When news breaks: Choppers are no match for Periscope

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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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Above: @JaleelKing was streaming live on Periscope from the high-rise fire Wednesday in Philadelphia.

I had my windows open to the beautiful breezes in Center City Philadelphia Wednesday night when I heard what struck me as an unusually long run from a fire truck siren, as if it was traveling further than usual.

Being an old newsy, I fired up the 5-0 Radio Pro radio scanner app on my iPhone, discovered that the Philadelphia Fire Department was responding to a major incident and tweeted what I heard:

(I later read that “a rooftop fire sent smoke billowing throughout the building” which housed apartments at 640 North Broad Street, according to phillymag.com.)

Some journalists quarrel with the idea of tweeting scanner reports but — after decades in news photography — I’ve got the knowledge and experience to figure some things out here in Philadelphia. (I also like the “Batavian’s basic rules for scanner reporting” as a place to start.)

Next, I was about to check Twitter for witnesses on the scene when my phone whistled an alert from the Periscope app, indicating that local photographer Jaleel King had gone live with a stream labeled: “Fire at 640 N Broad St.” (That’s where I grabbed the image at the top of this post.)

And there I was at my kitchen table, watching a live report on my phone, perhaps one minute after wondering about the siren outside my window.

Opening my laptop to search for more information with Tweetdeck, I found another scanner reporter and witnesses on the scene, including one resident who posted a little video and this photo:

Exciting night here. Seems like half of the Philly Fire Department is here.

A photo posted by Jake Steinerman (@jasteinerman) on

About 10 minutes after I tweeted and shared King’s Periscope stream, I saw the first social media report from a local newsroom, when @6ABC posted a tweet with this aerial view:

Action News had a full report with dramatic video and interviews with evacuees by the time they went live for the 11 p.m. news show.

But when news breaks, I am now finding live reports from people the scene appearing much faster than traditional newsrooms can match — and I have to wonder if sending a helicopter makes much sense anymore.

Wouldn’t it be a better public service for journalists to find, authenticate, contextualize and re-share what’s being reported before they can possibly arrive? Or else why should we look to them first?

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Periscope surfaces at #IRE15

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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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Above: We put on a “Periscope for Journalism” pop-up panel during #IRE15 last week in Philadelphia.

With the popularity of new live-streaming mobile video applications emerging over just the past few months, I began leading small presentations at journalism conferences and newsrooms here in Philadelphia.

But last week, one of the largest and most esteemed gatherings of our profession came to town for the Investigate Reporters and Editors (IRE) 2015 national conference.

While IRE had no plans to address streaming journalism, they did offer the opportunity during the conference to apply for time to present pop-up panels on emerging topics.

And my effort to lead “Periscope for Journalism” won a place in the program, based on votes from journalists in attendance.

My pitch for the panel began:

The sudden popularity of live-streaming mobile video applications has been creating new possibilities for journalists. But once again, the emerging platforms present a new set of ethical and legal complications.

I promised a quick presentation and demonstration before moving to a “lively conversation about the challenges and responsibilities of real-time mobile broadcasts.”

And I had the great fortune of finding two remarkable colleagues to join me:

Josh Cornfield is the New Jersey News Editor for The Associated Press. He works with a team devoted to finding and telling both breaking news stories and high-level enterprise.

Susan Phillips covers energy and the environment for the multi-media public radio project StateImpact Pennsylvania. She holds duPont and Murrow awards and spent a year at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow.

Next, I went on a bit of a social media campaign for votes and then attendees, promising more than just fun and games.

During the panel, we discussed several topics which have been emerging here at streamalism.org and I pointed out a pair of how-to posts — on broadcasting and discovering streams.

A couple of notable examples included reporting from the recent Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia by local photojournalist Joe Kaczmarek, and streams from the Baltimore riots by Paul Lewis, the Washington correspondent for The Guardian.

Josh Cornfield said that he followed Kaczmarek’s live report and called it the “first real reporting anywhere that there were fatalities.”

Cornfield said that — as with all social media reporting — he took that information “as a tip, not as something we’re going to put on the wire,” but that it also prompted him to send an immediate “heads-up” to the AP’s Philadelphia newsroom.

Cornfield said that whenever news is happening there’s a “pretty good chance” you will found something you can use on Periscope. For instance, Cornfield said that he found reporter from a newspaper in York, Pa., streaming live from a press conference after a recent double shooting.

Susan Phillips had not yet produced her own broadcasts but said that as the subject of streaming she found the medium “much more visceral” than tweeting and could imagine additional advantages, such as streaming directly to social media audiences while simultaneously conducting a stand-up report for an anchor back in the newsroom.

Live streaming apps also “brought up a lot of legal questions” for Phillips, who discussed the reasonable expectation of privacy as well as copyright concerns, for example when streaming from concerts.

Meanwhile, Associated Press Philadelphia reporter Mike Sisak streamed our panel on Periscope and then stepped up to the microphone to read questions from his live viewers.

Cornfield took another question on the need to make corrections when a subject on Periscope misinforms your audience, explaining that the correct response would be “a matter of scale” but that you should “let the same audience” know what happened.

More audience members added tips for using Periscope to send your newsroom quick notes from the field, brought up more copyright questions and raised the concern that live-streaming apps could have a chilling effect on public officials — who may become reluctant to share background information at news scenes.

I am predicting only that this won’t be the last journalism conference where these questions emerge.

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Streaming journalism review

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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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Latest posts by Jim MacMillan (see all)

Above: Bastiaan Slabbers, Kevin McCorry and Shai Ben-Yaacov of WHYY launch Periscope streams.

Here’s an update from my first six weeks of blogging about live-streaming mobile news video applications for journalists, which I gathered to make a presentation Tuesday at WHYY in Philadelphia. Check the smaller badges below for links to posts with more information:

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