Journalists’ Phobia of Digital Recorders

By | September 11, 2006

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.

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