Why Flying Drones Are The Future Of Journalism

And why Nebraska--not New York or California--is ushering in the sea change.

Lincoln, Nebraska, is an unlikely test bed for the future of journalism. It’s more than a thousand miles in both directions from the major coastal media markets. None of the country’s big magazine, newspaper, or broadcasting empires is headquartered here. Lincoln isn’t even particularly close to the companies that are producing the hardware of new media platforms. All the way out here on the Great Plains, however, Lincoln is a great place to practice flying drones.

“You can’t swing your arms in Manhattan without hitting people,” says Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska in town. “Not a problem here. We’ve got space to stretch out and do things. And when you’re talking about flying a drone--especially when you’re first figuring it out--not having people around to crash into is a huge thing.”

Strange as this sounds, Waite is certain that drones will be a big part of the future of journalism. And the future of journalism will be tested here because there’s room to do it--quite literally--but also because the University of Nebraska is willing to do the R&D whereas media outlets and more staid journalism schools are not.

“There are not the very heady, haughty silos here,” says Gary Kebbel, the dean of Nebraska’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. And he wants to enlist everyone from computer scientists to communications theorists to policy wonks working on the politics of drones. On this campus, that’s not such a strange suggestion. “There are people here who totally support and embody the mission of a land-grant university, which is to spread education throughout the state for the benefit of people in the state.”

Kebbel came here two years ago from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where he ran the deep-pocketed Knight News Challenge. Kebbel lured Waite onto the faculty to join him last fall with the promise of doing, as Waite says, “out-there kind of stuff.” Waite, a Nebraska native, had previously helped develop the St. Petersburg Times’ political fact-checking site PolitiFact, the first website to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. Since arriving here from Miami, Kebbel has attracted attention for predicting that the future of media lies in mobile devices. He is currently planning to launch a Mobile Media Center that would begin to push the school (and the profession) in that direction.

“Mobile is the only device I’m aware of that is bridging all the digital divides I can possibly think of,” he says. And there are many: the divide between older and younger generations, between urban and rural, poor and wealthy, the well educated and the less so. Today, just about all of these groups have phones, if they have nothing else in common. And that means a journalist reporting on mobile devices can talk to anyone.

Kebbel is not, however, interested just in disseminating the news on cell phones (and this is good news for aspiring journalists who fear we’ll one day all be competing for the most Pulitzer-worthy text messages). He’s also talking about gathering the news with mobile devices. And this is where the drones come in. Kebbel wants the Mobile Media Center to attract grants and redistribute them to fund the research into drones and sensors and other portable tools that might revolutionize not just how the news is consumed, but how its acquired.

Journalists already mine stories from vast datasets. But that data typically comes from government sources. Waite and Kebbel want to deploy the types of mobile devices that could allow journalists to collect their own data. And they believe it’s the job of universities to figure out how to do this.

“They need to be doing R&D that, in particular, in these economic times, news organizations cannot do,” Kebbel says. “They don’t have the money. Some of the research that needs to be done, the boards of these companies would say 'you want to spend money on what?'"

Try to imagine the New York Times funding a drone R&D program. (OK, hologram-happy CNN is less of a stretch, but if they ever did light upon a good journalism drone, they probably wouldn’t share it with anyone.) To explain what Waite (pictured above on the right) wants to do with these things, it’s helpful to first think about weather (a perpetual top story in Nebraska). As a reporter, Waite chased tornados in Arkansas and covered hurricanes in Florida.

“I was thinking all along that it’s great we can rent a helicopter at a couple thousand dollars an hour,” he says, “but wouldn’t it be great to do this as a reporter with something on my back at the scene?” Like maybe a flying camera that could canvass a town in minutes?

Last summer, he stumbled on exactly such a drone at a digital-mapping conference. A company called Gatewing was demoing this video. In it, the Gatewing x100 flies overhead, snaps a zillion photos and then stitches them all back together into one georectified image. “I’m standing there watching this product demo,” Waite recalls, “and I’m thinking of every hurricane, tornado, every flood, every grass fire, every biblical disaster I’d ever covered as a reporter. And I’m like, 'here it is.'"

Waite tried to buy one on the spot. It turns out, though, that the Gatewing x100 costs about $65,000. And it’s currently illegal to fly it in the United States. Drones used for commercial purposes here are outlawed today. But the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill passed by Congress earlier this year is supposed to change that. The FAA now has until September of 2015 to figure out how to legalize drones.

And that means that UNL has the next three years to scale up drone journalism--to develop both the physical drones themselves and the legal, ethical, and safety guidelines that will be needed to actually use them. Right now, Waite says, if you’ve got a drone with enough power to lift a serious camera off the ground, you are effectively launching a flying lawnmower into the air. And soon journalists want to deploy these things over protesting crowds and urban car wrecks?

So there is a lot of work to do out in Nebraska. And this is all just one piece of it.

“We’re defining mobile as broadly as we can, to not just think about it as an iPhone, an iPad, an Android,” Waite says. Today, he has a small drone prototype in his office, the kind of toy you can buy at any Brookstone store. “But with the drone I have, I can actually control the drone with a mobile device, I can record video from it, I can edit that video on my iPhone or iPad, and I can upload that all to the web and never touch a computer. That’s 'mobile' in a lot of senses."

And that’s before we even get to the conversation about which mobile devices people will be using to follow these stories.

“Is anybody going to graduate from here and say, ‘I’m a drone journalist’?” Kebbel says. “I hope not. But what I do hope is that they say, ‘I’m a multimedia journalist, and I can do anything, go anywhere, get any story, using any tool.’”

[Image: Oleg Yarko via Shutterstock]

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3 Comments

  • Guest

    jo1959 jrhmobile

    • a minute ago

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    I agree for the most part that this drone can help so many of our gov't agencies all the way down to our state agencies. Bottom line, if your breaking the law then
    you have given up all your rights that protect the innocent. However,
    laws need to be in-place for the use of drones. Like a warrant to search
    someone's property needs to apply to drones. There has to be
    a STRONG reason to have a drone spy on any citizen in the US, anyone that is not a citizen, then they shouldn’t have the rights that we do. To many cases where those with diplomatic status, have more rights than we as citizens have. WRONG
    answer. No-one should be above our laws, its one of the biggest reasons
    we have the problems we do

  • jrhmobile

    Certainly drones can help supplant "chopper-mania" stories for breathless TV coverage of live car chases and fly over police lines that restrict media access, but they're still going to have to fly/hover out of range of folks predisposed to knock them out of the sky. That'll limit what these nasty little paparazzi-enabling tools can do.

    And you can count on the fact that once drone suppliers offer these invasive, privacy-busting toys to civilian media, they'll be selling hunter/killer drones to law enforcement (and other nefarious sources) to interfere/blind/destroy them. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the aspiring drone-production industry hasn't developed them -- ready for sale about 20 nanoseconds after they sell the first drone to the first news operation.

    I mean, why pick sides when you can fuel both ends of the coming media wars ...

  • jo1959

    I agree with you for the most part, bottom line, if your breaking the law then
    you have given up all your rights that protect the innocent. However,
    laws need to be in-place for the use of drones. Like a warrant to search
    someone's property needs to apply to drones. There has to be
    a STRONG reason to have a drone spy on any citizen in the US, if you’re not a citizen, then they shouldn’t
    have the rights that we do. To many cases where those with
    diplomatic status, have more rights than we as citizens have. WRONG
    answer. No-one should be above our laws, its one of the biggest reasons
    we have the problems we do.