Until about the past decade, making films or videos required thousands of dollars of equipment, years of experience and an outlet, be it a theater or a TV station. Now we have cheap and good cameras that most of us carry in our pockets, plus numerous ways to disseminate the content.

As a result, video has become a language that we all understand and increasingly produce. On the one hand, this trend democratizes a medium that has long been far out of reach for most, especially those who can use its power to document to great effect. On the other, the great flood of video that sloshes across the Internet can seem like a big collection of cat videos. (I speak from experience, having cut a video by my colleague Melena Ryzik, who shot on a mobile device, about a cat video film festival.)

In journalism, this miniaturization of cameras and mobile uploads have opened the doors of video even wider. Already, many traditionally print-based outlets have invested heavily in video reporting where there was none before, hiring crews of video journalists, live set hosts and producers. And social media sites overflow with source video material – video interviews with sources to citizen uploads from conflict zones – that can inform narrative reporting.

Newsrooms have made aggressive efforts to put cameras – and the skills to use them – into the hands of storytellers and still photographers. I initially had mixed feelings about this trend. Would we all be treated to shaky camera video of city council members explaining their votes, to go with stories about zoning changes? Or would the clips seem like the equivalent of scrawled reporter’s notes, thrown up hastily simply because of the magnetic pull of moving images? I have to admit I’ve been surprised by what has emerged. I don’t think that short mobile clips are in danger of unseating well-researched, shot and edited packages anytime soon as the highest expression of the craft, but the format does offer a quickly consumable form of video reporting and material that, if shot well, has the potential to become the building blocks for longer narrative work.

One of the more interesting platforms is the Wall Street Journal’s WorldStream, which was launched about three months ago, just in time for the political conventions. Hundreds of reporters have been issued smart phones and given some basic instruction on how to use a system called Tout, which works a bit like a video Twitter feed. Like that service, there’s a length limit: 45 seconds.

The result is, like any new medium, still in its infancy and the form has yet to be smoothed into formulas. Clips are uploaded directly from phones to the stream. Some clips are of reporters giving dispatches to camera from the field; others are clips in a sequence that in the hands of a capable editor could be spliced into a short narrative. Many are simply narrated snippets of a scene. There’s a certain truncated quality to the posts and never any edits, but the speed with which the video can be uploaded, approved and consumed is remarkable.

Users can follow different streams, which shift with the news (a recent perusal turned up reports of people waiting in line for Apple’s new iPad and a collection of interviews with the Canadian rock band Rush, among others). The format’s greatest strength is breaking news, where quick clips with narration by reporters in the field can be invaluable. During Hurricane Sandy, for instance, 40 to 50 reporters fanned out across the Eastern seaboard to file during and after the storm.

“We had everything from gas lines to floating houses,” said Mark Scheffler, the editor of WorldStream and a real-time deputy editor of video.

Many of the reporters had never filed video before. Instructions for first-timers included how to upload from the field and to think creatively and critically about what’s being recorded. (Reporters are also given my favorite cellphone instruction: Hold the camera in landscape, or horizontal mode whenever recording video.) “Each individual clip has to be thought of as a microcosmic story,” Scheffler said, adding that the format has proven easier than asking greenhorns to craft tight two-minute packages. The buy-in can be valuable as newsrooms integrate and print reporters pair up with video producers to make longer, more in-depth packages.

Of course it isn’t just journalists who have embraced mobile video to make story of their surroundings. Some of the most compelling video made recently was shot by nonjournalists. The Arab Spring was the revolution that wasn’t televised – at first, it was tweeted, texted and YouTubed. Like anything online, those images have raised serious questions about authenticity, motive and what’s being shown and by whom. I spoke with David Clinch, a co-founder of Storyful, a social media authentication and curation service under contract with a number of leading news organizations, about mining for video gold and the challenges of contextualizing short, raw video, much of it not made by trained journalists. Clinch and his team work to identify and then verify the truthfulness of video posted on social media. During the Arab Spring, the company worked to verify clips posted online from the uprising across the Middle East. Authentication meant, say, cross-referencing clips with Google Earth images and weather reports, plus contacting the person who uploaded the video and finding out when it was made. The results, made with a partnership with YouTube, are collected at Citizen Tube and are, according to Clinch, “an historic account of the Arab Spring.”

Still, Clinch cautions that all video found on social sites, from raw uploads to the increasingly slickly produced, have to be put into context. “I hate social media,” he said. “It’s very important to know that just because there’s lots of video it’s not necessarily journalism.”

Many outlets use source video carefully and with text on screen or a voiceover to explain its provenance. But he suggests going even deeper. That often means a blog to decipher the significance of who shot the video, where it was made and what might have been left out of the framing. But there are other sophisticated ways to present raw video with journalistic vetting. Storyful worked with Google and YouTube during Hurricane Sandy to geo-tag videos and overlay them on the company’s crisis response map. A surprising number of the videos are essentially press releases from official bodies, another growing aspect of social video that has be taken into account by journalists.

Social and mobile video are everywhere today, and for all of us it means a shift in terms of how we produce and consume even the rawest of reporting material. But I think what is emerging is a new, incredibly fast video communication, that, like short-form social formats such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, have enormous potential to drive storytelling and conversations around news. They will probably develop, as those platforms have, their own inside language of camera angles, narration styles and consumption. To ignore their potential is folly.

Last year, I worked with my colleague Amy Harmon on her series about young adults diagnosed with autism coming of age. We worked together on this video about a young couple dealing with issues on intimacy and autism. I didn’t shoot a single frame. It’s made up of interviews we commissioned from a freelancer, some shots from a staff photographer. Amy, using her iPhone for the first time, captured some of the most poignant moments, including a scene at 4:30 when her story subjects physically touch while riding in a car.

Sure, there’s a noticeable difference in quality between the images, but the content that she gathered is what counts; it’s what makes the story work, just like any telling scene in any narrative.

There are lots of technical blogs and even an iBook about add-ons and apps that can help the smart-phone-equipped journalist record quality video. At the end of the day, the equipment matters much less than how it’s used and what it is pointed at.

For Clinch, who was with CNN for 20 years, video will always be about “getting closer to the story.” WorldStream’s Scheffler advises journalists to think “like an anthropologist.” For the Toyko business reporter, he said, it might simply be the nature of Japanese subway travel or an interesting scene passed on the way to work. An example: the time the Journal’s Sam Dagher, stationed in Baghdad, filed eight clips via WorldSteam that became this short glimpse into the city’s first luxury hotel since the war.

The power of video is its immediacy, and its ability to take the viewer inside a scene and convey emotion. That’s true for 90-minute documentaries and 30-second social media clips. It makes storytelling possibilities all the richer.

Sean Patrick Farrell (@spatrickfarrell) is a staff video journalist at the New York Times and writes the Viewfinder column for Storyboard. He last wrote about why video storytelling needs more narration. He has made videos about tracking wolverines in Montana, dangerous medical radiation and aspiring young opera singers, among many others. He is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied documentary film. Before becoming a journalist, he spent a decade working as a  bicycle mechanic. You can find more of his work at www.seanpatrickfarrell.com

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