Journalists’ Phobia of Digital Recorders

The AP picture that accompanies this OPEC story says it all: Journalists still don’t seem to have switched from cassette recorders to digital, even though prices have dropped amazingly in the past five years and features risen impressively. (I’ve just bought an Olympus DS-20 for a quarter of the price I paid for a DM-1 back in 2001.)

OpecThere’s one, possibly four, digital recorders in this picture (the mic dangling on the left might be attached to one, and there’s possibly one over Mr Daukoru’s left shoulder. Another might be below the Sony relic in the bottom right. But they’re definitely outnumbered by the cassette and micro cassette recorders. OPEC meetings are big news for financial news services, so these journalists would be measuring their success or failure in getting the story to screens in seconds.

I think part of the reason is that journalists are crusty types who prefer to stick with what they know. But there are more compelling reasons that may simply make digital recorders less useful than the old cassette, and, given that journalists would seem to be the biggest single market for these devices, I would have thought Olympus, Sony et al would do well to ponder them:

  • cassette tapes are easier to wind forwards and backwards, scanning (or cueing) through the tape as it plays. This is done at a standard speed, with enough of the audio audible, so to speak, for the listener to get a pretty good idea of where they are in the recording. This is vital for the journalist, who may need to find that Edmund Daukoru quote about getting out of autopilot before the other guys do. Digital recorders do offer this feature, but not having a visual clue (the tape spool itself) and the varying speed of the forward/backward wind (my Olympus apparently jumps in three- and then 15- and then minute-long- increments when you hold the FF or REW buttons down) makes it hard to find what you’re looking for quickly;
  • digital recorders let you transfer your recordings to a computer, where it’s easy to store them (and easier to transcribe them.) I suspect few journalists do this because they’re in a hurry, they don’t always work from the same computer, and, probably, their tech staff won’t allow them to install external software on their PC. The other issue is that it may just be easier to keep a pile of cassettes in your drawer in chronological sequence as a record of your work, so if, say, you’re hauled to court you can easily find the interview in question. Journalists are living proof that just because something is made easier, it may not be more convenient.
  • another issue is that news organizations usually provide the recorders that journalists use, and I’m guessing they’re not over-anxious to increase their budget for such a trivial article. On top of that, a tape recorder is often left next to a speaker, or on a podium, and you never know when a light-fingered colleague may take a shine to your svelte device.
  • often the internal speakers on these digital devices are not as powerful as those on their analog forebears. Journalists can’t be bothered with earpieces, so that’s another turnoff.

To me these problems are quite easy to fix. And better positioning of the indexing button on digital devices (which allow the user to mark a certain point on the recording for easy return to later would help. Most often times the button is either too small or not easily distinguishable from other buttons (and so raises the danger of pressing “stop” instead of “index”) for it to be a viable option.)

A better option altogether would be the incorporation of gun microphones into the body of the recorder, so a user could point it across the room and pick up the speaker clearly without having to join the scrum. That’s what I’d call an advance.

Footnote: A much better approach, of course, would be to include a record function into the cellphone (as some do have, and have had for 10 years; my first cellphone, a Panasonic, had quite a generous record time) so that reporters can point their phone at the subject, both recording his words and sending them back to a colleague who could bash out the appropriate quotes directly. In fact, I thought most such doorstops were covered this way nowadays. Apprently not.

Your MP3 Player As Your Phone

I’m not convinced that this gadget is exactly the wonder it claims to be, but it’s an interesting fusion of functions. The soon-to-be-launched Ezmax MP3 Player includes a VoIP feature that, in the words of PC World’s Paul Kallender

when the device is linked to an Internet-connected PC via a USB 2.0 port, people can make local and international calls using a microphone that is included in the device’s earphone cord.

I must confess I share some of the skepticism expressed about whether this is a breakthrough product or a gimmick. But there are some interesting elements here that perhaps merit a closer look:

For one, this represents an interesting variation on the idea of USB application drive, where you keep the programs (and not just the data) that you need on a portable drive. (Here’s a discussion of the issue and some examples.) In this role the EZMP-4200P is simply working as portable application device.

But there’s also the built in microphone, which illustrates how the quality of recording, both in terms of input (the microphone) and storage (compression, sampling) have improved. I’m still using my Olympus DM-1 to record interviews but this is old, expensive and stale technology. It would be much better to have the same capability on a key drive (or, as some people do nowadays, their cellphone. iPods are an option, but an extra load.) The existing EZMP-4000 for example, already lets you record your lectures or conferences for up to a maximum of 18 hours(on a basis of 256MB) through a built-in high efficient mike. The USB drive as a good digital recorder. That’s pretty much all a journalist, writer, academic or whatever needs.

Then there’s the idea of identity on a stick. The EZMP-4200P, according to the article, would contain details of the VoIP accounts held by the user, and, while of course it needn’t serve an actual authentication role, it could. Carry your USB drive around, just plug it in to an Internet-connected PC and all your VoIPs accounts synchronise, just like your email, capturing voicemail, letting you make calls etc. Your USB drive would be like a SIM card: Just yours.

So maybe the EZMP isn’t that great a leap in itself, but it’s a sign of the opportunities that USB drives could provide.

Study At Duke, Get A Free iPod

New students at Duke University will get free iPods, ostensibly to help them with “orientation information, calendars etc. Academic use will include audio recording of lectures, audiobooks and other yet to be determined uses i.e. cheating”, according to Peter Davidson.

Not a bad idea, although as Davidson points out, it’s little more than a gimmick to lure students (there must be better and cheaper gadgets for doing this kind of thing). I certainly like the idea of audio lectures: I record all my interviews onto my trusty Olympus DM-1, and still feel the Olympus transcribing software that accompanies it is the best in the business.