarily join us for each pop-up event from India, Asia, Australia, US, Middle East, Africa, Europe.
For journalism educators around the world, Sandra Whitehead highlights three powerful features to consider: “First, unlike collaborative classes, there are no limits on the number of participants. It, secondly, creates opportunities in the classroom to discuss topics like citizen journalism and the role of social media in journalism while exploring and experiencing them hands-on. Thirdly, this collaboration has created a learning community among participating faculty who share ideas, articles, and experiences with each other.”
In retrospect, it is safe to say that the teams have been passed the baton successfully, year after year since 2012. They have always been successful in enabling global reporting cycles by adapting to the technologies and networks available through testing, developing, improving, extending and progressing workflows and communication management. These virtual pop-up reporting cycles, like the annual International Women’s Day #IWD, or mutually defined events on topics like ‘Culture’ and ‘Diversity’, connect to multiple communities, participants, interviewees and reporters from different regions who are in different time zones. The aim is to be inclusive by letting diverse and local perspectives come to the foreground.
Once in December 2018, Faith Sidlow’s Fresno newsroom team in California was so determined to join the reporting on “Culture” that they went the extra mile and reported from campus with interviewees at 3 a.m. Pacific time. Their extraordinary commitment, profound reporting and joyful spirit sticks with us and motivates everybody until now. (It was actually such a surprising move and great fun, that we still laugh out loudly, when thinking of their passionate reporting in the middle of the night.)
“The challenges of the Global Pop-Up Newsroom are primarily logistical in nature. As the show is meant to bring together people from different parts of the world, the time zones are a major concern. The audio and video technicalities, the internet connectivity are other areas that may prove to be a challenge given that the show is live and these elements are extremely volatile”, recalls Meghana Kurup who produced and managed several Global Pop-Up Newsrooms in 2018 and 2019.
The recent most show, a ‘Global Digital Conversation on Media Freedom’ on April 3, 2019, anchored by two Indian veteran journalists, NRam, investigative journalist and chairman of The Hindu Publishing Group, and Krishna Prasad, former editor-in-chief of Outlook magazine, was brilliantly produced and managed at the ACJIndia by Meghana Kurup, Rishab Bhatnagar, Pritha Mallick and Sneha. They are trained by Devadas Rajaram, described by N Ram as an “excellent professor who works with his students as equals,” while Devadas Rajaram points out, “I can’t take any credit. It all goes to my students as they’re doing the job and live up to the responsibilities”.
“Start early, work smartly,” agrees Sneha, when asked to share her tips for anchors and producers. “It is also important to know all that can go wrong during a show, so that these issues can be solved before the broadcast. Hence, it is important to conduct a lot of practice sessions and dry-runs prior to the show, also with the guests who would be joining,” she said.
As ‚innovation‘ is only accelerating upwards, — Steven Johnson anticipated the natural history of innovation in 2010. He said that the newly developed knowledge in the 21st century will equate to twenty thousand years of acquired human knowledge. In this manner, we also look back to the first Pop-up Newsrooms (2012), as if it had happened decades ago. However, the digital ecosystem is built on emerging technologies, with its focus shifting to affordable mobile technologies over time. This emergence has equipped open-minded storytellers who are willing to take the effort and understand the present to anticipate the near future with evolving tech extensions that help produce multimedia stories. These intuitive tools and seamless methods help enable a new simplicity for collaborative journalism across borders, making it less challenging to engage via live streams and real-time formats with participants and communities worldwide.
As we experience spatial computing, XR, 4G and 5G networks and the ‘Internet of Things’ first through our mobile devices, the international team at the Global Pop-Up Newsroom shares the belief that we have to follow up on both experimenting and using emerging technologies for quality journalism and storytelling.
“Another challenge is trying to introduce the platform for those who are technologically challenged. Even though, it is as simple as clicking a link and joining the conversation, some feel overwhelmed,” explains Rishab Bathnagar.
Sandra Whitehead recalls, “My experience with international online collaborations began in 2009 in planning fully collaborative classes between a U.S. university and a university in Lebanon. At that time, international collaborations were relatively new and still rare — mostly between partner classes. When I was invited to join the Pop-Up Newsroom project, it struck me as particularly unique and innovative in comparison.”
We started calling it “Innovationtelling” in 2017 with a book by the same name. A circle of students and colleagues, instigated by the two authors of this article, introduced in the book the ‘Innovationtelling’ method of how and why to adopt emerging technologies for journalism and storytelling.
For such a long-term project to successfully find its force, it not only needs the consistent support and shared vision of a group of open-minded collaborators, it also needs instigators and “drivers”. In the case of the Global Pop-Up Newsroom, arguably spiritus innovator Devadas Rajaram and his highly professional postgraduate student journalists, many of whom bring the skills of a very useful bachelor‘s degree in engineering to the newsroom, are a major driving force. They embrace everybody and pull everything a step further as the events roll out.
The Pop-up Newsrooms at the Asian College of Journalism is further enthusiastically supported by Chairman Sashi Kumar, founder of Asianet TV Channel in South-India in 1993, and of Asiaville, the digital only mobile first multilingual news platform, in 2018. Further guidance is also provided by Kalyan Arun, senior journalist and New Media professor.
What Melissa Wall started in 2012 turns out being for many a life-long journey into innovative storytelling based on fundamental journalistic skills like investigation, verification and storytelling, and conversational formats of social journalism. This is achieved by engaging in interactive conversations through comments, polls as well as preproduced multimedia stories.
“It is important to be all present, cautious and maintain one’s cool during the show, as it is real-time and any mistake from our side will be out there for everybody to see. But having said that, being live is also an advantage as the engagements with our audience are also in real-time,” clarifies Sneha.
This practical and liquid concept enables journalism and storytelling educators to do both discussing, testing and evaluating various methods, exploring multimedia reporting with emerging technologies like mobile devices, social media and live-streaming platforms. It is also a great guide on producing multimedia, interactive reporting with real impact and an engaged audience on global scale.
“The conversations do not revolve around an ‘us versus them’ template. Instead, people like you and me, from around the world tell stories. The world speaks on a topic that affects you and me, through voices that are not often heard enough. The lines between experts, interviewer and interviewees get blurred. Everyone is a contributor to a conversation that needs to be had. All you need to do, to be a part of the conversation and the changes that it will bring forth, hopefully, is to grab your mobile phone and join the discussion”, explains Meghana Kurup.
While back in the day 2012, bandwidth, latency, speed, possible activities on platforms and device performance were much more limited, and free mobile-live was not available, today the reporting in the virtual global newsroom moves in direction of live-reporting and complex immersive multimedia stories in real-time, published across platforms and from multiple locations across the globe. Facebook-Live connection with the BeLive web-based app for producers and anchors, and the mobile-based apps for guests and reporters is one tool that we regularly use for the live-streaming sessions.
“Using the platform of BeLive to have a television quality production at a fraction of the cost is very innovative. So what we have is a live production that is accessible to anyone with a Facebook account. What it also means, is that production simply becomes a one man job. It is a really simple, user friendly platform in which the producer can even double up as an anchor,” points Rishab Bathnagar.
BeLive is an extremely impactful and easy to handle software that offers an amazing tech infrastructure for live-streams. It provides a studio interface which makes the process of production fairly easy.
While the developers of the platform had never fathomed its journalistic implications, when we started to explore it and informed them regarding the same, the positive reaction of the BeLive team was super encouraging and exciting. So, really, hat’s off to the ACJ crew who hacked the tech platform for journalistic purposes almost two years ago, using it for a live-newscast with reporters on smartphones from multiple locations across the globe having a cross border conversation on the same topic.
“The workflow followed by the Global Pop-Up Newsroom breaks barriers, in more ways than one. It brings the world to you on your mobile phone and lets you be an active participant and not a mere spectator in important conversations. The ease with which one can join the conversation as a panelist/speaker or contribute to the direction of the conversation as a viewer is something that makes the workflow unique and extremely effective. And the ‘newsroom’ is no longer a four walled studio, it is any space that has a story to tell”, says Meghana Kurup.
Pritha Mallick draws our attention towards the interactivity of the show. “The fact that 80 per cent of the work is done on the D-day itself is extremely exciting. Various interactive elements such as polls, comments, etc as well as technical features such as screen templates, icon, messaging box, tickers, etc enhances the experience and makes it social media friendly. Features such as scheduling an event helps as a promotional instrument as it allows people to notify them when the live event will begin,” she said.
Currently the timeline of each Pop-Up Newsroom production includes three phases involving all participants:
First, a short preparation phase, including defining the theme, platforms and platform specific formats like hashtags, with added warm-up communication to interviewees, dry-runs with all reporters and interviewees, preproducing promotional materials and story packages.
Second, the execution of the live-production as a conversational news show with an anchor, studio guests and reporters, plus citizen reporters from multiple locations worldwide and an audience who’s engaging in real-time. Branding features and preproduced packages which can be embedded in the live-stream, as well as with reproduced stand-alone multimedia stories published across platforms around the time-slot of the live-show is also taken care of in this stage. While anchors work best on laptop, all other guests and reporters work with their smartphones.
Third, a short documentation phase, curating and publishing a selection of stories in one organiser like Wakelet.
Final Words To All The Future Producers And Anchors
"I would just tell them that BeLive is an extremely important production software that one must pick up as soon as possible. More and more digital conversations with experts from around the world such as the Pop-up Newsroom can so easily be broadcasted. It really has never been easier,”says Rishabh Bhatnagar.
Pritha Mallick adds, ”First, it is utmost important to have as many pre event dry runs possible before the main event. This helps in identifying possible technical issues that may be avoidable on the main event. Dry runs also helps the guest participants become familiar with the set up and find answers to any queries that they may have directly from the producers.
Second, always create a list of preparations that are needed before the event such as promotional posters for various social media platforms (Instagram, Twitter and Facebook), videos and event logo. It is advisable to prepare three promotional videos preferably published within week before the main day in order to gain as much as traction possible before the event goes live.
Thirdly, since it's an unpredictable platform because of the nature of its broadcast, the anchors need to have a prepared script ready before the broadcast. They also need to be flexible to any abrupt changes that may occur during the broadcast. It is important for the anchor to maintain their cool and not get flustered. The communication between the producer and the anchor need to be clearly communicated throughout the event.”
And Meghana Kurup sums it up saying, “Always start the prep well in advance and when things get tough or do not seem to be going your way, it helps to remember that the stories are always bigger than us and no matter what, all stories deserve to be heard.”