Hacking the Witness app for breaking news coverage

Above: I Periscoped severe weather Tuesday in Philadelphia.

Back when I made my living as a breaking news photographer, I streamlined my workflow to the point where I could transition from parking my car to taking pictures in just a few seconds.

But while new streaming mobile video apps such as Periscope make so much possible today, it can feel like an excruciating amount of time passing between when the action breaks until you manage to launch the app, find the broadcast function, dream up and type a useful title and wait for viewers to arrive.

Just this week, I tried to Periscope a couple of violent but brief rain squalls here in Philadelphia, to have only a sprinkle persisting by the time most of the viewers arrived.

Meanwhile, we now have the Witness app, which defines itself as “the panic button for the smartphone age.” After opening the app, you can begin streaming in a few seconds — and with just one touch.

Witness is intended to “keep you safe in an emergency” and promises to:
– Call and text your emergency contacts
– Broadcast live and audio to your emergency contacts, and…
– Broadcast your location to your emergency contacts

But with a few tweaks and a little extra effort, Witness makes a great breaking news app too.

Here’s my hack:

Using IFTTT.com and GMail, I can send alerts including the live Witness video URL to my social media communities whenever I launch a stream.

Here are the steps:

1. Set up an IFTTT and Gmail accounts if you don’t have them already.
2. Install the Witness app, open the settings and make your Gmail address one of your emergency contacts.
3. Create a “recipe” using IFTTT.com, wherein:
4. IF: You receive a Gmail message FROM alerts@getwiness.com
5. THEN: Follow the menu options to post a Tweet or a Facebook message.
6. Name and save the formula.

Then, when you launch a stream, the Witness app will send a message to your followers, looking something like this:


When followers click on the link, they can view your live video, hear your audio and see your location on a map.

If they tune in later, they can view an archived version. I am not sure how long they are maintained on the site, but I have confirmed a few days at least.

(Note: You will need to create separate IFTTT recipes to send alerts to both Twitter and Facebook — and any other platforms you would like to add — by changing the “THAT” function while repeating the same “IF” instructions. If you haven;t used IFTTT, their processes are wonderfully simple and intuitive.)

There are a few shortcomings when comparing Witness to some other live-streaming mobile video apps. It’s not easy for the Witness viewer or the broadcaster to save a copy of the video and there is no embedding enabled.

But I capture copies from my laptop screen using Quicktime’s “New Screen Recording” function, although I prefer the additional controls available when using Snapz Pro X, although the latter option is not inexpensive.

Is breaking news reporting a legitimate use of the Witness app? I would say it depends on what you’re streaming.

I have never been on the same page with newsrooms that report a court verdict or press conference as “breaking news,” but sharing an unplanned emergency with my social media communities could help them make decisions about safety or re-share the links to others for the same reason.

Here’s a final tip — albeit obvious: Keep the Witness app on your home screen!

And let me know how it works for you?

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Jim MacMillan

Independent Journalist at jimmacmillan.com
I am a solutions-oriented independent multimedia journalist, based in Philadelphia.
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Jim MacMillan

I am a solutions-oriented independent multimedia journalist, based in Philadelphia.

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