'It’s about being ready if something happens in front of your eyes' – Q&A with mobile journalist Nico Piro

Along with five other reporters, Nico Piro has been awarded The Premiolino this year, Italy’s oldest and most prestigious journalism award, for his pioneering work in mobile journalism (mojo).

He has dedicated his career to conflict reporting in crisis areas and war zones, especially in Afghanistan, and is now embracing the smartphone as a tool to help him capture human stories out in the field. Piro works as a foreign affairs correspondent at Tg3, the channel three news bulletin of Rai, the Italian public broadcasting service.

Journalism.co.uk caught up with him to find out why he believes mojo is important for the future of the industry, and how it can help us become better storytellers.

How did you get started in mobile journalism?

“It all happened by chance – I was following a crowdfunding campaign for a mobile rig two years ago, and from that point on I started to study the potential of mobile journalism for our profession, how it can help anyone from freelancers to full-time staff, to print reporters and broadcasters.

“My company has an established, traditional workflow, so I often go out on a story with a cameraman, but I need to be autonomous and multiply my forces – it’s about being ready if something happens in front of your eyes.

“As well as using mojo in my day-to-day work, I also teach it to a range of reporters at Stampa Romana (the press club in Rome), who are all enthusiastic to learn how mojo skills can better their work. It is starting to become more and more popular with reporters – it’s a small movement but it is growing.”

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Piro teaching mobile journalism to delegates at this year’s DIG Awards in Italy

Why do you think mobile journalism techniques and skills are so important for the profession?

“The journalism landscape is so fragile these days – we have been hit by a big crisis and the public is slipping through our fingers.

“That’s because there’s so much fragmentation in the media landscape, with so many places to engage with content. It is such a shifting ground that we need to find new ways to deliver our products to people, and go where the audience is.

“As a result, we need to re-invent ourselves and find new ways to produce news and deliver it to the public in a different way. The smartphones in our pockets are not just a shooting and editing device, they are a method of delivery – allowing us to reach our target audience on the platforms they’re using.

“Also, we should remember that empty space on social media has been taken up by fake news, by lies.

“No algorithm from Facebook can save us from fake news – in fact, that sounds to me a little scary, that an algorithm can clean the social media environment of [fake news]. The only way to kick it out is to flood social media with good journalism. We should take this chance to save our business and our jobs.”

Can mobile journalism make us better storytellers?

“Journalism is, and always will be, made of sources, news, cross-checks, all the rules and the things we know, but we have to find new ways of telling stories.

“Every journalist should now be multimedia, and mobile journalism offers us these tools to be so. Going into the field with light equipment, and having the ability to cover a story whenever I want is great.

“I’m not saying that we should exclusively use mobile phones, but they are so useful for adding media content here and there, even if you work for a print publication and want to put extra media up on Facebook or on your website, to enhance the story.

“You can also get stories that you might not have been able to get before. For example, Filippo Golia, special correspondent for Tg2, was in Cuba to cover Fidel Castro’s death and couldn’t use a cameraman because his journalist registration was still on hold, but he was able to cover a couple of crucial days in the field using his mojo skills.

Nico Piro receiving The Premiolino this year. Image credit: Nico Piro

“As a reporter, you’re less intimidating and can often get closer to the story and the people within it, because people are using smartphones themselves and are less intimidated.

“For example, when I was at Grand-Synthe, the makeshift refugee camp outside Dunkirk, I was able to easily approach people, talk to them and take pictures without being intrusive. In these type of situations, you’re entering someone’s house without knocking on the door, so a non-intimidating camera helped capture the story – getting close created a great deal of empathy in my reporting.

“In fact, when I was downloading the pictures, I noticed one of the kids had taken pictures of himself with my phone without me seeing while I spoke to his parents – that made me realise how much mobile journalism can help you get closer to the story.”

What advice would you give to reporters looking to get started with mobile journalism?

“Don’t be daunted. Everyone uses mobile phones everyday to take pictures and video, and this is just a step beyond that.

“We did the first Facebook Live at Rai during the US presidential elections, and as soon as we did it, more reporters were intrigued to start and get involved.

“A lot of stories told by journalists are being shot by non-journalists through eyewitness media. But we need to be able to shoot this footage in a more professional way, and be ready to report whenever something happens. Have multiple tools, and pick up the best one that works for you and the story.”

Learn how to make the most of your smartphone for content production with our practical mobile storytelling bootcamp.

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