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Cesar is the author of the standalone novel “The 13 Secret Cities” the book series "How to Kill a Superhero" (under the pen name Pablo Grene). He is also the creator and publisher of Solar Six Books.

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I use Snapchat as a reporting tool for journalists


Photo illustration by Cesar Torres, original photograph by  Terri Monahan

Photo illustration by Cesar Torres, original photograph by Terri Monahan

This year at Medill I have been fortunate to lead a group of graduate students in covering news events using Snapchat as a new type of camera. The work they have done has been astounding, and now is the right time for me to talk about what we have discovered so far.

Snapchat is unique, not just because it takes photo and video in an upright vertical format that drives traditional video pros insane with frustration, but because it offers production tools right inside the still image or video footage. You can add text, stickers, make your own stickers, and also verify your location by using Geofilters, among others.

It’s clear that some of these very limited features offer a huge amount of creativity to tell a story digitally.

I have found these production features very freeing, mostly because they are severely limited. For example, controlling fonts and font sizes is not very precise, and as a result, the "snaps" end up with a DIY, handmade look that is unique to the platform. There are no cropping tools, no color correction or image-editing options. What you see is what you get.

What's more, snaps and snap stories vanish. There is no archive, unless the journalist saves the video and re-posts on their site or a YouTube channel, which is probably a good idea to do. At Medill, we save the Snap stories for that day and archive. We sometimes post them as part of stories, like this one.

The more I use Snapchat with news teams, the more it makes me think of a particular technology from the past: The Polaroid camera.

Snapchat is possibly the equivalent of the introduction of a photo format like Polaroids, more than 75 years ago. Although the Polaroid did not get co-opted by newspapers or magazines as a photography tool, many artists favored it and worked with its limitations over the years. The Polaroid was an instant camera with a film exposure that would permit you to scribble on it as it developed. What's more, the print had a small margin at the bottom where a photographer could write an identifier, the date, whatever struck his or her fancy.

As my students experiment further with telling stories on Snapchat, it's clear that some of these very limited features offer a huge amount of creativity to tell a story digitally. We can tell stories in, colorful and animated ways that show a sense of humor, or a stronger sense of motion. We can show a sense of place that a broadcast crew or a more advanced camera can't. We can be spontaneous, and cover breaking news as it happens. At the same time, experienced journalists can uphold the values of the profession by seeking to tell these stories strongly with the who, where, when, and why. That means that introductions to Snap stories need to be strong, well told, well reported and researched. The reporter also remains as the responsible party to move us through a story with clarity, fairness, and objectivity. We need to cite sources, and yes, we can even cite the sources with a sticker or emoji.

I believe that journalists can go to new places with this type of camera than we could before. The camera is built into a smartphone, and as long as the mic is high quality and the sound is good, we can see some really amazing stories emerge. Yes, the bad news is that native mics are really crappy and don't give Snapchat journalism stories the right production values to be taken more seriously. Get yourself a decent mic for your smartphone. I recommend the Giant Squid Omniderectional Mic for entry-level journalists.

I should also note that there is also a learning curve on shooting video and photos in Snapchat, and making a good composition of high quality for journalism purposes also requires teaching, practice, and repetition, in order for it to improve. In other words, not all reporters know how to use this type of camera well, but they can learn.

Is Snapchat nothing more than a fad? Its parent company Snap has high hopes for the platform, asking for lots of money from media companies to run their content inside the platform, but not all analysts are bullish on Snap. The tech startup is slated to launch an IPO, and I personally think it only adds to the tech bubble we are currently experiencing as startups receive valuations that are beyond rich. The video space on social is crowded, and well, no one can actually predict what will happen. In the meantime, I think it's worth it for journalists to keep experimenting and using it. It certainly is more dynamic than a single shot that I could take with a DSLR, and in one single tap on my screen, I can distribute it to friends, or thousands of viewers.

I'll report again on how things are going with this experiment in a few months.

You can follow the work my students are doing at Medill on Snapchat at medillreports, and you can follow me at killsuperhero, or use the snapcode below.