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Tips for citizen journalists covering elections

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I've reported on a number of municipal or provincial election campaigns in my previous life doing radio news, so it was a pleasure to be reporting again for #OttVote -- albeit in much different way. In the olden days I'd show up at McGuinty or Charest HQ on election night lugging two XLR-hacked Sony mini-disc recorders; two shotgun condenser mics, an extendable boom; extra mini-discs; pads & pens to take notes or time-mark good clips; and batteries of all sizes and persuasions...in addition to my laptop; charger and an odd box that let me use my cell for wireless (a true '90s innovation).

However, last night's plan was to cover the #OttVote Watson victory with nothing more than a laptop and a mobile device. In this case, I was armed with a 16GB iPhone 4 and wanted to see what I could do with the bare minimum. Over the course of my coverage I posted about 40 tweets; one Flickr set with 30 (meh) pictures; seven AudioBoos; a failed Vimeo post and a private Facebook update to friends.

Here's what I used to do it:

Top five on-location citizen reporting apps

* Twitter - Allows for fast, "breaking news" style updates with possibility to include pictures and geolocation. Be sure to #hashtag your tweets properly so they're picked up by CoverItLive or other live blogging solutions.

* AudioBoo - Great for quick audio recordings, pre-planned interviews, atmosphere, etc. A generous five-minute recording buffer in the free version; geolocation; tags; pictures; and quick online publishing make this application a must-have in the field. The 3-2-1 countdown timer is useful when recording streeters, as it lets everyone involved know when they can start talking.

* Camera - Just the standard, Apple-issued camera app. I find its onboard video trimming feature very useful if I need to make a change before being able to get it back into my laptop. However, there are a tonne of great camera apps out there. Experiment until you find the one with features that suit your needs.

* Messages - Again, just the standard Apple-issued instant message App (wireless provider charges apply), but it made it very easy to keep near-instant and private communication with folks in-studio, or on the ground when I was not attached to my laptop.

* Dropbox - Self-proclaimed to be "the easiest way to synch and share your files online and across computers," I have to agree. We make extensive use of Dropbox at MediaStyle to help share content and projects across offices and in the field. If Watson HQ had had WiFi I would have been creating more and waiting less for 3G uploads, which would have led to greater use of Dropbox to share video file coverage with the Rogers 22 studio.

While I was on the ground chatting with the Watson faithful, sharing information online and then watching reactions, it became clear that quick and unique snapshots, videos, quotes or funny tweets were going over well. I also realized quickly that some citizen journalism is just like real journalism... minus the support.

Here are some things I thought I'd share about covering my first citizen journalist event along the herd of regular, or "traditional" (shudder) media.

Top five tips for citizen journalists covering election night

* Just like online, be social! Introduce yourself. Make friends. Feel lost? Ask someone with a big camera or headset in the media area who they've been dealing with. That'll usually get you in touch with organizers pretty quickly.

* Bring an extension cord or arrive early. Those TV guys suck a lot of power and saving outlets for bloggers and other riff-raff is not a priority. An extension cord eliminates 15% battery life panics while still uploading Flickr pics via iPhoto and a lame video to Vimeo.

* 3G tethering or a mobile Internet stick is a must. You're never guaranteed to find WiFi on location, so unless you're gathering content to pull together at home later be prepared to keep yourself connected and able to post your content.

* Provide lots of colour. Try to convey what you're seeing and hearing, as well as atmosphere. Use your words, your voice, your camera/pictures, your video and most importantly, your observations and opinions about what you see. Use humour and let common-sense guide you. If someone sounds like they're bullshitting you, they probably are. Call them on it.

* Capture. Upload. Share. Repeat. If you're on your own at an event, you've gotta be quick and efficient at obtaining and turning around your digital content to get it online. WiFi will make your life a breeze, but if you're doing things via 3G you've gotta keep audio interviews to about 90 seconds; photos curated to highlights-only and build time into your process to allow for uploads. FYI, that short video I shot was roughly 25MB and took about 12-minutes to upload to Vimeo on 3G. If the event is hopping, that's a lot of downtime.

This post first appeared on MediaStyle.

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