Smartphone apps every news reporter should have and how to use them

You’re in the field. News is happening. Your editor wants a story, pictures and video stat, and your Twitter followers are waiting for the latest update. Keeping up with today’s news demands can be a challenge, but there are several ways news gatherers can stay ahead of the game.

To be effective in the field, you have to have the right tools and the knowledge of how to use them. Here are my tips on which apps reporters should have and how to use them effectively. Several of these are built in to the phone. I run Android, as do most reporters in my newsroom, but my suggestions should all have iPhone counterparts.

The first thing I recommend is having a “reporting home screen.” Smartphones usually have several pages of screens where users can drop widgets, icons and folders. You should consolidate all of your basic reporting tools into one screen (or folder) so you won’t be searching through a mass of applications in the heat of the moment. My reporting home screen is one swipe to the left of my main screen. Here’s what it looks like (killer Bruce Buffer background optional):

At the tippity-top is a Google search bar for quickly searching the Web (complete with voice-recognition option).

Obviously, the first two icons are shortcuts to my phone’s camera and video functions. Sure, you get to them essentially through the same app, but I want to quickly go to the function I need when news is happening, which is why I have a shortcut for each option.

Next I have the maps function, which is handy for finding out where you are or where something else is. This works in conjunction with both the GPS toggler — which turns your battery-sucking GPS function on and off — and Navigation — which is the turn-by-turn direction feature built in to most smartphones. A neat feature you may not be aware of: On Google Maps you can send a map to someone’s phone directly. This is useful if you are an editor sending a reporter to a breaking story because you can share the exact address via Google Maps. The reporter gets a text message with a hyperlink to the address, which opens in Maps. They can then activate turn-by-turn directions and be on their way.

Plume is my Twitter client. I use AIM for private messages with other reporters or editors, though you could use text messaging for that, too. Next up is Google Translate, which is a semi-useful real-time translation app I’ve covered previously. There’s also a voice recorder for sound bites or interviews. Ustream is my preferred live-streaming app and has the added bonus of allowing you to save your live-stream video for later embedding on your site.

Scanner Radio offers access to streaming police scanner traffic from around the world. It uses the same scanner feeds as RadioReference.com, so check those to see how well covered your particular area is on that front. This can be really helpful to listen to if you’re trying to find out what’s going on during a breaking crime story or public emergency.

The last slot on my reporting home screen is Dropbox, a file-sharing service that allows you to move files between your phone and desktop or laptop computer, as well as allows you to share file space with others in your office.

These are by no means all of the apps you will use as a reporter. Many people swear by Evernote, and that’s definitely one to check out as it allows you to access a lot of information between your phone and computer, among other cool things. You could use Evernote to store a copy of your source list so that you’re never without it.

You could also have a folder with bookmarks to websites you may use frequently for your job.

The key is to practice using the apps. Shooting video is no good if you can’t get it to your readers, and installing Ustream is pointless unless you’ve already set up an account to go live immediately and have a plan in place for getting the stream’s embed somewhere on your site when news breaks.

I suggest running the following drills to ensure you’re ready when the moment strikes.

1. The House Fire: Take a usable photo, send a tweet and upload a 20- to 30-second video within about five minutes (data speeds will affect your timing). This is a pretty good possibility for any news situation. If you can take a photo (and either email it to your editor or photo desk / or post it to Twitter), tell your readers what’s happening and then upload a short video to YouTube, you’ve covered a lot of bases quickly. While the video is uploading, you can put on a traditional newsgathering hat and start tracking down more information. Again, key here is having your YouTube account information saved already so that you can quickly upload and someone on your web team or your editor can get that video in front of your readers.

2. OMG!: Sometimes you’re just minding your own business and all of a sudden you notice something serious is about to go down. Maybe a fight is about to break out among City Council members. Perhaps some sports rivals are getting into a heated exchange. Maybe  supporters are getting out of hand outside a courthouse. Whatever it is, you can sense something newsy is about to happen. Like a Wild West gunman, you grab your phone from your pocket and begin live streaming. You want to get from pocket to streaming in under 20 seconds. (You can set up a private “test” channel for this exercise.)

3. Go! Go! Go!: Have your editor send you directions from Google Maps to your cell phone. Then load that address into your phone’s turn-by-turn directions app.

4. Si. Yes.: Take Google Translate for a spin. Find someone who speaks another language as well as English and try to hold a conversation with them using Translate. The results may not be pretty, but you should know how well it works before you need it for real.

5. For safekeeping: Record audio and upload it to your Dropbox account. Then download it to a computer.

I speak 63 languages, and you can, too

I’ve been playing around with the Google Translate app for my smartphone. It allows you to type or speak into the phone and translate what you said into 62 other languages. I doubt I’ll ever need to converse with someone in Azerbaijani, but should the need arise, I could get by.

At this point, the app works fantastic translating English into other languages. Where it falls short is translating that language back to English. I hope updates will remedy this.

This app really has promise for the reporter out covering a story who needs to communicate who they are and why they’re there with someone who doesn’t speak the same language. Crime reporters often run into this bind. Sure, The Tribune has several bilingual English/Spanish speakers, but if you don’t know you need a Spanish speaker until you’re trying to talk with the main witness, it doesn’t matter who’s on the staff list.

To use the app (which is available for iPhone, as well, though the functionality may differ) you simply tell it which language you’re going to speak and which language you’d like to translate to. Then you type or speak what you’re trying to translate.

Sweet. Not only can I order some Schokolade in German, I can even have my phone say it for me if I’m a little nervous about declaring myself a jelly donut. Click the speaker button next to a word and a robotic lady’s voice does the hard work.

Translating one word is all fine and well, but that’s going to take too long on deadline. See that “Enter Conversation Mode” button at the bottom? Click that and you get something like this:

Yes, we’ve switched from German to Spanish. When in conversation mode, the app switches between the two languages so that each speaker my respond to the other and have it properly translated. As I mentioned, the translating to English is rough to say the least. The English to Russian and Russian to English were actually good. The English to Spanish translation was spot on, but the Spanish to English didn’t even give me something to work with. I found the same with German and Czech. All bilingual speakers say the app’s accent is great and they had no problem understanding what was said. But when they spoke in the other language, the English translation wasn’t even close.

So at this point I wouldn’t try to do a hostage negotiation with Google Translate, but I’d be very comfortable trying to tell someone who I am, why I’m there and how they might be able to help me. Even if their translation to English doesn’t seem to work, you’re at least further along in the process than you would be without the app.

Another beta feature is the ability to write characters for some languages. This has got to be the most painfully slow way to have a conversation, but at least it’s an option. You draw the characters with your finger and it converts it to text. It looks like this:

I would suggest everyone with a smartphone download this app, and then play with it — especially with someone who speaks another language as well as English — before you actually need to use it. You never know when you’ll need to be fluent in Yiddish.