Paul Lewis didn't use notepad for 5 days during riots - Press Gazette

Paul Lewis didn't use notepad for 5 days during riots

The Guardian's Paul Lewis has described the extent to which smartphones have revolutionised newsgathering – revealing that he didn't use a notepad for five days during his coverage of the August riots.

Speaking at Press Gazette's News on the Move conference Lewis – who has been nominated for a Press Award for his coverage the English riots – described the riots as a watershed moment for the British press.

'If you had all of the journalists in the country lined up on every street corner you still wouldn't have provided comprehensive coverage of what was happening at the time,'he said

'You had to rely on what other people were seeing and telling you. If there were to be a terrorist attack as we're speaking right now it wouldn't be a Sky or BBC or Guardian reporter who's there first, but it would be recorded."

But he also admitted that there remained issues of credibility when it came to social media.

The sheer volume of information means that 'it becomes chaotic and people want it to be distilled and want to make sense of it", said Lewis, adding: "Journalists can do that, and I think generally speaking citizens as a whole can't do that."

Commenting on last year's riots, Guardian special projects editor Lewis said: 'I don't think I took out a notepad or a laptop during the five days I was on the street, on the front line of the riots.

'There's one quite important reason for that: you're conspicuous if you have something that looks like or identifies you as a reporter.

'Journalists were being attacked throughout the five days so I would constantly take notes on my Blackberry, and then turn those notes into tweets, and turn those notes into stories using the Blackberry to post sound files to Audioboo, file to the live blog take photographs and record videos as well.'

On the second day of the riots, when attacks spread to Enfield, Lewis realised the rioters were communicating via the Blackberry Messenger service.

In response The Guardian set up its own account. 'Immediately after, we had this phone in the office and we started to get a kind of feed about what was going on in London. We were particularly interested in what was going to happen next."

He added: 'I think that migration from an open platform to a private one was a crucial one for us because it enabled us to stay one step ahead.'

How Sky's Mark Stone covered the riots

Meanwhile, Sky News reporter Mark Stone, who used his iPhone to post dramatic shots of looting in Clapham during the August riots, told the conference: 'I suppose the riots, and that night of 8 August, is a quite accidental but perfect example of how you can news gather using just on your mobile phone.

'It was on the iPhone that I saw a tweet from a colleague at Sky News saying that there was apparently stuff kicking off in Clapham Junction, I'd already got home, I'd been in Brixton that day covering the previous day's rioting.

'So I thought, well I'll go and check this out, so I cycled down to Clapham and sure enough I cycled straight on to Lavender Hill, the main strip there, and because there were no sirens there I wasn't aware that anything was happening.

'The first thing I saw was a herd just smashing windows, two hundred or so young boys and girls, they were pretty young, just wrecking whatever they could.

'So I got my phone out and just filmed what I could, and also did what we call pieces to camera, so explain what I was seeing, what was happening in a different area."

Stone filmed three clips that were each around a minute-and-a-half long.

He uploaded them using wi-fi from a local pub and put them straight onto YouTube, then emailed links to the Sky newsdesk. Sky now uses new software which enables correspondents to file video direct from their phones to the newsdesk.

'I didn't tweet them,'he said, 'it was a priority for us to get the images on Sky before they were everywhere. From shooting it to having it on Sky News was 10 minutes. And then I was able to use the phone again to make a phone call to be able to do a live interview. After that I could tweet.

'From the beginning to end it was a pure smartphone news gathering experience. It was not something I'd done before but it worked really well.'

He likened the experience to how journalists were expected to operate for much of the 20th century.

'Thirty years ago journalists would knock on someone's door to use their telephone to file copy to the newsdesk – this was the modern day equivalent.

'Later the pub had shut because the riots had spread and I just knocked on the first door I came to and someone opened it. I explained who I was and asked if I could use their wi-fi, and so that was how we operated.'

He added: 'I couldn't have done any of what I was doing in Clapham with a cameraman with me. You're able to be that much more subtle to get the images you want to get.

'That's not to say that the iPhone is replacing traditional ways of news gathering. Later on that evening out satellite truck arrived… It doesn't replace that, it just adds to the ability to be able to gather."

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